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Jepson Still Going Strong


IT CAME AS a surprise to some when the first releases of Jepson Vineyards in Mendocino won gold medals in 1987. After all, owner Robert S. Jepson, a self-made Chicago centimillionaire, had bought his 1,238-acre vineyard estate in 1985 simply as a real-estate investment. But there was no arguing with the quality of the wine: The distinguished 1985 Mendocino Brut Champagne ($16) is clean, crisp, dry and elegant. And the 1985 Mendocino Chardonnay is worth stocking up on if you can find it: It won three gold medals.

As the successors of those releases come to the market--a fine 1986 Chardonnay ($12) and a particularly delicate, even poetic, 1986 Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc ($7)--it becomes clear that the Jepson wines' strong debut was no fluke.

Jepson may be a novice in the wine business. But when he decided to turn his passion for wine into his next financial venture, he hired experts, and their experience shows.

His wine maker, Kurt Lorenzi, had worked as an assistant wine maker at Chappellet Vineyards in the Napa Valley and won medals for the wines he produced at Los Vinos Winery in Santa Maria.

The president of the operation, Richard Leland, has spent 16 years in the California wine industry, rising to become product manager for Paul Masson in the '70s under the revered Otto Meyer, that winery's illustrious president. When Meyer left in 1975, Leland took on his own 25-acre vineyard in the Napa Valley and later developed a 600-acre vineyard in New Mexico. A chance meeting with Jepson in 1986 brought him back to California.

That trio of owner, manager and wine maker, with assistance from Fred Bellows, vineyard manager, combined their talents to exploit the potential of the vineyards. The 108 acres of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and French Colombard grapes are laid out in plots bordering the banks of the Russian River, with roots extending into well-drained, rich river silt and gravel. The grapes mature slowly there, deepening their character.

The winery, which overlooks the vineyards, contains temperature-controlled stainless-steel fermenters and select oak casks from France. All Jepson's grapes are direct-pressed when they arrive from the vineyards, producing delicate wines with less tannic astringency.

What next for Jepson? One exciting possibility involves those French Colombard grapes, which the winery is slowly preparing to turn into brandy. The winery houses alembic pot stills imported from Cognac for the production of that fine classic. Naturally, it will take years to build the reserves of spirits for aging and blending before they are released decades down the road. But Jepson Mendocino Alembic Brandy is definitely on the agenda.

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