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Utahn follows natural path of winemaking

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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Local wine maker, Evan Lewandowski samples one of his wines. Grapes are from CA, but processing happens in Utah. He eventually wants to grow vineyard here in Utah. Thursday, June 13, 2013.

By Heather May

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jun 18 2013 07:51PM
Updated Dec 7, 2013 11:33PM

The story of how 30-year-old Evan Lewandowski began making wine in Utah starts with a guy walking into a bar.

Lewandowski, who moved to Utah for the snow — and college — in 2001, had his first inkling that wine was his calling after he tried a Robert Mondavi sauvignon blanc while busing tables at the defunct L’Avenue restaurant. It was a far cry from the swill in a box he drank at college parties.

That led him to work as a server at a wine bar in Park City, where a man from Communicating for Agriculture, a group that places interns on farms and in other agricultural businesses, walked in.

Thus began years of travel to work at wineries around the world — from northern California to Australia and New Zealand, to northern Italy and then a vineyard thriving at more than 10,000 feet in Argentina. All along he was focusing on regions with similar soils or high altitudes like Utah’s.

Even when he had the chance to stay in Alsace, France — his "holy grail" of wineries where he helped make the dry Rieslings he loves — Lewandowski was committed to returning to Utah, where he is now a sommelier at Pago restaurant in Salt Lake City.

"No matter where I’ve been in the last eight years, I’ve always been in Utah in my head," said Lewandowski, who frequently moved as a son of Air Force lieutenant colonel. "I’ve always been thinking about what’s going to happen here."

Last month, Lewandowski produced the first of three wines under the Ruth Lewandowski label. The white wine, called Mahlon, is made of arneis grapes and pairs with light summer dishes.

A second wine, Chilion, is expected to be released at the end of June. Made with cortese grapes — and fermented with the skins — it will have an orange tinge and a pleasant amount of tannin, Lewandowski said.

Boaz, a red made with carignan grapes, will be out in the early fall.

While the grapes come from Mendocino County, Calif., some of the pressing and all of the fermenting and bottling are done in Utah. Even the bottle labels are shaped like the state.

Lewandowski is a minimalist in the winery. He doesn’t inoculate with cultured yeast strains, but lets the grapes ferment naturally. He doesn’t stop malolactic fermentation by chilling the wine or using sulphur, which makes filtration almost unnecessary, he said.

"When grapes are grown and they’re grown well, there’s very little that should be happening in the winery," he said.

That means the Mahlon is a bit cloudy.

"All of those things that are in the wine causing it to be a little bit hazy, those are things that contribute to mouth feel, that contribute to aroma or flavor compounds," he said. "To filter that out, you would be taking away something that is potentially pleasant just for the sake of aesthetics."

The name of the winery, as well as the names of the wines, also reveals Lewandowski’s natural bent. Ruth is for the book in the Old Testament that tells the story of the woman marrying Mahlon (whose brother was Chilion).

Mahlon dies "and Ruth marries Boaz. Then generations later, Jesus is born," Lewandowski said. "It’s a story of death and redemption."

It also is the basis of the Christian’s farming philosophy: Death is the engine of life in the soil. That’s why the bottle designs shows upside-down animals sprouting flowers from their mouths.

Caputo Market and Deli sells the Ruth Lewandowski wine by the glass at its locations in downtown Salt Lake City and 15th and 15th. Matt Caputo said he included Mahlon on the wine list because "his wine is mind-blowingly good with cheese, smoked and cured meats." Caputo also believes Lewandowski will put Utah "on the map for natural wines."

Lewandowski hopes so, too.

He is actively looking for a vineyard site in southern Utah and in other spots where orchards thrive.

While the physical climate is right in certain places in Utah, the political climate isn’t. But he’s certain it will change. "I actually think I can grow wine on a world-class scale," he said.

It will take five years from the time he plants his first vine to produce wine— enough time to make the Ruth Lewandowski name recognizable.

"These wines I have coming out in the next three years are a means to an end," he said. "I want to establish some sort of presence here and show people I’m committed to Utah."

hmay@sltrib.com

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