Flavors: 25th MSU Billings Wine And Food Festival Winemasters K.R. Rombauer and Steve Lohr

Oct 18, 2017

Winemasters Symposium with Steve Lohr and K. R. Rombauer.
Credit Stella Fong

As I write this post for the next Flavors Under the Big Sky, I send strength and hope to those in California, especially in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, and Lake Counties. Mother Nature has not been kind, but I know the human spirit perseveres. May time heal all the damage that has been done. May Mother Nature grant a reprieve for repair and renewal.

Back in May, the 25th MSU Billings Foundation Wine and Food Festival featured K.R. Rombauer from Rombauer Vineyards and Steve Lohr of J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines. They both came into the studio and shared their backgrounds, the wine philosophy of their companies and provided some thoughts on sustainable grape growing and producing wine. We found out who mentored them and what they drink when they are off duty, but more importantly, they offered hints on enjoying wine.

: K.R. Rombauer of Rombauer Vineyards.
Credit Stella Fong

Both Steve Lohr and K.R. Rombauer come from well-established and respected wine making families. Their wineries set the path for many to follow. Both Lohr and Rombauer worked in business from childhood. Lohr said, “I helped Dad plant our first vineyards when I was 10 years old and basically every other weekend through junior high school and high school. We would go down and I would hop on the tractor and go down the rows and get a real feel for what it takes to grow grapes.”

KR’s full name, Koerner “KR” Rombauer III, indicates heritage and history. For K.R. Rombauer, “It seemed like a lot of fun to help your parents and shadow them.” He helped his family plant their vineyard at age 10. Early on, Rombauer’s family had a stake in Conn Creek Winery.  Just his presence in Napa allowed him to be in constant contact with grape growers, vitners and wine makers Then after the Rombauers sold their partnership with Conn Creek, they established their own winery in 1980.

Rombauer Vineyards focuses on five grape varietals: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery focuses on “purity of product and artistry and craftsmanship,” he shared, “We are very suited to the varietals we produce.” Rombauer’s grapes are grown in Napa County, the Sierra Foothills and in El Dorado County and Sonoma County in the Carneros region.

Steve Lohr of J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines.
Credit Stella Fong

The overall production for J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines is over 1.6 million cases a year. Steve Lohr’s father, Jerry was one of the early pioneers who planted grapes in the Central Coast in Monterey and Paso Robles. With vineyards in Arroyo Seco, Santa Lucia Highlands, Paso Robles and Napa Valley appellations, Lohr said, “We concentrate on growing the grapes where they do best. That has led to 35 different wines we make at different tiers.” J. Lohr makes wine ranging from $10 to $100 with most pricing around $15 to $20. Back in 1984, the winery developed a business relationship with Hyatt Hotels who wanted a dealcoholized wine. From this venture, ARIEL wines came to be in two selections: Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.   

After 5 years of drought, Lohr and Rombauer talked of what they were doing to conserve water in the growing of their grapes and wine production. Lohr explained the technology of using a pressure bomb to measure water status in the vineyards.  “What we really need to know is how much water is in the vines,” Lohr said. The amount pressure required to pump up the stem provides information on how much irrigation is needed. The knowledge of the hydration of the plant allows for optimal watering.

At Rombauer Vineyards, Rombauer shared how their winery is practicing saving water. “There’s a lot of technology and there’s a lot of old farmer craftsmanship available to us which allows us to be very aware of how we use water. The drip systems we always use in our vineyards are very specific and precise.” He continued, “Six or seven gallons of water was needed to make one gallon of wine. We are getting that down to ultimately one gallon of water.” To conserve, Rombauer emphasized, “It’s about caring and being aware and making sure we are really careful.”

When asked who mentored them in the wine world, Rombauer’s responded with Justin Meyer, the co-founder of Silver Oak Cellars, one of Napa Valley’s most successful producers of Cabernet Sauvignon. Lohr lauded his father Jerry who he credited for making significant contributions to the wine industry.

In response to who taught them to love food, Lohr credited his mother who “did not cook fancy but cooked cleanly.” Rombauer was inspired by his great aunt, Marion Rombauer who wrote The Joy of Cooking and his wife, Laura who he said “is an incredible cook and could be a chef and puts out lovely food.”

Finally, when asked what their advice was for those who drink wine, Rombauer suggested, “Don’t make It more complicated and have fun with it.” “Just relax, it is not rocket science,” Lohr advised. “When drinking, throw the rules out the window.”

Lohr and Rombauer both left behind wine knowledge and sage advice on enjoying wine. They both should know as their families have been trailblazers in the industry.