Last year, I attended a seminar featuring wines from Lodi. A region historically known for mass production of large brands and higher alcohol wines, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of wines I tasted. From old vine carignane and zinfandel grapes to Spanish, Rhone and Italian varieties, I was introduced to quality wines from Lodi and wrote a column titled “Rethinking Lodi.”
When the Wine Bloggers Conference announced that the ninth annual conference would take place in Lodi, I thought it was a good opportunity to get to know the region a little bit more. Lodi, with 110,000 acres of wine grapes that make up 24 percent of the annual crop of California, is home to 750 grape growers. These grape growers are all family business, most having been growing grapes for three, four and five generations. For many years, they sold their grapes to areas such as Napa. But in the 1990s, some of the growers started making wines. Today, there are 80 wineries in Lodi.
One of these multi-generational family wineries is Van Ruiten Family Vineyards. I had the pleasure of visiting them during one of the nights of the Wine Bloggers Conference.
The Van Ruiten Family Vineyards started in 1948 when John Van Ruiten Sr. emigrated to the United States from Holland. Although his sponsor was in Los Angeles, he moved to Lodi where he had an uncle with a dairy farm. While working as a dairy farmer, Van Ruiten had a dream of growing grapes and purchased a zinfandel vineyard. As his daughter Angie told us, Van Ruiten used to say that you have to milk a cow two times a day but pick grapes only once a year. In 1977, he made a transition to grapes, shifting his dairy farm to vineyards.
In 1998, tired of selling the grapes to larger brands for a low price, Van Ruiten and his children decided to begin processing their own fruit and making wine. Van Ruiten was one of the first of the grape growers in Lodi to shift to wine production. Van Ruiten had seven children — five girls and two boys. The three middle children, Angie, Jim and John, have been running the business since the death of Van Ruiten Sr. in August 2013. Today, they have 800 acres between the three of them. They still sell most of the fruit but keep 20 percent for themselves.
To this day, Van Ruiten is a family business. Brothers Jim and John manage the vineyards. Their sister, Angie, runs the business and her husband Bill is the general manager of the winery. Angie and Bill’s son, William, is working in the winery and their daughter Mia, a special education teacher, also helps with events. Jim has three children with his wife Susan. Their son Jacob works in the vineyard and daughter Jessica works in the back office. John and his wife Kelly have four children but they are still young and not yet working at the winery.
Last year, winemaker John Giannini joined the team. Giannini previously taught wine production and winery management for the enology program at Fresno State, and held the position of winemaker for Fresno State Winery.
He joined Van Ruiten in 2015 and did the blends for the 2015 vintage, but 2016 is Giannini’s first harvest with the Van Ruiten family. He may be relatively new to the winery but seems like a member of the family.
Van Ruiten Family Vineyards focuses on sustainability and energy efficiency in the vineyard and winery. For the grapes that they harvest for their wines, everything is hand-picked. Today, producing approximately 20,000 cases, they have sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot, a cabernet and syrah blend and both carignane and zinfandel from vines planted in 1906.
On my visit to Van Ruiten Family Vineyards, we enjoyed a tour through the winery and an elegant dinner under the grapes vine trellises on the patio of their tasting room. Their passion and pride for what they do is evident but most importantly, the unity they portray as a family demonstrates how special the multi-generational families are in Lodi. The family is so warm and inviting. As the evening came to an end, we had been welcomed into their family and none of us wanted to leave.