If only Johann and Maria Lange could see the home place now.
The small, dryland farm they established near Acampo, Calif., in the 1870s to grow watermelons has continued to thrive and expand. Today, the fifth-generation family operation manages 8,000 acres of wine grapes in the Lodi and Clarksburg appellations. The grape-growing side of the business includes the family’s vineyards and a vineyard management service that oversees the production and harvesting of wine grapes for other vineyard owners in San Joaquin, Sacramento, Yolo, and Solano counties.
The winemaking side features an energy-efficient, labor-saving, state-of-the art winery. There, the Langes crush about 20,000 tons of grapes each year, producing some 75,000 cases of wine for the family’s case goods program including labels such as LangeTwins, Caricature, Nickname and Green Hills. The family also produces over 3 million gallons of wines for the bulk market and case good programs for various other wineries.
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Brad and his twin brother, Randall, have been farming as partners since 1974. That’s when they purchased a portion of the family land from their father, Harold, grandson of Johan and Maria. The two brothers have been directing the growth and operation of the LangeTwins family business ever since.
Their approach is based on respect for the land, responsible energy use and a desire to make authentic, high quality wines using environmentally-friendly farming and winemaking practices.
“Sustainable winegrowing is a way of life for our family,” says Brad.
Those aren’t just words, either. In fact, in 2006 the family’s San Joaquin County farm was the first in California to earn the national Leopold Conservation Award, which honors private landowners for outstanding land stewardship.
Their resource-conserving practices include the use of neutron probes to monitor soil moisture levels regularly; custom-built electrostatic sprayers that cover four rows at once for more efficient use and application of materials while minimizing impact on the environment; and introducing and preserving native grasses and trees and installing nesting boxes for owls, birds, and bats to encourage the presence of wildlife and a healthier, more diverse and stable environment.
In the meantime, aided by Brad’s wife, Susan, and Randall’s wife, Charlene, the two brothers have also assumed another role. They’re grooming the next generation of Langes to take over the farm, when that time comes. Their children – five in all between the two families – have returned to the farm after completing college. Each of them – Marissa, Aaron, Philip, Kendra and Joe – have specific responsibilities on the winery and viticulture teams.
Farming comes first
Brad oversees the vineyard work. Randall, who directs winery operations, spends much of his time on the road, spreading the news about LangeTwins wines and the Lodi Appellation.
“We keep in touch daily and stay involved with each side of the business,” Brad says.
Despite expanding into their winery business in 2006, the Lange twins are, first and foremost, farmers.
“As with all farmers, nature hands us certain challenges every year and they’re never the same from one year to the next,” Randall says. “Our job is to anticipate and react as best we can to produce a crop and to make the most of the grapes once they’re in the winery. During the growing season, we’re in the vineyards every day to ensure the health of our vines and the quality of our wine grapes. That’s how we get paid.”
The list of varieties grown by the Langes – 21 at last count – include the major California varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel, along with grapes such as Muscat Canelli, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir.
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“We have a nice, full basket of different types of wine grapes,” Randall says. “That way, if a certain variety suddenly becomes hot, we don’t have to respond in knee-jerk manner by planting acres and acres of it. We’re probably already growing it and can take advantage of that particular market opportunity as soon as it arises.”
Growing the grapes
In the past few years, the Langes have been planting more Zinfandel, Lodi’s signature variety. Over 40 percent of California’s premium Zinfandel comes from this appellation. However, it poses its share of challenges to growers.
“It’s a varietal that loves to grow,” Brad says. “Zinfandel vines grow shoots more readily than most varieties and can produce some large berries. It’s a struggle to keep berry size down while maintaining quality of the grapes. Also, because of Zinfandel’s very thin skin and susceptibility to rot, rain at harvest can be a disaster.”
The biggest disease threat to their crop is powdery mildew. “In terms of expense to prevent or control it, the damage to the crop, and the problems it can create in the winery if you don’t prevent it, it’s our number one disease to prevent,” Brad says. “No other disease takes its place.”
The Langes’ crop management practices include an annual petiole analysis in May, when about 30 percent of the flowers have bloomed, to help determine fertilizer needs of the crop. This is done in every vineyard block.
“We sample the same vine year after year, analyzing petioles from the same location,” Brad says. “Over time, this, along with soil nutrient and water quality testing, gives us a feel for what a particular vineyard is capable of doing.”
Adding their winery in 2006 has given the Lange family the opportunity to increase revenues by adding value to their grapes. At the same time, it has reduced their business risks by giving access to a broader market for their production.
Up to that point, they had been selling all of their grapes by the ton to various wineries. Now, such sales represent a much smaller portion of their total business.
“With fresh grapes you have a very narrow market window, Randall says. “Once they’re ripe, you have to sell them, regardless of the price. By making our grapes into wine, we can hold our product for a much longer time to see how the market plays out before selling.”
The Langes produce the traditional wines of this area, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Zinfandel, along with spice rack varietels, like Malbec, Petite Verdot, Tannat and Viognier.
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“The spice rack grapes are the winemaker’s tools for adjusting the blend,” Randall says. “We use them to make wines unique to our vineyard and to give our label a personality it wouldn’t have otherwise.”
The Langes have installed photovoltaic solar systems to take advantage of the area’s abundant sunshine in reducing costs of operating their viticulture headquarters, several agricultural water pumps and their winery. The winery’s 397kW systems features bi-facial solar panels over the crush pad. Not only do they produce power from sunlight coming from the sky downwards, but also from light reflecting from the ground upwards.
“As a family, we are trying to do all we can so that when future generations take over the land, it will be in better shape than when we started farming it,” Randall says.
“Sustainability is always top of mind.”
That philosophy extends from their vineyards, which are certified sustainable through The Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing, to marketing brochures and tasting notes printed on post-consumer recycled paper.
Ribbon for wildlife
The two brothers first turned their interest in responsible land stewardship practices into action more than 25 years ago. They restored 12 acres of land their grandfather had cleared in the 1930s, as was customary at the time, to plant Tokay grapes in an area of creeks and sloughs. “Looking back and based on what we know now, that wasn’t the best use of that particular piece of ground,” Randall says.
Today, native species, including grasses, elderberry bushes and wild roses, along with trees, like box elders, buckeyes, willows and oaks – some now 30 feet tall – thrive where the vineyards once grew.
Since then, the twins have undertaken four other habitat restoration projects on the farm. The latest began two years ago. Working with Audubon California and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Lange brothers are returning 25 acres of former farmland to a native savannah-type ecosystem, surrounding a small, recently-planted zinfandel vineyard.
“When finished, this project will provide a ribbon of natural habitat, allowing wildlife to move back and forth between a lowland area and a slough, “Brad says. And, it will add biodiversity to an area of the county that is very much a grape vine monoculture.”
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