Changing Lodi Zin culture: Klinker Brick Winery

Fifth generation farmers Steve and Lori Felton grow brand

Fifth generation grape growers, Steve and Lori Felton, opened Klinker Brick Winery in Lodi, Calif. in 2000.

A Zinfandel stronghold and track record of over 150 years, Lodi, California, has long attracted lovers of Old Vine Zins. Since the early 1900s though today, generations of families have farmed and produced over 40% of California’s premium Zinfandel and the region has long been branded that way.

Steve and Lori Felton, fifth generation Lodi grape growers, continue this family farming tradition and now exclusively farm, grow and produce wine on land their ancestors planted. And while they worked in the industry for years producing Zinfandel for other wineries in Napa and Sonoma Counties on 16 individual vineyard blocks of Old Vine Zinfandel, today they produce premium Old Ghost Old Vine Zinfandel under their Klinker Brick Winery label.

However, Klinker Brick Winery, founded by the Feltons in 2000, continues to change the way wine enthusiasts view the Lodi wine region.

From their first vintage of Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel in 2000  and their first vintage of Farrah Syrah in 2001, the Feltons and Klinker Brick have set out to produce world-class wines that move far beyond the Lodi growers who singlehandedly kept the American wine industry alive during Prohibition, sending out thousands of railcars each harvest full of Zin, Tokay and Alicante Bouschet.

Old Ghost represents the best Zinfandel harvested each year at Klinker Brick Winery. This is lush excellence, perfect with prime porterhouse, grilled lamb or beef stews.

With a passion for producing exceptional wine and the vision and passion of winemaker Joseph Smith, Klinker Brick views themselves as stewards of the land and their ancient vines. They have also expanded and are creating award-winning Syrah, Petite Sirah and dry Rose among other wines. In addition to their own property, they manage a number of vineyards in the region with the goal of producing award-winning fruit.

Smith joined Klinker Brick in 2008 after starting his career in the nineties as an apprentice with Gnekow Family Wines. In fact, Smith actually made his first bottle with Felton as a consultant in 2000. Smith says his and the Felton family’s love for many varieties helped fuel their passion and they seemed to gel. The Feltons were ready to expand from just the farming aspect of the business and took Smith on to build Klinker Brick Winery as a label.

“While we are known as Zinfandel producers and branded as a Zinfandel region, we are wine drinkers and wine producers,” Smith said. “We like Zinfandel but we also like Rose, Cabernet, Cab Franc, Albariño and many others. I like all these wines and it depends on the occasion and where I am at as to what I want to drink.

“Kicker Brick has been very successful in creating world-class Zinfandels but I (we) wanted more,” Smith continued. “Five years ago, I knew I made a great white wine and Rose, and even though we started little by little, people have applauded our efforts. The wines have done very well in the tasting room. While this makes good business sense, it has been the love of our product that has grown the Klinker Brick brand.”

Klinker Brick concentrated on wine distribution first and then built up their tasting room. While they distributed a core three wines nationally, they used tried and true Lodi varieties  that had been forgotten by some. Consider their Carignane vineyard is over 108 years old and their Old Vine Zinfandel is harvested from an 90-year-old vineyard.

Klinker Brick Winery owner Steve Felton (middle left) and Farrah Felton-Jolley (right) are now six generation grape growers in Lodi, California. Winemaker Joseph Smith (middle right) has led the winery’s production since 2008.

With the help of their daughter, Farrah Felton-Jolley and her husband, Stefan, the family now moves to the six generation of grape growers. Farrah joined the winery in 2009 after graduating from the University of the Pacific with a degree in Business Administration. With a passion for grape growing, organic gardening, cooking and a love for wine, she travels and promotes the family winery and wine as VP of marketing & sales. Stefan is the most recent addition to the Klinker Brick Family, managing winery operations, compliance, website and information technology.

“We are making wine that we love and believe in,” Smith said. “We don’t short change ourselves or the consumer. When we decided to make a Rose, it had to captivate me–a Rose from start to finish. We grow our grapes for Rose with all Rhone varietals (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Carignane). That’s our style of Rose. We are serious producers of a classic dry, crisp Rose.”

Wine Enthusiast gave Klinker Brick Rose blend 90 points and a “Best Buy” designation for their 2015 version. It is a dry blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignane.

The winery distributes their Bricks Rosé nationally, producing 4,500 cases. The blend has is crisp, light with citrus aromas and flavors of ripe strawberries, grapefruit and subtle watermelon.

However, the winemaker believes they still produce an award-winning Rose because they do not shortchange the vineyard. They grow the grapes, cultivate the vineyards and are managed from beginning to end.

“The process is quality driven,” Klinker Brick owner Steve Felton says. This starts in the vineyard. We’ve got to have the highest quality right there. And that’s the tough part of growing grapes–maintaining the quality. Fortunately for us, not only are we a winery but we are also growers and we’ve been doing that for six generations. I guess you could say, we have a handle on growing grapes.”

Over the years, Steve has been growing grapes for some of the best producers in the State, so that keeps them in close to the heart beat of the land and the expectation high quality demands.

“We always over deliver wines for the price and that starts in the vineyard,” Felton said. “And of course our winemaking staff is outstanding. Joe is very hands on. He still makes sure he is there each step of the way.”

With a large winemaking staff, Smith’s challenge is to keep quality high despite a high case count with so many different varietals. And he definitely is the one behind what’s in the bottle.

“While I am in charge, and then collectively, nothing goes in the glass without the round table,” Smith said. “I am the guy in the cellar making the protocols. I haven’t changed how I make these wines from day one. I am physically in the winery and in the vineyard, making sure the wines are made the way we want it done.”

The 2013 Farrah Syrah has ripe plum, blackberry, anise, pepper, exotic spices and earthy notes. Serve it with grilled meats, spicy tacos or mushroom risotto.

Of course the Klinker Brick is still widely known as a top shelf Zinfandel producer. Their  Old Ghost Old Vine Zinfandel ($37) is created with standout fruit, sourced from the best Lodi vineyards. Taste the blackberry, anise and exotic spices. Pair with your prime porterhouse or grilled lamb.

The winery owns or manages 18 Zinfandel-vineyard blocks that range from 50-125 years old in the Mokelumne River sub-appellation of Lodi. Wines from this warm climate and sandy loam soil create yields from gnarly, old vines with intense color and flavor. This region produces exceptional Zinfandel and Syrah.

Klinker Brick has access to Syrah vineyards over 125 years old in the same Mokelumne River region. Their award-winning Farrah Syrah and Farrah Syrah Grand Reserve are rich, vibrant and full of black fruit and spice flavors.  These are first class wines created for foodies and hearty wine drinkers. Both have amazing structure and balance with long, lingering finishes.

The 2013 Farrah Syrah exhibits aromas of ripe plum, cacao, and smoky oak with subtle earthy floral notes. The palate is greeted with bright and vibrant flavors of blackberry, anise and exotic spices. Supple tannins and superb balance lend structure to this full-bodied Syrah with a long, lingering finish. Enjoy with grilled meats, spicy tacos and Mexican dishes or mushroom risotto ($20).

The Old Ghost Old Vine Zinfandel paired so well with the rich, herbed  earthy sauce of the beef stew.

Their Old Vine Zinfandel is their flagship and still their most popular wine. Wilfred Wong, gave the latest release 94 points. It is a blend from 16 different vineyards with an average of 85 years. Taste these beauties as the dark fruit, spice and tannins with just a hint of pepper and anise will tantalize you ($19). This is a go to Zin for burgers, BBQ, hearty pizza or by itself.

While the farming aspect has long been a part of the Felton family’s history, an expanded Klinker Brick Winery from its modest beginnings is now an internationally-distributed brand of world class wines. And as Wine Enthusiast named the Lodi region their 2015 winner, isn’t it time you booked your next wine tasting trip to Lodi, California? There are 88 wineries to explore but be sure to put Klinker Brick Winery on your list.

For more information on the wines of Lodi, California, read Lodi Wine Country: Boutique winery innovation and learn more about the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center (LoCA).

Kinker Brick Winery is located at 15887 N. Alpine Road, Lodi, California 95240. They can be reached via phone: (209) 333-1845 or through email: Their wines can be ordered online or find a retail outlet via the Klinker Brick website.

Be sure to read TalesoftheCork’s previous blog post, “Old Fig Wine Cellars: A Central Valley urban dream.” And if winemakers, wineries or restaurants are interested in a TalesoftheCork wine and/or food review on the blog, InstagramTwitter and/or Facebook, please send us a request via email: or use DM on social media. TalesoftheCork also offers social media seminars for businesses.

The Klinker Brick Carignane is easy to drink and fresh with black cherry and black tea aromas. I love hints of leather and earthy dried sage notes. caption
The Petite Sirah is rich and brooding with flavors of espresso, dark chocolate and blueberries that linger long on the palate.


Caliza Winery: Templeton Gap nets Rhone Ranger

After moving from San Francisco and retiring from the trade show business, Carl and Pam Bowker had settled in the windy Templeton Gap area west of Paso Robles on the Central California coast. The couple’s newly purchased vineyard was producing a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but Carl was not convinced his vineyards would develop world class wines at Caliza Winery.

For Part I on the Caliza Winery story, please read the Nov. 12, 2012, post, Caliza Winery: Bowker turns horticultural focus into viticulture dream. In Part II of the Caliza Winery story, Carl shares how his 2004 trip to the Rhône Valley convinced him to make the hardest decision he’s ever had to make in his life.

Carl and Pam Bowker had traveled to Italy in 2001 and their eyes were opened to utilizing old world wines in a new world venue. They farmed the vineyards on both of the Caliza Winery properties, but Carl longed for a stronger connection to the limestone soils he named his winery after. He began spending more and more time with winemakers in Paso Robles and became more familiar with the emerging interest in Syrah and other Rhône varietals. During a party for a real estate agent, Bowker met winemakers Erich and Joanne Russell of Rabbit Ridge Winery and Russell Family .

Carl Bowker’s, left, passionate interest in winemaking caught the attention of Erich Russell of Rabbit Ridge Winery. The two forged a friendship and have shared many social times together, including this 2009 Provence-inspired dinner at the Russell home with their wives, Pam and Joanne.

“I had been making wine for over 20 years,” Erich said, “and Carl seemed genuinely interested in being a winemaker. He first came around while I was building my winery in 2001 and decided to join us for crush in 2002. We got together often to talk about wine and in the process he learned to put on a wine clip and join two hoses together. At first it was obvious he was new to the process and I offered to do his jobs I gave him to do. It  would go faster if I did it. But he learned how to use hoses, clamps and steel fittings from our time together in the early days at Rabbit Ridge.”

While Bowker was a green horn in 2002, it didn’t take him long to become an integral part of the harvest for Rabbit Ridge and Russell Family wines in 2004.

“While we were mostly too tired to have fun even though we worked together, I could see Carl was going to be good at winemaking,” Russell said. “Carl was not like many of the other new winemakers. He was neat, clean, hard working, anal about the process. The man wouldn’t leave each night until everything was just right in the winery.”

But it was during their time together that the Bowkers and Russells became friends. They shared dinners together and began talking about an ever-growing excitement for Syrah and especially Rhône varietals. Both couples signed up for a trip to France led by a small group of wine writers.

Erich and Joanne Russell, left, chose to vacation in France with Pam (right center) and Carl Bowker for a two-week trip to the Rhône region in 2004, visiting over 15 wineries.

“We had enjoyed them [Rhône varietals] in restaurants and felt we needed to see for ourselves what the French were doing,” Bowker said. “So the Rhône Valley trip was a great next step for us. We learned a lot on that trip. I got to taste first-hand the distinctly difference wine-style in the North Rhône, which is all Syrah. And I love the robust, rich and powerful wines from the North such as the  Hermitage, Saint Joseph and Cronas areas. I also learned so much more about the blended wines in the South, where they incorporate Grenache, Mourvedre and numerous other varieties, and picked up the tools of blending their depth and character. I was inspired to make a California version of these Châteauneuf du Pape or Côte du Rhône style blends.”

Russell fondly remembers the Rhône trip with Bowker as it not only solidified their friendship but also helped keep him focused on Rabbit Ridge value-based wines.

After his 2004 trip to the Rhône Valley, Bowker made the decision to rip out all of the existing vines on his Anderson Road property and plant Syrah clones. He also planted other varietals, including Grenache on this hill behind the tasting room.

“Carl, our wives and I have similar interests and personalities,” Russell said. “While we enjoy creating or eating fancy dinners out, we decided to do dinner like the locals. We had free night to get dinner on our own one night. Instead of paying for another expensive dinner in Avignon, in southern France, all four of us decided to buy cheap Rhone wine from a local wine store and get some cheese and salami from a market. After following a couple people carrying baguettes, we eventually found a bakery, bought a fresh baguette of our own. Our dinner that night was as good as any gourmet dinners on the trip. And we loved and drank inexpensive local Rhône wines.”

Not only did Bowker tour and taste while in France but he asked numerous questions about the vineyard planting methods, irrigation, soil-types, root stock varieties and clones, so that he could use this knowledge in his new Paso Robles vineyard. Together, with the two-year  Napa Valley College viticulture and enology program, Bowker had the confidence to forge forward.

The Spanish word, “Caliza,” means a thin band of limestone. The catchy word describes the layers of soil under Bowker’s Syrah and Rhône varietals.

Bowker says that the 2004 French tour inspired him to make a “killer Syrah” and believes he “is now making that quality Syrah from fruit off his Anderson Road vineyard. The trip cemented the style of my Rhône varieties.”

His new-found inspiration morphed into a determination to join the growing movement of Paso Robles wineries planting Rhône varietals, creating for the Central Coast a Syrah-based regional identity parallel to Napa’s Cabernet focus. The trip to France solidified his Rhône focus. He then chose to have his soil tested by a soil scientist, hiring consultants by the end of the year.

Wine Spectator’s James Laube believes the Paso Robles area focus on Syrah and Grenache has strengthened the region. The epicenter of this blending has created a term used by California winemakers with many referring to the winemakers as Rhône Rangers.

After harvest in 2004, Bowker made a critical decision that would alter the direction of Caliza Winery for the following year.

“I made an incredibly hard financial decision, and in the spring of 2005,” Carl said, “we decided to remove the existing vineyard. The vines were ripped out, the land was tilled and a brand new irrigation system was installed. It was a hard decision because we spent most of our retirement funds, but we knew it was the right thing to do. We replanted Syrah and many other Rhône varieties, changed the location of the vines, installed the most current soil monitoring equipment, state of the art irrigation system, and incorporated sustainability farming practices.”

Bowker says the 2004 French tour inspired him to make a “killer Syrah” and believes he is now making that quality Syrah from fruit off his Anderson Road vineyard.
Bowker says the 2004 French tour inspired him to make a “killer Syrah” and believes he is now making that quality Syrah from fruit off his Anderson Road vineyard.

While other vineyard owners were beginning to consider changing out their vineyards in the Paso Robles region, Bowker’s decision was not without risk.

“I believe Carl works 10 times harder than he ever thought he’d have to work,” Russell said; “everyone has to in this business. He took a huge gamble in 2005 to tear out the vineyards. He had to go to a lot of extra work and remove the vines and irrigation. I’ll bet there were times he wished he was on the beaches of Maui.”

Hawley is a California State University, Fresno, with a degree in viticulture and enology. The Bowkers met him in Paso Robles on several occasions while he was a winemaker at Summerwood Winery and became huge fans of his winemaking style and ability.

“In one encounter we talked to him about helping guide us as we developed the Caliza brand,” Bowker said. “We were one of the first to sign him as a consultant. He worked with us for three years, helping with numerous important decisions: harvest timing, fermentation protocol and all aspects of the wine production. All the way, Scott was more of a trainer and mentor doing all that was necessary to help me completely understand the process than a paid consultant. In the end, he kind of worked himself out of a job as he mentored me so well.”

A very successful winemaker in his own right, Scott Hawley, now of Torrin Vineyard, became Bowker’s mentor and consultant in the early days of winemaking for the new Caliza brand. The first Caliza wines were made in 2006 from mostly purchased fruit as Bowker’s new vineyard was not yet producing. Grapes from that first vintage were sourced from neighboring Torrin Vineyard as well as the Russell Family Vineyard, just a short distance away. Bowker became confident Caliza Winery was going to be a major part of the Rhône movement like his Anderson Road area neighbors such as Booker Vineyard, Brian Benson Cellars, L’Aventure Winery and Torrin Vineyard.

As his skills mature, Bowker continues to focus on the details of winemaking but has learned to balance analytic chemistry in the lab and the creative ‘gut feelings’ of the best vintners.
As his skills mature, Bowker continues to focus on the details of winemaking but has learned to balance analytic chemistry in the lab and the creative ‘gut feelings’ of the best vintners.

“I was first introduced to Carl through a vineyard manager when he was buying his property,” Hawley said. “When I was in my consulting phase, I would look at property rather than being concerned with the people side of the business. I became familiar with the now Caliza property through someone else at first. I knew I wanted to work with that property and could see its potential.”

Shortly after meeting Bowker, Hawley said he knew this winemaking greenhorn was different than most Paso wine folks he had come into contact with.

“Carl was mild-mannered and super easy to get along with,” Hawley said. “He knew exactly what he wanted to achieve but was honest in that he didn’t know how to get there.”

While Bowker was inexperienced, without a track record in the wine business, Hawley said the newest Templeton Gap resident had the motivation, ambition, and focus to create something special.

Caliza Winery is one of many wineries on Anderson Road making Rhône-style varietals. Co-owner Pam Bowker, left, can often be found in the tasting room and will also become the president of the local Rhône Rangers chapter in 2013
Caliza Winery is one of many wineries on Anderson Road making Rhône-style varietals. While co-owner Pam Bowker, left, can often be found in the tasting room she will also become president of the local Rhône Rangers chapter in 2013.

“I could tell right away Carl was different,” Hawley said. “As soon as I agreed to work with him, he became absorbed in winemaking. Carl was, and still is, a sponge. He incorporated and assimilated everything I could show or teach him. He was meticulous, writing down and taking in everything I said. In fact, I had to watch my steps with Carl. He would go back to his notes and more than once I needed to be careful with what I did or said. I had to watch my Ps and Qs.”

As far as Hawley could remember, Bowker had a penchant for details. Carl was so focused on the process, he took everything literal and often became the punchline of winemakers’ jokes.

Carl and Pam Bowker produce 6-8 Rhône varietals on the Caliza property, including the Tanzer International 91-point rated Azimuth
Carl and Pam Bowker produce 6-8 Rhône varietals on the Caliza property, including the Tanzer International 91-point rated 2010 Azimuth.

“I wanted to be sure Carl understood a little about the importance of a clean environment in the winery,” Hawley said while chuckling. “But when I returned later, I found Carl, in classic fashion, decked out in a tie-back blue suit like he was working in a sterile lab complete with goggles on. I guess he was under the impression he needed zero contamination. But to his credit, he took the learning curve seriously and his attention to detail has paid off.”

The major strength of the Caliza Winery is that it’s almost completely self created. Most of Bowker’s wines are estate grown; he planted the vines himself and each year he helps pick, crush, create and bottles the wine. He is the whole picture. He knows what he wants when the year starts and is focused on gaining the unique characteristics of the vineyards.

Carl’s winery has a fine collection of six different Rhône-style clones, allowing him to handcraft his estate wines. Many are award-winning, including the 100 percent Rhône-style 2010 Syrah as well as the 2010 Azimuth which blends 40 percent Mourvedre, 30 percent Syrah and 30 percent Grenache.

“Carl is successful today–his wine sells,” Russell said. “He doesn’t need to pay a distributor to sell his wines; word of mouth shows how good Carl is.”

Caliza’s Syrahs and Rhône-style blends are award-wining, unique, big and intense. Bowker knows and experiences and lives out the whole picture, block, vineyard, and year with the final product. He is hands-on from beginning to end and there is a story behind each bottle of wine.

“Wine is made from the ground up,” Bowker says, “hand in hand, put together, made beautiful.”

Caliza Winery is located on 2570 Anderson Road, Paso Robles, CA 93446. The winery tasting room is open Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m.- 4:40 p.m. or by appointment by calling 805.237.1480.
Caliza Winery is located on 2570 Anderson Road, Paso Robles, CA 93446. The winery tasting room is open Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m.- 4:40 p.m. or by appointment by calling 805.237.1480.

Bowker and his wife, Pam, are members of the Paso Robles Rhône Rangers regional chapter: a term used to describe those who produce Rhône-style wines in the United States. They also belong to the national Rhône Rangers: America’s leading non-profit organization dedicated to promoting American Rhône varietal wines. Caliza is a very active participant in the organization, both nationally and in the local Paso Robles chapter. In fact Pam will lead the Paso Robles chapter in 2013 as president.

The 2010 Caliza Azimuth
The 2010 Caliza Azimuth

Carl has been on the Rhône Ranger panel for several seminars discussing Rhône wines at the national event held each year in San Francisco. Be sure to check out the 16th Annual Rhône Rangers San Francisco Tasting, March 22-23, 2013, at Fort Mason. Over 500 of the best American Rhône wines from more than 100 Rhône Rangers member wineries will be poured.

The Paso Robles regional chapter of the Rhône Rangers will next host the 2013 Paso Robles Rhône Rangers Experience at the Broken Earth Winery, Feb. 17, 2013. Over 40 wineries will explore with the public what makes Paso Robles so ideal for Rhône varietals. Tickets for the seminar and lunch are $85.

For more information on the Rhône Rangers, read the March 31, 2011, Wine Spectator article, “Talent Show”; it briefly outlines the Paso Robles’ new wave of wines from this growing network of California Rhône go-getters.

Be sure to read past winemaker’s stories, including Get to know 2012 Coast winemaker of the year: Mike Sinor .