A Wine Renaissance. That’s what San Diegans are calling it. A new and innovative approach is breathing new life in the local wine industry and it’s brought to the community as LJ Crafted Wines. Located in the seaside neighborhood community of Bird Rock in La Jolla, this urban winery only two blocks from the ocean is serving wines directly from the barrel. And their customers couldn’t be happier.
The winery is owned and operated by Lowell Jooste, who came to the U.S. from Cape Town, South Africa in 2012 after 25 years managing his family’s vineyard and establishing another there. His connection with La Jolla started many years ago because of a longstanding family friendship forged between his grandfather and Tom Jackson, a La Jolla native, both fighter pilots during World War I. Lowell not only visited La Jolla several times prior to his move here, he also connected with Tom Jackson’s grandson while a visiting student in viticulture & winemaking at UC Davis in the late 80s and working for Robert Mondavi Winery.
In 2016, Lowell opened LJ Crafted Wines, named for his initials and coincidentally the initials for La Jolla. It seems almost prophetic. With his connection to Napa Valley, he knew sourcing grapes from Napa, Sonoma and Russian River would be crucial in developing the very best wines. As Lowell passionately states “your wine can’t be better than your grapes.”
This connection also gives Jooste access to the wine industry’s cutting edge technology and leading Napa Valley experts, like winemaker Alison Green-Doran, who has over 40 years’ experience and is one of California’s first female winemakers. Alison is LJ’s winemaker, skillfully managing the fermentation and crafting the perfect wine. When barrels are properly aged and ready to be tapped, they are shipped to La Jolla.
This is where the fun begins for LJ Crafted Wine’s customers. Outdoor and indoor tables are buzzing with wine lovers who come to taste and savor the award-winning “barrel to growler wines” in this warm, friendly neighborhood atmosphere. Local artist’s works are displayed on wine bar walls beautifully crafted from the staves and bands of LJ’s wine barrels destroyed in the 2014 Napa earthquake. Even the metal hoops corkscrewing artistically around the winery’s lights were creatively fashioned from the bands of these broken recycled barrels.
Patrons can sit at outdoor tables, wine-barreled indoor tables or at the wine bar itself. Wines consumed at the bar can be purchased by the bottle or glass. And those by the glass come directly from wine barrels.
Aside from being an eco-friendly way to drink wine, serving directly from the barrel makes for a better taste. Commercial practices typically require the addition of standard preservatives and filtration to the final product before the wine is bottled, often reducing the true character of the wine and the taste. LJ developed a process by which a patent-pending displacement device, called a wine steward charges barreled wines with inert gas at low positive pressure to create an oxygen-free environment for the wines. This preserves the delicate complexity of the wine. And the end result is incredible tasting wine of the highest quality!
Twelve barrels located behind the bar contain wines of red and white varietals. Five of these won gold and silver awards at the 2017 Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition. And it’s not hard to see why. Without a doubt, the 2015 Pinot Noir from the Patient Terrier Vineyard in Russian River Valley was hands down the best Pinot we’ve ever tasted. It’s deep flavored with earthy notes of cranberry and tart cherry and hints of light rose petal. This excellent wine literally bursts with rich, complex flavors and just won its second gold.
The 2015 Zinfandel from Windy Flat’s Vineyard in Napa Valley, another gold winner, boasts flavors of big cocoa and raspberry vanilla cream with toasted Hawaiian bread, and the sinful Zin finishes magnificently in bold cherry and plum with gentle tannins.Both wines paired perfectly with the superb locally made small batch Cheese and Charcuterie Board accompanied by artisan breads. An Old Calplans Vineyard full-bodied Chardonnay from Russian River Valley released delectable flavors of lemon, caramel and vanilla so good it was hard to drink it slow. Literally every wine we tasted was of such top-notch caliber we wanted to take home at least one bottle of each and come back for more.
LJ Crafted Wines offers a seasonal menu of salads and small-plates designed to complement their wines. Most unique for LJ’s Wine Club, however, is the “growler” program. Well-known in the craft-beer industry, these reusable clear glass containers designed with the LJ symbol are extremely popular. Wine is purchased by club members in these growlers for off-premise consumption and returned and sanitized for refilling from the wines barrels each month. 95% of LJ’s wine sales are through growler refills, and growler bottles hold about one-third more wine than a regular bottle. The customers love them and were lining up for their end-of-the-month pour from the winemaker “selection of the month.”
For Lowell, the success of his urban winery convinces him more than ever than the move here in 2012 with his wife Anne and four children was the perfect choice. His family’s legacy of producing and sharing fine wines continues in his new home. He loves the community and by the look of things, the community loves him as well.
After a fun, informative afternoon of wine tasting, it couldn’t have been a more perfect end to the day than to walk two short blocks to the ocean to catch a stunning Pacific sunset over the La Jolla horizon. Galileo once said “Wine is sunset held together by water.” We’ll join LJ Crafted Wines in a toast to that!