By Kara Sweet
As a farm kid growing up outside Clark—population less than 1,300 when born in 1935—Jerry Lohr learned about value. At his German-born father’s knee and on his Swedish-born mother’s lap, Jerry learned to value land. He learned to value education. He learned to value hard work. But most off all, he learned to value people.
These lessons took Jerry (Jerome) to South Dakota State University and Stanford University with degrees in civil engineering. They took him to his Ph.D., also in civil engineering, before his enlistment in the United States Air Force. These lessons then took him to work at NASA.
Then, these important values took him in a different direction. A direction some may think quite unusual for a farmer’s son from middle-of-nowhere South Dakota. Hard work and education took him to value land and people in a way that would build him into one of the most prolific and successful wine makers, not only in California, but in all of the United States.
In the late 1960s, when the California wine industry was just beginning to bloom, Jerry started his search for what he thought was prime land for vineyards. Using his farming background and his passion for wine, he knew he needed an area with the perfect climate, soil, and location to create wine with depth of flavor. Instead of going to Napa, where many others were growing grapes, Jerry found a virtually unknown area called Arroyo Seco in Monterrey County. He purchased acreage and planted his first vineyard in 1971.
Jerry’s hands-on approach to growing was a triumph. Such a triumph that he expanded. In 1987, Jerry noticed potential in another little-known region—Paso Robles. He planted primarily red wine grapes in this area and opened a second tasting room. Today, between the two regions—both of which owe a degree of their notoriety to J. Lohr Wines—Jerry and company cultivate approximately 3,700 acres of vineyard land and sell nearly two million cases of wine.
Yes, that is correct. Two. Million. Cases.
Jerry’s value of farming the land may have started in South Dakota (on what would today be considered an organic farm), but was honed in the vineyards of central California. Sustainable practices are used every step of the way to grow grapes and make wine. First, soil preparation takes precedent. Jerry—“still hands on and all about the vineyards” at age eighty-eight—takes special steps to ensure the soil meets his standards. This takes anywhere from three to seven years and a great deal of patience.
According to Jerry’s employees, he “understands the value of the land” even after planting vines. Jerry and his full-time crew of vineyard specialists live by the motto “nothing leaves the vineyards but the grapes.” Vines and leaves are never removed. After harvest, they are composted back into the soil. After crush, all skins, stems, and seeds are returned back to the vineyard rows to enrich soil composition.
A “look before you leap” attitude for irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides is another aspect of old-school, South Dakota farming still used on J. Lohr’s vineyards. All vineyards have their own weather stations allowing the vineyard team to make decisions based on true need within small microclimates, instead of any sort of formula. Because these decisions are all made within the company, no outside forces tell when to add water or reduce pests. This saves time and money by using more natural means.
Jerry’s philosophy has always been to “tread as lightly as possible” on the land, but these sustainable practices continue in wine making. J. Lohr’s facilities use solar power for 100 percent of production, except during crush after harvest. All lights turn off and on through motion-censors, cargo doors open and close quickly and automatically, and indoor production areas use programmed temperature controls to conserve energy. This sustainability is an incredible feat, especially for a winery of this size. It is so impressive that J. Lohr Vineyards was a pilot winery for the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. Not only was J. Lohr rewarded as one of only fifty of California’s over four thousand wineries with this distinction, it also acted as an example for other wineries to emulate.
Yes, the values Jerry learned farming in South Dakota show every day in his grape growing and wine making. However, there is no certification for the value Jerry places on people, another lesson he learned during his childhood. The key players in Jerry’s operation have been with him for decades. A perfect example is Jeff Meier, a J. Lohr employee of over thirty years. He started as a harvest worker and bottling line supervisor in the early 1980’s. Today, he is the COO and director of wine making. Instead of hiring part-time or migrant workers for vineyard management, J. Lohr employs a team of full-time vineyard hands; again, people who have been part of the J. Lohr crew for multiple harvests. Employees in the tasting room are also considered long-term assets and are offered health care and other benefits, a practice not always the norm in the wine business.
Jerry’s hard work and value of individuals is evident in the fact that J. Lohr is still family owned and operated. His children play important roles in the business: Oldest son Steve is chairman and CEO, daughter Cindy is vice president of marketing, and youngest son Lawrence is director of wine education. As native Californians, his children may not have been raised in an actual rural area, but they learned Jerry’s hometown values just the same. Jerry knows they respect their colleagues and genuinely love what they do. All three take pride in how they contribute to their family business.
Jerry’s value of education and hard work are clearly shown through his multiple degrees. However, he has continued to show this value in numerous ways. He credits so much of his success to his education at SDSU that he felt the need to give back. His first alma mater has been the recipient of over eleven million dollars, from Jerry alone. He funds twenty-six scholarships, including many for high-achieving students in the college of engineering. In addition, Jerry has been on multiple committees to help raise funds for SDSU from other sources. These ventures have earned hundreds of millions of dollars for the school. Jerry took part in these endeavors in order to give back to his state, and his state also wanted to give back to him. He was named SDSU Volunteer of the Year in 2011, and then in 2012, SDSU named the Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering after the man who has given so much in time and effort.
This shows Jerry’s roots still run incredibly deep in his home state. However, California’s wine industry is also very important to him. In an effort to promote the business that has allowed him such success, Jerry has funded programs at UC Davis to have interns work and research at his vineyard sites and wine making facilities, providing incredible knowledge and insight to the next generation of wine proprietors. Recently, he also started working with Cal Poly in a similar manner, allowing those in the wine programs there to learn firsthand from J Lohr’s experts.
Jerry’s giving manner seems to know very few limits. Sadly, this value came much too close to home in 2008, when he lost Carol, his wife of forty-nine years, to breast cancer. Carol’s favorite Napa region was St. Helena. As a gift to her during their marriage, Jerry purchased a small vineyard there. Today, two dollars from the sale of every bottle of Carol’s Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc and Carol’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon go to the National Breast Cancer Foundation in honor of Carol, and as a way for other women in need to receive mammograms for early detection of cancer.
Jerry’s South Dakota roots are not only obvious in multiple parts of his California life, he actually spends much time back in his birth state. After his youngest son Lawrence started college, Jerry became a frequent visitor to South Dakota. This is also when he became so active in SDSU’s interests. Over time, Jerry’s trips became much more regular, and today he spends one week a month there. After the death of Carol, Jerry reunited with his SDSU sweetheart, Jolene; the two married in 2009. Jolene owned a family farm near the community of Garretson, and the two continue to maintain the property. This is a perfect way for Jerry—in his eighties but nowhere near ready to retire—to come full circle, to enjoy the farm life he has always loved.
As one J. Lohr employee said of Jerry, “He always does the right things for the right reasons.” These right reasons started as a child in his rural South Dakota community. On a farm, he learned the true values of life. These values he continued to show through his regard for land, people, work, and education. He passed these on to his children. He used them to build a tremendously successful business. Jerry did this because it is what farm people do…no matter where they live.
Learn more about J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines here.