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Central Valley region

Winsome Wines celebrates stunning inaugural release.

Some wineries are born out of necessity, and others develop through a perceived need on the part of their owners. Such is the case with this month's Gold Selection, Winsome Reserve of Lodi, California. Winsome is an offshoot of the highly respected Van Ruiten Vineyards, a 20,000-plus case winery that is the winner of numerous awards and whose ownership has been in the wine business for more than half a century.

According to owner John Van Ruiten, the spokesman for the Van Ruiten Family, the decision to develop Winsome was begun after his daughter, Angie Rogan, proposed the idea that the family attempt to produce a reserve class wine to accentuate the regular Van Ruiten wines being produced.

Since the Van Ruitens own a great deal of vineyard land in what is called the outlying reaches of the Sacramento, San Joaquin Rivers Delta (more precisely, the sub-delta formed by the smaller Mokelumne and Cosumnes Rivers, both tributaries of the larger Sacramento River) it seemed like a perfectly natural idea to take some of the highest quality fruit and turn it into a brand of its own.

The name Winsome was chosen by the entire family because it meant winning, charming, pleasant or attractive, you can take your pick. With the other members of the Van Ruiten Family in total accord, it was time for the next step.

The family approached winemaker Ryan Leeman about the idea and found an immediate supporter who was willing to do what was necessary to produce the high quality wines.

"It was simply a matter of being highly selective in our approach to both grapes and barrel management," Leeman recalled.

"First, I would go out into the vineyards and pick out certain bunches of grapes to be used for the project. I did this, maybe two or three weeks apart, and crushed them and started the fermentation process. Once that was completed, I placed everything in barrels and began my watch. I would spend a good deal of time comparing one to another, and then I would select certain ones for the final blends. I took a lot of time, but I really wanted the Winsome wines to look good and be good."

The first eleven hundred cases of Winsome Reserve were released in February of this year. Amazingly, the wines have already won a number of major awards and accolades, something practically unheard of for an embryonic winery.

John Van Ruiten said that it is expected that the Winsome production will remain on the smallish side, with a modest goal of somewhere below three thousand cases in the foreseeable future. "Since all the Winsome wines will be accorded reserve status," Van Ruiten explained, "we don't want to overproduce nor overextend the grapes so we can continue to be very prudent with our selections." Winsome will place heavy emphasis on elegance and style, both reasonably associated with the winery's name.

"Many people forget that our area has always been considered the backbone of the California wine industry," reminded winemaker Ryan Leeman, "while Napa and Sonoma certainly get more headlines, it is the wines from the Delta Region that are so familiar to so many consumers for their quality and pricing."

Leeman also said that many new, boutique-like wineries are opening around Lodi and the surrounding area, a fact that augurs well for the reputation of the entire area. "When small operators begin making wines that are intended for gourmet palates and upper class restaurants and stores, a lot of people tend to sit up and take notice. With the early success Winsome Reserve has already attained, it would be nice for our wines to take their place alongside some of these really fine boutique wines."

It is indeed a good omen that such quality wines are emanating from the Delta growing region, one of the largest in California. Known primarily for its ageless zinfandel and old vine designations, wineries such as Van Ruiten and Winsome are proving that high quality is well within their production capabilities. Like a new addition to the family, Winsome has quickly become a family cause calibre. "Everyone is elated with our early success," added John Van Ruiten, "Now it's up to us to keep up the quality. With Ryan at the helm, we think that"s a really attainable goal.

The award-winning winemaker for Winsome

Picture of The award-winning winemaker for Winsome

Ryan Leeman gained much of his experience while working for wineries in such challenging climates as Long Island and Washington State. Compared to California, the growing conditions in these regions are so different and difficult to work with, but the challenges gave Leeman a great basis to build his successful career on.

He is truly in a most enviable position.

Picture of He is truly in a most enviable position.

Winsome Reserve's personable winemaker Ryan Leeman, 36, thinks he's found the best of all worlds with the advent of Winsome as a top notch wine entity.

"I love where I am in my career," he admitted recently. "I am now involved in making some really superior wines and I have the wonderful 50-year-old plus vineyards of John Van Ruiten's home ranch vineyards to work with."

Interestingly, the native Ohioan (from the famous football Ohio town of Massillon) began his university career at Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo. He admits to becoming interested in wine during his stint at Cal Poly, where he "dabbled in wine drinking and winery visiting."

After two years, he transferred back east to Cornell where he majored in food science, cheese and winemaking. He points to another celebrated Cornell graduate, Helen Turley, considered a top California winemaker and consultant as a perfect role model for Leeman.
"Anything she touched became successful," Leeman pointed out. 'Now she even has her own winery (Turley Wine Cellars) and is credited as the person who really developed the Sonoma Coast as a top wine growing region."

In 2003, Leeman found his own success when he moved down to Lodi in California's San Joaquin Valley, as head winemaker for the Van Ruiten Winery.

"I immediately fell in love with this area and the wonderful grapes that were being produced in a number of locations," he recalled. "Once we got Van Ruiten to a certain volume level, I had hoped for the chance to make some really special wines. With Winsome, my dreams have become a reality."

Was he surprised that his first release was so widely accepted and accorded such accolades’ "Not really,' he confessed." I don't want to sound immodest, but I always have high expectations for my wines. I believe I know what I am doing in this field, and I always put my heart and soul into it. I am happy the wines are getting the awards that I feel they deserve."

Leeman also gives a great deal of the credit to the grapes that go into Winsome Reserve wines. "Without good grapes to start with, it is virtually impossible to make a good bottle of wine, and the Van Ruitens have been growing grapes around Lodi as long as anyone can remember. By this time they have worked out all the kinks and I have some really superior fruit to work with."

He also vocally supports the Van Ruiten Family's intention to keep the Winsome Reserve production at or below three thousand cases for the future. "If you want to make something really special that stands out on the palate, you must be careful in what you use for your blends. When I take the time to handpick the grapes and later taste the wines on an almost daily basis, that's the right way to do it. If we tried to get much bigger, the quality might possibly suffer and no one would want that."

While other winemakers might prefer the glitz and glitter that are Napa and Sonoma, Ryan Leeman seems perfectly content with his role at Winsome Reserve. He is making top-quality, award-winning wines and has the total support of the winery's owners.