Some moments in pop culture deserve a toast, such as when Season 3 of “Star Trek: Picard” sent critics and “Trekkies” on a warp-speed ride of jubilation, most hailing it the franchise’s best story in decades. Thanks to a small winery in Lodi, enthusiasts who were on that galactic high could pour their pleasure right into a glass.
E2 Family Winery has spent six years bringing grape science to the stars — and not just for its Trek vintages, but also for any company from Hollywood to New York that wants commemorative bottles for strengthening a brand’s reach. Its owners, the Ehler family, have barreled reds and whites for nationally known athletes, a touring rock band and even the state of Tennessee’s week-long remembrance of Elvis Presley.
It’s a rare niche the modest, fourth-generation winemaking operation has found for itself. While E2’s own classic zins and pinot noirs are mainly sold in San Joaquin County, the contract wines it has created are now circulating all over the world — and often passing through the hands of big-time celebrities.
In a state with a $61.5 billion wine industry, entertainment contracts have kept the Ehlers from getting lost in California’s ever-expanding ocean of grapes. They’ve done that with winemaking ingenuity — and by intentionally taking a production road less traveled.
“What these companies are really looking for are small quantities that are made in a very hands-on way,” says Brett Ehlers, E2’s winemaker and co-owner. “A lot of the bottles we’ve used are vodka bottles or bourbon bottles because of the concept that the client likes. But those bottles don’t fit on the bottling line. They’re filled by hand. Corks get put in by hand. Labels get applied by hand. And so, not too many wineries really want to invest that kind of time and labor; but we do, and that’s what’s given us these great relationships.”
Brett adds, smiling, “I’ve never been to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, but my wines have.”
Savvy improvisation is nothing new to the Ehlers. Brett’s great-grandfather, Herman Walter Ehlers, was one of the only vintners in California to keep barreling wine during Prohibition. Working for Lodi’s East Side Winery, Herman exploited a carve-out in the Volstead Act that allowed for helping churches with Holy Communion. He later bought 420 acres of his own near Lodi’s edge of the California Delta, planting grapes and fermenting vintages for the rest of his days. In 2000, Herman’s children and grandchildren turned those vineyards into E2 Family Winery. Today, Brett keeps a photograph of Herman in his office. He says one of E2’s own releases, Farmer’s Table, is a tribute to the man’s influence.
“We’d go to the back of his house where he had his barn with barrels of wine inside it,” Brett remembers. “We’d be underneath this overhang at a picnic table and have lunch and just hang out with him. There was a red-and-white checkered tablecloth, and that’s the image we used for our Farmer’s Table.”
Over the years, Farmer’s Table and E2’s other brand, Zagan’s Fire, have faced daunting competition. Brett, who now runs the business with his brother, Steven Jr., and his sister, Elishia, has had to fight for their shelf space even in Lodi stores, particularly against mega-companies like E.&J. Gallo. Searching for new marketing options, he started using an online wine platform in 2017, which soon led to an unexpected connection with Wines that Rock, a licensing partner with ViacomCBS.
Wines that Rock makes fan-bolstering wines for properties of CBS and Paramount Pictures. There were new Star Trek shows in the works, and it was time to make wine around them. The Ehlers ultimately got the job, connecting them to a larger trend around celebrity-linked alcohol products that’s grown on the success of brands like Jay-Z’s D’ussé cognac, Matthew McConaughey’s Wild Turkey Longbranch bourbon, KISS’s Cold Gin and George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila company, the latter of which sold for $2 billion in 2017.
Two years after Clooney hit that milestone, E2 launched a Paramount wine: the United Federation of Planets Special North Coast Old Vine Zinfandel. It was poured into a tall, fashionable vodka-style bottle bearing the fleet insignia that every famous Star Trek character has worn since 1966. “Blended by our intergalactic sommelier and designed to hit the palates of multiple planets,” its label reads, “the Federation wines are created especially for diplomatic banquets, Federation Council gatherings and planetary assemblies.”
Trek devotees know such space soirees are often depicted in the saga’s more ambitious episodes. The Federation wine allows for a sipping homage to those scenes, and it does that with a wine marked by its bright, easy-drinking elegance. For the most ravenous fans, E2 also brought out its 2018 Klingon Blood Wine, a tribute to the primal myths and rituals of the best-known alien warrior race in Star Trek. Made with cabernet sauvignon grapes and filled into a moonshine-type bottle, every crimson taste of this “blood” brings a smoked pepper depth to its dark-berry dimensions.
The Federation and Klingon wines are sold at comic book and science fiction conventions, as well as through online retailers. E2’s ability to execute those projects led to new opportunities, including with World Wrestling Entertainment. That raucous show wanted to honor the careers of its beloved muscle-bound maniacs, particularly the Undertaker and the Ultimate Warrior. E2 soon released the WWE Ultimate Warrior North Coast Zinfandel, wax-topped in a bourbon bottle and filled with a wine that balances electric notes of nutmeg with a clean, crisp base flavor. The Undertaker’s cabernet sauvignon has a label that glows menacingly in the dark.
Making Wines to Represent a Star
Recently, E2 Winery has landed contracts with renowned athletes. It’s made bottles for National Football League legend Fred Biletnikoff, whose wines are sold at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas and various Raiders-themed sports bars, as well as Major League Baseball’s home run hero Greg Vaughn, a Sacramento native who launched the 23 Wines label.
For Elishia Ehlers, one exciting project involved working with Becca Kufrin, who became a reality TV luminary during Season 14 of “The Bachelorette.” Kufrin, who has more than 1.2 million followers on Instagram, worked with E2 on making a brand of sparkling wine to sell at wedding expos and her other public appearances.
“She’s been on our team for about three years,” Elishia notes. “She’s just one of the sweetest, most genuine people that I’ve met in this industry. And she’s new to the industry herself, so being able to help mentor her and give her direction, as her public presence has just grown, has been really great.”
There’s an obvious question Brett Ehlers gets as a winemaker: How does he match specific formulations to the entertainment icons and out-sized personalities he’s working with? It starts with E2 growing 10 different grape varietals on its vineyard and having partnerships with growers in Napa and Sonoma counties. Brett says that when a client first comes in, he asks that they arrive knowing what varietals they’re interested in — and bring a bottle of their own favorite wine.
“The easiest way to do it is, they bring in what they think is amazing, and we’ll recreate it with the wines I have access to,” he explains. “The goal would be to get as close to that bottle as possible, and we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been successful at that.”
It’s an approach that has paid off. E2 is now making wine for several well-known universities’ alumni associations. Its client portfolio is getting wider and more diverse.
“These high-end, celebrity-type brands give you instant recognition,” Brett stresses. “You produce one round of it with them, they’re getting an article in The New York Times. After that, when people read on the back of the bottle, it all leads back to our winery.”
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