A family affair | AspenTimes.com

A family affair

With all the hype and noise and money that surround the world of wine, it’s sometimes easy to forget that at the heart of every bottle is a vineyard.

That’s not a problem, however, for the people who make the wines with the amusing moniker of Klinker Brick. You see, Steve and Lori Felton, the husband and wife proprietors of the Lodi, Calif.,-based Klinker Brick Winery, have been in the grape-growing business all of their lives. In fact, they grew up in families that have been growing grapes in the region for five, that’s right, five generations.

Klinker Brick Winery markets three wines. The only one I have tasted is the Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel that sells for around $17 a bottle. It is a ripe, fruity, quaffable wine with a bit of spice and green pepper and a finish that ends better than its price would indicate.

They also make a single vineyard zinfandel from their finest vineyard that they call The Old Ghost Zinfandel, which sells for around $37 a bottle. And most recently they have been marketing a syrah named Farrah after their daughter, who is planning on going into the business (making it six generations) after she graduates from college.

The Feltons currently own and manage 15 separate vineyards of zinfandel grapes in the fertile north end of the San Joaquin Valley. Around the turn of the century (the last century) immigrants from Germany, Italy and Russia populated the area and began growing grapes. Zinfandel, tokay, carignane and alicante were among the imported varietals planted. For decades these grapes were sold to bulk winemakers like Gallo and cooperatives who would buy the harvests, blend them with other grapes from other places and make low-quality, high-quantity wines.

Then, one day in 1996, the world changed. Gallo showed up at the Feltons door and said “the contracts are up and we don’t need your grapes anymore.” What to do? The Feltons decided to start making wine. After all, zinfandel was gaining popularity as a varietal here in America, and they had vineyards with zinfandel vines that were nearing 100 years old. After producing and selling wines for the next four years to Rosenblum and Ravenswood, both reputable marketers of zinfandel, they decided they could market their wines themselves.

The first order of business was a name. The farmhouses on the property where the Feltons lived were made of brick. Many of the bricks were called Klinker Bricks. Favored for their unusual shapes, bright-red profiles and dense composition by Craftsman-style builders, these bricks made a distinct “Clink” when banged together. Lori Felton suggested they name the winery after the bricks. The name stuck. Now, just eight years later, the family is not just in the growing business, they are in the wine business.

“It’s a lot easier just growing grapes,” Steve Felton chuckled when asked how his life had changed since Klinker Brick began selling wine. “The wine business is 24/7. There is not a weekend where you are not out selling, tasting, promoting your wine. I meet lots of great folks and we love it, but it is a lot of hard work.”

Lodi is a region that has a unique climate for growing grapes. The summer days average 87-88 degrees, but each evening a wind blows off the river delta and cools the vines. The growing season can be extremely long as well. The 2005 Old Ghost Zinfandel, for example, was not harvested until Oct. 20 of that year, weeks after coastal harvests had been put to bed.

Felton uses 100 percent American oak on his wines. “We’ve tried different things, a little French oak, different combinations of things but we keep coming back to American oak,” he says. “It just seems to give us a little softer tannins, a little smoother finish.”

In a day and age when so many wines are the products of investors who just want to dabble in the world of wine, it is a pleasure to buy and drink the wines of someone who came to the business because it is literally in their blood. I like the Klinker Brick wine I’ve tried, and I look forward to tasting those I haven’t.

After all, wine is about the grapes, and if there is anything the Feltons know, it’s grapes.

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