No Winery Before Its Time

No Winery Before Its Time

Oenophiles, rejoice! Pasadena has its own winery in Old Oak Cellars.

By Scarlet Cheng 01/03/2014

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Pasadena’s Old Oak Cellars may be a young winery, just celebrating its first anniversary in its first permanent home, but winemakers Paul Overholt and Dave Lustig each already have a couple decades of experience in the field. You can taste that expertise in the buttery Chardonnay and smooth Merlot they produce. These are not upstart wines, trying to knock you out with a one-two punch on the first sip; rather, they build on the tongue and leave a beautiful finish.

What, a winery in Pasadena, an area not known for vineyards? Old Oak’s grapes are from Northern California, mainly the famous Alexander Valley through which the Russian River flows. It’s an area known worldwide for its Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and Zinfandels — all of which Old Oak produces.

For President and Chief Winemaker Paul Overholt, the story began in 1991, when his stepfather retired and bought a vineyard in the Alexander Valley — and yes, there is an old oak on the property, now six feet in diameter, which graces the label of Old Oak wines. For many years, while Overholt’s stepfather sold his grapes to others, Overholt thought they ought to be producing their own wines from those grapes. So in 2007 he enrolled in UC Davis’ Oenology and Viticulture Certification program — a demanding two-year degree requiring 185 hours of coursework. “You do viticulture,” he says, standing in Old Oak’s tasting room and facilities in an unassuming warehouse on Foothill Boulevard. “You have to learn how to grow the grapes, how to handle the grapes; then after that you go into the actual production of wine. Are the grapes sweet enough? Do they have enough acid? Are they firm enough?”

Around him are rows of oak barrels stacked two high. Some are made of French oak and some American; each container will yield 25 cases of wine. Farther down are five very large, stainless-steel tanks, each holding 4,000 liters of various red wine varietals, which have been trucked from Sonoma to Pasadena, where it is aged and blended. The blending of each wine is a group effort, although Lustig and Overholt are the final arbiters. They may use oak and steel tanks for the same wines — sometimes storing wine in one, then the other and then back again — to achieve the taste they want. Vice President and Winemaker Lustig points out that their Chardonnay does not go through the oak barrels at all. “I’m not a big fan of a lot of oak,” he says.The whites are vinted and bottled up north.

A tall, barrel-chested man with a full beard, Overholt speaks with some passion as he talks about his craft. He sings the praises of California geography for producing a climate so suitable for wine, with warm days, cool nights and relative freedom from severe storms. (He points out that Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on East Coast vineyards.) “This year was a dry year relative to last year,” he says, “and what happened was that the temperature went up quickly, stayed dry and stayed warm, so the vines produced excellent grapes. We had 25 to 26 percent sugar and 3.4 PH, which is the perfect [slightly acidic] PH for winemaking.” (Wine grapes are quite high in sugar content — in comparison, the table grapes one buys at the grocery store are about 17 percent sugar.) “California produces 90 percent of American wines,” he says. “We’re the fourth-largest wine-producing zone in the world. You have France, Italy and Spain — and then you have California,” which also ranks first in U.S. wine consumption.

When Overholt finished his UC Davis course, he sought out Lustig, whom he knew to be a veteran winemaker, to join him in his new enterprise as business partner and co-winemaker. Thus, in 2009, Old Oak Cellars was born, with a focus on grapes from Sonoma County. They got a start with a gift of three tons of grapes from Linde Vineyards, owned by Overholt’s stepfather and mother, Greg and Sylvia Linde. “We picked it ourselves,” Stanislava Overholt, Paul’s wife, recalls. “We had friends help us, around 15 people — we got up at the crack of dawn to do this.”

“I got my degree just before we harvested,” Paul says with a laugh.

That resulted in their first vintage, a 2009 Merlot. It won a prize right out of the gate, a bronze at the Los Angeles International Wine Festival in 2011. Last year Old Oak enjoyed a major victory at the Pacific Rim Competition (where the judges included noted wine expert Wilfred Wong of BevMo!) when four bottles submitted won prizes. The winery scored one gold (for the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc) and three silvers (2012 Chardonnay, 2010 Merlot, 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon). “We were very happy,” says Overholt. “It validated our production technique.”

Lustig was introduced to fine wines through his sister. “My sister is a chef who worked for a very high-end restaurant in Mammoth,” he says. “I used to go with her to Napa for tastings and food pairings with wine. I found out that people make wine in their garage, and I have a garage…” He started making his own wine in the early 1990s and produced his first batch in 1992 — mostly whites, which are a little easier to produce for the home vintner, since less refrigeration and aging are required.   

Of course, finding the right grapes was key. Both men visit Sonoma regularly, especially during the harvest. What do they look for? “Quality of fruit, friendliness of the owners,” Lustig says. Since Old Oak is a relatively small company, they have to find vineyards willing to sell relatively small quantities.  He adds, “I’m also growing grapes in my backyard, mostly Grenache.”

Old Oak wines were initially produced in Sonoma. Last year Overholt and Lustig, both longtime Pasadena residents, established premises here to make and sell wine. They celebrated their first anniversary in permanent digs in December with a party for 75 friends, family members and customers. There was wine and food and music — and lots of cases moving out the door. Helping out were Stanislava Overholt and Nancy Scott, Lustig’s wife, as well as Lustig’s daughter, Alegra, who was ringing up the credit card sales and issuing receipts on her smartphone. It’s a family affair, but also a thriving business: they produce a modest 3,000 cases per year — prices range from $20 to $28 per bottle, with discounts for club members — but are aiming to boost their volume.

“We hope to increase it as we get a little bit better equipment and broader sources of grapes,” Overholt says. “Basically, we are going to continue producing wines from the Alexander Valley.” While the competition (and prices) for those grapes are higher, he believes it’s worth it. He tosses out a few more statistics: In the Alexander Valley an acre yields about four to six tons of grapes, whereas in the Central Valley it’s about 15 tons per acre. A ton of grapes yields about four barrels; that’s taking into consideration 10 percent evaporation. ”The angel’s share,” Paul and Stanislava chime in. 

Old Oak Cellars, located at 2620-D E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, is open to the public every third Saturday of the month and by appointment; call (626) 794-1244 or visit inwineinc.com for hours. The wines can be purchased at the warehouse, online and through Amazon.

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