The Ehlers family history, within the wine business, began during the early days of prohibition. Some of the first, family ancestors arrived in California in 1835 where they settled in the town of Lockeford and in the town of Courtland, along the Sacramento river. The more recent family migrated to California after a brief stay in Minnesota after arriving from Germany.
However, our father, grandfather and great grandfather, Herman Walter Ehlers, began his education in wine, in 1921, working at the “National Fruit Product Company” which later became the Shewan-Jones Winery in Lodi. His first job was moving wine around in the cellar as a young teenager, where he remembers the grapes being brought to the winery by horse and wagon. Eight years later, while gaining experience working in the laboratory with E.H. Brown, protégé of Professor W. V. Cruess, a noted enologist of the day, Herman Ehlers became a winemaker for Shewan-Jones.
During his time as winemaker for Shewan Jones, he had an opportunity to be involved with the wineries two largest contributions to the wine industry. The first innovation was the use of sulfur dioxide to prevent the growth of bacteria in wine with the second innovation being the first winery in California to use refrigeration, to maintain the stabilization of wines.
Since this period was during prohibition, the only wines bottled and made were sacramental wines. After the repeal of prohibition, however, the winery began making a variety of red and white wines while continuing to concentrate heavily on sweet vintages.
In 1934, as the newly formed FBI looked for the Chicago mobster John Dillinger and, in Germany, Adolph Hitler rose to power, Lodi saw the completion of the new East Side Winery, which was just in time for the 1934 crush. The winery installed Herman Ehlers as East Side’s first master winemaker, a position he held for over 41 years along with serving on the wineries board of directors for 7. Herman Ehlers had also returned to Germany a few times to explore and assist with winemaking at the request of a few German wineries.
In 1936, East Side Winery built their brandy production and bottling room along with the installation of new storage tanks. Thus, began East Side Wineries reputation as California’s leader in the production of the finest brandies. 1954 saw the inception of a joint venture between East Side Winery and Korbel Brothers of Napa. This venture operated with Herman Ehlers making the brandy and East Side Winery providing the bottling services. Korbel, in turn, provided the bottles, labels and marketing of the brandy. The success of this association lasted until 1975.
During the peak production period for East Side Winery, along with their bottling of brandy, they were producing 50 varieties of dry wines and from 16 to 20 sweet wines.
Four winemakers developed under the skillful training of our grandfather, Herman Ehlers, during his time as master winemaker for East Side. They were Leo Berta of Paul Masson; Lawrence Quaccia and Delford Seeman of the Guild Company; and Reggie Gianelli, who took Herman’s place as winemaker at East Side. Ultimately, the last people to be tutored by Herman Ehlers were his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Herman Ehlers’ eldest son, Walter, continued in his father’s footsteps by beginning his training in the winery cellar room and tending to the family vineyards. The Ehlers family first, 65-acre vineyards were comprised of some of the older California varietals, such as, Emerald Riesling, Petite Syrah, Ruby Cabernet, Barberra, Semillon. and Mission.
In the 1970’s, Herman Ehlers created a dessert wine called Angelic Antigua. In fact, the story is told that “…. a gentleman from New Orleans use to fly into Lodi on a regular basis, using his own plane, just to purchase cases of Angelic Antigua and visit the master winemaker.” The family still retains two bottles of Angelic Antigua, with its unique thin cork skin label, of which each bottle was numbered before offered for sale. The most recent appraisals of these bottles were at $500.00 each.
This wine, along with many other wines made by Herman, garnered awards all over California. In fact, Herman Ehlers garnered too many gold, silver and bronze medals, from multiple competitions through out his career, to count. But he felt the highest honor he ever received was a lifetime membership into the American Society of Enologists. Not bad for a self-taught man who was never afforded the time to finish high school, but instead, worked for the family during the long years of the depression.
1951 saw Herman’s eldest son, Walter, branching out and expanding his farming ventures with the formation of the Herman Ehlers and Sons, corporation. At one time the corporation was farming over 4000 acres.
That same year brought the birth of his only son, Steven Ehlers, which continued the family tradition of introducing the next generation into the family wine business. Steven began working in the vineyards, at an early age, learning to irrigate, prune, sucker, and harvest the grapes by hand. In fact, as many children of Lodi wine-grape producers, you could see these children driving tractors in their family vineyards before they could actually reach the pedals, except with the help of wooden blocks.
Memories, for Steven, include having the local school bus drop him off at the winery, where his dad, Walter Ehlers, and grandfather, Herman Ehlers, were at work. Perched on a bar stool, in the laboratory, often found Steven watching grandfather Herman, working his magic in creating his multiple, award, winning wines. Thus Steven continued his “on the job training and experience.”
From left to right:
Steven Ehlers Sr., Walt Ehlers, Steven Ehlers Jr.
Three generations walking in the Ehlers Chardonnay vineyard.
After high school graduation, Steven found himself entering the family business, deciding to pass on college. His feelings were, “college is for some but, it wasn’t for me. Like my grandfather and father, I feel nothing can take the place of years of experience gained while working with the masters.”
In 1980, Steven and his father, Walter, planted, a newly acquired 80 acres of land, into a Tokay vineyard. Shortly, there after, they were approached by a Fetzer Winery representative, who wished to offer them a long term contract for Merlot grapes. Walter and Steve decided to cut down their Tokays and graft the new Merlots on to the stumps. This decision was not hard to make since the price offered for Merlot grapes, in 1986, was $1400.00 a ton. These vineyards are now the source for our award winning, and highly acclaimed, Merlot.
In the following years the vineyards grew to include the vines planted on their 400+ acre, delta, island ranch. The current Ehlers family vineyards are comprised of Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Verdelho (our rare, Portuguese white wine), Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Burger, and Syrah grapes. Because of the consistent, high quality of the grapes harvested, the Ehlers family have garnered long term, high priced contracts from other Lodi, Napa-Sonoma, Monterey, Santa Cruz and Paso Robles wineries.
1976 to 1981, brought the arrival of the current generation of vintners, Steven Ehlers junior, his brother, Brett Ehlers and their sister, Elishia Ehlers. Again, the next generation began at an early age, to follow in their father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. Steven junior, besides working in the family’s vineyards, attended Long Beach State University and Fresno State before returning, fulltime, to the family business in 1998. Brett Ehlers, returned to the family business after attending UOP, leaving with a degree in Business Administration in 2001. Elishia Ehlers, after high school, decided to join her brothers working in the winery.
In 2002, Walter and Steven senior, after prompting from family and friends, decided to start their own winery. Unfortunately, Herman Ehlers did not live to see the family winery come to fruition. 1976 to 1981, brought the arrival of the current generation of vintners, Steven Ehlers junior, his brother, Brett Ehlers and their sister, Elishia Ehlers. Again, the next generation began at an early age, to follow in their father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. Steven junior, besides working in the family’s vineyards, attended Long Beach State University and Fresno State before returning, full time, to the family business in 1998. Brett Ehlers, returned to the family business after attending UOP, leaving with a degree in Business Administration in 2001. Elishia Ehlers, after high school, decided to join her brothers working in the winery.
Now with the production of wines currently at 4500 cases a year, and multiple awards won by the current generation of viticulturists and winemakers, the family tradition moves forward. The current wines continue to reflect the wishes of great-grandfather Herman. He stated, “The trend in wines now is that everything must be sweet. The US public has been conditioned to sweetness. They want sweet wines because the wineries, to create a market, started telling the public that this is the kind of wines they should be drinking. I enjoy a tartness, the taste that comes from the natural elements in the grape.” So with this kept in mind, the Ehlers family have tried to create wines that remain true to the grapes harvested from their estate vineyards.
Grandfather Ehlers, also felt the worst threat to the wine quality in America is the absorption of small and independent wineries, by large conglomerates. He felt that the personal touch in winemaking is lost. We have found that with the current size of our winery, we have been able to maintain that personal touch by making wines of the highest quality, solely by the family.
Unfortunately, 2005 brought loss and sorrow as we are no longer using the Ehlers family name on our wines due to a legal battle with a winery in St. Helena. After winning multiple awards under our old label, using our family name, we will strive to continue to make the same quality wines under our NEW LABELS…..E2 Family Winery.
Then in 2007 personal tragedy struck when we suffered the loss, of our father, grand father and great-grand father, Walter Ehlers. As every family knows, life brings crushing blows which test your faith……. In this regard the Ehlers Family wishes to express our sorrow and send our prayers out to the US families who have endured great loss from Hurricane Sandy; the HORRIFIC Sandy Hook killings; the Islamic terrorist attack in Boston and the terrifying Oklahoma tornadoes. With time, the American people with show, ourselves and the world, that we are a strong, courageous people who will always endure….HOPE FLOATS!!
As we now look forward to the harvest of 2013 , having been blessed to survive the very difficult and challenging past economic times and depression, we experience that life renews with the highly anticipated births of two new members to the Ehlers Family around the hoildays!!
Life continues to affirm, to us all, that our priority and greatest joy…………. is our FAMILIES!