The little winery that could
Lolonis Winery General Manager Phillip Lolonis knows a lot about small beginnings.
“When I was 13 years old, I put the labels on our first 500 cases of Chardonnay with Elmer’s Glue,” he says with a laugh. Back in those days, Lolonis was more interested in soccer—he played on a top team at De La Salle High and spent his teenage summers playing in Europe—but when he decided not to pursue a pro career, he returned to the family business.
Now 35, Lolonis has helped his family’s tiny enterprise grow into a still-small but well-respected winery, thanks to savvy marketing and solid reviews from wine experts. The winery’s 2001 Petros Red and 2002 Eugenia Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc each received a 90 rating from Wine Enthusiast. And Lolonis’s Ladybug wines have grown from 500 cases three years ago to more than 25,000 cases in 2006.
“Ladybug Red is out-rating wines from Napa that cost twice as much,” says Lolonis, whose Ladybug Red and White are available at Andronico’s and Whole Foods for around $13. “In the wine industry overall, ‘critter’ wines have really taken off—kangaroos, llamas, penguins, and such. But, unlike ladybugs, most of those critters really don’t belong in the vineyard. Luckily, we trademarked Ladybug, and we have a lot of fun with the brand: Every June, we release about a million ladybugs into the vineyard to kick off our summer wine release.”
The Lolonis vineyards are organic, but the family didn’t seek certification because organic foods are so trendy these days. “We’re old-world farmers,” says Lolonis. “My grandparents made it through the Depression and decided not to farm with pesticides because they were so expensive. We just kept that up, and the trend finally caught up to us.”
Although the Lolonis business offices are in Walnut Creek, the family’s 86-year-old vineyards are located in Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley. Lolonis, his mother, Maureen, and uncle, Achilles Hadges, are the winery’s only salespeople, and they spend much of the year taking red-eye flights to cities such as Atlanta, Boston, and Washington, D.C., to distribute wines to hip restaurants and high-end grocers.
“Most of the year, I live in airplanes and hotels,” says Lolonis, “and then I go up to Redwood Valley to harvest for two months—my favorite time of the year. Redwood Valley is a real gem in the Northern California wine scene. It’s like Napa or Sonoma was 40 years ago. It’s so quiet up there, you can hear a pin drop.”
For information, go to www.lolonis.com.