The best Sauvignon blanc I'd tasted in a long time wasn't even "professionally" made. It was bottle #8104 at the annual San Joaquin County Fair Home Wine Competition made by Aaron and Linda Kidder.
Recently, I made the 10 minute trek east of town to the dead end of Victor Road at Hillside Drive where I encountered the Kidder Family Winery looking like a gorgeous gray barn from New England. Skilsaws blazed from within.
The Kidders road to winemaking started in 1996 when they grew tired of looking at their 7.5 acres of dried weeds and had narrowed choice of landscaping to olives or grapes.
"We got a call from friend and neighbor Doug Holck: ‘If you want to ride a harvester, get out here at four in the morning.' We took our coffee in thermoses. That kinda kickstarted us on putting in our vineyard," said Aaron.
Turning their neighbors - who "didn't even like wine" - into grape growers put enough acreage together to make it worthwhile for longtime grower Joe Cotta to haul out his equipment to manage the backyard Syrah vineyards.
Soon after tasting their own grapes, Aaron and Linda signed up for Winemaking 101 taught by Tom Hoffman and Tim Holdener of the Lodi Amateur Vintner's Association (LAVA) that was just starting up at the time in 2001. Tom and Tim would later launch their own boutique wineries, Heritage Oak and Macchia, respectively.
"I learned so much from the club, like what I was doing wrong with a particular wine," says Aaron. "The club brought in really smart people, such as Craig Rous [General Manager of Bear Creek Winery]. He would collect 12 wines from club members and do a full [chemistry] panel and tasting notes on each. Then he brought everything back and said, ‘These are the problems,' in a very constructive, non-threatening way."
Daryl Corti, respected co-inventor of White Zinfandel, "tasted our Syrah and said, ‘Pick it twice. Once early and once late and blend back.' So we did, and a couple years later, Daryl tasted our latest Syrah and said, ‘Wow, how did you make this?' We just said, ‘We did what you told us.'"
Learning more about wine meant changes were in store for their vineyard.
Aaron continues, "I wanted to play with Graciano. It was Tim Spencer who said to try Tempranillo and Graciano, so I had Joe Cotta ask Markus Bokisch if it was okay if I take some cuttings. I grafted over a block of Graciano, and grafted Tempranillo along the fence."
Counting "a lot of awards," per Linda, "Friends kept saying, ‘You really need to go professional.'"
So last year, the Kidders had plans drawn up to convert their barn into a bonded winery and tasting room, then went about their first pro crush, expecting to start small at less than 500 cases a year.
"For 2010, we crushed 3 different Sangiovese lots along with our Syrah, Petite Sirah, Graciano, and Tempranillo, plus Cab from Tom Hoffman, some Dolcetto, and Noma Ranch Barbera - we're really happy with that fruit," said Aaron.
Linda enjoys assisting Aaron with winemaking. One has the better palate and the other the better nose. "I like winemaking because it's kind of like cooking," says Linda, who also makes cheese and grows Heirloom tomatoes.
The Kidders are still involved in LAVA and manage all the "computer stuff" for the California State Fair Commercial and Amateur Wine Competitions, and the Consumer Wine Awards at Lodi, while perfecting a blend of 2009 Sangiovese, Cab, Merlot, and Petite Sirah for the tasting room with the working title "Super Quartet," as well as a 2008 Tempranillo and Graciano/Tempranillo blend.
When will they open? "We've been saying Spring," which, Linda quickly pointed out, ends June 19th.