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Gnekow Family Winery - Campus Oaks - Château Meroux

Central Valley region

Old Vine wines from one of Lodi's most highly awarded boutique wineries

It all began sometime in 1996, when the Gnekow (pronounced nee-ko) brothers came across a winery property that was involved in a bank foreclosure. After thorough investigation, Rudy (now 65) and Sean (now 62) decided there was enough upside potential to purchase the property and winery.

“We bought it because we basically thought we could make money with it,” recalled Rudy Gnekow during a recent interview. “Neither of us knew much about the winery business but the numbers made sense and we figured we could learn on the job.” A year later, Gnekow Family Winery released its first offerings, a tiny (by Central Valley standards) production of around 1,000 cases. These days, production at the Stockton facility has reached more than 100,000 cases, a tribute to the Gnekow brothers’ determination and good business judgment.

“We have definitely learned a great deal during the past eighteen years,” declared Rudy Gnekow. “And it hasn’t always been an easy road to travel. A number of other wineries have come and gone since our inception, and I feel we have been quite fortunate in that regard.”

Gnekow feels that the fact that Gnekow Family Winery produces a good deal of its fruit from its own vineyards is one of the factors in the winery’s success. “We bought 30 acres about 11 miles southeast of the winery, just into the Sierra Foothills. The fruit from those acres is very consistent and allows us to develop profiles for our wines that we are able to duplicate from year to year.

Consistency is the key to wines at our price level and consistency is what allows a winery to develop a real following. Many of our customers found us when we started and have stuck with us for many years. Without them, our job would have been a great deal more difficult.” While the venerable Zinfandel varietal has been the mainstay of Gnekow Family Winery and its mainstay Campus Oaks portfolio, the winery also produces Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Pinot Grigio. Thanks to its multi-talented winemaker, Frenchman Christophe Grandjacques, it also produces a well-respected sparkling wine that has gained awards and a dedicated following.

“We are a multi-purpose facility,” Rudy Gnekow explained. “We produce our own wines and also serve as a full custom crush facility for other wineries.” Former and present customers include the likes of Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estate, Hess Collection, Ravenswood Winery and Seven Deadly Zins. While Christophe Grandjacques is the winemaker, a good deal of teamwork goes into the winery’s final blends.

“I always ask Chris to follow a profile we use for a particular wine,” added Gnekow. “He always provides me with three choices. Then we sit down and taste what’s in front of us. If we both agree on the final blend, then we go for it. If not, I usually defer to Chris. He has the better palate and can discern subtleties in the wines. I don’t have his palate, I just know what I like in a wine.” Gnekow agrees that Zinfandel has been the backbone of the winery since its inception and proudly points out that their Zinfandel has graced the pages of the Wine Spectator no less than three times in the past year for its incredible value.

“We were one of only three California wines that made the paper’s Best Global Values listing. Global…that really speaks volumes about our wines. To be included in the best value list for the entire world, well that’s really something. It’s a bit humbling but it speaks to what we are accomplishing at our winery.” Rudy Gnekow also speaks of possible entrance into the Pinot Noir arena, when and if he can be competitive and still generate a profit. “It’s all about money and staying in business,” he finalized. “If you don’t make money, you can’t stay in business. It’s just that simple.”

Map of the area

Christophe Legrandjacques - French Winemaker

Picture of Christophe Legrandjacques - French Winemaker

It is somewhat unusual to find a French winemaker plying his trade in California’s Central Valley. One such person is Christophe Legrandjacques, winemaker for Gnekow Family Winery. Legrandjacques attended Dijon’s Ecole National Superior d’Agronomie, one of France’s well-respected agricultural schools. What’s more, his impressive resume in France began with G.H. Mumm Champagnes in the revered town of Reims.

Legrandjacques next toiled at the Château de Cantegrive, a large wine estate and possibly the area’s top producer in Bordeaux’s Graves Region. Legrandjacques came to California some eight years ago after a stint as a winemaker at Worden Winery near Spokane and San Juan Vineyards, an island vineyard located in Harbor, in the State of Washington.

Rudy Gnekow - Owner & Visionary

Picture of Rudy Gnekow - Owner & Visionary

It seems as if Rudy Gnekow is having the time of his life operating a full-scale winery just outside Stockton, California. Even though he is a latecomer to the wine business, it is apparent that his former business expertise in a related field has carried him through some tough times to his company’s present successful status.

Rudy is president of Gnekow Family Winery, the producer of Campus Oaks wines that are this month’s Gold Wine Club selections. He believes that his former experiences in the retail grocery field provided him with an excellent business foundation for establishing his winery.

“I was associated with American Stores (Lucky Stores, Alpha Beta, etc.) and based out of San Jose. I served in a number of positions and eventually wound up as a wine buyer for a new store that we opened in North San Jose. I started learning about the wine business and what made it work. I investigated the wine industry’s leading brands and also what customers were buying. The data I received also showed me what these customers liked, their preferences. From that point on I learned a great deal about the wine business that has helped me with Gnekow Family Winery and our Campus Oaks wines.”

What is the biggest problem you have faced?

“Most certainly it is the distribution network, the way wines are actually sold. This has changed a great deal since we entered the business. Distributors are no longer interested in building brands, but prefer just taking orders. Smaller wineries have a great deal of trouble competing. It’s just the way it is.”

The best aspect of the business you enjoy most?

“I believe it is rewarding to be able to share our wine with people. When someone enjoys a bottle of Campus Oaks or one of our other wines, it is positive reinforcement that we are doing something right. It proves our ability to understand our customers’ needs. It’s one thing to be profitable and make money, but there is a genuine feeling I derive from producing something that actually makes people happy. I get a great deal of satisfaction when our customers give us feedback. We take this information seriously and act on it, even if it means tweaking the wines a little bit.”

Rudy Gnekow is also a most practical man. When it came to selecting his new winemaker some eight years ago, he posted an ad and received more than twenty responses. Over several weeks, he narrowed the list down to three and interviewed each applicant. He finally chose the youngest, a Frenchman, to be the new winemaker, a rarity in the Central Valley family of winemakers. Today, he recalls that important conclusion.

“The decision to choose Chris (Legrandjacques) was a most fortunate one,” he firmly stated. “He has proven to be a most dedicated employee, and not a person that takes short cuts in his work. His classical background in wine allows him to follow the protocol we establish for each wine, and that is important for consistency in our products. And, Chris and I rarely disagree. I don’t want to be a winemaker, and he doesn’t want to run the company. It’s a perfect fit.”

So is Rudy Gnekow a perfect fit for his company. His personality and spirit will continue to make it a real factor in the California wine industry.