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News Headline January 5, 2009

Lodi Growers Realize a Dream

Mencarini family of Abundance Vineyards opens a tasting room

by Ted Rieger
Abundance Vineyards
Rustic by design, Abundance Vineyards' new Lodi tasting room also reflects the owners' Italian heritage.
Lodi, Calif. -- Abundance Vineyards opened Lodi's newest tasting room Dec. 19, less than four months after starting construction, but the new 4,000-square-foot structure culminates a lifetime of work and a long-time dream of third-generation Lodi grapegrowers Dino and Ron Mencarini. The new facility strongly reflects the Mencarini's Italian heritage, and represents a tribute to their grandparents who immigrated from Italy and began farming in the Lodi area in the 1800s.

The Mencarini brothers have been growing grapes since the 1950s, and didn't start the Abundance wine brand until 1995, so building a tasting room was not an overnight decision. As Dino Mencarini explains: "Until now, we've been kind of a ghost winery. We had our office in Lodi with tasting by appointment, but building this tasting room makes us more visible and gives us an identity."

Located about halfway between Interstate 5 and Highway 99, it is the most visible tasting room along Turner Road, which connects to both freeways and passes through the city of Lodi. It's about 1 mile down the road from the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, and near established tasting rooms at Jessie's Grove and The Lucas Winery.

The project's planning and permitting process began almost three years ago, but Dino admits it may be a small leap of faith to open now, in today's challenging economic times. "We've taken the attitude of build it and they will come," Dino says. "My philosophy is, if you do something, do it right. We're trying to make the best product we can, so why not have it in the nicest building we can."

Rustic by design

After the groundbreaking, construction went smoothly thanks to a close working relationship with Lodi general contractor DR Duke & Associates. The new building, grounds and decor were modeled after wineries Dino had seen in Italy. The building has Tuscan-style architecture and colors, stucco walls, slab stone floors and curved arch doorways and entryways between rooms.

The grounds include picnic areas, a bocce court and a courtyard with a firepit. The outside ground surface is decomposed granite instead of concrete or asphalt, to more closely resemble the natural earth of Italian estates. Although the facility has modern features and functions, by design it also has a rustic feel. Stucco wall surfaces have a weathered appearance with simulated cracks to resemble an old building. "We built this to have an 'old country' feel and look, without being too cute about it," Dino says.

Dino Mencarini shows off his new tasting room, which he hopes will attract more direct-to-consumer sales to his family operation.
The main entrance from the courtyard leads directly into the tasting room with a polished wood bar. Behind the bar is a cellar room for barrel and case storage, and a visitor education area. The building is 30 feet high at its peak and includes a second story with offices and a conference room where personnel will evaluate wines and make blending decisions. Plans are eventually to move winemaking operations to the site.

The Mencarini family always grew grapes in Lodi, along with crops such as corn and wheat. Dino and Ron began working on the family farm as youngsters, and began focusing on winegrapes in the 1950s when they planted Zinfandel and Carignane. Today, they own and manage 400 acres of Lodi vineyards spread among eight different ranches, including the 46-acre vineyard block acquired in the 1970s where the tasting room now stands.

Growth and expansion occurred when opportunities arose and were affordable and practical. During this time, Dino also worked as a grape buyer for Glen Ellen Winery and the Benziger family in Sonoma County, and for Brown-Forman's California wine brands. Dino says, "This was my college education, and I traveled to areas I never would have otherwise seen as a Lodi farmer." He learned much about vineyard and winemaking operations in appellations throughout California.

Started Abundance in 1995

After more than 20 years buying grapes for other wineries, Dino decided to concentrate on his own winemaking. With several partners, he started the Abundance Vineyards label in 1995 in Sonoma County. It was produced at four different custom crush facilities through different vintages, and wines were made with grapes sourced from appellations that included Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Mendocino County, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, in addition to Lodi. Production reached a high of 14,000 cases per year and was almost exclusively sold through distribution, with the exception of tasting room sales from Sonoma Enoteca on the Sonoma Square.

Dino later bought out his partners to focus the brand on estate-owned vineyards in the Lodi appellation, and moved production to Lodi with the 2005 vintage. Total production was scaled back, with an emphasis on quality grapes from better vineyard sites.

The wine is now produced at nearby Oak Ridge Winery by Abundance's consulting winemaker Jim Yerkes. The flagship and largest production wines are an Old Vine Zinfandel, a blend from two Lodi vineyards planted in 1900 and 1961, and the "Abundantly Rich Red," a blend of Carignane, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Syrah. Varietal Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Merlot, and "Bountiful Blanc," a white blend of Symphony and Sauvignon Blanc are also produced. Bountiful Blanc won Double Gold and Best in Class awards at the 2008 California State Fair Wine Competition.

One non-Lodi wine remains in the lineup, a Santa Barbara Chardonnay that Dino retained due to its popularity with established restaurant and retail customers. Total production for the 2008 vintage will be about 7,000 cases. Future releases will include a Cabernet Sauvignon beginning with the 2007 vintage, a Carignane, and a Carignane port-style fortified wine. Wines are priced in the $11 to $16 per bottle range.

The Mencarini Brothers divide duties, with Ron managing vineyard operations and Dino in charge of winery operations. Abundance is distributed nationally, and Dino travels regularly to build and maintain relationships with distributors, restaurants, and wine retailers.

Abundance also participates in the Family Winemakers of California and ZAP tasting events. With the focus on smaller production of estate wines, Dino says, "Our goal is to keep our best distributors, and to increase our direct retail sales. I wouldn't mind if we eventually did 100% of our sales from here."

The Abundance team includes general manager Courtney Roesler, and tasting room manager Nicole Duke. A wine club called "Boni Amici" (Italian for "good friends") has been slowly growing, but as Roesler says, "This facility is now a tool to showcase ourselves. It will help attract more wine club members, and encourage existing members to visit more often to buy wine."

The winery plans to host club member events and general events during the year, and will participate in Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission (LWWC) events with other local wineries. The facility grounds will also be leased out to private parties for events.

The nearby vineyard will be incorporated into activities such as pruning parties and wine education. Dino explains, "We want to educate people on how we get from that vine to this bottle, but do it in an easy and fun way that's not intimidating or overly technical."

The facility includes a reserve wine room behind a wrought iron gate in the cellar that will stock a new line of estate wines under the Mencarini label. The first Mencarini Reserve wines will be the 2006 vintage to be bottled in 2009, with prices in the $25 to $30 per bottle range. The reserve label could eventually grow to maximum production of 5,000 cases per year, but Dino doesn't want just to produce a higher priced wine. "I'm not going to bottle a reserve wine if I can't taste a noticeable difference between it and what's bottled under the regular Abundance label," he says.

Increase profit through direct sales

The Mencarinis' story reflects an industry trend in Lodi. With grape prices down or stagnant, many long-time grapegrowers have started their own wineries and opened tasting rooms in recent years to enhance the value of their vineyards and increase their profits through direct sales.

LWWC executive director Mark Chandler says the appellation now has 75 wineries, 40 of which have tasting rooms with regular hours. He cited three more tasting rooms that had either just opened, or will open soon: Harney Lane Winery, Dancing Fox Winery and Benson Ferry Vineyards. "If anything, the pace is increasing," Chandler says. In spite of economic conditions, he observes, "Business in our area's tasting rooms is staying even or is better than last year." Lodi may be benefitting from economic conditions, as Chandler noted that area visitors are looking for a wine experience closer to home and for more affordable wines.

Chandler said the commission's focus has also shifted in recent years. As lower grape prices have affected its revenues and reduced its budget for grape promotion and advertising, it has concentrated on planning local events that involve all area wine producers, most of which are also grower members of the commission. Weekend events are held in November and February, and the annual ZinFest in May. Each draws many out-of-town visitors.

Commenting on the Abundance opening, Chandler says, "I'm sure they'll get lots of traffic in that location, and the wines they're making are exceptional." The tasting room is open daily at 1150 Turner Road near the intersection with Davis Road. A formal grand opening event will be held in January. More information is available at (209) 334-0274 or
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