Leoni Farms: Winemaker Jon by Joe Campbell (no relation to Jon)
On many a weekend in the lovely small town of Sutter Creek, California, on Main Street, visitors will walk by the tasting room of Leoni Farms and hear the hearty laugh of Jon Campbell holding court. Conversations will range from television episode recaps of Yellowstone, to politics, to reminding you about how much he detests the Robert Parker point scale. “See this Rolling Rock I’m drinking? It scored a 97,” notes Jon, with a sarcastic smirk. During those summers and long harvests, cheap beer becomes a winemaker’s best friend.
Above the great conversation and Cheers-like ambiance that Leoni Farms provides, a local sense of camaraderie and family permeates the building. After spending ten minutes with Jon, you feel like you have known him for the past 20 years. The Campbells are a fifth-generation family in Amador County. Some of the vineyard plantings on their property go back 50 years.
Jon began his career working in the cellar before moving up to assistant winemaker at Drytown Cellars. He then took a job as a winemaker in Lodi running a processing facility.
Jon would eventually return to his roots in Amador County to start Leoni Farms. Leoni is an old family surname and the farm part of the name is critical as well, because at the end of the day, Jon considers himself a farmer at heart. He indicated he would grow alfalfa if he could make money doing it.
Jon’s wines are a reflection of him: unpretentious and unafraid to try new things. Along with Amador County mainstays like barbera and zinfandel, he has also released interesting varieties like charbono and alicante bouschet.
Blend 16 A blend of 75% cabernet sauvignon, 25% mourvèdre. Released in August. A meaty full bodied wine that is seductive, yet allusive, conjuring up images of sun-drenched Southern Spain while maintaining that beautiful, black-cherry nose. This wine would pair well with a juicy pork loin during a Sunday dinner with family or friends.
Humbug Hill Red 100% Zinfandel. 13.9% ABV. A nice, light, cherry red, and restrained Sierra Foothills beauty at a reasonable price point. Throw a couple of burgers and hot dogs on the grill. The Humbug Red is your casual weeknight grilling and chilling companion.
Leoni Farms Tasting Room 67 Main Street Sutter Creek CA 95685 (209) 256-5175 firstname.lastname@example.org Hours Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday 1:00 pm–5:00 pm Friday and Saturday 11:00 am–6:00 pm Sunday 11:00 am–5:00 pm Closed Tuesday
About Writer Joe Campbell Based out of the Sierra Foothills of California, Joe Campbell, aka Sierra Wine Guy on social media, is an experienced software technology solutions consultant by day while spending his weekends and evenings working on the family farm and ranch properties while providing color commentary as well as insight within the wine industry both from the lifestyle consumer and business segments of the industry. Bio Courtesy of The Vintner Project.
I dined with friends at The Q Restaurant and Bar in Napa, Califonia, recently. Although I have lived in Napa for over five and a half years, I had never been to the Q. Being a Southern belle, of course I went for one of the signature dishes, the brisket. While my companions and I enjoyed a lovely Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon with dinner, I wished I had brought the 2017 Artezin Zinfandel, Mendocino County (sample; SRP $18) I had tasted the weekend prior.
When I received this wine sample a couple of months ago, I was immediately curious as to why the focus on zinfandel, especially hailing from Mendocino County, not particularly as well known for this grape variety. Winemaker Randle Johnson was kind enough to respond to my question:
When we began Artezin in 2002, we knew Zinfandel was considered unique to the grape/wine world and was essentially the “California Grape.”It was also the most significant heritage/heirloom variety. As such, it needed its own identity, its own “brand” within our organization. After much discussion, we came up with the name “Artezin.” Many varieties, including Zinfandel, were planted throughout Mendocino County. With Artezin, I like to work with family growers to honor the tradition of Zinfandel winemaking that has been established throughout the generations. Most vines I work with are old vine, head pruned and non-irrigated. By 2004, we realized that there were other close (and far flung) heritage varieties like Carignan, Charbono and Petite Sirah. Thus, we expanded our Artezin portfolio to include other varieties, as well as vineyard designated Zinfandels.
I have always been interested in the uniqueness of Mendocino County. On one hand, there is the cool Anderson Valley, where Chardonnay, Pinot and Riesling/Gewurztraminer do exceptionally well. On the other hand, is the warm to hot “central” Mendocino that follows the Highway 101 “corridor,” shielded from the ocean air by the coastal Mayacamas range. Here big red varieties like Cabernet, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel excel.I especially like Zinfandels from Mendo because the climate is perfect: warm days & cool nights.They also exhibit classic “zinny” character: red fruits (boysenberry, raspberry, cherry, pomegranate), black/white pepper, exotic spices, and the ever elusive “brambles!!”As an additional bonus, Mendocino Zinfandels are usually good values.
Another focus of Artezin is its commitment to sourcing fruit from local grape growers who practice sustainable farming. In the case of the 2017 vintage of zinfandel, Johnson and his team acquired fruit from farmers such as Peter Chevalier, Dennis Hunt, Cherrie Laviletta, Darin Colombini, Bree and Kevin Klotter, Larry and Doreen Venturi, Paul Dolan, Ken and Diane Wilson, Eddie Graziano, and Charlie Sawyer, a veritable who’s who of Mendocino County farming. Artezin, the artisan, er, art of zin, collaboration between these notable farmers and Johnson, has rendered Mendocino County zinfandel accessible, approachable, affordable, and most importantly, palatably appealing.
A wine and food writing colleague, Kristy Harris, and I tasted the Artezin together, but without food. It is everything one seeks in a zinfandel: an initial pop on the palate of bold, dark berries, especially blueberry and blackberry; a touch of food-friendly acidity; and a remarkable peppery-cayenne finish. The only thing missing was a hearty meat dish, such as the aforementioned brisket, pulled pork, or sausage. This wine is big on quality, flavor, and value, a trifecta of “yes, please.” Lesson learned. The next time I dine at The Q, I will have Artezin Zinfandel, Mendocino County, in tow as Beth’s Smart Sip.
We had the best laid plans: choose the food pairings, blind taste the wines, take notes, discuss the wines, reveal the wines, discuss the wines further, and take lots of photos. I must confess, though, that nothing went as planned with regard to note and photo taking, and perhaps Joe might be disappointed that this article is not going to be as much about the wines individually, but more about them collectively, the camaraderie we shared at the dinner table, and most importantly, Joe’s story. Truth be told, nothing inspires me more than to discover a brilliant, spirited entrepreneur with a passion-filled story to share.
Eight of us came together on a Sunday night to taste the wines blind as part of a multi-course dinner. As usual, my brothers Gary and Ben outdid themselves purchasing and preparing the food: spicy bacon-wrapped jalapeños, shrimp and grits, kale salad, grilled asparagus, grilled pork, and chocolate cake, all dairy free and healthy. We hid the wines in tissue paper, rather than paper bags, which added a festive touch.
What happened next is how wine is meant to be enjoyed. Instead of sticking to the plan, the dinner evolved into something much less structured and formal. We began the evening with the pétillant naturel in celebratory sparkling wine glasses, as a toast to my new career. This wine was by far the most unusual of our tasting, aptly described by Joe as a “kitchen sink” blend of grapes. Throughout the evening, we tasted (er, drank!) the Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin (the first for all attendees except me, I think!), and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Gewürztraminer was an ideal pairing with both the bacon-wrapped jalapeños and the shrimp and grits, while the four reds elevated our enjoyment of the pork. I do not think anyone at the dinner but me had tasted wines from Ohio. Because I live in Napa, California, a few guests assumed that the wines were from here, and remarked they had never tasted similarly balanced, elegant, lower alcohol, and food-friendly wines from California. Others commented that the wines were Old World in style, comparing them to wines from the Loire Valley, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. Some tried to guess the grape varieties and were surprised to discover what they were during the reveal. A testament to the deliciousness of these wines was that not a single drop remained at the conclusion of dinner.
Once I revealed the grape varieties and that the wines were from the Lake Erie AVA, located outside of Cleveland, Ohio, I was hammered with questions from the dinner guests. We had experienced an authentic and genuine wine moment and were eager to learn more. Everyone wanted to know more about the Joe, the guy behind these wonderful wines. I immediately jumped on my iPhone, messaged him, and relayed his answers to the dinner guests. Below is the conversation.
Me: Questions! Minds blown!
Firstly, I told everyone that you were young! How old are you? I’m 27 years old.
What grapes are in the pét-nat? Pét-nat is mainly Pinot Noir dominant, with Muscat Ottonel being around 25% and other grapes like Lemberger and Müller-Thurgau at just a few percent each.
What is your background in winemaking? Any family history? I am 100% self taught (though perhaps it shows at times). I do not have family in the industry. I was raised as an inner-city kid from a lower-class household. I have always had a love of plants, and at age 13, was given the opportunity to work in a local vineyard, pruning, and harvesting. I started working in the cellar when I was 16 years old, helping make the wine, and by age 18, I began at the new startup winery, Vermilion Valley Vineyards. My role was to grow grapes and make wine. In 2013, when I was 22 years old, the partnership at Vermilion Valley Vineyards folded and allowed my wife, Kristi, and me to assume ownership. We acquired a partner two years ago that is allowing for our expansion.
Do you grow all your grapes? How many cases do you produce annually and how many cases of each of the wines we tasted? We are 100% estate grown and are trending to 160 acres over the next few years. Our current production is around 3,000 cases. We are building out our new production facility to 55,000 cases. As to the wines you tasted, Pét-Nat – 245 cases, Gewürz – 185 cases, Pinot Noir – 125 cases, Cabernet Franc – 285 cases, Chambourcin – 190 cases, Cabernet Sauvignon – 65 cases.
What wines inspire you? I love whites with structure. Typically lees aged and perhaps a bit of skin contact. We drink California Chardonnay more than anything. With reds I like rich, powerful wines, but with finesse and complexity. High-alcohol fruit bomb doesn’t cut it. We drink primarily Italian reds like Super Tuscans.
Everyone enjoyed the wines! You might get some friend requests and Instagram follows. One suggested you should be making wine in the Loire. I am glad to hear it. The feedback is greatly appreciated and thank you for taking the time to show them off. The Loire is a dream trip.
How many grape varieties do you grow? Which ones? Above is the full list. Some are to be planted this season, so not all in production yet. Thirty varieties in total. It a lot but we have an extremely variable climate here so it helps us spread out our risk to allow us to have a number of exceptional wines in every single year. That, and for blending purposes.
Any events you would like to share with my readers? GORDY’S 4th BIRTHDAY PARTY (6/9/19) Gordy, our vineyard pup will be turning four and will be having a huge birthday bash on Sunday, June 9th, from 1 to 4 in celebration. This is a pet friendly event so bring your dog to help celebrate Gordy’s birthday. There will be music, people food trucks, a puppy food truck, 50/50 raffle, and basket raffles. This is a benefit to raise money for Partners With Paws Of Lorain County, Inc., an organization that distributes funds to many Lorain County animal rescues. There will be a $10 entry fee and all raffles and T-shirt proceeds will be donated to the cause. Radio Stations WOBL & WDLW will also be there broadcasting live. Mark your calendar and save the date now: SUNDAY, JUNE 9TH, 1:00 TO 4:00 PM AT VERMILION VALLEY VINEYARDS. (All dogs must remain on a leash) Please share with all of your animal loving friends!
More about Joe Juniper In addition to his ownership and duties at Vermilion Valley Vineyards, Joe serves on the board of directors for the Ohio Wine Producers Association. He holds degrees in viticulture and agriculture business from Missouri State University and The Ohio State University. Follow Joe on Instagram at @myvinesmywines.
Vermilion Valley Vineyards 11005 Gore Orphanage Road Wakeman OH 44889 Main Number: 440-965-5202 Sales: 419-239-1259 General Inquiries and Weddings, Parties & Meetings (Kristi Juniper): email@example.com Sales (Joe Juniper): firstname.lastname@example.org Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/VermilionValleyVineyards/
Photos Credits: Elizabeth Smith and Joe Juniper/Vermilion Valley Vineyards
I have visited plēb urban winery in Asheville, North Carolina, three times over the course of the past five months: October 2018, November 2018, and January 2019. I am planning another visit this month, February 2019, so make that four visits. This may qualify me as a plēbeian and that is OK. I am delighted to share my latest wine crush with you, my readers. (See what I did there?)
plēb urban winery opened in September 2018 offering wines from various regions. However, their mission is to produce small-lot NC wines with grapes sourced within a two-hour radius of Asheville. To date, plēb has released three of their 2018 wines: a rare Maréchal Foch rosé from Appalachian High Country (8.8% ABV), a Chardonnay Pét-Nat from Henderson County (10.1% ABV), and an effervescent, Cayuga-based wine in a can called exuberant white (12.2% ABV). I have tasted all three and enjoyed them immensely because they are a palate match to my Hs (Hypersensitive) Vinotype, with their lower alcohol, higher acidity, no added sulfites, and a “less is more” approach to winemaking. The wines are kegged and offered by the glass or growler. The most intriguing of the three for me has been following the evolution of the Maréchal Foch rosé. When I initially tasted it in November 2018, its higher acid was more pronounced. However, when I tasted it again in January 2018, it was like tasting a different wine. The bright fruit flavors and acid were much more harmonious.
What I most love about plēb is that the winery is bringing Western North Carolina wine to the forefront of Asheville’s craft beverage market, especially to a younger generation of buyers, most of whom are likely craft beer drinkers since Asheville is such a beer destination. I also enjoy plēb because they are changing what the vision of a winery is. The vibe is anti-establishment and anti-traditional regarding the varietal wines they make, their winemaking style, their packaging, and their marketing. Different is good for all wine consumers.
To delve into plēb’s philosophy and approach to winemaking, the wine industry, the urban winery environment, and wine marketing, I interviewed the team: co-owner and business manager, Lauren Turpin; co-owner and winemaker, Chris Denesha; and assistant winemaker, Tyler Kay. Below is the story of plēb urban winery in their own words.
What inspired you to get into the winemaking business? Lauren: The surge of craft beer and local breweries had me wondering if a similar local tap room approach and concept could be applied to wine. I wanted to start a business that produced a product, engaged with the community and filled a gap in the market. After doing some research, I believed this could be achieved through an urban winery. And that, while I’m not the winemaker, is how I got into the winemaking business. Chris: It’s the farming and growing aspect that got me into the business. There is something beautiful about working with the land and partnering to make something that has the unique ability to age for a long time and tell its unique story of place and history. Being a part of growing grapes and making wine has more to do with the place and year in which the grapes were grown than anything else. I got into winemaking more as I saw the identity being stripped away from our local grapes and wine to fit a more homogenized and marketable palate. It’s simply not representative of what most people love about wine and we are losing that connection without anyone really knowing that it’s happening. Tyler: Wine sparked my curiosity in college. My “ah-ha” bottle was a 2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir from California. I never tasted anything like it, and I needed to know why. I bought a wine encyclopedia and dove right in. After college, I worked on a vineyard in southern Utah. Then I started my path towards becoming a sommelier. I love to travel, but when you’re balling on a budget, I would study regions and plan a trip. It helped shaped my winemaking style and kept the dialogue of travel alive.
Why and how did you select your location? Lauren: We selected our location in the River Arts District for its size, accessibility and neighborhood. Wine is art and to be surrounded by hundreds of artists throughout the district, it felt like a natural fit. The size of the space allows us to produce and grow. It also enables us to provide a full-production winery and tap room experience to a large audience. Lastly, being two miles from downtown and Biltmore Village and next to West Asheville, we are well situated to serve locals and tourists.
How did you choose the name plēb? Lauren: The plebeian spirit and their admiration for the gods of agriculture, fertility and viticulture led us to select the unique name. Our focus is on local growers, pursuing local vineyards and grapes that will grow well here in Western North Carolina. We seek to pay growers for their crops a rate that enables them to reinvest in their land. Farmers, winemakers, artists, in Roman times these were the plebeians that were the economic backbone and underappreciated of society. We want to put them front and center.
Will you please share with us details about the winery’s design and décor, both the tasting room and the working winery? Lauren: Being in the River Arts District and among the large murals, we wanted to bring that design inside since we have large walls befitting their skills.
What is plēb’s winemaking style or philosophy? Chris and Tyler: We grew up playing baseball, and both of our fathers taught us the old school philosophy of things. I’d say that mentality is carried over in the winery. Old world winemaking with modern technology. This means low intervention in the cellar. Hand destemmed, foot crushed reds. Whole cluster pressed whites and rosés. Only non-competitive yeast strains, or 100% wild spontaneous fermentation. We even used fermenting wine to pitch on new juice to promote fermentation. No sulfur added, no fining or filtering. Just a cold cellar temperature to age, and we’re BIG fans of barrel aging on fine lees. We work in a cold climate and we want to see the reward of patience in time, not heat to showcase these wines.
What kind of vineyard partnerships does plēb seek or have? What are your criteria for selecting partners and vineyard sources? Chris: We manage about 5 acres up in the Boone area. The rest of our grapes are all contract based with an emphasis on new small growers. We’re focused on Western North Carolina, which is generally higher elevation vineyard sites ranging from 2,100-3,400 ft. We want to build a united mentality for the future and longevity of this new wine growing region. Recognizing our temperate rainforest continental climate and acting accordingly with the right varietals. We believe highlighting French American hybrids and native varieties as quality grapes, along with shorter growing season Vitis vinifera.
Why does plēb sell wines by the glass, growler, cans, and/or on tap instead of traditional bottles? Lauren: We have a commitment to be environmentally friendly and sustainable, not just in the vineyard but throughout our operation. Therefore, we do not bottle in mass. Using stainless steel kegs, we keep the equivalent of 78 bottles of wine free from light and oxygen for an extended amount of time. The growler option allows customers flexibility to choose any wine on tap to-go. Our cans are great for three reasons – first, they are recyclable, second, they are convenient for our outdoor enthusiasts, and third, it’s 375mL or two glasses of wine, which is a good size for one person or two to split. If you see any of our wine in a bottle it’s because either the wine or the retailer demanded it in that format.
Does the winemaking team have any favorite wines to make? Why? Lauren: Sparkling because they’re my favorite to drink! Chris: Sparkling because of bottle variation, you never know what you’re going to get! Tyler: Rosés because so much is dependent on the chemistry of the grapes to dictate the winemaking.
Besides the winery, where can we find your wines? Lauren: Select retailers, breweries and restaurants in the Asheville area.
Do you have any additional information you would like to share with the readers, such as forthcoming wine releases, events, etc.? Lauren: I see us as revolutionaries and advocates for WNC grapes and wines and I call upon all those who want to revolt to join us. We will have new single varietal wines and blends coming out on a regular basis throughout the year. Best to check our website and social media for up-to-date information. Tyler: Live life with no regrets, and everybody Wang Chung tonight.
My passion for zinfandel made the way it ought to be was reignited when I tasted this sample from Oakville’s Highlands Winery. It is not often that I use the word lovely and elegant when describing a zinfandel, but this is just that. Black cherry fruit and mouthwatering acidity lead into a subtle peppery finish. Structured, yet restrained, all of this wine’s components, if you will, are woven together quite nicely, resulting in a zinfandel that will complement food, not overpower it. Sharing it with new friends from California, Illinois, and New York was the icing on the proverbial cake. I was delightfully reminded me why I moved to the Napa Valley to follow my dream of working in the wine industry.
A third restaurant that I visited during my recent trip to Asheville, North Carolina, was Copper Crown in East Asheville. I grew up here, fewer than two miles away, so this restaurant touched my heart and palate in a special way. I never in a million years imagined such a restaurant in East Asheville, but I am proud and excited to share this addition to my hometown neighborhood. Below is the inside scoop about Copper Crown in the words of owners and chef Adam and Kate Bannasch.
What inspired you to get into the restaurant business?
Adam knew from a young age that he had an interest in cooking and pursued a culinary education and career out of high school. I fell into the business more sort of accidentally, working in restaurants in college and after. The flexibility of the work and high pay rate per hour were what initially attracted me, and then once our children were old enough for me to re-enter the workforce, the industry still felt like home.
Why did you select your location?
We have resided in East Asheville for about 12 of our 14 years here and felt that there needed to be more options for dining in our neighborhood. Our intent is to provide an experience that you could easily find represented in downtown or West Asheville but convenient to our East Asheville neighbors.
How did you choose the name of your restaurant?
Naming a restaurant is really challenging! We considered several options, none of which felt quite right. At the end we were inspired by the copper roof of the plaza building we’re in.
Will you share with us details about your restaurant’s design and décor and how the theme complements your menu?
We partnered with a local architecture and design firm, Form & Function, to help us redesign the space. The first focal point we created was the wooden slat “waterfall” to both cozy up a space with incredibly high ceilings, as well as create the backdrop for our bar. We tried to be as economically and environmentally considerate as possible when choosing furnishings and found most of our tables and chairs second-hand. All the artwork in our dining room was done by local artists and we receive fresh cut flowers for each table every week courtesy of FarmGirl Flowers. Our aesthetic is a little bit retro, we wanted to create a space with bright colors and a vibrant feel for day but also cozy and romantic at night. Our menu is a little bit eclectic and colorful like our design, so we feel well represented by our space.
What is your restaurant’s style of cooking?
Our style of cooking, for lack of a better term, could best be described as New American. We find influences from a wide variety of cuisines, including Italian, German, Cajun and Creole, but we try to avoid being pigeon-holed as one style of restaurant versus another. Our lunch menu is casual with sandwiches, salads and soups, and our dinner and Sunday brunch menus are a bit more upscale, featuring both small and large plate options.
What are your and/or your staff’s favorite dishes?
Everyone, staff and guests alike love the Brussels sprouts. They’re hard not to love! But we also have a great burger and several good sandwiches that are popular during the day with the staff. The dinner options are constantly updated but recent favorites have been an amazing pea shoot salad, lobster mezzaluna pasta, as well as the local roasted carrots and radishes.
How does your restaurant’s beverage program enhance the cuisine?
We are very fortunate to have an experienced and enthusiastic bar manager, Tim Walker. He is constantly challenging himself to utilize ingredients in cocktails in new and inventive ways and has an eye for balance in the finished product, like that of Adam and our sous chefs. We strive to offer both food and beverages that can be familiar and comforting as well as those that can push someone to try something new. We support local breweries and distilleries as well as local farms, growers and foragers. We believe that a quality product on the plate should be enhanced by a quality product in your glass.
Do you have a philosophy as it relates to food, beverage, and hospitality?
Our underlying philosophy for our work is to do the most we can to ensure that every experience a guest has with us is one that is worthy of their time and expense. One of the reasons hospitality continues to appeal to us is the knowledge that it is within our power to improve someone’s day, even if just for a little while, by providing them the best of what we have to offer. We strive to be good members of our community in every way we are able.
Do you have plans to open additional locations or restaurants? Why or why not?
We don’t have any current plans to open a second location, but if the right situation came along, we would consider it.
Do you have any additional information you would like to share with the readers, such as forthcoming menu items, events, etc.?
We have three ongoing weekly specials nights right now. Sunday night is our Burger and Beer Night where both of our burgers as well as all our draft beers are $1 off, Wine Night on Tuesdays we offer select varietals for just $5/glass, as well as Kids Night on Wednesdays where our $5 kids’ menu is half-off. We also have been benefiting local non-profits and organizations on the first Monday of each month during our Giving Back Night. We update our website regularly with our menu changes and events at our website.