Gary Arfsten Finds His Passion in Making Oakley Grown Zinfandel Wine

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    When Gary Arfsten purchased his property in 2010, he never planned of becoming a full-time vintner. Five years later, he produces some of the best Zinfandel wine within the City of Oakley.

    Located off O’Hara Avenue, Arfsten’s property is just over an acre with half of it being vines. In total, he has 375 plants which are 100% Zinfandel. He can produce 1,000 bottles of his Mi Casa Vino wine each year, however, he wants better quality wine so he produces just under 950 bottles to ensure the best grapes are used.

    img_3761According to Arfsten, Zinfandel is perfect for the area because of the sand and weather. This style of grape loves the hot weather and cool nights. Unlike Napa and Sonoma, they get the cooler sea breezes at night which puts the grapes in sleep mode, in Oakley, grapes can continue to produce throughout the night.

    Although he does not sell his wine to local shops at this time and considers himself a “boutique” winemaker, he may change his mind in the future–his wine is smooth, with a nice fruit of plum and cranberry.  Their is also a mile spice of pepper with a mild finish which is not overpowered with alcohol. For now admits he has found a passion for wine making and learning the industry while sharing a bottle with family, friends and other winemakers.

    “It’s a passion and a hobby, I am not in it for the money,” says Arfsten.

    Arfsten first realized his love of wine in his mid-20’s thanks to his father-in-law Doug Richards, who was then associated with Weibel Family Vineyards and Winery. Richards was also on the Wine Institute Board early in his career.

    “I was introduced early on to the wine industry through white Zinfandel with that sugary flavor. Sure enough, I refined my taste and now I much prefer a drier red wine,” says Arfsten.

    His love of Zinfandel made it an easy decision to transform a rundown property as his next project after retiring when he and his wife moved to Oakley from Brentwood after selling their coffee shop.

    gary-arfsten-grapesHe explained that when he took over the property, the 16-row vineyard was run down and full of weeds with the grapes being a mess.

    He took on the challenge of restoring the vineyard to a workable property by hand by cleaning up the vines with tactical pruning and removing all the weeds. Once he got it under control, he decided his grapes would be grown organically without chemicals.

    “I am organic with no chemicals and have been that way for three years,” says Arfsten. “I pick weeds by hand and the only thing I put on my grapes are sulfur which is a mold preventative. It’s an organic approved product. There is liquid and dry power forms of it and I prefer the dry powder,” explained Arfsten. “I have 16-rows so it takes me about an hour for the sulfur, but takes a week and a half of 5-hours a day picking weeds.”

    Another decision Arfsten made was mostly dry farming his grapes. Dry-farming is the practice of growing grapes using only natural annual rainfall. Arfsten says he only turns on his water when there are several days of hot weather. If it his 103-105 degrees for several days in a row, he will turn on his water.

    He says dry-farming was best for what he wanted to accomplish after speaking with several industry experts while calling Oakley’s sandy ground and climate ideal for the practice because roots can go down deep to find water sources.

    “The fact that they don’t get a whole lot of water depends on what I see with the vines. If I see they are stressing out a little bit more than I like to see, then I will give them some water. This year, I turned it on one-time because we have not had the excessive heat.”

    arfsten-winesDry-farmed grapes tend to produce a better berry according to Arfsten.

    The grape is smaller and the taste has a more intense flavor. Arfsten noted that his grapes in the front yard, which are full water, are three-fourths larger in size–he does that to compare dry farming to full water to allow him to make adjustments when needed to his crop. The process of farming his grapes has been refined over the last-five years as with time, he has gained experience to produce a better wine and make the adjustments needed given the weather cycles.

    Looking back, in 2010, Arfsten remembers his first glass of wine from his vineyard. With a chuckle he said they dumped it.

    “The 2010 crop was horrible. The crop was dying when I purchased the property and the wine was better in the ground than in someone’s mouth,” says Arfsten. “At that point, I had my head in the books non-stop and through the process was seeking out as much information as I could.”

    From there, he says with some care to the vineyard and newfound knowledge from other local growers, his 2011 crop miraculously recovered and was terrific.

    He says his 2012 was even better. Even others took notice for his wine. In the 2012 Alameda County fair, he earned bronze while in 2013, at the Contra Costa fair, he earned Blue.

    “What I have found with my wines is that when it sits in the bottle for about a year, they change the complexity 180 degrees,” explained Arfsten. “Each year it keeps getting better. For example, you can open up the 2012 and it’s really good, but six months ago it would be hit or miss on the bottle. It all depends on the amount of time you decanter which I always recommend.”

    Oakley Should Be Wine Destination

    In Contra Costa County, there are only a handful of wineries as the preference by vineyards that grow grapes is to ship them out of area to Napa, Sonoma, and other areas. At last count, Oakley grapes help make some 80-wines.

    Arfsten says it would be great if Oakley could have a tasting room showcasing all the local grapes being grown within city limits, but notes the City of Oakley has not made that process easy for those who may have been interested in the idea.

    Arfsten believes Oakley could be a wine destination one day under the right scenario, but it will take many years for that to occur noting that Lodi and Livermore are finally being recognized around the world for their wines.

    A farmer working his vineyard on Brown Road, Oakley

    A farmer working his vineyard on Brown Road, Oakley

    “I would love to see the city get behind a drive to paint us as a grape growing area. We do supply grapes to a lot of wineries and we do not get the recognition,” says Arfsten. “I think it would be a good boost for not only our economy and but our name sake as well.  People can recognize Oakley instead of being the laughing stock of the wine industry when we are really supporting a lot of the wineries.”

    Arfsten contends that Oakley would be a good location for a winery or tasting room with what is transpiring with Hannah Nicole Vineyards in Brentwood and Leer Vineyards in Byron.

    “It’s hard to have credibility within the industry when Oakley does not even have a tasting room. Ideally, we can become a destination with three or four wineries for people to visit between Oakley, Byron and Brentwood,” says Arfsten. “Oakley does not have its name out there. Nobody knows the amount of grapes that are produced here and shipped out. When I moved here, I never realized how many vineyards are here and how many grapes are grown. These are also high-quality vines.”

    Rapid Fire Q&A

    gary-arfsten-2Favorite Winery: Big fan of Michael David Winery out of Lodi. In Napa, he is a big fan of Kelham Vineyards

    Favorite Value Wine: Franciscan Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon which you can find at Trader Joe’s for about $20. He says it matches some of the $40-50 Cabernet’s you find in Napa.

    Great Holiday Wine: Lately I’ve been on a Duckhorn Vineyards kick. A reasonably priced option for folks would be Jeremy Wine Co out of Lodi.

    How much can you set up your own wine making station for: To do it on your own, it costs about $6-7 per bottle. Depending on quality, it gets much more expensive. There is nothing better than the

    pride you get in making your own wine that tastes good.

    Is the Wine Industry becoming less snooty: It’s not that its become less snooty, its that people are now trusting their own taste buds versus going off what someone else may say. People like to discover their own wine and decide what they like or do not like.


    Each week, East County Today will be doing a weekly write up on wine, wineries or folks within the wine industry. If you would like us to write about your winery or wine, contact ECT via email at burk@eastcountytoday.net