At the crush pad of a custom-built winery, the 6-foot-4 winemaker in tie-dye socks shuts off the forklift, realizing he missed a call.
“I didn’t hear my phone ring,” says Layne Montgomery, 55, general manager and founding partner of m2 Vintners Inc. in Acampo.
“It’s harvest,” jests one of his volunteers. “Who has time for a phone?”
But at midday in mid-August, this particular call is important. It concerns Montgomery’s new shipment of Viognier grapes. Seven tons of them just came in from Harry Creek vineyards in the foothills, but m2 doesn’t yet have the resources to crush seven tons. Montgomery sent half to a buddy at nearby St. Jorge Winery for processing. Usually, this arrangement goes smoothly. Not this time.
“These grapes need to get processed fast,” says Montgomery once he ends the call. “We told him we’d be there at noon. But there’s some event going on up there, and he can’t do anything until 1:30.”
Viognier grapes contain an organic compound called terpenes, which creates the wine’s characteristic floral aroma. But if you don’t get the juice off the grape skins ASAP, terpenes make the wine bitter and oily. This unforeseen delay might make another winemaker panic, but Montgomery keeps cool.
“Let’s chill,” he tells the crew. “Anybody want a beer?”
It’s not the end of the world — just another harvest day at m2, a decade-old business that Montgomery calls a “work in progress.” The winery moved from East Turner Road to its new site on Peltier Road in January. Growing pains come with the territory, and settling in requires time and some fine-tuning. But the recent upgrade also reflects a regional trend: The maturation of Lodi’s wine scene.
“Woodbridge literally spills more in a month than we make in a year. But this is arts-and-craft wine. That’s commodity wine.” Layne Montgomery
In the past few years, architecture and design renovations have led to higher-end tasting rooms for aficionados who value ambiance. It’s about style and substance. The trend started with LangeTwins Winery and caught on with the Metter Family Winery and Oak Farm Vineyards. Michael David Winery recently renovated its outdoor pond, adding several waterfall features and private seating areas to be used for bottle service by wine club members and VIP groups, according to Jenny Heitman, spokesperson for the Lodi Winegrape Commission.
On 17 acres of fertile land, where trains chug against the backdrop, m2’s new building looks nothing like the old one. For starters, the team decided to scrap the steel-and-piping motif for something more modern and open: a winery in a vineyard, not a gift shop attached to a wine bar and a parking lot.
“We wanted to go from industrial shabby to industrial chic,” Montgomery says. “Cheap is not the right word, but we didn’t want to spend money on things that didn’t matter. We didn’t want another faux-Italian villa.”
It was designed by John Vierra, son of St. Jorge Owner Vern Vierra. He collaborated with Montgomery to create an indoor/outdoor structure that frames the vineyard. The architecture allows patrons to walk straight through from the crush pad on one end to the fireplace outside the tasting room on the other. The exterior is covered by rust-red panels made of a special steel called Corten, which oxidizes in the rain to protect against weather. But with California in its third year of drought, Montgomery sprayed the panels with vinegar and salt to accelerate the rusting.
On the east end, the crush pad is where the grapes come in, get weighed, de-stemmed and pressed. After that, they’re moved inside for fermentation in four 5-ton stainless steel tanks, which can hold 1,500 gallons of liquid. This walk-in refrigerator is padded with 3.5-inch walls of expandable insulation. The next room has a capacity for 500 barrels, but only a third contain wine at this point. The tasting room was designed to be a fun space. Banners hang from the ceiling. There is a social media photo kiosk in the corner. As investors point out, the structure also boasts green touches: LED lights and a 5-inch roof slope to accommodate solar panels in the future.
“When we get more money in the shoebox, we’ll go for that,” Montgomery says. “I think this building would meet LEED standards, but the application is $40,000 and I don’t know if that would help me sell more wine.”
This past year, m2 has processed nearly 90 tons of grapes. That’s about 3,000 cases of wine. Not gigantic numbers, he admits, but he’s holding off on buying more barrels until demand forces his hand.
“Woodbridge literally spills more in a month than we make in a year,” he says. “But this is arts-and-craft wine. That’s commodity wine.”
Montgomery started learning this craft in 1999, making wine for fun at home. But he wasn’t thinking in business terms back then. He flunked out of college years prior and had been making a living in broadcast and philanthropy. But he grew “tired of working for the man” and eventually connected with his current business partners, Ted and Terry Woodruff.
For Ted Woodruff, who is 70, this venture was a perfect way to avoid retirement. “When you’ve worked your whole life, you can’t stop working,” says the Sacramento native, who got his first job at age seven, pulling weeds, raking yards and selling mistletoe.
He learned that Montgomery needed money to buy land and grow the company, so he brought his relatives on board. Recently, Ted invested $50,000 for pipes, wiring and vine stock for the vineyard,
so the winery can soon start processing its own grapes. The Woodruff family owns 51 percent of m2, which Montgomery acknowledges with humility.
“Naive stubbornness, the grace of God and Ted’s money are the only reasons we’re still in business,” Montgomery says over a glass of Trio, a multilayered red blend with hints of black currant, blackberry, boysenberry and caramel.
He’s sitting in the tasting room now, out of the heat, taking a break. “Still needs time in the bottle,” he says of the red. “It’s like a junior high school orchestra tuning up. But when they grow up, all of a sudden, you’re listening to a symphony.”
It’s almost 1 p.m. The Viognier grapes have yet to be processed, but Montgomery remains patient. “People tend to get worked up this time of year,” he says. “It’s just friggin’ wine. It’ll work out. It always does.”