It could have been a very bad business decision. Just a couple years before prohibition, the Schmiedt family got tired of milking cows and decided to plant grapes on their ranch in Lodi. Taking a cue from their Italian neighbors, they put in acres of primitivo vines nowadays known as zinfandel.
That was in 1918 and two years later—before the young vines even started producing—wine was outlawed. As the vineyard came into production, the family struggled along selling off grapes to neighbors for “altar wine” and by farming other crops.
Gust Schmiedt tended the vineyards through the 1960s when his son Ross took over, putting in new plantings of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah, but always conserving a 4-acre plot of the original gnarled old zinfandel vines—the family’s pride and joy.
After decades of selling grapes to other winemakers, Ross finally made his own delicious estate zinfandel in 2005. He called it Twisted Roots after the beloved vines, with a wry nod to the 25-or-so family members living on the ranch. Only 45 cases were bottled, but it was enough to spark the imagination of the newest family member, Josh Ruiz—a force behind a lot of exciting new activity at Twisted Roots today.
Born and raised in Salinas and fresh out of Cal Poly with an MBA in Agribusiness, Ruiz, now 33, had recently married Ross’s niece Julie and dreamed of building a thriving family wine label. He partnered with Ross and Julie’s dad Mike Hodge and by 2009 was selling wine out of the back of his car, while working a day job as production manager with Tanimura & Antle.
“I love farming. I’m not a salesman but I would just drive over to Star Market on my lunch break and try to get them to buy the wine,” says Ruiz. And while he was perfecting planting and harvesting methods for broccoli during the rest of his day, the family back in Lodi bought into a new custom crush winery called Estate Crush, that produces wine for dozens of labels, and ramped up production.
“We went through a few winemakers, but Mike and I learned that we prefer the wine we make ourselves,” says Ruiz. “I know what I like and I’ve learned winemaking by trial and error.”
Twisted Roots opened a tasting room at 12 Del Fino Place in Carmel Valley Village one year ago, in the entrance to the Lyons Head Gallery. The friendly tasting bar opens onto a European-style patio with a gurgling fountain, where customers can sit to enjoy their wine in the sunshine and even order food from the popular Café Rustica next door. The tasting room is open from noon to 5pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Most days either Ruiz or his wife Julie can be found there telling family tales.
Twisted Roots currently offers four estate varietals: a simple, Chablis-style 2012 chardonnay aged in neutral barrels; a light-bodied 2010 cabernet sauvignon, full of flavor and great for sipping on its own; the winemaker’s favorite 2010 petite syrah—a big, rich, “chewy” red wine; and Twisted Roots’ flagship “1918” Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel.
Their “1918” Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel is a mellow, gracious vintage, full of raspberry, chocolate and cherry warmth with just a little tart plum to balance. “There’s hardly any sweetness to it, so it doesn’t taste jammy like some zins,” says Ruiz. “You can taste the history.”
This year is going to be an exciting one at the winery, as it will release three new wines. One will be a sparkling Blanc de Blanc made with its chardonnay grapes, as well as a younger zinfandel made with Ross’ 25-year-old Costamagna zinfandel clones—which result in a brighter, vibrant wine with plenty of cherry fruit.
Twisted Roots is also preparing a brand new Rhone blend for limited release in May called Ross’ Cherry Road Red 2012. Sadly, Ross himself was not able to help with the bottling because he’s bedridden with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, but Ruiz says the long time grape grower was thrilled to see his name on the label. As a tribute, one dollar per bottle of all Twisted Roots sales goes to the ALS association to help with research into the debilitating disease.
The wine making style as well as grape growing methods at the 45-acre Twisted Roots estate can only be described as natural.
“We want the grapes to speak for themselves so we don’t do much in the winemaking process, but we take good care of our soil testing for 200 trace minerals and replenishing anything that’s missing,” says Ruiz. “Even before it was chic to take care of the soil, Ross would baby his 96-year-old vines. He always said take care of the vines and they’ll take care of you.”
Twisted Roots was one of the first growers certified under the “Lodi Rules” for green and sustainable viticulture. Practices called for in the certification include integrated pest management, using plantings in between the rows to attract beneficial insects and reduce the need for spraying. It also requires efficient water use, air quality control and fair labor practices.
And if you’re wondering what a Lodi winery is doing with a tasting room in Carmel Valley, here’s the explanation: “Julie and I live two blocks from here and we love being surrounded by all the great local winemakers,” says Ruiz.
“We offer something different that doesn’t exist here,” he adds. “There are good wines in Lodi, but who’s going to go there? It’s not a tasting destination.”
Viewed as outsiders at first, Twisted Roots has quickly become a very active part of the Carmel Valley community. In addition to hosting dinners, concerts and special events on their patio, they also support the activities of 4H, Future Farmers of America and the MEarth environmental education program at Carmel Middle School. Julie Ruiz sits on the state board and is the immediate past president of the Salinas Chapter of California Women for Ag—a group dedicated to getting more women involved in farming.
Twisted Roots wine is sold at Star Market and Zeph’s One Stop in Salinas; and at New Leaf Community Markets in Santa Cruz. It can also be enjoyed at Mission Ranch in Carmel, Tarpy’s Roadhouse in Monterey, as well as Lokal and Café Rustica in Carmel Valley.
With three generations of farming expertise in every bottle, it’s now obvious that ditching the milk cows and planting grapes way back in 1918 was a good decision after all.
Twisted Roots 12 Del Fino Place, Carmel Valley • 831.594.8282
Open noon – 5pm Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays