A Look Inside California’s High Desert Wine Oasis
“We are family-owned, hands-on, and [our wines are] produced with a lot of love. Picture our tasting room like the old TV show, Cheers.
It’s about family. To me, wine is a social beverage. It brings people together.”
Stephen Hemmert, president of the Antelope Valley Winegrowers Association and Winemaker at Stephen Hemmert Wines, sat down with us to share his personal journey into winemaking and discuss what it’s like to produce award-winning wine in the high desert.
Rock and roll roots
Like many before him, Stephen Hemmert was drawn to California for its opportunity. Years ago, he moved from Oklahoma with his band in hopes of becoming a famous rock star. Amazing experiences were had as they played alongside The GoGos and Huey Lewis and the News – however they were unable to make a living and ultimately had to find new direction.
Not all was lost for Hemmert – in fact, he was about to uncover a true passion for something that he had yet to learn about.
A college kid from Oklahoma, Hemmert was familiar with beer and the occasional whiskey, but wine was a foreign concept. He had a friend who worked in the restaurant industry who encouraged him to sample some wine.
“I gravitated, like a lot of people, towards sweeter wines in the beginning. I think my big drink at the time was Blue Nun, which is like a sweeter Gewurztraminer-Riesling sort of combo. I then lifted myself up to a beautiful white zinfandel.”
The aha moment
After trying wines at the restaurant, Hemmert began making trips up to Napa and Sonoma from Los Angeles. He remembers thinking, “there’s gotta be more to this because there’s all these great wines and I’m not drinking the great wine stuff.”
One of the wineries in Sonoma had a tasting that completely changed Hemmert’s perspective. The man leading the tasting prefaced it with saying they “don’t make soda pop wines.” It was the first time Hemmert had been properly educated on “true dry wines” after mainly enjoying sweet wines. This was his “aha moment.” He finally understood what chardonnay, merlot, cabernet was supposed to taste like. He returned to LA excitedly thinking “now I got it.”
Garage band to garage wine
In 1997, Hemmert began making wine in his garage using home kits and grapes harvested from his neighbor’s 15-acre vineyard. He entered two amateur contests – one national and the other international. He won silver in both.
It wasn’t until 2004 that Hemmert turned his small experiment into a full-blown hobby. He shared this hobby with his friend who owned a French restaurant and six acres of vines. They enjoyed this wine amongst themselves, often giving it to friends and family.
In 2009, a winery opened down the street from Hemmert and he and his friend were invited to make wine there professionally. This was a big deal because it meant the pair could legally sell their wine, effectively turning their operation from a hobby into a business.
Hemmert started making his own wine in 2010 at the winery.
“The owner was kind enough to let me come down once every month or so and I’d get to pour my wine. That’s when it really started taking off.”
The woman who changed everything
In 2012, Hemmert was invited to a party in Hollywood. He showed up, bottle of his zinfandel in tow, and that was the night he met his fiancé, Nicole St. Julian. She fell in love with his wine – and later with him.
“She said, ‘Why aren’t you doing something with this?’ I said, ‘Well, I am. I’m making it professionally down the street.’ She goes, ‘No, no, no. You make great wine. Why don’t we look for something? Why don’t we find our own place?’”
It was St. Julian that pushed Hemmert to pursue making wine as a career. And in March 2018 they got one step closer to that reality when they received a call from a friend who had just started a small winery in the high desert of Lancaster, California. He had a building they needed to look at.
When they arrived, they were met with an old Firestone tire store from 1954. The landlord loved them and miraculously agreed to give it to them that day – he was so excited that he even put in all the electrical and plumbing for free.
To Hemmert’s dismay, they didn’t quite make it to harvest that year, which would be the “first year since 1997 he hadn’t harvested some kind of grape.” Luckily, they uncovered some late-season pinot noir and were able to make their first wine after all.
“We started out with 10 or 11 barrels of wine, most of it coming from the prior winery. We did a transfer from his license to my new one. And then, Nicole and I just opened the doors and started working really hard.”
Hemmert and St. Julian opened Stephen Hemmert Wines as partners on November 2, 2018.
Covid couldn't keep them down
A year and two months after the winery opened, Covid hit.
“We were scared to death, absolutely scared to death. We were self-funded. We didn’t have any backers. We did it all on our credit cards and personal credit – I even pulled a little money out of my 401k.”
Hemmert joked about the fact they “probably helped some people become real alcoholics” as customers were coming in and buying multiple cases at a time. Due to covid regulations in California, everything had to be outside. Lancaster, being in the high desert, can get down to 30 degrees at night and sometimes up to 111 degrees during a summer day. Needless to say, outside tastings simply weren’t an option.
Not only did Stephen Hemmert Wines survive covid, but they had two of their biggest weekends and have been expanding ever since.
The value in variety
“We make a lot of wines, but in very small amounts. People like variety…it keeps them coming back over and over again. It has worked for us so well that our wine club has grown so large, we had to double our harvest from last year.”
Zinfandel, rosé, tannat, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, grenache – this is just a taste of the varietals that Hemmert produces. Click HERE to see the extensive wine list.
Normally, SHW gets six to seven tons of grapes a year, resulting in 12 to 14 barrels of wine. Last year, they harvested 15 tons resulting in 30 barrels – all of which is now stacked from floor to ceiling within the little winery.
Hemmert takes a lot of pride in what he does, admitting that “winemakers have egos – like chefs” and through his many years of experience winemaking, he has learned that his favorite length of time to age red wines is 18 months. While Hemmert would “never sell wine he wasn’t completely happy with”, he is excited to grow and position the winery so they can “really age something.”
Getting the grapes
The high desert of Antelope Valley contains five or six wineries and used to be home to a few large vineyards that shared their harvest amongst these wineries. Unfortunately, the past few years experienced the loss of these vineyards and now all the wineries must outsource some, if not all their grapes from Paso Robles. Hemmert refers to his winery as the “oasis in the desert” as it not only acts as a welcome relief for humans but attracts “every critter in the world. It’s a fight to keep grapes on the vine.”
It’s a four-hour drive from Lancaster to Paso Robles and because of their recent growth, SHW had to do the drive four times last year.
Although “Paso Robles fruit is amazing,” Hemmert reminisces on the days when the Antelope Valley could pride themselves in producing “locally made wine from local grapes.” Hemmert shared news of a new vineyard coming to the valley in 2023. Hopefully in the next couple years, sourcing completely locally will once again be an option.
Harvest & bottling
To Hemmert, everything is exciting about the business, but “harvest and bottling are the icing on the cake.”
During harvest, “you’re tasting the grapes, you’re picking ‘em up, you’re talking to the winemakers or the person who grew the grapes, you’re asking questions about how they are grown, and things you are looking for in the future. Even though it’s a ton of work from crushing to destemming to starting the fermentation process – it’s just a joy.”
The whole year to year and a half in between involves tasting and adjusting and hoping the grapes and the yeast are interacting just as beautifully as you imagine.
And then bottling arrives and all the hard work pays off. SHW loves to gather some of their top wine club members, treat them to a meal and conversation, allow them to taste the wine as its bottled, and then take home a bottle of their choice.
A well-balanced team
Stephen Hemmert and Nicole St. Julian are equal partners in both love and business. From trips to Paso Robles to harvest to bottling, the pair do everything as a team.
One of Hemmert’s favorite parts of working with his fiancé is that she keeps him grounded and his “ego in check.”
“I’m not going around saying ‘Oh, I’m the greatest winemaker,’ but maybe I’ll come in and say ‘Man, I love this cabernet mixed with a little bit of merlot,’ and she’ll say, ‘Nope. It’s not going to appeal to a woman’s taste.’ Or I may say, ‘I’m going to make this wine really big and last for ten years – maybe not even drink it for two.’ She goes, “No, no, no. Sell this stuff. Make it soft and sexy right now.’ She keeps me focused not so much on what I like, but on what the average customer will like.”
Not only does St. Julian maintain a helpful and necessary perspective, she is also responsible for designing the beautiful tasting room and wine labels, her taste often complimented by visitors.
Paella parties in the desert
Stephen Hemmert Wines hosts many events throughout the year but their most exciting tradition is their Harvest Grape Stomp and Paella Party.
“I learned to cook paella from a buddy down the street who’s from Spain. I make two 48-inch paellas that feed 60 to 80 people. People come in and they join arms and stomp the leftover grapes while the music plays. We serve a big paella, we have a live musician or band, we give away gifts, and have appetizers galore.”
The party is not only to celebrate the end of harvest but also to celebrate all the people that have supported Stephen Hemmert Wines over the years.
Wines of passion
The winery shows no signs of slowing down and is aiming to double their wine club members by this time next year from 137 members to 300.
The logo is “wines of passion” and that’s exactly what Stephen Hemmert Wines is. After working for Sysco Foods for 22 years, Stephen Hemmert was able to retire last July, allowing him to dedicate his full life to winemaking which he “thank[s] God and the universe” for every day.
Click HERE to find out more about Stephen Hemmert Wines: The Oasis in the Desert.