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Helen and Dave Dart fuse business savvy with artistic inspiration

Lodi family drawn to atmosphere of living and working at a winery

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Posted: Friday, November 8, 2013 8:13 am

On a few shady acres south of Harney Lane, a tall cheerful man and his wife run a small, boutique winery just a few hundred feet from their own front door. Outside the tasting room door, a few white buckets hold individual vines ripped from the earth to make room for new plantings in the field. And a black and white dog named Abby greets visitors with a stick or two in her mouth.

Helen and Dave Dart run d’Art Winery, crafting easy-to-drink reds and blends on land that is their home, the work, and the soil that grows their grapes.

The Dart family moved to Lodi in 2004 with the dream of opening a casual boutique winery. There was no long family history of working the land, or a winemaking tradition passed on by grandfathers. Instead, Dave and Helen Dart were enthralled with the atmosphere of a winery when they visited Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards in Fair Play. The winery was holding a “bottle your own wine” event, and the couple loved the open and welcoming feel of the location.

“It looked like a good gig to get into,” said Dave Dart.

They had been home winemakers for several years, making a few dozen bottles a season in the garage. In 2006, the tasting room opened and the first d’Art vintage was released.

While only cabernet sauvignon grapes grow around the Harney Lane homestead, the rest of the grapes that go into the couple’s robust red wines are all locally sourced.

“We enjoy the big red wines, not always the fruit forward styles,” said Helen Dart. “But our wines are very balanced.”

Their best seller is called Dog Day Red, a blend of several red varietals with 25 percent port mixed in. It’s named in honor of the family dog, Maggie, who passed away a few months ago.

“We like to say that pure mutts make the best dogs, and blends make the best wines,” said Helen Dart.

Daughter Jessica Dart is the chemistry wizard in charge of fermentation and winemaking, while Dave Dart manages blending and bottling.

Jessica Dart earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Sacramento State University after spending a few summers and school breaks working for her parents. It was the exposure to winemaking that gave her school career a direction.

“There’s a lot of hurry up and wait,” said Jessica Dart. “It encourages patience, and it’s meditative. There’s something good about the solitary work.”

Before taking on the winemaker title, Dave Dart was a printer by trade. He still uses those skills when crafting his digital art that blurs the line between photography and painting with software. On travels with his wife to Europe, Nicaragua, and Hawaii, Dave Dart snaps photos on his iPhone. At home, he picks his favorites and softens the image with a paint tool in Photoshop. The resulting pictures end up on the wine bottle labels or printed and hung in the small tasting room gallery.

The wines (and paintings) are sold almost exclusively through the tasting room, though some local restaurants do carry them. That includes Pietro’s, Townhouse, and Crush.

“Our intention is to stay here at the winery, not to keep growing,” said Dave Dart.

Helen Dart is enraptured with the poetic journey the fruit takes from bud

to glass, and her winery’s momentary role in it.

“From bud break to flower to fruit, and growing all summer. Then harvest, to bottle to the glass,” she said. “It’s fulfilling to see it all the way through.”

The day of harvest is hard to watch, however. To see the vines stripped down after following the fruits’ progress for months is jarring.

“It’s all just gone. I know it’s going into wine, but still,” she said.

One event at d’Art follows the same tradition of the winery that brought the Dart family into winemaking. Twice a year, they open their winemaking room and allow the public to bottle their own wine. Some make it an annual visit, and bottle up cases of wine as Christmas gifts. Others make just one or two bottles for the novelty. Each comes with a label the bottler can sign and date.

“That’s why we wanted to do all this. To bring that experience to Lodi,” said Dave Dart.

The couple said there is no better place they could have chosen to open and run their boutique winery.

“Lodi is just on fire right now,” he said. “There is a boom; people are learning about this place and coming here looking for quality wines. It took the boutique wineries to be able to do that.”

Contact Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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