Evan Lewandowski runs what’s arguably the most unconventional winemaking operation in the U.S. First, he crushes organically farmed grapes from Mendocino, California—fairly standard, but that’s just the start. He then transports the fermenting juice in a refrigerated truck to finish and mature the wine in a carpentry warehouse-turned-winery in Salt Lake City.
Those bottles, under the Ruth Lewandowski label, have turned heads at natural wine fairs like RAW. Next summer, he’ll plant his first vines in Utah, in a high-altitude parcel between Bryce Canyon National Park and Capitol Reef. We caught up with him about the trials of Utah grape growing, and the wines that inspired him down this unusual path.
Riesling has always been my passion. I love the ripe, dry, opulent styles from Alsace, which could work very well here.
Were there any crazy hurdles that you came across in setting up your winery?
Well, there’s the fact that more than half the population of Utah doesn’t drink, and the tax is pretty absurd. But in terms of actual laws, it’s a control state, so anything above four-percent alcohol has to be purchased from a state-run liquor store. If you’re a producer and want to have a tasting room, you can apply for a license to be an agent of the state, which I have… Nobody in the neighborhood said no.
You’re about to plant some vineyards in Utah. What grape varieties can we expect you to grow there?
Grüner Veltliner, Kerner and Riesling will be the first to go in the ground. Riesling has always been my passion. I love the ripe, dry, opulent styles from Alsace, which could work very well here. I’ll plant Schiava too, because it seems like a natural fit: cool climate, alpine stuff. Then, if that works, I might try Blaufränkisch and Mondeuse. But it’ll be a big, expensive litmus test.
Since it’s virgin vine territory, how did you settle on the site for planting?
If you talk to the old-timers in viticulture in a lot of parts of the world, they’ll tell you that if you can ripen an apple and your cherries don’t get frost in the spring, chances are it’s a good spot for vines. That’s what I was going off of. But the elevation of the site is the biggest factor in determining what I can grow. It’s at 6,400 feet in a high desert. That’s a good 3,000 feet above the highest vineyard in California. What’s great is that it’s ideally situated for dry farming. We get between 18 and 21 inches of rain a year and plenty of sun exposure. It’s like if Alto Adige and Salta, Argentina, had a baby.
I’m sure there are a lot of unromantic behind-the-scenes issues you grapple with, moving fermenting juice from California to Utah.
Yeah. I transport the whites and rosé in Flextank, which is a polyethylene-based form of plastic tank. Mine are egg-shaped and hold 230 gallons. If you’ve never tried to secure an egg-shaped tank inside a moving vessel, let me tell you: it’s hard. I’m the king of tie-down straps now. I get so much help from my friends, though. Sam Bilbro from Idlewild and I go way back. We both started our projects in 2012, and we both work pretty heavily in the Fox Hill vineyard. A lot of our picks and logistics line up, so I move my equipment out to his winery and basically trade tank space and floor space for my labor, helping him out during harvest for his label…It’s kind of a perfect relationship.