MONDAY, JUNE 19, 2023. BY RANDY CAPAROSO.
Featured Image: La Belle Nue proprietor Jacylyn Stokes among her family’s grapevines, which she also manages.
Once upon a time, Jacylyn Stokes bid farewell to her home and family in Lodi. This only made her eventual return all the more fulfilling.
“La Belle Nue tells my story, growing up as part of a Lodi farming family, traveling all over the world, then living in France, and how I brought this story back home to Lodi. Stuart Spencer [Executive Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission] once told me that a lot of people who leave Lodi never come back. I did. I made a conscious decision to come back specifically to be part of Thornton, a part of Lodi whose own story still needs to be told.”
La Belle Nue bottle.
If you have not yet discovered Ms. Stokes’ current, her second, vintage, the 2021 La Belle Nue Lodi Rosé ($22), here is the scoop: It is a pale, transparent pink-tinged rosé, as delicate in the nose as it looks, with subtle, unfussy fragrances suggesting apple skin and peach fuzz; on the palate, it is refreshingly light, tart and zesty, almost tiptoeing into crisp, lip-smacking flavors in the finish.
While the wine is quiet and understated, Ms. Stokes has plenty to say about it—all of it compelling. “The name la belle nue [the beautiful nude],” she tells us, “expresses the naked beauty I find in the Thornton area, the home base of one of my family’s ranches. There is a reason why so many wineries come here for grapes, and from all of Lodi. You get great quality for the price. The La Belle Nue rosé helps me connect directly to consumers about that fact. It tells my story because it’s made in exactly the style I like.”
Ms. Stokes continues her story: “After I graduated from the University of Washington I lived in Seattle and worked in the banking industry, focused on finance and international logistics. After a while I got restless, so when I was 26 or 27, I started working at a winery in Woodinville [outside Seattle], leading tour groups.”
As a result, it seems, Ms. Stokes caught the wine bug; telling us, “I flew to France to attend the Burgundy School of Business in Dijon, and lived there for a year and a half, getting an MBA in Wine and Spirits. Naturally, while I was there I developed a taste for the French style of winemaking. This only ignited my passion for the wine industry even more.
La Belle Nue’s Jacylyn Stokes at Consumnes River Farm.
“When I came home to Thornton I wanted to create my own wine. I got some advice from local growers like Rod Schatz and Steve Felten [owner/growers of Peltier Winery and Klinker Brick Winery respectively], and decided to take the plunge, starting with a Southern French style rosé.
“I think lots of people are still not aware of this, but Lodi is the perfect area for this type of wine. We have a warm climate like Southern France, and can always depend upon the Delta breeze to cool the grapes until they have a perfect balance.
“In 2019 I got back from Burgundy and started to work with the family business, selling grapes and managing custom farming. By 2020 I was ready to start La Belle Nue. The rosé is something that you might call a GSMC, a Southern French style blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Carignan.
“It’s very dry and light, under 12% alcohol—crafted, the way I like it, in the French style. It’s high in acidity yet fruit-forward, with aromas suggesting stone fruit like peach and pear. It’s also very floral, with little hints of elderberry.”
When asked how she came up with her target consumer, Ms. Stokes declared with perfect aplomb: “It’s for people like my own friends! That’s who I want to sell to, and they all want a good, light, dry rosé. I travel all over with girlfriends, and that’s what we drink. Realistically, in terms of sales, it’s also an ideal wine for wedding parties, the beach, and family get-togethers. That’s why on my website we offer free deliveries on more than 6 bottles!”
1800s illustration of Benson’s Ferry (on right) which opened up a pathway over the Mokelumne River between Sacramento and Stockton, giving rise to the community of Thornton. Thompson & West’s History of San Joaquin County.
Stokes’ relationship with Consumnes River Farm is also somewhat familial. “After my first vintage, 2020, I asked Jackie [Gifford, owner of Consumnes River Farm] if I could have my rosé poured in her tasting room. First, because it’s located so near to my home in Thornton. Also because I think the market for this area is still untapped. Thornton is a beautiful place with a lot of history.
“I’m not the first one in the family to dive into winemaking. My dad once had his own wine brand, Benson Ferry Vineyards. John A. Benson was the man who operated the first ferry crossing the Mokelumne River, near where the Sacramento and Cosumnes Rivers almost meet. I think the last bottling of a Benson Ferry wine was a 2009 old-vine Zinfandel.
“So you see, I grew up around grapes and wines. Dad was 34 when he started Benson Ferry. Between my grandparents, my dad, and my uncle, our family farms over 1,200 acres of grapes in Lodi, plus cherries, almonds, and walnuts. It would be great to bring more visibility to the Cosumnes River AVA, an appellation most Lodi wine lovers are not familiar with.
La Belle Nue’s Jacylyn Stokes, in one of Stokes Bros. Farms vineyards.
“I want to be part of preserving the history of Thornton; how Benson’s ferry [starting in the 1840s, connecting travel between the Sacramento and Stockton areas, and also wagon trails up to Mother Lode country in the Sierras] helped establish this community back in the 1800s, and helped Thornton become the second largest community in San Joaquin County.”
Thornton, in fact, may be a lesser-known part of Lodi precisely because it falls off the beaten path of the typical wine visitor’s search. Instead, it has preserved much of its geography and history by encompassing the Cosumnes River Preserve: a 51,000-acre nature conservancy where visitors come from all over the world to glimpse pristinely maintained, indigenous oak tree savannas, riparian forests, tule marshes, native wetland habitat and, perhaps most famously, the annual migratory arrival (between September and December) of the spectacularly graceful sandhill cranes.
Says Ms. Stokes, “I think there is a lot of untapped market in the Thornton area. Jackie and her husband Kenny [Kramer] have a history of farming in Thornton that is as long as our family’s, going back four generations. I am even thinking of reviving the Benson Ferry label with wines other than my rosé, in honor of my dad’s 60th birthday coming up. It’s down the road but could happen soon, as early as a 2024 vintage. This may complete my personal journey.”
As the La Belle Nue site proclaims on its home page: Find beauty in what you drink and who you are.
Spectacular sandhill cranes in Cosumnes Nature Preserve.
Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist who lives in Lodi, California. Randy puts bread (and wine) on the table as the Editor-at-Large and Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal, and currently blogs and does social media for Lodi Winegrape Commission’s lodiwine.com. He also contributes editorials to The Tasting Panel magazine, crafts authentic wine country experiences for sommeliers and media, and is the author of the new book “Lodi! A definitive Guide and History of America’s Largest Winegrowing Region.”
Jacylyn Stokes currently serves as one of the only female members of the Lodi Winegrape Commission Board of Directors. From her Lodi Wine profile:
HOW MANY ACRES OF WINEGRAPES DO YOU AND YOUR FAMILY FARM AND WHICH VARIETIES DO YOU GROW?
My family farms more than 1,500 acres in San Joaquin and Sacramento Counties. There isn’t a variety my family hasn’t tried to grow! My dad always thought it was important to learn by doing. We farm to learn, innovate, be unique, and – of course – have more wine to drink!
WHAT IS YOUR FIRST MEMORY OF WINE AND HOW DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO GET IN TO THE INDUSTRY?
Sitting at the kitchen table for family dinner and listening to my mom and dad talk about my dad’s first wine label. From that point on, I knew I wanted to be a part of the wine industry. I was nine.
WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOU’D LIKE PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT LODI?
Lodi growers are very passionate and knowledgeable, but humble; they’ve dedicated a large portion of their lives to keeping big producers in the U.S. in business! Without Lodi growers and viticulture, great producers like Mondavi wouldn’t have the notoriety they do today.
WHO HAS BEEN THE MOST INFLUENTIAL MENTOR IN YOUR CAREER? WHY?
My grandfather and my dad – I learn from them every day. I would not be the person I am today without them.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE LOCAL SPOT OR SPOTS IN LODI?
Towne Corner Cafe, Wine & Roses, Five Windows Beer Co., Komachi Sushi, West Oak Nosh – any location with good food and good wine!
IF YOU HAD TO CHOOSE ANOTHER CAREER OR START OVER, WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
This is it! I left corporate America to come back to what suits me best.
WHAT CHORE DO YOU ABSOLUTELY HATE DOING?
Taking out the trash!
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