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Spenker Winery finds new ground in Lodi wine scene

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Posted: Friday, December 20, 2013 7:37 am

On Saturday, a troop of volunteers staffed an assembly line in the winery building. A white plastic tank is slowing draining of Zinfandel wine waiting in barrels since the 2012 harvest.

The flow of wine into bottles began at 10 a.m., with one fan of the winery unloading glass bottles while a young woman tucked them into a four pronged wine bottle filler. Next, they were corked, secured with a snug black foil, and wrapped in custom-printed Spenker Winery labels.

“We like to take the Tom Sawyer approach to winemaking,” said Bettyann Spenker.

This was bottling day for the team at Spenker Winery, a small, family owned venture that seamlessly pairs with their Lodi vineyard. Husband and wife team Chuck and Bettyann have raised their daughters Sarah and Kate Spenker in the business. Today, they both help out as needed to keep the project running in its 20th year.

The couple decided early on that this winery would be a small operation.

“It’s a lifestyle choice, for us. We want to be home to enjoy our calm country life,” she said. “We want to control the winery, so it doesn’t control us.”

On such a small scale, the Spenker family can enjoy the winemaking as an extension of their vineyard, which is the core of their family business.

Chuck Spenker’s grandfather first bought the DeVries Road land in 1902. Over the years, the soil has grown watermelons, tomatoes and hay, and been home to dairy cows. But now, the land is planted with acres of Zinfandel and Petit Syrah grapevines.

Chuck Spenker bought the land from his parents in the early ‘80s and continued the grape-growing trend through the decade. When a friend suggested taking up winemaking, Chuck set up shop in the garage. It was at an annual crush party in the fall that Chuck and Bettyann, a former teacher with a background in botany, met. They later married and began producing wine commercially in 1994.

As one of the first boutique wineries in the Lodi area, Spenker participated in the first collaborative winery open house in 1997, called Vines to Wine. More than 700 people arrived to learn about growing, making and tasting wine while enjoying food and live entertainment.

“It made us feel we had really arrived as an appellation,” she said. “We really could do this, like those other places.”

At first, the wine was all Zinfandel. But then, in 2000, fan leaf virus infected many vines. They were pulled out and replaced with hardier rootstock, and production had to pause completely for three years. During the replanting in 2004, the family added Petit Syrah and Muscat for a new Morning Glory varietal.

Coming back into the flourishing Lodi winery scene in 2006 meant a new opportunity for the Spenkers. Their wine is now all Lodi Rules certified. The rise of local boutique wineries means winemaking supplies are available on a midrange scale, instead of only for hobbyist winemakers or mass producers.

But a major change has arrived in how sales work. When the Spenkers started out, older couples would come in to a tasting room to try wine. If they liked it, they bought a case.

Today, said Bettyann, younger people are coming to wineries for live music and parties, trying the wine and leaving with a bottle. That shift in age has also come with an increased interest in how the grapes and land are managed, making the Lodi Rules sticker all the more desirable.

Enjoying a glass of their own vintage is Bettyann Spenker’s favorite part of the winemaking process. But she is most fascinated with the fermentation process.

“It’s interesting to watch grapes turn into wine, though it’s nerve-wracking, too, to have to worry,” she said.

Chuck Spenker was quick to remind listeners that being a winemaker is a helpful asset to the core grape growing business.

“A lot of winemaking is done in the field,” he said. “If we see something we want to change in the wine, we can do that in the field.”

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