Empire Of The Ladybugs

\"lolonislarge.jpg\"In 1920, Greek immigrants Tryfon and Eugenia Lolonis established their family vineyards in California’s Redwood Valley. Their son, Nick, converted to organic farming in the 1950s, releasing ladybugs into the vineyards instead of chemicals; this “beneficial predator” is now the Lolonis symbol. After over 60 years of selling their grapes, the family established Lolonis Winery in 1982 – the first Greek family name on an American wine label. OWJ spoke with third generation Phillip Lolonis, who is vice president and general manager of the winery.

How does your Greek heritage influence your winemaking?

My grandparents came over in the early 1900s. They had an arranged marriage and raised 10 kids. Our family still has land in Greece, which my uncle runs. They’ve had it for a few hundred years and always farmed it organically. Even today, my uncle ploughs with a mule. He’s in such a remote region of Greece that he doesn’t even use a car or tractor. In fact, his kids in Athens wanted to get him a car and he said “no.” He’s old school, but he’s 77 and in really great shape.

Sounds like the true organic lifestyle.

They don’t know it’s “organic”; that’s just the way they do it. It gets cold during the winter, so you have less pest and disease pressure, that can be easily controlled with the services of pest control des moines. And, as opposed to the United States where there’s monoculture, they have vineyards, olive trees, a little bit of everything. It’s a balanced ecosystem.

And here, in Redwood Valley, there’s a lot less pest and disease pressure than in Napa and Sonoma. It makes it a little easier to grow grapes without the use of pesticides. You drive into Napa or Sonoma today and you only see vineyards. All the natural vegetation has been knocked out.

Where we are, it’s more like Napa was 40 years ago. It’s a very diverse area. It’s vineyards along with all different types of vegetation and foliage.

We have zinfandel vines that are 50 years old. Back then we didn’t have irrigation, so the root systems go 15 to 20 feet down and they really work hard, so you get more pest and disease resistance. Young vines have drip irrigation; the roots go down a little bit, then they go right back up to where the emitter is. So they’re being fed constantly and, you know, they can just have a good time. But if there were strong pest or disease pressure, they’d be the first to succumb.

There are no traffic lights in Redwood Valley, only stop signs. We’re a lot farther north. Most of our growers are between 60 and 90 years old. The average vine age is right around 40, which is pretty old. So it’s a real diamond in the rough.

Has the winery always been organic?

In the beginning we farmed without pesticides. As World War II came in, so did the chemicals; with promises you could get higher tonnage and all that kind of stuff. We were a part of those who threw it on there to see what would happen. Then in the 1950s, my uncle got his master’s from UC Davis in viticulture and oenology. He brought back ideas about farming organically, so they returned to that tradition.

The WWII generation in Redwood Valley doesn’t use pesticides because they don’t have to. The pest and disease pressure is not too bad and it doesn’t cost any money. Their whole thing is survival. The other generation that’s here, who I call the “hippie” generation, is growing organically because it’s an ideal; it’s what they really value and believe in. They can be very aggressive about it. Redwood Valley has the most per capita organically farmed vineyards in the United States.

Then there’s my generation, which there isn’t a lot of in Redwood Valley. The selling price of grapes from here is half that of Napa, and it gets expensive to keep farming. You have all this land that your family’s had for 50 years or longer; you can sell it for a couple million, and don’t have to be on a tractor anymore. A lot of families have left over the last 10 to 15 years.

What keeps you there, and keeps you farming organically?

If you grow organically and get certified, can you get more money for your grapes? The answer is no. That’s the biggest thing right there; the bottom line, the cash flow. These old guys still farm organically, but they’re not going to get certified because it costs money.

My family has done it, and it’s good marketing because we’re a winery. From a grower’s perspective, I wouldn’t get certified because I can’t sell my grapes for more money. People will pay a lot more money for organic food, but that doesn’t seem to transfer to organic wine.

The bottom line for us is that it’s the way we’ve always done it, and I don’t need to use pesticides, so why bother? If I use pesticides will I get more money for my grapes? No. If I farm organically? No. So why not be stewards of the land? Besides, it’s not even really my property. It’s my family’s. We have all this rich heritage in Redwood Valley. There’s a tradition here.

What are your current goals with the winery?

My main focus is to get Redwood Valley in the limelight. To be known for making exceptional wines; great quality, price, and a lot of heritage. The way it was back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. We want a little more tourism, but most likely there’ll never be another Napa again.

There’s also my uncle, plowing away with a mule in Arcadia. And he’s stronger than guys in their 40s. So we want to bring back those wonderful old-school ways that we have from Greece, and combine them with what we’ve learned here in the United States.

If you’re small and family owned, you really can’t make any mistakes. You have to come out with something exceptional. Especially in Redwood Valley, because we’re the underdogs. We lack the tourism coming into Napa and Sonoma. If we were located on Highway 29 in Napa, there’s only one wine I would distribute nationally; our Ladybug Red. Everything else we could easily sell out of the winery.

But that’s not the case, so our distribution system at Lolonis is more like that of a much bigger winery. That’s why my mom is in New York now, last week I was in Texas, and I’m going to Oregon next week. That’s just how it goes.

I’d like a bit more recognition. My growers would tell you point blank they want more money for their grapes. Well, that’s great, but you’ve got to build something like Robert Mondavi did. That’s a mentor who I look at. There were no wineries on Highway 29, or anywhere in Napa, that were built between Prohibition and when he opened his place in 1966. He had his kids out there with signs saying “Come in and taste.” Now they’re almost putting their hands up saying, “OK, we have plenty of people, thank you.”

Would you want to as big as Mondavi is now?

Even if I wanted to be, which I don’t, it’s impossible. You don’t see too many of those things happening again. But, you never know. If we ever did, it will be Ladybug Red. Either the marketplace will say, “There’s enough, it’s saturated,” which I don’t think is going to happen, or we’re going to run out of grapes first.

It could get up to 50,000 cases or so, which is really strong, but the best part about it is the consistency and authenticity. The other winery I know that does 50,000 cases of an incredible zinfandel is Seghesio. It’s all the old vine stuff and they own most the land.

The Seghesios came over in the late 1800s, had an arranged marriage, similar to us, and they’re in Sonoma. Right now they’re making incredible wine, and that’s where we need to go. Making these wines consistently, showing the value, and then it’ll happen. It’s already starting to happen. But, because of our location, we’re always going to be the underdog, which I don’t mind.

I push value, because that’s what people want right now. On all price points we’re at value. Our Petite Syrah, which is very highly rated, is $30, and the equivalent ones in Napa and Sonoma are somewhere between $50 and $60 a bottle. Right there, even in our highest end, we’re showing value. And we’re also authentic and organic. Put that package together and hopefully that equals success.

Learn more about Lolonis Winery at www.lolonis.com.


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