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Kit Fox Winery - San Joaquin Valley

Kit Fox Vineyards - Growing their own filed of dreams

While not particularly known for growing grapes, Stanislaus County in the lower San Joaquin Valley of Northern California is the home of a budding new winery operation that seeks to make its location viable and its wines considered equal to other quality appellations in the northern part of the State.

The new entity is called Kit Fox Vineyards, named after the San Joaquin Kit Fox endangered species that has populated the area for the past three centuries. Kit Fox is the ambitious project of the Vogel Family, and more particularly the handiwork of 30-year old Hunter Vogel and his wife Laura. Hunter Vogel’s father Fred, 57, along with his mother Jill, are also minority owners of KitFox.

It all started several generations ago when Hunter and Laura’s families each became serious farming families. Their endeavors produced a variety of products including tomatoes and varied row crops as well as nearly a thousand acres of both almonds and walnuts.

Sometime in mid-1998, a decision was made to change direction and invest in the planting of some 44 acres with grapes. The determination came after a period of due diligence that also involved the University of California Davis’s soil analysis experts who visited the Vogel’s property and pronounced it perfectly capable of producing as high a caliber of grapes as anyone else in the area.

Actual planting took place in 2000 and the winery’s initial release came the following year. A total of 10,000 cases of Kit Fox’s first release were produced, a rather optimistic figure given the already downward spiral facing the wine industry at the time.

“We went into Kit Fox with our eyes wide open,” explained Hunter Vogel, “and I must say we learned our lesson the hard way. The problem was simply there was no real market for our wines and we were sitting with that entire inventory. I spent the entire next year doing something about it while reducing our inventory to a controllable level.”

At the same time Hunter also set about the task of having his immediate growing area made into a specific appellation. The area is known as the Salado Creek region and was granted its own prowess late this past summer. At present the Salado Creek Appellation is only three thousand acres big and Kit Fox is the appellation’s sole inhabitant. The new appellation is mostly comprised of marvelous deep-draining, loamy soils that are particular to the foothills and its environs. Vogel and his family are betting that these excellent conditions (hot days and cool nights) along with the choice gravelly top soils will produce excellent fruit and subsequently premium quality wines.

One stumbling block is the area’s ongoing approach to grape growing that emphasizes quantity over quality. It is not unusual for area growers to deliver up to twelve tons per acre from their vines and Hunter Vogel sees this as a negative in his efforts to secure respectability for the fledgling Salado Creek appellation.

Kit Fox’s own production is strictly limited to between four and six tons an acre, in line with the more prestigious growers throughout Northern California. Vogel admits however, that it will be an uphill battle to convince his neighbors that smaller is better.

“It’s nice that we have been able to garner so many awards for our wines,” Vogel added. “Many of our neighbors who are growers have begun to become aware and take notice. In order to produce really good wines, wines with true character, it is necessary that our area utilize better viticulture practices. Our medals point out the validity of the Salado Creek area, and that is good news for everyone.”

Kit Fox has great plans for a new winery and tasting room facility that will be completed sometime in late 2005, with increased production facilities within five years. In the meantime, Kit Fox Vineyards has surrounded itself with a number of local artisans that produce a variety of gourmet style items, from Olive Oil, upscale caviar, cheeses and even ‘Estate-Grown’ varietal honey. This attempt at grass roots marketing is a boom to the local area and elevates Kit Fox Vineyards to its rightful place as a leader in the movement to establish the area around tiny Patterson, California as a food and wine destination.

However much time it takes, Kit Fox is definitely in it for the long run. The quality of wine that is currently being put into the bottle insures that run will be of very long duration.

Hunter Vogel

Hunter Vogel was a 15-year-old high school exchange student living with a family in Paris when he first began to appreciate wine. Since each meal he enjoyed included a watered version of the real thing served as a beverage, Vogel correctly figured the French must be on to something good.

‘Over there,” he recently explained, ‘people treat wine as an every meal substance. The younger people are taught to appreciate wine early and it stays with them for their entire lives.”

Upon returning home, Hunter took new interest in his parent’s wine at mealtime, but had to wait until the age of 21 to enjoy wine on his own. Upon graduation from Dallas’ Southern Methodist University where he majored in history, Vogel felt the call of his family’s business that at the time consisted of almond and walnut groves. All the time, the lure of the wine business was deeply rooted in his subconscious.

‘I looked around and saw a number of the small nut growers having a hard time and some were even going out of business,” he reflected. ‘Since I am an only child I felt it was my responsibility to keep our family business intact. It was very fortunate that when I married Laura, her family also happened to be in the growing business. When I formalized my idea for Kit fox Vineyards, I took my concept to them and when it was all said and done everyone enthusiastically supported my proposal.”

It helped greatly that the aforementioned wine business connoted a certain lifestyle and was also considered by Hunter Vogel to be a ‘passionate’ business or more precisely a business he could develop a real passion for. It was also a challenge to him that the area around his farm was, for the most part, an untested grape growing area with regard to premium grapes.

‘I felt this area around our little town of Patterson was truly a field of dreams,” he admitted. ‘I am truly fortunate to even have the opportunity to do what I’m doing. I have also learned to love the people in the wine business. It’s nothing for me to call someone and ask for help or advice. Everyone gives such help willingly, even if they are your competitors. I don’t believe there are many businesses where this happens as a matter of course.”

Hunter Vogel also has some creative plans for Kit Fox Vineyards. He envisions a reserve selection addition in the near future, perhaps as early as next fall that will vary somewhat from year to year. Vogel says that only the best single wine of each vintage will be taken and made into a reserve selection and the profits from this particular reserve level wine will be turned over to one of the associations that attempt to protect the animals on the endangered list.

‘There is a Kit Fox Habitat Association that we are very close to because of our winery’s obvious namesake and also another one that protects the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo,” he added. ‘The reserve labels would reflect the particular animal and each year would be different. The very idea presents us with a number of major challenges.”

Such enthusiasm seems quite commonplace for Vogel who is also in the process of securing a business masters degree in agribusiness from nearby Santa Clara University. For some reason, it all seems quite normal to Hunter Vogel who hopes to propel his small area into a formidable food and wine destination.

‘There are so many small cottage industry type products being made around this area,” he pointed out, ‘and some of them are really world class. Few consumers really associate
Stanislaus County with these types of products. I knew it would be good for everyone to try and market them collectively and so far it’s been a lot of fun. I needed to work with something I felt a real passion toward and the wine and food business is just perfect.”

Such a fervent approach is natural for Hunter Vogel who seems destined for continued future success. His wines have met with much critical acclaim and his best wines seem to lay ahead with the development of his estate selections.

The wine business needs serious people like Hunter Vogel, whose youthful approach to a particularly competitive business is quite refreshing. If passion is what he is looking for, the wine business is definitely a marvelous outlet for his enthusiasm.