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Oak Ridge Winery blends history and innovation

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Posted: Monday, November 13, 2017 9:00 am

Anyone heading east out of Lodi on Highway 12 has seen Oak Ridge Winery, but unless they stop, they’re missing out on a hidden treasure.

Lodi’s oldest operating winery looks small from the highway, but those who stop to visit the unique tasting room — formerly a 50,000-gallon redwood tank — may find that Oak Ridge is more than it appears.

“It’s amazing how many people go through that thing daily,” co-owner Rudy Maggio said of the barrel-shaped tasting room.

Half a dozen wine enthusiasts fit comfortably at the counter with room to spare on Thursday afternoon. The tasting room, called “Das Weinhaus” by earlier owners of the winery, was used for wine storage by various local wineries until around 1965, when it was purchased and turned into a tasting room at the current Oak Ridge site.

Oak Ridge Winery itself goes back to 1934, when it was known as the East-Side Winery. Back then, Prohibition had just ended, and Lodi-area grape growers were eager to get back to making wine.

A cooperative group of 130 different growers purchased the space to crush all of their grapes.

By 1977, East-Side Winery was one of the top employers in the wine business in Lodi, and one of the only remaining wine cooperatives in the state. It was crushing 30,000 tons of grapes each year and bottling Reisling and Cabernet, and brandy and dessert wines under the Royal Host, Conte Rotayale, Gold Bell and Mission Hosts labels.

But by the early 2000s, business had declined from the winery’s heyday.

“It was an old winery, outdated,” said Maggio, whose own family has deep roots in the area. A grape grower, Maggio is the third generation of his family to live in Lodi. His grandparents, immigrants from Italy, settled in the Lodi area in the 1920s.

Maggio partnered with friends Robert and Don Reynolds — another old Lodi family — and the trio purchased the East-Side Winery, renamed it Oak Ridge, and got to work.

“We basically built a new winery around the old winery,” Maggio said.

Head out of the tasting room and back into the winery, and a tank farm rises out of the ground. The tall towers store 67,000 gallons or 99,000 gallons of wine each, and there are dozens. The largest holds 227,000 gallons, said Chue Her, the winery’s director of winemaking and bulk sales.

Each of the tanks is insulated and refrigerated.

“They keep the wine cold year-round,” he said.

Machinery near the tanks helps separate the grapes from their leaves and stems. The detritus is returned to the vineyards and worked into the soil, while the grapes are crushed.

The machinery was working but there were no other grapes to be seen on Thursday.

“These will be the last round, because we stopped harvesting yesterday,” Her explained.

The fermentation room blends history and modernity. Rather than remove the old concrete fermenters — used to ferment wine beginning in the 1940s — the Oak Ridge team opted to line them with stainless steel.

“There’s a lot of history still here, and there’s a lot of new stuff here,” Maggio said.

Sturdy wooden catwalks let winery staff travel between the tanks and make sure things are operating smoothly, but the tanks themselves need little help. A pump pulls wine from the bottom of each open tank and sprays it back into the top, to keep the liquid from separating.

In other buildings, warehouses hold cases of wine ready to ship to Canada, China and Japan. Oak Ridge wines are popular domestically, and most of those shipments are packed and sent from a distribution center in Stockton.

The international exports require following much stricter rules, however, so they team prefers to handle it at their Lodi operation, Her said.

A large, open warehouse holds the state-of-the-art bottling apparatus, a high-tech set-up that takes empty bottles, fills them and packs them with little human interaction needed. The brand new bottling line, installed a year ago, sees about 230 bottles per minute, Monday through Thursday.

Among Oak Ridge Winery’s most popular wines are its Zinfandels, unsurprising for the local area.

“Lodi’s a Zinfandel area,” Maggio said.

Some of their Zins are among the top in the state, he said with a note of pride.

Labels include OZV, featuring Zins made with grapes from 50- to 100-year-old vines; Old Soul, which expands into Cabernet, Zinfandel and Chardonnay made from old vines and their descendants; 3 Girls, inspired by the new generation of owners’ daughters; Silk Oak, with a focus on balanced, rich wines; the Maggio and Oak Ridge labels, and others.

The wines and Oak Ridge Winery have racked up a long list of awards from the Berlin International Wine Competition, New York International Wine Competition, San Francisco Chronicle, California State Fair, Pacific Rim International Wine Competition, California Zinfandel Championship and many more.

Don and Robert Reynolds are gone now, and Maggio co-owns the winery with their family.

“They were both good guys, and we had a lot of fun putting this together,” he said.

Maggio is leaving more of the daily operations to Her, his daughters Lisa, Shelly and Raquel, general manager Marc Lohnes and others who have been with the winery for years.

“I have the fourth and fifth generation involved,” he said.

Taking Oak Ridge from a run-down winery to a top-of-the-line operation has been a challenge, but it’s been well worth it, and Maggio is confident he has helped to build a team that will have Oak Ridge making history for years to come.

“It’s been quite an experience, going from a wine grape grower to operating a winery,” he said.

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