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 email@example.com 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): firstname.lastname@example.org Sales (Joe Juniper): email@example.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/VermilionValleyVineyards/
Photos Credits: Elizabeth Smith and Joe Juniper/Vermilion Valley Vineyards
Another restaurant stop on my recent visit to my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, was Ambrozia Bar & Bistro in North Asheville, in the neighborhood where my mother grew up and where my uncle, aunt and cousins lived. I had not been to this part of the city in a long time, so imagine how delighted I was to learn of Ambrozia, tucked away in an unassuming shopping center. While interviewing owner and chef Sam Etheridge, I discovered someone that truly inspires me, a person who is committed to family and life-work balance, both of which are difficult to achieve being in the restaurant business. Below is the fantastic story of Ambrozia in Sam’s own words.
What inspired you to get into the restaurant business?
I have always been in the restaurant business. I began as a busboy as a teenager and worked at various restaurants throughout high school and college. After college, I attended culinary school in South Florida and the rest is history.
Why did you select your location?
We decided to move to Asheville from New Mexico in order to be closer to family. I grew up in Tennessee and my wife in Florida. We loved the food scene and lifestyle here and the city itself as a place to raise kids.
How did you choose the name of your restaurant?
This is the second restaurant I have had named Ambrozia. The first was in New Mexico. I chose the name because it means “food of the gods” and had a Southern tie-in with the sweet salad you see at church picnics. After moving to Asheville and deciding to open a restaurant here, I kept the name because I just identified with it and loved the name.
Will you share with us details about your restaurant’s design and décor and how the theme complements your menu?
I had a friend of mine come in who is a contractor and help with design and décor. Being in a strip mall, our idea was to make you forget that you were in a strip mall once inside. We wanted an understated wine theme that was upscale and modern, but also comfortable enough to be an everyday hangout.
What is your restaurant’s style of cooking?
We are modern Southern cuisine with a twist and a focus on farm-fresh, local ingredients.
What are your and/or your staff’s favorite dishes?
Our deviled eggs and fried chicken have long been our signature dishes. We change the menu constantly, so we have lots of favorites seasonally like tomato pie or chile relleno.
How does your restaurant’s beverage program enhance the cuisine?
We are very focused on wine that enhances the food. We don’t want anything too overpowering. We like high acid and well-balanced fruit. We also create seasonal cocktails that are focused on culinary ingredients and seasonality and local beers, for which Asheville is very well known.
Do you have a philosophy as it relates to food, beverage, and hospitality?
My philosophy is to have fun, whether it be me, the staff, customers, everyone. It’s not always an easy thing in the high-stress business, but I think everyone is better off if they are enjoying themselves and it shows.
Do you have plans to open additional locations or restaurants? Why or why not? No, I do not have plans. I have kids and a family, so that is my focus. I had tried to have multiple restaurants before, and it was not good for my family life.
Do you have any additional information you would like to share with the readers, such as forthcoming menu items, events, etc.?
We feel like we are a hidden gem in Asheville. Everyone is so focused on downtown, and it is great, but Asheville offers great restaurants all around the city and everyone should get out and explore the neighborhoods as well.
Earlier this month, I enjoyed an amazing opportunity to be hosted by four of Asheville, North Carolina’s off-the-beaten path, perhaps lesser known restaurants, in West, North, East, and South Asheville. As part of my Ten Questions for series, I interviewed the proprietors of each restaurant. Nothing excites me more than someone who turns their life upside down and does a complete 360-degree turn to follow their dream. Therefore, I am thrilled to share the story of Sean Piper and his new restaurant in West Asheville, Jargon, which opened about a year and a half ago, in Sean’s own words.
What inspired you to get into the restaurant business? Before my movie production career, I had worked many years in the restaurant industry doing various jobs. I was a dishwasher, prep cook, broiler assistant, bar back, bus boy, server, bartender, and eventually a dining room manager. I absolutely loved it. All of it. There’s something special about having guests in your house and making them feel special and welcome. Ironically, it’s very similar to movie production: a group of hardworking folks each with a specific job to do, working as a team, and providing that “escapism” for our guests.
Why did you select your location? My parents have lived in Asheville for over 28 years, and consequently I’ve spent a lot of time here. I fell in love with the entire area. The eclectic vibe, the creative energies, the waterfalls are intoxicating! An old mentor of mine told me that if I was truly serious about owning a restaurant, I must own the building. After many years of searching for the right space (that I could afford), I found a small condemned building for sale at 715 Haywood Road. It took four years to negotiate the purchase, and I later discovered that it’s a nationally registered historical building. I worked with the Historical Preservation Office, saved the building, and was awarded the Griffin Award for historical rehabilitation in June.
How did you choose the name of your restaurant? Honestly, it came to me one afternoon after some “midday inspiration” (drinking wine). A friend suggested “Slang” which was too edgy in my opinion. I immediately said, “Ooh, how about Jargon”? I looked up the definition which says that “Jargon is a language that is understood within certain groups”. I loved the juxtaposition of exclusivity and inclusivity, and the play on words that Jargon inherently presented.
Will you share with us details about your restaurant’s design and décor and how the theme complements your menu? Jargon has also been described to me as “repurposed language”. This was a key to our branding, as we try to look at new ways to use ingredients and décor. We acquired 1952-era bowling lanes from Indiana that we used as my table tops and bar top, we also made glasses from recycled wine bottles, made a 1938 Philco radio as our host stand, used 1940’s Hamilton Printer trays for my bar facade, used antique game boards for our menu backs, and utilized 20,000 scrabble tiles as accent walls in our bathroom.
What is your restaurant’s style of cooking? Chef Marcus Day is from Louisiana and he has an Italian cuisine background. You can find those incredible Cajun flavor profiles in his cooking, and his house made pasta is simply outstanding. Our Sous Chef Jeff Crowder was born and raised in Western North Carolina, so there is also a Southern flare in many of our dishes.
What are your and/or your staff’s favorite dishes? My staff’s favorite dishes at the moment are our oven roasted octopus, the scallops and pork belly, and the bacon and Brussels salad. Simply outstanding!
How does your restaurant’s beverage program enhance the cuisine? Chris Keane, my head bartender has a wealth of knowledge that he brings to our guest’s experience. His craft cocktails are a fantastic way to start your evening. My current favorite is his “Granddad’s Lunch Box” that uses a peanut butter washed bourbon and house made strawberry syrup. Think of it as a PB&J Old Fashioned! Also, I’m very proud of our wine program here at Jargon. We store all wines at proper temperature, serve in appropriate elegant glassware, and decant medium to full bodied wines without asking to open them up as much as possible.
Do you have a philosophy as it relates to food, beverage, and hospitality? Our philosophy is to treat every single person who comes through our door as a guest in our house. Forget about the outside world and be treated special. My entire staff genuinely cares deeply about everything they do, and it shows.
Do you have plans to open additional locations or restaurants? Why or why not? We’ve only been open a year and six months, so I’m focused on making this “little gem on the Westside” stand on a firm foundation. That said, I’m having some discussions with some folks who would love to put a Jargon in Chicago!
Do you have any additional information you would like to share with the readers, such as forthcoming menu items, events, etc. We have some great things planned! Starting with a special Valentine’s Day event! We are also discussing a Godfather Dinner Theatre, a Prohibition dinner (where we lock the front door, and folks must enter through the back with a password), another New Orleans Jazz Dinner, a wine maker dinner, and much more! Make sure folks sign up for our newsletter because those folks have first dibs!
This young family just moved to the area from New York City, they just had a baby who is only a week old, and they just opened their dream wine shop on Friday, December 21, in downtown Asheville. G Social Media and I were so fortunate to stumble upon Crocodile Wine the day after the shop opened. Here is our exclusive, inaugural interview with owner John Hale, who brings an amazing selection of natural wines to Asheville, North Carolina.