Modesto-area vintners looking to make a hit with wine consumers

RIPON -- Amid the rumble of machinery and the clinking of glass, workers filled bottles of cabernet sauvignon at McManis Family Vineyards last week.

They moved as quickly as safety allowed to get the 2008 vintage into cases.

For winemaker Mike Robustelli, watching nearby, it was the end of a process that also involved patience -- in the vineyard, where each grape variety is picked at its peak, and in the winery, where he carefully times the fermentation and aging.

"That consistency and that quality helps to set us apart," said Robustelli, who shares winemaking duties with Jeff Runquist, producing bottles priced around $10.

The company is part of an effort to boost the profile of wines from the San Joaquin Valley, long known for high volume but not so much for high quality.

The effort includes the big producers -- E.&J. Gallo Winery, The Wine Group, Bronco Wine Co. and DFV Wines, formerly Delicato.

This is one of the most promising economic trends in a region that, amid a housing bust, is finding that the growing and processing of farm products can still pay.

The United States is becoming more of a wine-drinking nation, and consumers are looking for value along with quality. The Modesto-area producers aim to combine quality control with efficient production to hit that sweet spot in the wine aisle.

"The opportunity for consumers to try $10-and-under California wines, and the quality of the wines, is going to be great," said Ron McManis, who founded the winery with his wife, Jamie McManis.

The McManis family has grown grapes in the region since 1938. The winery was built in 1998 and has grown to about 300,000 cases a year.

The grapes come from McManis vineyards and contract growers in a 60-mile radius, including Lodi and the River Junction area, where the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers meet.

McManis employs 24 people full time and hires many more for seasonal work such as pruning and harvesting.

Robustelli said quality starts in the vineyards, overseen by Arthur Chavez. The grape varieties are matched to the conditions on each site. The growers aim to get the optimal amount of fruit from each vine. Irrigation is cut back at key times.

At the winery, crushed grapes are fermented in small batches and the wine is aged mostly in tanks that contain oak pieces in various sizes.

"I think we have really fine-tuned what we do for McManis Family wines," Robustelli said.