The Mettler family is steeped in wine grape production growing high quality fruit for more than a century in vineyards located at Lodi, Calif. Descendants have nurtured berries with smart farming practices over the generations to yield great award-winning wines.
The family purchased the property in 1900, built the home in 1903, and planted the first vines in 1907. Kathy Mettler, the family’s fourth generation grape grower and today’s family matriarch, lives in the same farmhouse today.
Over the years, the Mettlers have also grown tomatoes, alfalfa, watermelon, and sweet corn, yet grapes have always been their favored farming passion.
Today, the family grows about 570 acres of grapes in a five-mile radius. Varietals include reds including Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Merlot, Tempranillo, Cabernet, and Alicante Bouschet. About half of the farm acreage is in Zinfandel, predominantly older Zinfandel vines.
White varietals include Albariño and Chardonnay.
Kathy’s daughter, Jorja – the family’s fifth generation grower - married her high school sweetheart Kyle Lerner about 25 years ago. When Kathy’s husband George passed away three years ago, Kyle assumed the vineyard manager reins. George and Kyle worked together for 15 years as the family elder shared his wine grape craft with his family’s future through Kyle.
“My father-in-law had a lot of background and knowledge about farming. He was my mentor and I was a sponge,” Lerner reflects. “He always knew the potential of our grape crop. It was evident by the buyers who sought to buy our grapes. These vineyards were my father-in-law’s office.”
Kyle loves agriculture. “It’s very intoxicating seeing what farmers do. There’s a lot of hard work behind it. You must have the stamina, the tenacity, and the willingness to gamble out here. Farming is ‘high stakes gambling with crops.’”
Leap of faith
In the early 2000s, Kyle and Jorja considered a new direction for the operation to take it to the next level. Kyle had a business degree from Fresno State so he and Jorja researched adding a winery and tasting room to the operation.
“It was a huge leap of faith,” Lerner says. “Jorja and I spent almost a year immersing ourselves into this side of the business. We dug deep into the financial side and what it would really take to vertically integrate and move the operation forward.”
Their homework included taking courses at Sonoma State University and the University of California, Davis. They crunched the numbers, and in the end convinced their banker to sign the note. The roar of construction equipment began.
The winery’s first vintage was pressed in 2006 filling 700 cases. Once the tasting room doors opened to the John Q. Public in 2008, the Great Recession reared its ugly head. Despite the economic turndown, the family stuck to their guns. Today, both facilities are financially viable creating a good revenue stream.
“I was excited to diversify and move us into new areas which created stability with our income flow,” Lerner said.
The excitement was also quite a challenge.
“I equate this business adventure to having your first child,” says Lerner. “You don’t really know what you are getting into until the first night after the child arrives. You’re looking at this beautiful baby – the baby cries and you have no idea what to do.”
Jorja and Kyle have two children – Kristen, now 17, and Ian, 15.
92 percent of the family’s grape production is sold to leading wineries in growing regions across the Golden State, including Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Barbara counties. The remaining 8 percent are crushed into family wines.
Overall, grapes from the Lodi appellation are quickly gaining respect in grape-growing circles, a viewpoint highlighted during a “State of the Industry” speech by Allied Grape Growers President Nat DiBuduo during this year’s United Wine & Grape Symposium held in Sacramento.
Traditionally, Lodi grape quality has been lumped with Central Valley-grown grapes with fruit typically used for blending. Lerner believes Lodi-area grapes are a higher quality, due in part to cool air breezes from the San Francisco Bay and the Delta. He says this influence disappears about 30 miles to the north and south of Lodi.
Lerner contends, “The fruit grown in Lodi stands up to any grown anywhere else in California.”
Price points for Harney Lane wines range from $18 to $50 – from a dry rose at the lower end to a proprietary blend at the high end. The average price point is about $30.
Harney Lane’s ‘Lizzy James Old Vine Zinfandel’ and other wines have fared well in wine competitions, including at least one gold medal over each of the last eight years in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
On the grape production side, pest and disease issues at Harney Lane Vineyards include typical mildew issues and several minor pests including leafhoppers and mites. The vine mealybug is gaining ground in the region.
Lerner’s response to pest challenges is integrated pest management-based, a mixture of natural predators and selective chemistry to keep pests in check.
On the rootstock side, he’s a major advocate for Kobert 5BB rootstock used in Harney Lane’s newer plantings.
“It grows about three-quarters of the speed of the Freedom rootstock. I love 5BB rootstock in these well drained sandy soils. It’s very manageable with great drought tolerance found in the Freedom and St. George rootstocks.”
Lerner’s varieties on 5BB include Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, and Alicante Bouschet.
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Harney Lane’s water source is 95 percent groundwater with the 5 percent surface water from the Woodbridge Irrigation District and the North San Joaquin Water District.
Lerner is the past president of the Lodi Grape Growers Association, and served on the Lodi Winegrape Commission board.