If there is any California vintner who deserves a monument to himself, Jerry Lohr would be at or near the top of the list of contenders.
Over more than four decades, J. Lohr, his namesake winery, has delivered exceptional wines at fairly modest prices to slake the growing thirst for California wine. The monument is another J. Lohr wine, of course -- probably the finest Lohr has ever made.
The 2013 J. Lohr "Signature" Cabernet Sauvignon was created to celebrate Jerry Lohr's 80th birthday on Jan. 1, 2017. Only 966 six-bottle cases were produced, and each bottle will retail for $100 upon release, making it by far J. Lohr's most expensive offering.
I tasted the "Signature" for the first time last week, during a meeting with Lohr and longtime winemaker Jeff Meier. Meier is CEO and director of winemaking for the massive J. Lohr operation, which stretches from Paso Robles to San Jose, with a tiny piece of the Napa Valley in the mix to keep things interesting.
If you know J. Lohr from its inexpensive line of Paso Robles Cabernets and Merlots, or Monterey chardonnays, you wouldn't immediately peg the "Signature" Cabernet as a J. Lohr wine, although most of the grapes (79 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 percent Merlot) are sourced from two of Lohr's favorite Paso Robles vineyards, Beck and Creston, and the balance of Petit Verdot (3 percent) from Carol's Vineyard in the Napa Valley.
I have long admired J. Lohr's commitment to quality in affordable wines, but I was also impressed when the winery upped its game several years ago with a line of Bordeaux-style blends (POM, after the fashion of Pomerol; PAU, in the mold of classic Pauillac; and ST. E, in the manner of Saint-Emilion) priced at $50 per bottle.
"We did that to give the winemakers a chance to use everything they had in the cupboard," said Lohr. "We were saying, 'Show us what you can do.' It was an intellectual challenge."
The so-called Bordeaux cuvees from J. Lohr have been a critical success and routinely take top awards at major international wine competitions. While the success of the Bordeaux cuvees set a high bar for the J. Lohr "Signature" Cabernet Sauvignon, it was a bar the "Signature" Cabernet Sauvignon easily cleared.
Aged 19 months in new French oak, Signature exhibits a density and richness, with polished tannins, that rivals the finest Cabernets made in America, putting it in the same league as Cabernets from Spottswoode, Far Niente, Caymus and Nickel & Nickel, just to name a few.
"It handled the new oak very well, just soaked it up," noted Meier.
Indeed, the wood smoke and spice blend seamlessly with the massive dark fruit. Then there is the note of mocha and roasted coffee bean that drives most Cabernet lovers absolutely wild. On the palate "Signature" is suave and elegant, with supple tannins and remarkable length on the finish.
It's pushing the alcohol at 14.99 percent, but without a trace of heat. This astonishing wine is a fitting tribute to a man who has introduced so many across the United States to the beauty of California wine, particularly wines produced in the Central Coast districts of Monterey and Paso Robles.
The fact that it's a $100 wine made to honor a vintner whose reputation was cemented with affordable wines for the masses shouldn't dampen anyone's enthusiasm. The way I see it, "Signature" is a steal. If someone in the Napa Valley had produced it, you could probably double the price.