Last month, Maria A. Karamitsos returned to Lodi to discover more California Greek wine. Come along and meet the Parises family of St. Sophia Wines.
More California Greek wine: Lodi’s St. Sophia Wines
Since discovering my first California Greek winery in 2011, I’ve been on a quest to visit them all. And there are many! Last year, while in California, my family and I took a side trip to Lodi, the world’s Zinfandel capital. There we met two Greek families, living and making wine in the region. Upon return, I discovered another Lodi Greek family making wine — the Parises family. In October I traveled to Sacramento, and planned to return to Lodi. I sent a message via their website. I explained my mission to uncover all the California Greek wine, and asked if we could meet. This family winery is very small, but they enthusiastically invited me to the home of daughter Angela Brusa, so I could learn more about them and their wines.
My cousin accompanied me on this trip. We hopped in our rental car and zipped down CA-99. With no traffic, we traveled the 30 miles in about as many minutes. Lodi awaited us — beautiful, serene, and lush. I became more and more excited as the vines came into view. We arrived. Something about the vines calls to me. If I’m ever missing, I may have run away to a vineyard. That or Crete — but I digress. We stopped first at Stama Winery and Omega Cellars, where I met up with now old friends. Wonderful Greek hospitality awaited us. We tasted wine, and then headed out to meet yet another California Greek wine family.
Meet the Parises Family of St. Sophia Wines
We headed toward downtown. No vines here, just a warm and cozy home, where I met the Parises family of St. Sophia Wines. We were greeted with hugs, smiles, a table full of food, and of course, St. Sophia wines. Most of the family gathered to share their story, and get acquainted. My cousin asked me later how long I’ve known them. She was surprised to learn that this was the first time we met. This is Greek hospitality, and I told her, this is typical. This incredible filoxenia is part of our DNA. Doesn’t matter if it’s a business meeting, or a coffee with friends. You’re greeted warmly, and welcomed as if you’re part of the family.
Mom Elisa, son Paul, daughter Angela and her husband Jim, as well as their daughter Gia and her fiance Vasili, welcomed us. Dad Dan passed away in 2013. Wine was a passion for Dan, and through the years, he persevered to create quality, hand-crafted wine from their tiny vineyard. It was so important to him, that the family has soldiered on, keeping Dan’s memory alive with the pruning of every vine, and every vintage they make.
Dan was born and raised in Lodi. His parents, Simeon and Angelica, were immigrants from Kefalonia. Simeon came from a wine growing family. When he arrived in the States, a friend who lived in Lodi told him to come to the small community — he could grow grapes there.
Dan and his two brothers grew up on their family’s farm, and learned lessons working in the fields. One day, when he was a teenager, Dan was out with his father. They came upon a young woman driving a tractor. Simeon turned to his son and said, “That’s the kind of woman you should marry!” This turned out to be prophetic.
Making a life
Later Dan met the love of his life, Elisa Righetti. The daughter of Italian immigrants from Magliolo, Elisa also grew up in a farming family. They soon realized their paths had crossed before — Dan had known her brother when they both served in the National Guard, and their fathers knew each other. As fate would have it, they later determined that Elisa was the aforementioned young woman driving the tractor. They married in 1960.
Dan and Elisa had an adventure-filled 53 years of marriage. From raising children, to Dan’s career in public service, to continuing the family’s farming tradition, they worked side-by-side — true partners in every sense of the word.
He was known for his love of his family and friends, as well as farming. Dan was extremely proud of his Greek heritage, and shared it enthusiastically.
Dan’s dream was to make a good wine, and continue the tradition his family began back in Kefalonia. For many years, they produced wine for their own consumption. Their handcrafted Zinfandel quickly became a staple at family parties and events. It was so well-received, they decided to try to market it. But what would they call their winery? The day of that first harvest in 2006, was also the name’s day of Dan and Elisa’s beloved granddaughters, Gianna Sophia and Sophia Breanne. Feeling blessed, they decided to brand their winery St. Sophia. Their Lodi Appellation Old Vine Zin has been dubbed the Paul Simeon Collection, honoring Dan’s father and his son.
They enlisted the expertise of well-known winemaker Paul Wofford. He suggested that the Parises’ add Petite Syrah to their wine, but there was none available. This resulted in the 1st 100% Zinfandel, which turned out to be a great selling point. It also gave the wine an exquisitely smooth finish. They produce just 300 cases a year.
This boutique winery doesn’t have a tasting room. The family looked into it, but with local ordinances requiring an $85,000 fee to construct a turning lane that could take a decade or more to be built, and other issues, they decided against it. For exposure, their wine is poured at the Lodi Wine and Visitor Center. Paul explained.
“Initially, we were in a wine-co-op tasting room. We got on the map, so to speak, but a chunk of our small production went to the wine room, and that wasn’t ideal, so we changed course to sell direct.”
St. Sophia wine is sold in a few area restaurants, and on their website. The wine has a very devoted following. Angela said it sells out every year.
“Our customers are the best salespeople. We ship all over the country, and every vintage is sold out.”
Proud of their wine, in 2007, they took that first vintage to the Zin Fest. The reaction was amazing. In 2009, it won the American Fine Wine Competition in Boca Raton — the only non-Napa wine and the only Lodi Zin. St. Sophia has been invited back every year since.
Sadly, in 2013, Dan passed away. In shock, the family wasn’t sure if they’d continue making wine. A week later they received a call from Boca — St. Sophia wine won Double Gold and Best in Class. It was a sign. They decided they had to keep it going for Dan. Elisa said it was Dan’s intercession.
“He planned this venture as something we could do together as a family, to bring us together, and keep us together. We owed it to him to continue.”
St. Sophia wine continues to win awards. In 2015, It won Double Gold again at Boca, and won the San Francisco Artisan Gold Award.
Keeping the dream alive
Gia, who now lives in San Francisco and is pursuing a career as an artist, said there’s no way they will stop making wine. Her face lit up when she spoke of her papou.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we made the right decision. And I cannot ever imagine stopping. This was Papou’s dream. He raised us all in the vineyard.”
The dream now belongs to all of them, with each of them doing their part. Elisa mans the phones and takes orders. Angela, who works in marketing for a bank, handles marketing and sales. Paul, who works full-time as a crop advisor to other wine growers, manages the farming portion of the business. Gia designed the website. Every family member has a role. It’s their way of keeping Dan a part of their every day. It’s a magnificent tribute to their beloved patriarch.
St. Sophia wine
The description of St. Sophia Zin reads: “displays pronounced aromas of plums, berries, and chocolate… Full finished with ripe fruit and lingering spice.” I’m no expert, but I do enjoy cabs and zins. The wine is everything a Zin should be — the fruit is center stage, with a nice, spicy finish. It’s smooth and not heavy. We also tasted it with chocolate, a most delightful pairing.
I love this — the description ends with this:
“A glass of St. Sophia carries a sense of nostalgia that attests to the strength and sweetness of an accomplished American dream.”