Owl Ridge Wines
Sonoma County region
Named a ‘Best New Winery’ in Sonoma County with a focus on limited production wines
Its owner’s passion for cabernet sauvignon was the prime factor in the establishment of Owl Creek Wines in 2002. Owner John Tracy had already established Willowbrook Cellars that produced Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and decided that his infatuation with the great Bordeaux varietal was strong enough to cause him to establish another wine entity, Owl Ridge Wines.
Since Tracy and his wife Deborah had no trouble in naming their new business. “We both love owls and we became fans of the Sulphur Creek Nature Center in Hayward. Hayward is on the East Bay, directly across from San Francisco International Airport.
The center is involved in rehabilitating and releasing owls and other animals back into the wild. “We happened to be there the night they released four barn owls that they had rescued. The entire experience was fantastic and we were so impressed by the event and their work that we agreed to become contributors. It seemed quite natural for us to name our new venture after our favorite birds,” Tracy asserted.” First release of Owl Ridge wines occurred in 2002, a smallish lot of around 500 cases. This year, the company will produce nearly 10,000 cases, a level that is comfortable to its owners.
“We have grown steadily throughout our existence,” General Manager and Winemaker Joe Otos commented. “It is possible for us to continue growing, but we are happy with where we are. Our owner John is pleased with the way we have grown. It is all part of our business plan.”
Praise and plaudits have come in bunches for the Sonoma County winery. In 2006, it was named ‘Best New Winery’ at the Wine Literary Awards Tasting, surpassing more than a thousand new wines. Medals and accolades have also been a prime aspect of the Owl Ridge Wines’ development.
“It is wonderful that the judges and writers enjoy our work,” added owner John Tracy. “It signifies that all out hard work has produced the results we expected. It is very humbling in the ultra-competitive California wine industry.” Tracy also admitted that “big cabs” formed the basis for beginning Owl Ridge wines. He also admitted that he was a bit skeptical about making Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma County.
When Winemaker Joe Otos answered “maybe”, the pair immediately set out to find the best cabernet fruit available. They settled on vineyards in Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley, both well respected sub regions for growing cabernet sauvignon.
Today’s Owl Ridge Wines also produces a superior Sauvignon Blanc as well as a distinctive Syrah that are this month’s Gold selections. Once again, Sonoma County’s wide diversity of grape varietals is visibly apparent.
Joe Otos (pronounced Ah tas) - Veteran Winemaker
Joe Otos is 40, and a multi-year veteran of the Northern California winemaking fraternity. Originally from Southern California (Torrance), Otos (pronounced Ah-tas) graduated from Sonoma State University around the turn of the century. During his stay at Sonoma State, he obtained part-time work at fabled Ravenswood Winery whose reputation was made with marvelous Zinfandels. While there, Otos fell in love with winemaking and the wine industry.
After graduation, Otos joined Chris Loxton at Wellington Vineyards. Loxton taught Joe to control every stage of fermentation closely and to emphasize the consistent flavor profiles that emanate from a very controlled fermentation process.
At the young age of 26, Otos encountered the new owner of vineyards that would eventually evolve into the entity that is Owl Ridge Wines. His passion for winemaking impressed John Tracy and Otos became Owl Creek’s only winemaker. Fourteen years later, Otos is still quite fervent about his winemaking. “I want my wines to literally jump out of the glass,” he professed. “I am a disciple of old world winemaking techniques where crispness and fruit-friendly wines are the marquee features. I want my wine to be big, yet balanced.”
Joe Otos is particularly pleased with this month’s Sauvignon Blanc selection. The grapes were sourced from a vineyard in northern Dry Creek Valley, a place Otos considers perfect for growing the Bordeaux white varietal. “Unlike many European Sauvignon Blancs, this wine is less acidic to the palate,” he explained. “I believe it is much more balanced than most Sauvignon Blancs and I have added a little Semillion to make that happen. I am quite proud of the results and I know your members will really enjoy this wine.”
About the Vineyard
Sonoma County’s vital statistics are incredibly impressive as a grape-growing milieu. More than 70,000 acres are currently under vine and are home to practically every varietal of any consequence. While quietly taking a back seat to nearby Napa Valley in reputation, Sonoma County produces more than twice the volume of wines as its easterly neighbor.
Microclimates abound within the county, owing to the proximity of the maritime influences of the Pacific Ocean. “What I like most about Sonoma,” related winemaker (see Winemaker Profile) Joe Otos, “is the great flexibility the county provides. Since we buy all of our fruit at Owl Ridge Wines, we are able to pick and choose only the finest fruit. Take the Syrah for instance. We only produce the wine once every five years or so. When some outstanding fruit comes along, we seize the opportunity and make a truly memorable wine.”
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive along Sonoma’s foggy and windy coastal vineyards while Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc do best in the county’s drier and warmer eastern and northern climes.
The value aspect is always evident in wines that originate in the Sonoma County Wine Region and its fourteen sub-regions. These areas provide a plethora of different soils, slopes and varying degrees of sunshine that equal a host of different varietal possibilities. Grapes grown in relatively close proximity vary greatly due to the presence (or lack thereof) of any one of these features. The local adage, “There’s a varietal for every taste” fits Sonoma County perfectly.
Owner John Tracy’s entrepreneurial saga
Owl Ridge Wines’ owner John Tracy is now 72 years young and still going strong. His storied career in business bears mention at the outset. A graduate of heralded MIT, Tracy became a technology entrepreneur working in high tech companies and the aerospace industry. In 1992, he went on his own and founded Opto Power Corporation, a producer of high-power semiconductor lasers in Tucson, Arizona. When the company proved to be incredibly successful, Tracy sold the company and retired to a home on Bodega Bay, on the Pacific shore of Sonoma County. The property came with a vineyard and that fact sparked Tracy’s interest.
“I was not very happy at being retired,” Tracy stated during an interview. “I wanted to get back into building a company and I had developed a real fascination with the wine business.” His interest resulted in the establishment of Willowbrook Cellars, partnered a wine entity devoted to pinot noir and chardonnay. A few years later, his love of Cabernet Sauvignon motivated the creation of Owl Ridge Wines.
“I wanted my own company,” he admitted. “I wanted to make the decisions that affected the business. I had become fond of big Cabernets so it seemed logical that I start an operation that was aimed in that direction.” “John has always been a person looking for the next great thing,” offered General Manager Joe Otos. “I never really know what he will do next. He is fun to be around and he always gets results with his investments.”
Tracy admits that his biggest worry is that the wine business is seasonal. He knows that if the harvest is affected, it could have repercussions on the entire year’s business. He also laments the fact that dealing with an agricultural product provides a great deal of variation, a factor that cannot be controlled.
Tracy is also an admirer of Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid process and other inventions. Tracy attended one of Land’s presentations while a freshman at MIT and was duly impressed.
He also admitted that if he experienced a sudden capital windfall, he would immediately look to expansion and acquisitions. He also enjoys working in the vineyards where he works with his hands. He hikes every weekend with his wife Deborah and spends time listening to music to reduce stress in his daily life. He contends he is still quite interested in technology and keeps himself updated through technical industry journals.
John Tracy is also quite proud of the major accomplishments of his prized winery. A number of Best in Class Gold Medals has helped make the winery a leader among Sonoma County wineries.
As an adjunct to his winery business, Tracy also operates Owl Ridge Wines Services, a custom crush facility that is home to another thirty-plus Sonoma Wineries. The custom facility produces nearly 100,000 cases annually and has been a boon to numerous small production winery entities.
Interestingly, John Tracy also operates another company out of his Sebastopol location. The company is called Owl Ridge Technical Services and provides plug-in services for electric vehicles. The company is just another chapter in John Tracy’s entrepreneurial saga.