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  • A Winery Tour with Kristen Barnhisel, The Charismatic Winemaker Behind J. Lohr's White Wine Portfolio

    Kristen Tasting Panel 2

    By David Gadd for The Tast­ing Pan­el Magazine

    Full arti­cle

    It was only after a ten-year search that pio­neer vint­ner Jer­ry Lohr came to Mon­terey County’s Arroyo Seco back in 1972. With uncan­ny pre­science, Lohr rec­og­nized that this beau­ti­ful, broad Cen­tral Coast val­ley, spread between the San­ta Lucia Range to the west and the Gabi­lan Range to the east, would be ide­al white wine terroir.

    Arroyo Seco takes its name from the usu­al­ly-dry bed of a stream that orig­i­nates in the San­ta Lucias and runs north­east­ward to join the Sali­nas Riv­er, which even­tu­al­ly emp­ties into Mon­terey Bay. Cap­ti­vat­ed by this dra­mat­ic loca­tion and its attrib­ut­es, Lohr plant­ed 280 acres of vines in Green­field. The locale was in the heart of what would even­tu­al­ly — thanks to Lohr’s and oth­ers’ efforts — become the Arroyo Seco AVA in 1983.

    The region owes its long grow­ing sea­son to lin­ger­ing fog and a cool­ing wind run” from near­by Mon­terey Bay; the stony, well-drained soils and lack of rain dur­ing the fall sea­son prove ide­al for Ries­ling, Sauvi­gnon Blanc, and, espe­cial­ly, Chardon­nay. For three decades now, the orig­i­nal Green­field plant­i­ngs have pro­vid­ed the fruit for the val­ue-dri­ven J. Lohr Estates tier’s River­stone Chardon­nay — named for the jum­bled mix of round­ed, water-worn rocks in the arroyo and vine­yards known local­ly as Green­field pota­toes.” More recent plant­i­ngs, includ­ing diverse Chardon­nay clones, add com­plex­i­ty to River­stone and con­tribute to J. Lohr’s two pro­pri­etary Vine­yard Series Chardon­nays: Arroyo Vista and Octo­ber Night.

    Things came full cir­cle in 2015 with the open­ing of a state-of-the-art facil­i­ty adja­cent to the orig­i­nal Green­field vine­yards. A life­long dream of Jer­ry Lohr’s, the new win­ery is ded­i­cat­ed to white wines and reaf­firms J. Lohr’s com­mit­ment to both Chardon­nay and the Arroyo Seco AVA.

    The wine­mak­er in charge at J. Lohr’s new Green­field win­ery, Kris­ten Barn­his­el, could hard­ly be more qual­i­fied to head up the winery’s white wine pro­gram. A native of San­ta Rosa, she grew up firm­ly entrenched in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia wine coun­try; Barnhisel’s moth­er worked as a bio­chemist at Simi Win­ery and her father was a home winemaker.

    While trav­el­ing in Italy as she pur­sued a degree in Ital­ian lit­er­a­ture, Barn­his­el was encour­aged by leg­endary wine­mak­er and fam­i­ly friend Zel­ma Long to cut her own viti­cul­tur­al teeth. Barn­his­el became the rst woman to work har­vest at Rufi­no in Tus­cany — an expe­ri­ence that solid­i­fied her urge to become a winemaker.

    As Barn­his­el worked toward com­plet­ing a master’s degree in enol­o­gy from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, she also snagged sev­er­al cov­et­ed intern­ships at renowned winer­ies like War­wick Wine Estate in South Africa, Opus One in Napa Val­ley, and Long Vine­yards in St. Hele­na, where she gained invalu­able knowl­edge work­ing along­side her men­tor Long.

    After grad­u­a­tion, Barn­his­el spent two years as the enol­o­gist at Colum­bia Crest in Wash­ing­ton State. When she returned to Cal­i­for­nia, she held posi­tions as an assis­tant wine­mak­er at Jor­dan Vine­yard & Win­ery and Belvedere Win­ery before join­ing Han­d­ley Cel­lars in Ander­son Val­ley, where for eight years she served as Co-Wine­mak­er with Founder Mil­la Han­d­ley. Pri­or to join­ing J. Lohr in 2015, Barn­his­el was the Qual­i­ty Con­trol Man­ag­er at Fran­cis Ford Coppola’s Inglenook, where she was charged with main­tain­ing the stature of the winery’s flag­ship Caber­net Sauvi­gnon, Rubi­con, and its top white blend, Blancaneaux.

    Today, the out­go­ing wine­mak­er works along­side J. Lohr’s long­time Direc­tor of Wine­mak­ing Jeff Meier, bring­ing a vast range of expe­ri­ence, tech­ni­cal know-how, and bound­less enthu­si­asm as she steadi­ly ascends into a role as the face behind the brand” for J. Lohr’s white wines. Between the ever-present twin­kle in her eyes and the qual­i­ty of her wines, evi­dence abounds of Barnhisel’s ded­i­ca­tion to this esteemed Arroyo Seco winery.

    A Sense of Place

    When we vis­it the small yet bustling town of Green­field in Mon­terey Coun­ty in mid-Feb­ru­ary, the Arroyo Seco is owing with the remain­der of this winter’s rains. The weath­er is cool but glo­ri­ous, and Barn­his­el is eager to give us the lay of the land.

    After vis­it­ing a block ded­i­cat­ed to the Chardon­nay musqué” clone 809, which makes up the back­bone of the aro­mat­ic J. Lohr Octo­ber Night Chardon­nay, we dri­ve to a low bridge min­utes from the win­ery and hop out for a look at the Arroyo Seco itself. On either side of the riv­er are blocks of the Fran­scioni and Gri­va Vine­yard, which pro­vides fruit to J. Lohr by long-term agreement.

    Down in the arroyo, Barn­his­el care­ful­ly picks her way across the slow- mov­ing stream and strikes a con dent pose among the rocks, the stun­ning San­ta Lucias pro­vid­ing a thrilling back­drop. Big Sur is just over that range,” she says, giv­ing us a geo­graph­ic point of reference.

    Back at the win­ery, we don Day-Glo safe­ty vests and enter the hangar-like bar­rel room, where 40,000 oak and aca­cia bar­rels exude the unmis­tak­able wood-tinged aro­ma of peace­ful­ly- aging wine.

    The 2017 Flume Cross­ing Sauvi­gnon Blanc from the J. Lohr Estates tier awaits blend­ing, so the bar­rel room team patient­ly stands by while we sneak in for a quick sam­ple tast­ing. Barn­his­el draws sam­ples from both

    a stain­less-steel bar­rel and an aca­cia bar­rel as she explains that the bal­ance between the two fer­men­ta­tion meth­ods is what char­ac­ter­izes this wine: The stain­less steel main­tains crisp, cit­rusy grape­fruit and lime notes, while the aca­cia lends tex­ture in the mouth­feel and fin­ish. The cur­rent 2016 vin­tage shows a del­i­cate bal­ance between New Zealand – like zesti­ness and Cal­i­for­nia ripeness.

    The Many Faces of Chardonnay”

    Else­where in the win­ery, Bar­rel Room Man­ag­er Man­ny Lara has set up two tast­ing areas with bar­rels hold­ing com­po­nents of J. Lohr’s upcom­ing 2017 vin­tage Chardon­nays. The rst show­cas­es the wines that will become the J. Lohr Estates River­stone Chardon­nay (SRP $15), of which the 90-plus indi­vid­ual lots are 100 per­cent bar­rel-fer­ment­ed in Amer­i­can, French, or Hun­gar­i­an oak for sev­en to nine months. The lees are stirred week­ly and under­go 60 – 70 per­cent mal­o­lac­tic fer­men­ta­tion for texture.

    At the sec­ond tast­ing sta­tion, we dis­cov­er the Arroyo Vista Chardon­nay and Octo­ber Night Chardon­nay (both SRP $25) from J. Lohr’s Vine­yard Series. These are not sin­gle-vine­yard wines but sin­gle-con­cept” wines, explains Senior Mar­ket­ing Direc­tor Dave Muret, who is along for the vis­it. Barn­his­el draws a sam­ple of the clone 809 Chardon­nay, grown in the vine­yard block we had vis­it­ed ear­li­er, and notes its gar­de­nia and orange blos­som” aromas.

    This wine, from grapes hand-picked in ear­ly morn­ing and crushed in a ten- ton press, will make up 60 – 70 per­cent of the fin­ished wine in a process that Barn­his­el calls build­ing com­plex­i­ty.” (She says her ques­tion dur­ing the craft­ing and blend­ing of Chardon­nay is always, How much com­plex­i­ty can we build into it?”)

    Barn­his­el then moves to a com­po­nent of Octo­ber Night’s sib­ling, the Arroyo Vista Chardon­nay; she draws a sam­ple of clone 76 Chardon­nay, which makes up the back­bone of the blend with its brioche fla­vors (from lees stir­ring), caramel tones, and well-inte­grat­ed notes of oak. This is our ode to Bur­gundy,” explains the wine­mak­er. The fin­ished wine shows very oral aro­mas, fla­vors of pears, apples, and Mey­er lemon — it’s got a lot of layers

    to it,” says Barn­his­el. If Octo­ber Night is full and volup­tuous, Arroyo Vista is poised and fine­ly delin­eat­ed — or, as Barn­his­el puts it, two of the many faces of Chardonnay.”

    While striv­ing to main­tain the fla­vor pro­files J. Lohr fans expect from these wines by blend­ing to a style,” Barn­his­el has also man­aged to put her own stamp on these two icons

    of Arroyo Seco Chardon­nay. I love Chardon­nay,” says the wine­mak­er. It offers such a wide palette to work with, from aus­tere and min­er­al to overt and trop­i­cal.” Barn­his­el has proven her­self a mas­ter of both aspects of this vari­etal. Bal­ance and com­plex­i­ty, with fresh­ness and tex­ture,” she con­cludes. That’s my style.”

    Mean­while, exper­i­men­ta­tion with clon­al selec­tion, cooper­age, and yeast strains forges ahead at rapid pace under Barnhisel’s super­vi­sion at the busy Green­field win­ery. With a cou­ple of new blocks com­ing online next year, the devel­op­ments will give her even more options to work with as she brings J. Lohr’s white wines into a bril­liant future at the place where it all began

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