by Andrew Chalk
It may be the largest California grape grower you have never heard of but John Kautz Farms has 6,500 acres of wine grapes in California, making them the sixth largest wine grape grower in the state. In terms of acreage, they are just behind household names like Gallo Vineyards and just ahead of Beringer and Sutter Home.
They sell most of the grapes, grown in the Sierra Foothills and Lodi appellations, to other winemakers but, increasingly in recent years, they have made their own wine under their Ironstone label.
Joan Kautz, co-owner and daughter of the winery founders, came through town recently, excited to show me her latest releases. First, she filled me in on a bit of the history of the family winery.
Her father, a cherry farmer, first planted grapes in 1968 after favorably comparing the micro-climate of his part of the San Joaquin Valley with Napa and Sonoma. Although that planting was just twelve acres, the venture was such a success that additional planting ensued rapidly. He defied convention, eschewing Mission and Barbera grapes, to plant Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Later he added Zinfandel, Symphony (a cross between Muscat and Grenache Gris developed in 1948 at the University of California, Davis), Cabernet Franc, Viognier and Verdelho. Plantings are either in the Lodi or Sierra Foothills appellations. Winemaking began in 1988, and involved the appointment of award-winning winemaker Steve Millier.
Ironstone now has basically two product lines. The regular wines, and the reserve wines. They even make it easy to budget the regular wines by pricing them all at $11.99. Methinks these will be found dueling out the price category in supermarkets.
I tasted the Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and “Old Vine” Zinfandel (all 2013). Each is a solid representation of its grape and good value for money. All can be quaffed, or pair them with the usual food pairings. Far and away the most interesting regular bottling, however, was the 2013 Obsession, California. This is Ironstone’s wine made from the Symphony grape (plus trace Muscat and Verdelho). The wine is made without seeing any wood. As a result, the nose and palate are primary expressions of the character of this unusual grape. This is the first Symphony grape wine that I have tasted and my take is that it is intended to be fruit-forward, expressing peaches, pineapple and tropical fruit. There is little minerality in this instance. The style works well as a summertime alternative to rosé or with an Asian food meal where Gewürtztraminer might be the default choice.
The Ironstone reserve range sells for $20 and up. The 2009 Cabernet Franc Reserve, Sierra Foothills ($20) impressed me for the intensity of its fruit and the smooth incorporation of the oak. Look for dark fruit and green pepper on the nose. It is pleasant now with steaks or barbecue and will likely age for three to five years. The 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Sierra Foothills ($30) is like a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon but at a lower price point. Serve now with beef or lamb, or cellar for up to a decade.
Ironstone wines availability locally is still being established. Specs stores have Obsession and the Cabernet Franc. Kroger stores are beginning to bring the Obsession back into their sets in the Dallas/Houston area as well.