After milking the cows early in the morning on his family’s dairy farm, Vern Vierra would take his horse and disappear into the riparian forest along the Mokelumne River.
There, he would spend the day climbing trees, swimming and fishing and eating fruit straight off the trees before he returned home for his afternoon chores.
Those were great days, Vierra said — care free, natural, idyllic. Though he grew up in Lodi, Vierra lived like his forefathers did in Portugal.
“Portuguese people make all of their own wine and food,” said Vierra, owner/winemaker of St. Jorge Winery in Acampo, named in honor of his ancestors, who emigrated from the island of St. Jorge in the Azores. “I think the first time I ate something from a can, I was 12 or 13 years old. If it wasn’t fresh, we didn’t eat it.”
Over the years, the cow pasture and dairy farm became a walnut orchard and, in 2005, Vierra began planting wine grapes, continuing his family’s winemaking tradition, which dates hundreds of years. Vierra now has 17 acres planted to 12 wine grape varieties and has operated St. Jorge Winery since 2009, holding steadfast to his ancestors’ natural approach to wine and food.
“No concentrate,” Vierra said sternly. “All natural.”
Vierra said he’s happiest driving his tractor in the vineyard, checking on the vines to make sure they’re healthy. The cover crop of vetch, oats and peas growing between rows of Verdelho, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) and the other varieties is tall and blooming.
“This is the first year I did a cover crop,” Vierra said. “It’s almost 4 feet high.”
Vierra said he eventually will disc the cover crop, giving the soil nutrients and a nice texture. Vierra can afford to farm and make wine his way after a successful career as a general contractor. He and his son, John Vierra, a prominent architect, have built several projects in Lodi, including some wineries.
Vern Vierra doesn’t market his production, about 3,500 cases, in stores or shops. He wants his customers to experience his wines at their source.
“If you were at a store picking up a bottle and didn’t know anything about it, you wouldn’t be buying our experience,” said Vierra, whose winery on Bender Road in Acampo resembles a Mediterranean villa right out of central casting. “You’d pick up the wine and like it but not know how it was made and why.”
Recently, Vierra created a memorable experience: My wife and I joined him, along with his intern, Luke Laubaugh, and Eric Donaldson of LVVR Sparkling Cellars for a blending session of Port wine — the magical, ancient, fortified elixir.
The term “Port” isn’t allowed outside Portugal, but Vierra crafts his dessert-style wines using the same method. Vierra crafts a still wine, halts the fermentation at about 11 brix (sugar content) by adding a high-alcohol spirit, in his case brandy, and ages in oak barrels. The brandy kills the active yeast cells before the wine has fermented dry, leaving behind a sweet wine with 18 to 21 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).
“They’re made the traditional way,” Vierra said. Then, Donaldson added, “Nothing has been back-sweetened. This is all-natural sugar from the grapes.”
Ports are beautiful, intense and complex with aromas of figs, dates, plums, black cherries, coffee, spices, flowers, chocolate, oak and, sometimes, citrus. They generally are consumed after a meal and go well with chocolate, cheeses and charcuterie.
We tasted six St. Jorge “Ports”: Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional and Souzão from the 2014 vintage; and Tinta Cão and Touriga Nacional from the 2016 vintage. Our mission was to blend any combination of the six into a “Port” that Vierra would consider adding to his lineup.
“We’re making a lot more Port this year,” Vierra said. “We’re probably up to five barrels of each of the varietals.
“You’re pulling from all kinds of different resources. Out of five different varietals and percentages, you can have a thousand different methods of how to put the blend together. There is no identical formula every year.”
After much trial, the consensus was a blend of 40 percent 2016 Touriga Nacional, 30 percent 2016 Tinta Cão, 15 percent 2014 Souzão, 10 percent 2014 Tinta Roriz and 5 percent 2014 Touriga Nacional. The numbers: 20.16 ABV and 53 grams of residual sugar per liter.
Vierra had us try a different style of Portuguese wine, the 2011 St. Jorge Maria Sweet White Wine ($35), an interesting Madeira made from Verdelho grapes. The wine ages inside oak barrels in the sun for three years or more and is exposed to oxygen, giving it an orange tint. Citrus notes up front lead to nutty flavors on the finish. Vierra’s lineup also includes Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Syrah, Tannat and Portuguese varieties: Verdelho, Souzão, Touriga, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cão and Trincadeira, a blending wine in Portugal. Vierra said he might be the only winemaker in the world crafting a 100 percent Trincadeira. He and Donaldson currently are working on a méthode champenoise Verdelho.
It’s all part of the experience Vierra and his wife, Janise, have created at St. Jorge Winery.
“I want you and my customers to come and buy the experience,” Vern Vierra said. “We provide all of the information, along with the wine and we put a lot of effort into it.”
Contact Bob Highfill, marketing and communications manager with the Lodi Winegrape Commission at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bobhighfill and Lodi_Wine.