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Lodi grower/vintners Jorja and Kyle Lerner (Harney Lane Winery) at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

Another year, another memorable Lodi ZinFest, which took place last week May 18-19, 2018.

ZinFest is Lodi wine country's biggest event of each year, and the thousands of wine lovers who attend cannot be wrong about that fact! For those who have attended ZinFests of years past, the exciting thing is being part of a wine culture that has quickly become one of the world's most important. 

Lodi has already achieved this in terms of size: It is easily the largest winegrowing region in the U.S. in number of acres planted as well as amount of wine grapes crushed. More famous places, like Napa and Sonoma, can't touch Lodi in terms of sheer productivity. But for Lodi wine lovers, it's also been the satisfaction of seeing (or rather, tasting) the quality of the wines crafted by Lodi's premium producers steadily improve year after year - by leaps and bounds!

Pouring on the Zin at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

Think about it. 10, 15 years ago, it was still pretty much about Zinfandel for Lodi. Today it's about Grenache or Garnacha, Vermentino or Albariño, Tempranillo or Graciano, Piquepoul or Petit Verdot, and at least a couple dozen more varieties of wine types, expanding everyone's horizon and tastes. If you love variety, you drink "Lodi!"

Plus, today's Lodi wines are becoming more well defined; that is, expressive of the region - the Delta's mild, warm Mediterranean climate, and variations of the type of porous soils that wine grapes absolutely love - in a way that makes Lodi Lodi; and not Napa or Sonoma, nor Washington, Oregon, Australia, France, Chile or any other region in the world. These perceived attributes weren't achieved overnight. It takes a while, often centuries, for every region's farmers and vintners to get a handle on what kinds of grapes, and wines, they can grow. Lodi has farmers whose families have been here for as long as over 150 years. They, more than anyone, know that to live is to learn; and what is learned is passed on to the next generation.

ZinFest Vintner's Grille sign with the event's signature red haired lady

But this, we are all now starting to realize: Lodi can grow its own style of wine. And if you love that style, you gotta come to Lodi to enjoy it; or at the very least, stick to buying bottles with "Lodi" on the label.

What is the style of wine natural to Lodi's terroir? Almost across the board, a kinder, gentler wine; fruit forward, often floral and sometimes earthy (as a pleasing complexity), with a refreshing crispness indicative of easy, natural grape acidity. An almost take me sort of sensory seductiveness, as opposed to the tough, austere or severe qualities often found in wines from other regions. This goes for not only Lodi's Zinfandel, but also for the region's Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon blanc, its Albariño and Tempranillo, its Grenache noir or its Grenache blanc - you name it, Lodi has its own take on it.

And that's why we think wine lovers have been flocking to Lodi's ZinFest each year. Each year their "pleasant surprise" gets all the more pleasant! Lodi is the good sized engine "that could."

Our guest photographer, Dale Goff

Which is what you will also see in the photographic images of 2018 ZinFest events shared in this post. All of them snapped by Dale Goff of Goff Photography, who has been photographing Lodi life, wine industry, and local businesses for some 25 years. He, too, has gotten pretty good at what he does.

So without further ado, take it away, Dale!

Entrance to ZinFest Wne Festival

ZinFest wine lovers making a photo-memory

Overhead shot of beautiful Lodi Lake Park duirng ZinFest

Line-up of Zinfandels at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

Wine lovers on their way to ZinNirvana

Feeling one-with-Zin at Lodi ZinFest

Lodi vignerons at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

ZinFest Wine Festival moment along Lodi Lake

Sampling Klinker Brick Zinfandel at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

Canadian contingent of ZinFest wine lovers pausing for their Kodak moment

Lodi wine lovers getting their "Freakshow" on ZinFest Wine Festival

Samplng Lodi Zins at Vintner's Grille

Enjoying rosés and reds at ZinFest Vintners Grille

Some serious (WFT!) wine lovers at ZinFest Wine Festival

"I want what she has" (commemorative ZinFest bottle)

Spring blooms and wine glasses at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

Feeding the manimals (the Lodi farmer/volunteers serving up the wines at Vintner's Grille)

ZinFest Vintner's Grille table setting

Macchia Wines owner Lani Jean doing her thing at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

The Oak Farm Vineyards table at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

Quintessentially lush, gentle Lodi Zinfandel at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

Gang-of-7-selfie at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

Dinner at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

All about Lodi wines at ZinFest Vintner's Grille tables

Dinner is served at Vintner's Grille

Toast to Lodi at Heritage Oak table at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

Sun setting over Lodi Lake during ZinFest Vintner's Grille

Dining under the night lights and stars at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

The Vintner's Grille band warms up the crowd of farmers and vintners

And the farmers hit the dance-lawn at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

Dancing with Zinfandel in the dark

Gliding over the Lodi Lake Park turf at ZinFest Vintner's Grille

ZinFest tents surrounded by Lodi Lake

Lodi wine lovin' couple at ZinFest Wine Festival

ZinFest wine glasses and fesitival guides

Taking the boat across Lodi Lake to ZinFest Wine Festival

A good day for Lodi wine at ZinFest Wine Festival

Photo booth props at ZinFest Wine Festival

Just another ZinFest Wine Festival service

Discovering the Lodi grown wines of the new, exciting Paskett Winery

The civilizing ZinFest Wine Festival experience

Sampling San Joaquin Valley grown blueberries and cherries in high season freshness

Threesome-selfie at ZinFest Wine Festival

Photo-bombed couple at ZinFest Wine Festival

What it's all about: locally made Lockeford sausage dogs

Refreshing Lodi grown whites at ZinFest Wine Festival

Chef Chad Rosenthal doing his "Up In Smoke" BBQ demos

Chef Chad Rosenthal demonstrating the art of barbecue seasoning

Lodi wine lovers at Lodi ZinFest

Partners in Wine at ZinFest Wine Festival

Gang of 6 Lodi wine aficionados at ZinFest Wine Festival

This way to ZinFest Wine Festival Cooking School

Enjoying dry rosé matched with dish demonstrated at ZinFest Cooking School

At ZinFest Cooking School: Chef Tony Lawrence with winemaker Jeremy Trettevik, LangeTwins Family Winery's Randy Lange and KCRA host Teo Torres

Samplng Cooking School dishes ZinFest Wine Festival

What's not to love about Lodi's ZinFest Wine Festival?

Relaxing sounds at the ZinFest Music Lounge

BFF Lodi wine lovers at ZinFest Wine Festival

ZinFest Wine School tent

ZinFest Wine School guest speaker, Covenant Wines owner/winemaker Jeff Morgan

The Cripple Creek Band hits the ZinFest Wine Festival stage

Wine lovers getting happy feet near ZinFest Wine Festival stage

Lodi's finest with ZinFest Wine Festival wine lovers

The Cripple Creek Band's Eric Anderson on his crowd rockin' fiddle

Good times near ZinFest Wine Festival stage

During Lodi's ZinFest weekend it's ultimately about the juice

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Taking notes on Tempranillo flight at pre-ZinFest blind tasting (photo by Frances Siria)

Exactly how do Lodi wines compare to not only those of the rest of California, but also to counterparts in France, Spain, New Zealand, or other wine regions of the world?

This was the question addressed at our 16-wine blind tasting held last week Friday (May 18, 2018), as a ZinFest pre-event. The goal was not to find who makes the “best” wines. As the classic British wine writer André Simon once put it: We can all have good taste, but not the same taste. Our purpose, rather, was to “discover” sensory distinctions. What makes Lodi different – and in that sense, what makes Lodi wines worthwhile?

Putting it another way: How can, say, a California Sauvignon blanc begin to compare to a Sauvignon blanc based white from France’s Sancerre or New Zealand’s Marlborough regions, when a Sauvignon blanc grown in Napa Valley barely resembles one grown a few miles away in Lake County, or Lodi? Differences in both terroir – the catch-all term for climatic and topographic conditions adding up to “sense of place” – as well as style and purposes can be so divergent that wines often end up with more dissimilarities than similarities in terms of both aromas and palate sensations, even when made from the same grape varieties. As well they should.

Blind tasting in Wine & Roses Hotel Ballroom (photo by Suzanne Ledbetter)

Which was exactly what the 60 or so wine lovers experienced in one of the four rounds of wines – comparing bottlings made from Grenache blanc (a.k.a. Garnacha blanca), Sauvignon blanc (a.k.a. Fumé blanc), Tempranillo and Mourvèdre (a.k.a. Mataró) – in our particular blind tasting. Neither the participants nor our three panelists, lending their verbal skills as professional tasters, were told the exact identities of each wine (only the grape varieties). The panelists:

• Jienna Basaldu - Wine Director of Sacramento’s Echo & Rig, and recent winner of the Court of Master Sommeliers André Tchelistcheff scholarship and 2017 San Francisco Luxicon blind tasting competition.

• Chad Joseph – Lodi based consulting winemaker (including the acclaimed Oak Farm Vineyards and Harney Lane Winery).

• Jeff Morgan – Co-Proprietor of Covenant Winery (based in both Berkeley and Israel) as well as author of a dozen wine and culinary books, former West Coast Editor of Wine Spectator, and founding instructor at Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies (Culinary Institute of America Napa Valley).

Blind tasting panelists: Jienna Basaldu, Chad Joseph and Jeff Morgan; with moderator Randy Caparoso (Frances Siria)

For this report, we also need to thank two people for lending their photographic images of the event:

• Suzanne Ledbetter – Lodi based wine and culinary journalist also known as The Fine Foodie Philanthropist, as well as member of the Ledbetter farming family who own Vino Farms.

• Frances Siria – Digital Marketing Specialist who helps businesses in the Lodi area (including Wine & Roses Hotel & Spa, where our blind tasting took place) grow their online reach and exposure through her social media and photography skills.

The wines, along with impressions shared by the panelists as well as a few of the participants:

First round of Grenache blanc being poured (Suzanne Ledbetter)

Round 1 - Grenache Blanc & Grenache Blanc Blends

• 2016 Espelt, Garnacha Blanca (Emporda, Spain)

• 2016 Fields Family, Lodi Grenache Blanc (Alta Mesa AVA)

• 2017 Acquiesce, Lodi Belle Blanc (Grenache Blanc/Roussanne/Viognier; Mokelumne River AVA)

• 2016 Domaine La Roquète, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc (Grenache Blanc/Clairette Blanche/Roussanne; Southern Rhône Valley, France)

Chad Joseph: All these wines showed well, and the ones from Lodi wines were especially clean and true to varietal. Fields Family was especially interesting: Because of the mineral aspect and the pretty perfume fruit, I thought it was from Spain, for sure.

Jeff Morgan: The first three wines (Espelt, Fields Family and Acquiesce) were bright, light and quite refreshing. I liked the two Lodi wines the best, although the Spanish wine was also quite nice. It was the French wine that ended up coming across as a bit on the heavy-handed side.

The Grenache blanc bottles, following unveiling (Suzanne Ledbetter)

Mark Chandler (Lodi City Councilman and former Executive Director of Lodi Winegrape Commission): Jeff Morgan's comment on how hard it is to distinguish Old vs. New World wines was apt here. I thought the Fields Family had to be from the Old World – where else can get that kind of acidity? The Acquiesce, by comparison, had the pleasingly soft acidity and ripeness of warm climate grapes you would expect out of Lodi. Both were stylistically different, both quite lovely – and both from Lodi.

Susan Manfull (author of Provence WineZine): I was bowled over by the first flight. Coming of age in nearby Fresno, I would never have dreamed that Lodi winemakers could ever produce either of the two well-structured Grenache blanc based wines we tasted – lovely crisp acidity, pleasant minerality, and layers of flavor reminiscent of green apples and grass. Especially the Acquiesce Belle Blanc; a wine with a quiet confidence giving the La Roquète a run for its money – at half the price.

Susana Rodriquez Vasquez (winemaker, Peltier Winery): I really liked the aromatic Asian pear notes and rounded mouth-feel of the Spanish Garnacha blanca. I also appreciated the higher acidity and aromatic stone fruit quality of the Fields Family. Of the two Grenache blanc blends, the soapy-floral notes of Viognier stood out a little for me in the Acquiesce. I found the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc’s smooth balance of oak and stone fruit/pear/green apple to be a little more appealing.

Ryan Sherman (co-owner/winemaker, Fields Family Wines): The highlight of this flight for me was that Jienna Basaldu – a Court of Master Sommeliers-tested sommelier and winner of a prestigious blind tasting competition – could not pick out our Grenache blanc as being from Lodi. Blind tasting is tough; but talking to her afterwards, I learned she was truly surprised by the wine, and that it was the only wine out of 16 that she couldn’t nail.

Pouring Grenache blanc out of paper bags hiding labels (Suzanne Ledbetter)

Dan Panella (owner/winemaker, Lodi’s Oak Farm Vineyards): I thought these wines revealed the full spectrum of what the grape can do. The Espelt from Spain had an almost cinnamoned apple pie aroma; which I wasn't expecting, and didn't find in the other three wines. The Fields Family was brightest in terms of acidity, and the Acquiesce had a fuller, more weighted mouth-feel – probably the influence of other varieties in the blend, (particularly Viognier). By way of contrast, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape saw noticeable some oak aging (the Acquiesce sees zero oak), which was in no way offensive; in fact, very pleasant.

Sue Tipton (owner/grower/winemaker of Acquiesce Winery): I really liked all the wines in this line-up. Even though there was variation in the wines, it was so much fun not to be able to distinguish where in the world these unusual wines came from!

Suzanne Ledbetter: The Acquiesce was my personal favorite; not just because I am familiar with (owner) Susan’s wines, but also because they have a certain finesse. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc was by far the most intense in color and flavor, with a very appealing silkiness. Overall, I think Lodi Grenache blancs are good if not extraordinary expressions of the grape on the market.

Scott Reesman (sommelier, Wine & Roses Hotel’s Towne House Restaurant): I was happy that I was able, for the most part, to identify the classic wines in each flight. But in this round, it was a challenge to rule out the Fields Family Grenache Blanc, which had “Old World” qualities. This was what made this entire blind tasting exercise so compelling.

Tasting Sauvignon blanc round (Frances Siria)

Round 2 – Sauvignon Blanc

• 2016 Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy, Sancerre (Loire River, France)

• 2017 Dog Point Vineyard, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand)

• 2017 Peltier Winery, Lodi Sauvignon Blanc (Cosumnes River AVA)

• 2014 Robert Mondavi Winery, Oakville (To Kalon Vineyard, Napa Valley) Fumé Blanc (21% Sémillon)

Chad Joseph: All the wines in this round were true to their regions. For instance, there was no mistaking the “green” New Zealand style of the Dog Point, which was a little over-the-top for me. The Peltier stood out among all four wines because of its restrained grassiness, its light and elegant mouth-feel, crisp acidity, and pleasingly balanced tropical fruit notes.  

Jienna Basaldu: I legitimately had a difficult time discerning the Lodi (Peltier) from the Sancerre. There were only slight nuances – the flinty/sea shell/lime qualities in the Sancerre, and the slightly more fruit focused, ruby red grapefruit quality in the Peltier – that finally led me to make the correct call in my identification. The Dog Point’s intense pyrazines (i.e. intrinsic compounds suggesting green vegetables, herbs or grass) seemed to be missing the tropical fruit usually found in Sauvignon blancs, which made me think it could have come from Chile. The Mondavi To Kalon stood out from all the rest because it showed more age in its color and roundness; and also because of its rich, polished oak and the textural quality of Sémillon, which you didn’t find in the other wines.

The Sauvignon blanc bottles, following unveiling (Suzanne Ledbetter)

Jeff Morgan: Because the pyrazines in Sauvignon blanc are such a giveaway, this was the only flight in which I actually guessed the correct appellations of three of the four wines. The Sancerre was classic Loire Valley; and the New Zealand searingly bright, and seriously grassy. Peltier’s Lodi Sauvignon blanc was the most balanced and seductive, and my favorite of the group; whereas the Mondavi To Kalon – usually a fabulous Bordeaux style Sauvignon blanc from one of Napa’s most famous vineyards – came across as a little ponderous.

Susana Rodriguez Vasquez: I found the Sancerre to be very, light and elegant, whereas the Dog Point was very strong in thiols (volatile compounds, often contributing tropical fruit qualities to Sauvignon blancs), with slightly reductive H2S (hydrogen sulfide). I was pleased by my own wine (Peltier), which I recognized; and I found the Mondavi to be very well balanced with oak/sweet aromatics in the nose, with a vanilla/coconut taste. 

Mark Chandler: I recognized the Peltier as a Lodi Sauvignon blanc, but (winemaker) Susy’s lip smacking acidity and spot-on varietal character bowled me over. The Sancerre was nice, but I thought the New Zealand wine was flawed (as a wine judge, I would have pronounced “no award” for all that veggie character).

Ryan Sherman: I flipped on the Sancerre and the Peltier in my notes; thinking the Sancerre was Californian and the Peltier was French. Both were great. But well done, Peltier!

Moderator Randy Caparoso going over Sauvignon blanc styles with participants (Suzanne Ledbetter)

Suzanne Ledbetter: According to one of the talented panelists, it was difficult to determine which wine was from Sancerre and which was from Lodi. Maybe I’m biased, but this speaks volumes about the quality of Sauvignon blanc now coming out of Lodi. Kudos to Peltier for its wine’s crisp acidity, and balanced flavors of grapefruit and apples; although I also really enjoyed the Reverdy Sancerre with its hints of kaffir lime, medium body and crisp acidity.

Sue Tipton: What a difference in each Sauvignon blanc, very distinct! Loved hearing the panel discuss how they can tell whether a wine is from a warm climate or cooler climate; but Peltier’s, in the end, was my favorite!

Scott Reesman: I was very impressed by the Peltier from Lodi, despite recognizing the fact that there was a Sancerre in this group (one of my favorites wines on the planet).

Keith Watts (owner/grower of Lodi’s Keith Watts Vineyards): This wasn’t the first time I’ve enjoyed the Peltier Sauvignon Blanc. This tasting only confirmed its New Zealand-like characteristics of grass, grapefruit and florals for me.

Dan Panella: There was no mistaking the Reverdy as a Sancerre – it was flinty, a little smoky, and had an Old World earthiness. The pyrazines in the Dog Point was so over-the-top, I found it out of balance. The Peltier, on the other hand, was very well balanced with its floral aroma and subtle grassiness. While well constructed, I mistook the Mondavi Fumé Blanc for a white Bordeaux because of the way the oak seemed to strip away the fruit aromatics and replace it with a bit of vanilla; which is fine, if that's your thing.

Tempranillo flight (Suzanne Ledbetter)

Round 3 – Tempranillo

• 2015 Abacela, Fiesta Umpqua Valley Estate Tempranillo (Southern Oregon)

• 2014 Tinto Pesquera Crianza, Ribera del Duero (Spain)

• 2015 McCay Cellars, Lot 13 Vineyard Lodi Tempranillo (Mokelumne River AVA)

• 2014 Numanthia, Termes (Toro, Spain)

Chad Joseph: Tempranillos force you to think in terms of Old vs. New World. Spanish wines tended to be more gamy in flavor, with more grainy tannins. In this round, I thought the Oregon Tempranillo by Abacela was from Lodi, and that the Lodi Tempranillo was from Oregon. McCay’s Lodi Tempranillo showed more restraint, with the lightest texture and most approachable weight – a classic for savory foods.

The Tempranillo bottles, following unveiling (Suzanne Ledbetter)

Jeff Morgan: I really enjoyed the Tinto Pesquera, which was elegant and well balanced; showing just the right blend of fruit, spice and subtle oak. I also liked the McCay, which was a little more robust.

Susana Rodriquez Vasquez: Despite some brettanomyces (a yeast contributing earthy or leathery qualities, and considered a flaw in excessive amounts) present in the Pesquera, it had some really nice plum aromas and smoky/fruity mouth-feel.

Keith Watts: The McCay Tempranillo was very well balanced; a long and smooth finish – and, simply, it tasted great!

Sue Tipton: The American wines really showed well against the Spanish, which to me were marred by off notes.

Mark Chandler: In this round, I liked Abacela's bright, forward fruit and bold tannins; but the cranberry/blueberry notes and restrained touch of French oak in the McCay was very seductive.

Suzanne Ledbetter: The Oregon Tempranillo was very “New World” with its ripe, plummy fruit which, ironically, led most folks to think this was the Lodi wine. Of the two Old World wines, Tinto Pesquera was bretty (i.e. the slight “barnyard” of brettanomyces), and the Numanthia had the most weight and tannin. Yet it was the McCay that some people described as “Old World” because of its elegant red fruit, cocoa and pronounced acidity. If anything, this shows that Lodi can strike a balance between New and Old Worlds, like an artist on a tightrope, high above the ground.

Dan Panella: The Abacela was a surprise for me because I didn't realize that Oregon could get fruit this ripe and full bodied, yet so nicely balanced. The Tinto Pesquera was “Old World” all the way, with an interesting earthiness not quite to my taste. I found McCay easier to spot as a Californian because it was more fruit forward, but still very balanced, with good structure.

Ryan Sherman: The Numanthia was my jam, and my other favorite was McCay’s Lot 13. Great to see them going head to head!

Wine & Roses' Towne House Restaurant sommelier Scott Reesman tasting Tempranillos (Frances Siria)

Round 4 – Mourvèdre

• 2014 Skinner Vineyards, El Dorado Estate Mourvèdre

• 2015 Domaine Tempier, Bandol (Provence, France)

• 2016 Bokisch Vineyards, Sloughhouse-Lodi Monastrell (barrel sample)

• 2016 Neyers Vineyards, Evangelho Vineyard Contra Costa County Mourvèdre

Chad Joseph: There was considerable diversity in this line-up, although all the wines had a trace, yet still distinct, notes of gaminess in the fruit, for which Mourvèdre is well known. Still, I was totally shocked and pleased by the Bokisch Monastrell: Of all the wines, showing the most density of color, tannin and fruit – all very well balanced. I did not guess that it was from Lodi – I thought it was Spanish, for sure!

Jeff Morgan: This flight was the biggest surprise for me. The Bokisch barrel sample was really nice, and I preferred it over the Skinner and Neyers. Where I was really off big-time was the Domaine Tempier, which I have visited but still found to be so big, fat, ripe and luscious (I loved it) that I assumed it was from California. I even went so far as to tell the room, “French winemakers can only dream of getting their grapes ripe like this.” Nothing like being loud and wrong!

Mourvèdre bottles, following unveiling (Suzanne Ledbetter)

Susan Manfull: All the wines in this flight were exceptional; although differences in style – particularly Old World versus New World – were revealing. The Tempier expressed more personality than the others, with its terroir expression and integrated fruit and tannins, while the other three wines were more fruit forward. The Bokisch was impressive – elegant and earthy with notes of chocolate and tobacco – despite being made from very young vines. Imagine what the vines will produce as they mature!

Keith Watts: The Bokisch was easily my favorite in this group.

Ryan Sherman: This was my favorite flight. Both the Bokisch and Neyers just killed it. Tempier was, well, Tempier, which is always great. But the Bokisch barrel sample was killer. The Neyers, which is in my wheelhouse, fooled several people sitting around me with its more whole-cluster Euro-leanings – super-tasty!

Sue Tipton: Hard to tell these wines apart! All were very well made and great examples of the grape.

Maddie Shinn (with Aaron Shinn) doing her blind tasting due diligence (Suzanne Ledbetter)

Mark Chandler: The Skinner was stunning – like a lot of Rhône reds coming out of El Dorado these days – and the Bokisch was nice and full-bodied, with a long, yummy fruity finish. There was none of the Bokisch left in my glass to dump out! The Neyers was also very nice; its lean, crisp acidity a testimony to the cooler Contra Costa climate. Although tasty, the Bandol was not quite as compelling for me.

Scott Reesman: Like everyone else, I was very impressed by Bokisch’s Monastrell – can't wait to see where this wine goes from here!  

Suzanne Ledbetter: The Skinner was impressive with its..

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Grenache blanc harvest in Acquiesce Winery's Mokelumne River-Lodi estate

As one of our “pre-ZinFest” events this Friday (May 18), we are holding our second 16-wine “Lodi vs. the world” blind tasting – and event, alas, that has been sold out.

In preparing for remarks to share on the four Lodi grown grape varieties that will be featured in this tasting, we found ourselves geeking out on the fascinating history, going back hundreds of years, of each varietal category. If you’re a wine fanatic, this turns you on.

As it turns out, the exercise also makes a great preview of the dozens of different wine types that wine lovers will be able to experience at this Saturday’s (May 19) 2018 ZinFest Wine Festival – and for that, you can still purchase tickets at pre-event rates (please visit zinfest.com for online sales).

You don’t want to miss it! Meanwhile... the facts, ma’am, just the facts, on three of the four varietal categories we will be studying in earnest at this Friday’s blind tasting:

Grenache blanc in Lodi's Ripken Vineyards

Grenache blanc (a.k.a. Garnacha blanca)

 Grenache blanc is a white wine mutation of the black skinned Grenache noir grape; planted all over North-East Spain – the variety’s point of origin – and Southern France. These are regions falling in the warm to hot Mediterranean Climate zone (it will not ripen outside these regions, in colder climates).

 There is also a grayish red variant called Grenache gris, rarely seen in the U.S., but still cultivated in France and Spain. The earliest printed references (in agricultural treatises) to Grenache noir date back to 1513. It is thought that the green skinned mutation has been cultivated at least as far back as the 16th century, if not sooner. In Spain, Garnacha blanca is mostly concentrated in Navarra and Catalonia’s Terra Alta regions, where winegrowing dates back to the 2nd century BC.

 Although it is called a “Rhône” grape, Grenache blanc is more correctly identified as a grape of all of Southern France; especially since more than half of the plantings of Grenache blanc are found in the vast Languedoc-Roussillon region closer to Spain along the Mediterranean coast, and it is also planted throughout Provence. It is, however, best known to us as one of the 6 white wine varieties allowed among the 13 grapes planted in Southern Rhône Valley’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape region; most often blended with Roussanne, Piquepoul, Bourboulenc and Clairette blanche to produce Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc.

Grenache Blanc harvest at Acquiesce estate

 Interest in the grape in California was perked up during the earliest days of the “Rhône Rangers” movement, starting in the mid-1980s, when California’s Mediterranean Climate zones were recognized as natural environments for the grape. Significant plantings, however, have taken place only within the past 15 or so years. In Lodi, the turning point was probably the establishment of Bokisch Ranches in 1996; but you can now find smatterings of Grenache blanc on the West Coast everywhere from Washington, the Columbia Gorge, Mendocino, all the way down to Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, and up in the Sierra Foothills.

 Although reference books refer to Grenache blanc as a producer of “fat” white wines normally low in acidity, by picking early enough California producers have found that they can craft perfectly crisp, zesty white wines of refreshing clarity and natural acidity, even without blending with higher acid grapes like Piquepoul.

 Top Lodi grown Grenache blanc producers include: Acquiesce Winery (spare yet airy fresh pear/green apple crispness), Bokisch Vineyards (pert, perennially fresh, floral, crackling-crisp), Fields Family Wines (lemony dry yet pungent, flowery), Klinker Brick Winery (bright, mouth-watering lemon/lime freshness), and Onesta Wines (mineral and citrus complexity).

Sauvignon blanc in Lodi's Mohr-Fry Ranches (produced by Oak Farm Vineyards)

Sauvignon blanc (a.k.a. Sauvignon; Fumé blanc)

 At the 2018 Sauvignon Blanc International Symposium that took place in Kelseyville, Lake County just two weeks ago, we learned from the famous French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot that in France Sauvignon blanc is called, simply, “Sauvignon.” Evidently the French feel that no one has to be reminded that Sauvignon is a “blanc.”

 Monsieur Boursiquot also explained that the name is derived from the French word sauvage; in reference to the grape’s tendency to grow wild or “untamed,” putting out a prolific amount of canes, leaves and fruit. Perhaps more than any other major wine grape, Sauvignon demands artful trellising and canopy management to produce wines of excellence.

 While the grape is often referred to as indigenous to either Bordeaux or the South-West of France, there is evidence that it may have actually originated in France’s Loire River Valley; as Boursiquot has found the earliest written references to the grape in Loire, dating back to 1534.

• Despite its worldwide popularity, the original Sauvignons of the world are grown in France. These are still the measuring sticks. In the Graves and Sauternes regions of Bordeaux, it is traditionally blended with Sémillon or Muscadelle; producing dry whites in Graves, and medium to luxuriously sweet whites in Sauternes. The grape stands alone in the wine regions of the Loire; the most famous being the bone-dry, minerally and tart-edged white wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, although Sauvignon-based whites from the Quincy, Cheverny and Menetou-Salon appellations are also imported into the U.S.

Winemaker Chad Joseph sampling just-fermented Sauvignon blanc at Lodi's Oak Farm Vineyards

 In the U.S., Sauvignon has its own storied history. Charles Wetmore, who founded Cresta Blanca Winery in Livermore Valley in 1882, was one of the state’s earliest promoters of California grown wine. That same year, Wetmore was given a letter of introduction by Marie Mel, wife of Livermore Valley farmer Louis Mel. Mrs. Mel was a friend of Marquis de Lur Saluces, the owner of Château d’Yquem – even then, known as the source of the finest sweet wines in the world, made primarily from Sauvignon. Wetmore traveled to France and returned home with cuttings of the grape from d’Yquem, which were planted at Cresta Blanca. Louis Mel also used these cuttings to plant El Mocho Vineyard in Livermore Valley (a property that was purchased by the Wente family in 1925, and since renamed Louis Mel Vineyard). The thinking was that the gravelly, silty loam soils of Livermore Valley could duplicate the white wines of Bordeaux. In 1889, a Sauvignon based white wine from Cresta Blanca (an 1884 vintage) won the Grand Prize at the prestigious Paris Exposition. But the ultimate significance of the Livermore Valley plantings is that this selection, originating from d’Yquem, eventually became the U.C. Davis FPS (i.e. Foundation Plant Services) clone 01 – taken by Dr. Harold Olmo in 1958 from the Wentes’ Louis Mel property – that is now the predominant selection planted not only in California and Washington, but also in New Zealand (where it is called UCD 1).

 The popularity of Sauvignon blanc within more modern California wine history, of course, is closely associated with Robert Mondavi, who split off from his brother Peter Mondavi at Charles Krug Winery to found his eponymous winery in 1966. The Mondavis were always intrigued by the potential of Sauvignon blanc in California; having planted the grape in the “I Block” of To Kalon Vineyard, in Napa Valley’s Oakville region, as far back as 1943 (old vines still in production today), two years after the brothers (both Lodi Union High School graduates) took over the old Charles Krug estate. In 1966 Robert planted more Sauvignon blanc in To Kalon’s I Block; but more significantly, in 1968, he came out with the first vintage of Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc, which immediately became a huge commercial success.

Silhouette of Robert Mondavi at Lodi's Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi winery

 Although Mondavi’s “Fumé Blanc,” which he got approved as a legal synonym for Sauvignon blanc, was imaginatively named for the Pouilly-Fumés of France, the style of Mondavi’s wine was rather un-Pouilly-Fumé-like in that it saw barrel aging (modern day Pouilly-Fumés are traditionally bottled straight out of stainless steel tanks). Mondavi also experimented with barrel fermentation, aggressive lees stirring (to attain a creamy texture) and, in the tradition of Bordeaux, blending with Sémillon – producing a more flowery, melony, and far less herbaceous, less minerally or citrusy style of wine than that of Pouilly-Fumé or Sancerre.

 Because of the Mondavi influence, the soft, often tropical fruit-driven style of “Fumé” would remain the predominant approach (at least the most widely lauded) to the varietal in Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and most of the rest of California; at least, up until the explosion of the markedly greener, sharper New Zealand styles of Sauvignon blanc into the U.S. market, starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today, California styles of Sauvignon blanc are likely to balance herby green sensations with green melon, tropical fruit, floral as well as earthy/mineral qualities in deference to growing “international” tastes among consumers and critics; while aggressively oak influenced (i.e. “Graves” inspired) styles appear to be on the wane, except for a handful of ultra-premium priced Napa and Sonoma bottlings.

 While Sonoma/Marin Counties (California Crush District 3) and Lake County (District 2) are two of California’s major Sauvignon blanc regions – crushing 15% and 13% of the state’s 2017 total (just over 106,000 tons), respectively – a little known fact is that Lodi (District 11) crushes 18% (19,350 tons in 2017), making it the largest region for Sauvignon blanc growing in the state.

 Top Lodi grown Sauvignon blanc brands include those of Peltier Winery (light, zesty mix of herbs, citrus, melon), Oak Farm Vineyards (fragrant, silky style), LangeTwins Family (exotic flowery notes), Michael David Winery (tropical, creamy smooth qualities), McCay Cellars (restrained, steely dryness), and Hybrid by Peltier (light, airy, lemony snap).

Tempranillo at Lodi's St. Jorge Winery


 Tempranillo is known by over a dozen synonyms in its native country of Spain. In Portugal’s Douro region, where it is used for Port, it is called Tinta Roriz. The name of the grape comes from the Spanish word temprano, for “early,” in reference to the fact that Tempranillo ripens earlier than other red wine grapes in Spain.

 While there is no specific mention of Tempranillo in records over 2,000 years old, we know that grape growing and winemaking in Spain dates back to the time of the Phoenicians, prior to 300 BC. There is also a 2,000-year old Roman mosaic depicting winemaking recently unearthed in Ribera del Duero, one of Spain’s major Tempranillo regions (and home to the legendary Bodegas Vega Sicilia as well as Bodega Alejandro Fernández’s Tinto Pesquera).

 Tempranillo is closely associated with Spain’s Rioja region, where the grape is often blended with Garnacha, Carignan (called Mazuelo in Rioja) as well as Graciano. Besides Rioja and Ribera del Duero, Tempranillo is a major red wine grape in Spain’s Toro, Penedès, Navarra, Valdepeñas and La Mancha regions. Tempranillo is now the third most widely planted grape in the world (after Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) – 88% of it grown in Spain.

 By the 1880s Tempranillo was introduced to California, where it was originally known as Tinta Valdepeñas. It was listed as such among the varieties cultivated at the U.C. Davis Foothill Experiment Station in Jackson, Amador County, which was where U.C. Davis’ Dr. Goheen “rediscovered” selections in 1963 (when the station was long abandoned). For most of the 20th century, California grape crush reports listed the grape as Valdepeñas, and it was considered a minor variety; primarily because most of it was planted in warmer regions of the Central Valley, where it produced nondescript wines, going into “jug” and fortified bottlings.

Bokisch Vineyards' Markus Bokisch talking with wine bloggers in his Terra Alta Vineyard

 Modern day interest in Tempranillo in the U.S. began with plantings in Yakima Valley, Washington’s Red Willow Vineyard in 1993. In 1994, Earl Jones founded Umpqua Valley, Southern Oregon’s Abacela estate for the specific reason of specializing in Tempranillo. Jones planted selections of the grape sourced from both the U.S. as well as Rioja in a region he observed to be in closer latitudinal alignment to the North of Spain, as well as having the warm summers and cool autumns approximating regions like Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Abacela’s impact is such that there are now over 40 other producers of Tempranillo in Oregon alone. The winery’s continuing work with the grape has also clearly demonstrated the grape’s propensity towards longevity and complexity when accentuated by extended oak aging – something Spanish vintners discovered centuries ago.

 In 1996, Markus Bokisch established Bokisch Ranches in Lodi. He felt that his first planting – Terra Alta Vineyard in Clements Hills, with its rocky, red clay based Redding soil, rolling hills and and Mediterranean Climate – was an ideal site for plant material that he sourced directly from Spain. Up until recently, Bokisch Tempranillos have been produced in a supple, moderately weighted style inviting immediate consumption; although they are currently experimenting with cuvées aged longer in wood, in keeping with classic styles of Spain, which seem to gain breadth and structure from oak tannin and oxidation. Today, Bokisch’s FPS Clones 12 and 12.1 – referred to as Tinto Fino selections from Ribera del Duero – are also among the dozen or so selections of Tempranillo made available to other growers and vintners in the industry.

Limestone streaked sandy loam subsoil in McCay Cellars' Lot 13 Vineyard (Mokelumne River-Lodi)

 Also in Lodi during the late 1990s, the late Alan Kirschenmann planted a small block of Tempranillo for Mitch Cosentino in one of the sandiest pockets of the Mokelumne River AVA, east of the City of Lodi. Just a quarter mile away, the Bokischs planted Tempranillo in their Las Cerezas (“Cherry Road”) Vineyard. Both plantings have since matured (the Kirschenmann block now owned and farmed by McCay Cellars), and have proven that Tempranillo can produce perfectly “varietal” (i.e. meaty and dense, like new leather) qualities in sandy loam soils, as opposed to the rocky clay hillsides traditionally associated with the grape.

• Capping off the varietal’s slow yet steady rise to a rightful spot among the “top” grapes within the California wine industry, Lodi’s St. Amant Winery garnered a Best of Show Red (in other words, voted "best red wine in all of California") for its 2014 The Road Less Traveled Tempranillo (originally planted by the late Tim Spencer in hillsides of Amador County) at the 2016 California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.

 Tempranillo has also seen its fortunes recently rise in South Australia,

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​Luis Reyes nearly got fired his first day working on a crew for Mettler & Son. Now, he's the company's general manager.

They laugh about it now.

But if Kyle Lerner’s first encounter with Luis Reyes was made into a motion picture, the title might be “The Man in the Red Hoodie.”

The opening scene would find Lerner watching a lone figure wearing a red, hooded sweatshirt, leaning up against a stake in a newly planted Primitivo vineyard. There was much work to do and this guy Lerner had hired as part of a crew to pull leaves and drive stakes into the ground wasn’t doing anything.

“So, I call my foreman at the time and said, ‘David, who’s the guy in the red hoodie?’” said Lerner, who owns Mettler & Son, the farming side of Harney Lane Winery in Lodi. “’What the heck’s going on? This guy’s lazy.’”

Turns out Reyes was waiting for more stakes to arrive. The crew had run out.

“After a couple hours waiting, I said, ‘I’m done. I’m not going to keep waiting,’” Reyes said. “We didn’t have any (cell phone) communication back then, so I hopped on the forklift.”

The forklift was a converted tractor. Lerner said you had to be a mastermind to run it. And there was the guy in the red hoodie operating the monster like a pro. Lerner’s outlook about the lazy guy he was about to fire moments earlier changed immediately.

“One thing led to another and I got him driving a tractor with us,” Lerner said. “Eighteen years, now he’s our general manager.”

Luis Reyes stands in the Primitivo vineyard he helped plant about 18 years ago at Harney Lane Winery.

Reyes was in his early 20s when our story began but already had a wealth of farming experience. Reyes grew up in a migrant farming family. His parents are from Michoacán, Mexico. Reyes and his five siblings were born in the United States. Their mother was a U.S. citizen when they were born. The family worked part of the year out of a migrant camp in French Camp and the other portion at the family’s farm in Michoacán.

When Reyes was 9 years old, his family went to Mexico to tend to his ailing grandmother. They returned to French Camp late and lost their spot at the migrant camp. They found space at a migrant camp in Lodi and re-located. Reyes grew up in Lodi and went to Nichols Elementary School, Morada Middle School and Tokay High. He has worked almost every day of his life since the age of 10.

“I’m proud of what I do,” Reyes said. “Farming, it’s tough, but every day is something different. That’s what I like about it.”

The year before he was hired by Lerner, Reyes said he tried working construction. He also worked in restaurants. But those jobs weren’t for him.

“I’ve been farming even when we went back to Mexico,” he said. “We had cows and farmed alfalfa. I’ve farmed every day of my life.”

Reyes’ humble yet fulfilling upbringing shapes his empathy as a boss. He’s not above getting his hands dirty. Reyes said he still plants, pounds stakes, shovels, drives tractors, sprays, discs, mows, digs ditches, irrigates and whatever else needs to be done. He's also no stranger to working winery events, such as Harney Lane's wine club release parties.

“I still do it,” he said. “Everyone asks me, ‘What do you do there?’ And I say, ‘I’m an employee.’ I don’t present myself as a general manager with my people out there. It’s just me.”

​Wherever Luis Reyes is, his dog Max is surely nearby.

Reyes said he particularly enjoys farming the iconic Lizzy James Vineyard, originally planted more than 100 years ago with head-trained Zinfandel in Lodi’s powdery, sandy loam soil. The fruit goes into Harney Lane’s premium, vineyard-designated, Lizzy James Old Vine Zinfandel.

“It’s interesting to work,” he said. “If you go into a new vineyard, you know every vine is the same. But you walk into the Lizzy James, you know it’s going to be something different. You have new re-plants to hundred-year-old vines. So, every vine, you have to treat it different and it’s more of a challenge.”

Reyes’ parents still live in a migrant farm camp in Lodi. His siblings live in the Lodi area. Reyes and his wife, Rocio, have three boys: Angel, who’s 16 years old, Diego, 9, and Sebastian, 7. Their 3-year-old daughter, Victoria, might follow in her dad’s footsteps.

“If it was up to her, she would be out here every day,” Reyes said with a gleaming smile.

That lazy guy in the red hoodie has brought a lot of joy to the Lerner/Metter family and fans of Harney Lane Winery.

“He’s a definite success story,” Lerner said. “He’s doing great with us.”

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LangeTwins Family's Lodi Sangiovese Rosé (photo courtesy of LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards)

You may have noticed, lately here in Lodi, that everything’s been coming up rosés.

For good reason. Because of its warm yet mild and steady Mediterranean climate – not unlike France’s Provence region, the source of easily the world’s largest sea of rosés – dry pink wines of premium, and even world class, quality seem to come easily to the Lodi Viticultural Area.

Rosés, after all, are made from black skinned grapes, which are usually turned into red wines. In a way, that makes rosés somewhat of the “metro-wines” of the world. Like men with a sense of style and, even, femininity – yet very confident in their masculinity – rosés are like red wines in terms of their aromatic strength of red fruit qualities, yet totally at ease in their soft, sleek and, even, delicate pinkness.

It is not just the fact that Lodi is an extremely large red wine grape region – by far the most widely planted in the U.S. – but it is also the nature, or terroir, of those grapes. The purest style of Lodi grown reds, for instance, is one of softer tannins than that of other regions; with flavors as floral as they are aromatic in fruit qualities, often with earth or mineral undertones. These same fruit and structural profiles translate into some of the lightest, airiest, most floral and earth-nuanced pink wines in the world.

Cinsaut harvest in Lodi's historic Bechthold Vineyard (planted in 1886)

But here’s the catch: Unlike Provence, Lodi does not produce dry rosés in vast quantities. In fact, the opposite. Rosés are still a tiny fraction of the production of Lodi’s top wineries.

Case in point: Lodi’s largest family-owned winery, Michael David Winery, is currently nearing a million-case annual production; yet each year, they produce barely 400 cases of their Bechthold Vineyard Cinsault rosé – an ethereally light, refined, red fruit and baking rhubarb scented dry pink with subtle dried herb complexities, crafted from vines planted by Lodi’s Spenker family way back in 1886. A true vinous treasure. Which is why their latest vintage (2017) is already sold out. For fans of this wine: You snooze, you lose.

There are a few more bottlings of dry rosé sourced from this phenomenal vineyard each year. McCay Cellars, for instance, recently came out with a 2017 McCay Cellars Lodi Reserve Rosé ($28) that is a 50/50 blend of Bechthold-grown Cinsaut (with Grenache) – a billowingly aromatic wine combining meaty yet round, pliant strawberry, cherry, watermelon and herby/minerally sensations. The one, serious drawback: A measley 30 cases made.

There were, however, 300 cases of the 2017 McCay Cellars Lodi Rosé of Grenache ($18) produced. Still not a whole lot; but probably as fine as any rosé in the world – strawberry-fresh, meaty textured, yet airy-light with refreshing twists of lemon. While there is a little more to be had of this wine, the story remains the same: If you are a connoisseur of handcrafted dry rosé, it is best to get it while you can.

Harney Lane rosé pouring (photo courtesy of Robin Black Photographry and winestainedlens.com)

While as a general rule, productions levels are low (typically less th an 500 cases), there is at least a good variety of dry style Lodi rosés of first class quality for rosé aficionados to choose from. The following is how we would sort them out in terms of sensory style, in addition to stimulating foods for thought:

Flowery and lacy:

2017 Oak Farm Vineyards, Shinn Farm Lodi Rosé ($24) – Made from Grenache grapes grown by ace grower Aaron Shinn, of all of Lodi’s top rosés this may be the lightest and brightest; at barely 12.7% alcohol, with fragrant, finespun notes of rose petal, strawberry, and peak-season white peach in a pungent bouquet, gently prickling the palate. There is also, by our calculation, just the right amount of natural acidity, airy finesse and penetrating red fruit flavor in this wine to make it the perfect style of rosé for fresh salads on warm spring days; particularly with soft balsamic or sherry vinaigrettes, and all the little things we love to mix in with our green: Pomegranate seeds, watermelon wedges, feta or parmigiano curls, raspberries or blackberries, mandarins or pink grapefruit, avocado, snap peas, herby croutons, or even, if you are inclined, meaty morsels of chicken or bacon – a crisp, buoyant style of rosé like this can handle it all.

Resplendent Rauser Vineyard Carignan (planted 1909) farmed by Klinker Brick Winery

Breath of Delta breeze:

2017 Klinker Brick, Bricks & Roses Lodi Rosé ($15) – For a wine weighing in as such an incredible value, there is complexity galore in this Southern French inspired blend of Grenache (38%), Carignan (30%), Syrah (24%), and Mourvèdre (8%). Klinker Brick, of course, has a long and lofty reputation for its estate grown Syrah; and the Carignan in this blend comes from gnarly, deep rooted 100 to 108-year-old vines. It’s these ingredients – which scream “Lodi” – that give this wine an extraordinary depth and array of sensations (strawberry perfume, zesty grapefruit, lush watermelon, dried kitchen herbs), packed into a light (12.8% alcohol), zesty, bone-dry body. A wine like this also screams pastas in fresh tomato and garden herbed marinara, if not simple cold shrimp with sweet-spicy cocktail sauces. Or, you could take full advantage of this wine’s Southern French style by replicating Provence – graveled backyard patio, overgrown succulents, lush Lodi greenery and all – with petite plates of charcuterie or duck confit with cornichons, stone ground mustard, and maybe some olive oil drizzled, peppery arugula with soft/chewy rounds of French bread (preferably wood oven baked by Lodi's artisanal Dancing Fox Bakery).

Delicately lip smacking zestiness:

2017 m2, Mokelumne River-Lodi Rosé of Carignane ($18) – This feathery (just 12.4% alcohol), prickly-crisp and fragrant rosé also picks up a faint whiff of dusty Mokelumne River-Lodi earthiness and combines it with ringing notes of cherry, strawberry, pomegranate, and whole bouquets of red roses. You can attribute much of this wine’s depth and dexterity to the Carignan grape – historically planted all over California precisely because of the naturally high acidity it adds to red wine blends – plus the fact that it comes from one of Bill and John Shinn’s Prohibition era (1920s) blocks, own-rooted in the region’s classic Tokay sandy loam. The other positive is that this wine’s mildly earthy, lip smacking zestiness can be usefully applied in almost any food context where acidity is a factor; such as the vinaigrettes of salads, in fresh tomato seviches, or dishes incorporating vinegars – like caprese salads in balsamics, fruit salads in white wine vinegars, chicken in sherry vinegar, any white meats slathered in Carolina style (i.e. cider vinegar infused) barbecue sauces, or even Filipino style chicken or pork adobo.

Rioja clone of Garnacha (a.k.a. Grenache) in Bokisch Vineyards' Terra Alta Vineyard

Refreshing tapas connections:

2017 Bokisch Vineyards, Terra Alta Vineyard Clements Hills-Lodi Rosado ($18) – Bokisch Ranches grows its own Spanish selections of Garnacha (a.k.a. Grenache) grape in the rolling, gravelly-clay hills of Lodi’s Clements Hills appellation, which are blended with 20% Tempranillo in this bone-dry rosé, rounded out by 5 months aging in neutral French oak barrels. The taste is of pure, ringing, zesty fruit – the peppery spiced strawberry of the Garnacha, merged with the zippy pomegranate/cherry of Tempranillo – which naturally make the palate water for food. The Bokisch family loves to recommend tapas style dishes of their Spanish heritage – think gambas al ajiollo (shrimp in olive oil, garlic and flakes of red pepper) or Sambuca sandía (watermelon soaked in licoricey Sambuca and topped with shavings of dark chocolate). There is certainly an intense enough combination of bouncy red fruit, natural acidity and subtle earth tones to rev up dishes like grilled white fish with watermelon or mango salsas, or even shrimp seared with Cajun, Mexican or Thai spices.

Lip smacking red wine sensations:

2017 LangeTwins Family, Lodi Sangiovese Rosé ($15) – While Sangiovese is far better known as the red wine grape of Chianti and Montalcino in Italy’s Tuscany region, the Lange family has been hitting home runs producing dry rosés from this noble variety. The varietal character positively oozes pomegranate, rose petal, citrus and tea-like aromas and flavors in this wine; zapped by ample acidity and a slightly phenolic (that is, the mildest touch of tannin texturing) feel, all couched in a light and airy body (just 12.6% alcohol). As you would expect, there is enough edginess to easily match tomato based sauces in not just pastas, but also lavished upon pizzas with the usual combinations of sausages, vegetables and cheeses. It is good to have a “perfect wine” for pizza; but when you turn the concept on its head in even more contemporary fashion – think brick oven pies with smoked salmon, crème fraiche and caviar, a classic margherita with basil and artisanal mozzarella, with piles of truffle scented wild mushrooms, and maybe smoked pulled pork or hoisined duck – then a bottle (or bottles) of LangeTwins’ zesty rosé of Sangiovese transforms any weekday meal into a gourmet night.

Barbera clusters in the classic Leventini Vineyard supplying St. Amant Winery

Seriously deep zestiness:

2017 St. Amant, Lodi Barbera Rosé ($15) – Who can explain why this iconic Lodi winery – perennial winner of “Best of Show” and Double-Gold awards on the wine competition circuit – still prices its wines in the mid-teens? But hey, if you can get a dry, exhilaratingly intense and finely balanced, Lodi-expressive rosé that tastes like $35-$45 for just $15, why ask why? Another thing about this wine: Not only is it crafted purely from the Barbera grape – a natural for rosé style wines because of its zesty acidity (the highest of the world’s major red wine grapes) – but it also comes from a fully matured (mid-‘70s), classic Lodi vineyard (Leventini) that has been known to produce the region’s finest red Barberas – at least during the past 15, 20 years. This rosé is replete with meaty, buoyant, bouncy raspberry/cranberryish fruit, packed into a light-medium weight body (13.1% alcohol) with the faintest whiff of oak. Whenever you’re talking about bracing acidity combined with deep, fleshed-out berry sensations, you’re talking about foods that can go beyond salads, shrimp, pizzas and pastas; and into the realm of meatier dishes, like barbecue. Chicken or pork in zesty sweet/spicy sauces are a no-brainer. Then again, so is meatloaf in herby, mushroomy or tomato-laced gravies, or anything pink like salmon or mostly-rare tuna hopped on a grill and peppered up in spicy seasonings.

Bodaciously full and spice nuanced:

2017 Harney Lane, Lodi Rosé ($18) – Rounding out our list of 2017s is a dry rosé that represents a classic taste of what makes Lodi Lodi: Particularly in its blend of grapes (predominantly the region's trademark Zinfandel, with Tempranillo and Petite Sirah); as well as in terms of its soft, easy, yet slightly fuller bodied qualities (14.1% alcohol), couching red berry/cherry aromas with a fragrant touch of strawberry and whisper of cracked pepper spice. This wine has, in fact, enough there there to handle just about any white fish or toothsome fowl (chicken, duck, squab, pigeon, etc.), particularly when cooked, or infused, with fruits like plum, fig or citrus. We could also make a case for ravioli stuffed with something fatty and juicy, like duck, braised pork or shortribs; preferably zapped with a fresh tomato sauce tinged with garlic, if not in a tomato laced broth or with a side of ratatouille. Then there are rice dishes: Like saffron scented paella studded with briny/earthy shellfish and morsels of chicken or pork, or Cajun style shrimp (or chicken) on dirty rice; or even better, the pungent, spicy, earthy cacophony of flavors in a jambalaya – which calls for refreshingly chill-able wines with deep enough flavors, and the touch of minerality or earthiness of an epic, of a Lodi grown rosé like this.

Why ask why?

Oak Farm Vineyards Shinn Farms Rosé (photo courtesy of pullthatcork.com)

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Peltier Winery winemaker Susana ("Susy") Rodriguez Vasquez

With the release of a second vintage of white wines crafted by winemaker Susana Rodriquez Vasquez, Peltier Winery & Vineyards has seized a leadership position within the Lodi winemaking community in respect to a couple of dry style varietal whites: Vermentino and Sauvignon Blanc.

Peltier owner/grower Rod Schatz has been successfully growing and producing both Vermentino and Sauvignon Blanc for going on ten years; but marked improvement in both delineation of wine grape character as well as that magical wine quality known as “balance” found in the winery’s latest releases (from the 2017 vintage) is what leads to the inevitable conclusion: A talented winemaker, unafraid to experiment or innovate, can make all the difference in the world for a winery with premium quality aspirations.

First, let’s talk Vermentino, which is a grape of Mediterranean origins; still most widely planted in Mediterranean Sea-influenced regions such as France’s Provence (where it is called Rolle), Corsica and Sardinia. The fact that the Lodi Viticultural Area’s terroir is described as a Mediterranean climate region is precisely the reason why Vermentino has been doing well in the Delta region.

If you love a bone-dry white wine that is light, airy, and has a flavor profile that could be described as the opposite of the tutti-fruitiness found in most California varietal whites, you will love the 2017 Peltier Estate Lodi Vermentino ($18): A bright, pale straw colored wine with a nose suggesting fresh melon, kiwi, a touch of citrus/lemon, a trace of white pepper spice, and a subtle yet discernible minerality; the lemon/mineral qualities following up in lean yet sleek, lemony tart sensation on the palate; and the light-medium bodied qualities (just 12.5% alcohol) finishing with a refreshing taste suggesting the stringy flesh around the pit of a white peach.

Vasquez herself tells us: “I love the minerality that Vermentino has – it’s like no other white wines.” What is “minerality” in wine? It is not, contrary to common assumption, the taste of the rocks or minerals found in the soil of vineyards that go into wines. Vine scientists say it is a physical impossibility for vines to uptake the taste of minerals through root systems. The taste of minerals in wines, however, is very common in white wines grown in cooler climate regions of the world, where wines are often finished with higher amounts of natural acidity. (For further reading, please see this author's Question of terroir and minerality).

Entrance to Peltier Winery on N. Kennefick (at E. Peltier Rd.) on Lodi's east side

Lodi is by no means a “cold climate” region. But winemakers in warmer parts of California have been known to produce white wines that come across with a minerally taste by picking their grapes earlier, when acid levels are high and fruit flavor profiles are subdued enough to allow the sensation of minerality to push through in subsequent wines, especially when they are low to moderate in alcohol (i.e. 7.5% to 12.5%).

Vermentino, as it were, is one of the wine world’s most transparent grapes. That is to say, white wines made from this grape are known to express the regions they are grown; be it chalky, herby scrub dotted hillsides of Provence, or in windswept vineyards near or along the coasts of Corsica or Sardinia. Corsican Vermentinos, for instance, are prized for their briny/minerally tastes suggesting the wild shrubs, rock clinging flowers and resiny herbs (called maquis) growing all over the island, as well as the pervasive Mediterranean air.

"Certified Green" label for LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing on back of Peltier bottles

Vasquez describes the taste of Vermentino in Lodi’s warm yet gentle Mediterranean climate as “floral, like white fruit, citrus and green apple.” She adds: “Vermentino in Lodi seems to mix in mineral notes that, to me, reminds me of almonds. To preserve those subtle qualities, we ferment the wine in small stainless steel tanks, and we pick early enough to get the right acidity and keep the alcohol low. The wine sees no oak, and we get it into the bottle early to keep its freshness and elegance.”

As it that’s not enough, the 2017 Peltier Estate Lodi Sauvignon Blanc ($18) also takes Lodi grown white wines to another level: It is 100% dry, light as a feather (just 12% alcohol), clear and ringingly bright with multiple aromas – honeydew melon tinged with an herbal essence mixing cut-grass with grapefruit and lemon skin (like the slightly “animal” smell left on your fingers after peeling a lemon) – manifested in a razor-sharp, steely yet fluid medium body.

Peltier Winery winemaker Susy Vasquez

To achieve this edgy sense of “wildness” and textural tension in the Peltier Sauvignon Blanc, Vasquez ferments about 20% of the wine with its skins, and bottles the wine after a short stay in stainless steel tanks. It is skin contact, in particular, that helps Vasquez dial up the natural “green” herbiness of the grape (aromatic compounds identified by vintners as methoxypyrazines – something commonly found in red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon) and the wine’s citrus-skin feel of phenolics; while a special yeast selection helps to increase other aromatic precursors (called thiols) which, in Sauvignon Blanc, can enhance suggestions of stone fruit, spice as well as a sense of minerality.

She admits, “The goal is to produce a bright, crisp, slightly herbaceous style of Sauvignon Blanc like you find in New Zealand – but we can’t imitate New Zealand since we are in Lodi. But through more detailed work in the winery and, of course, good vineyard management, we can achieve a style of wine that more and more people seem to prefer in a Sauvignon Blanc.”

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ZinFest Cooking School guest chef/sommelier Lauren Rose O'Leary

Plethora of Uniquely "Lodi" Wines

It’s called “ZinFest,” but make no mistake: Lodi’s ZinFest Wine Festival – taking place Saturday, May 19, 2018 at bucolic Lodi Lake Park (12:00-5:00 PM) – is about far more than Zinfandel.
Dozens of wineries will be pouring over 200 different wines; including the light, fragrant, zesty styles of dry whites and rosés for which the region is becoming increasingly known.
One good example: Acquiesce Winery – now renowned for pure, handcrafted, 100% estate grown whites and pinks (no reds) that never see a day in oak – will be pouring their bright, breezy Grenache Blanc, as well as their bone dry yet sleek, strawberry and mineral toned Grenache Rosé. Life is good.

Lovin' life at Lodi ZinFest

Bokisch Vineyards – producer of industry leading Spanish varietals for going on 17 years – will be showing off some of their quintessential, Lodi grown wines; including their crisp, minerally, flowery Albariño, their smooth yet pungently spice scented red Garnacha, and their citrusy-fresh, vibrant Verdejo. ¡Olé! 

Getting thirsty? Wait ‘til you try the dry, spice and rhubarb scented Cinsault Rosé by Downtown Lodi's Estate Crush; fashioned from some of the most historic vines in the state (the phenomenal Bechthold Vineyard, planted by the Spenker family in 1886!). Obviously, not just any ol' rosé.
How about another wine of historic significance? Try on St. Amant Winery's Barbera for size – a bold, zesty yet finesseful red wine produced from a mature 1970s planting that once supplied the “Hearty Burgundy” of yesteryears (and now one of California's finest Barberas, period). Or how about Heritage Oak Winery's Charbono – made from an underappreciated grape that produces red wines as deep and rock-solid as, say, any Cabernet Sauvignon, but with the zesty, food-versatile edginess reminiscent of a good Barbera? Both reds, very unique, very “Lodi.”

Harney Lane Winery owner/grower Kyle Lerner (middle) warming up crowd at ZinFest pre-event

Are you developing a taste for more exotic wines? Then you should stop by the Paskett Winery table to get a gander at their Verdelho – a delicate yet sharply etched, silken varietal white with all the lemon/lime fragrances in the world.
Vermentino has become another uniquely “Lodi” white wine grape, with medium-weight dryness brimming with sensations that are as minerally as they are citrusy – heaven-sent for wine lovers sick and tired of the usual tutti-fruity California stuff. Uvaggio Wines will be showing off two versions of Vermentino: Their bone-dry “regular” bottling, as well as their lusciously balanced, sweet Vermentino Passito – the latter made from grapes meticulously hand-picked and laid out to “dry” for several weeks following harvest.

 The 2018 ZinFest "redhead"

Are you into smooth and suave reds? Then you might be fulfilled by the Tempranillo bottlings by either Harney Lane Winery or m2 Wines; which come across like Don Juans that caress your palate with textures as soft as fingertips sheathed in fine, earthy leather, while tickling the nostrils with black cherry nuanced sweet-nothings.
Or do you prefer the raw power of a take-no-prisoners red wine? In which case, we would suggest visiting the Mettler Family Vineyards table, where they will be pouring a Petite Sirah that will literally knock your socks off, pick you up and smack you in the kisser again. Thank you, ma'am.

ZinFest guest chef/Food Networkstar/restaurateur, Chad Rosenthal

Up In Smoke Where We Belong

Where there’s good wine, there’s rockin’ good food; and ZinFest never lets you down. In one corner of the Lodi Lake Park grounds you will find Chef Chad Rosenthal – a Food Network star and chef/owner of Pennsylvania’s The Lucky Well and Bánh Street restaurants – who will be putting on several cooking demonstrations at the Up In Smoke! ZinFest BBQ Experience venue. Matched with Lodi wines, of course.

Among the dishes to be shown by Chef Rosenthal: 

 “Live-Fire” Charcoal Cooked Ribeye Steaks with Chorizo Butter and Herb Salad (12:45 PM) 

 Smoked Whole Wings with Vietnamese Funk Sauce in Charcoal and Fried Garlic Toss (2:15 PM)

 15-Spice Dry-Rub Pork Ribs with Memphis Mustard Slaw (3:45 PM)

ZinFest Cooking School guest chef Tony Lawrence (left) with KCRA Channel 3's Teo Torres (photo by Bea Ahbeck, courtesy of Lodi News-Sentinel)

ZinFest Cooking School

Under an even larger tent, KCRA Channel 3’s Teo Torres will be hosting the ZinFest Cooking School; which will feature dishes and matching wines presented by:

• Lauren Rose O'Leary (California sommelier, cheesemonger, private chef and seasonal omnivore of lomade.co) demonstrating Chicken Zucchini Bites with Yogurt Tahini Sauce (1:00 PM)

• Tony “The Global Wine Chef” Lawrence (winechefforyou.com) demonstrating Chilled Spiced Watermelon Berry Margarita Soup with Mascarpone  Key Lime Crème Fraiche (3:00 PM); as well as Pan Seared Filet Mignon over Aged Cheddar Scrambled Eggs & Cracked Pepper Yukon Gold Butter Potato Hash and Raspberry Arugula Catsup (4:00 PM)

Turley Wine Cellars winemaker Tegan Passalacqua (right) at ZinFest Wine School with Lodi grower Craig Rous

ZinFest Wine School

If you love to learn – through guided tastings, guaranteed 100% gobbledygook-free – then you must drop in on the ZinFest Wine School tent. Read all about our colorful cast of celebrity ZinFest Wine School winemakers – and the phenomenal wines they will be talking you through – in our previous post, Tegan Passalacqua headlines guest speakers and cutting-edge wines at 2018 ZinFest Wine School.

Which, indubitably, all adds up to a literal “feast” of the senses. If you haven’t done so yet, we advise procurement of your ZinFest tickets now!

Serious wine lovin' at ZinFest Wine School

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Lodi winegrower Pieter den Hartog rescued a stray dog and named him Zin.

Lodi proudly proclaims to be the Zinfandel capital of the world.

And rightly so.

The Lodi American Viticultural Area is responsible for producing roughly 40 percent of California’s premium Zinfandel.

People in Lodi show their Zinfandel pride in several ways.

Pets, license plates, the city’s largest annual wine festival and even a local restaurant are named in honor of a winegrape that has been part of the fabric of Lodi for more than 100 years.

On a magnificent estate along the Mokelumne River, a frisky dog runs around, thanks to Lodi growers with big hearts, Barbara and Pieter den Hartog.

Not far from their home, a stray female dog lived inside a culvert pipe in a ditch beside the den Hartog's Zinfandel vineyard. A local woman often saw the dog while on her daily bike ride. The dog acted mean, like she was protecting something. The woman left food and water behind, suspecting there were puppies also living inside the pipe.

She was right.

In time, nine puppies came out of the culvert. The woman found homes for all the puppies and their mother. The den Hartog’s adopted one of the pups and named him Zin.

“We went through all kinds of names: Slough, Culvert,” Barbara said. “But he ended up being Zin.”

Zin often hangs out in the vineyards with his owner, Lodi winegrower Pieter den Hartog.

Zin was a mess when he was rescued.

“He was full of ticks and worms,” Barbara said. “We got him at six weeks when he was little. We put him in a bucket and started washing him. The whole thing was red and black with fleas.”

Several months have passed and Zin couldn’t be happier. He hangs out with Pieter on his treks into the vineyards. Den Hartog farms about 1,000 immaculate acres planted to Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Viognier and Pinot noir.

“He’s very friendly,” Pieter said. “I don’t take him into town all the time. He doesn’t bite but you need to be careful these days.”

Zin is a mix. His mother was “kind of a border collie,” Barbara said. Barbara and Pieter believe Zin has a little German Shepard, Rottweiler and Labrador Retriever in him, too. Zin has been a nice companion.

“I always used to have Chocolate Labs,” Pieter said. “We’ve had like four or five. The last one passed away a year and a half ago. He was born on the place and I wanted to get another Lab, but (Zin) was right there and he worked out good.”

Zinzanni, here being ridden by Alexandra Duarte, is a Dutch Warmblood bred in Holland and born in Acampo.

Pieter den Hartog’s father played a role in another animal with Lodi ties named for Zinfandel. Pieter's father, a premier breeder of Dutch Warmblood horses in Holland, bred a horse for Charlene Lange of LangeTwins Family Winery and Vineyards.

“She was conceived in Holland and born in Lodi,” Lange said. “Pieter’s dad came over from Holland to make sure she was good. It was a big deal.”

In Holland, Dutch Warmbloods must have a name beginning with the designated letter of the foal’s birth year. This helps identify when the horse was born. Lange’s foal was born on the family ranch in Acampo during the "Z" year. Lange named her “Zinzanni” for a few reasons: not only did the name meet the Dutch registry requirement, it was a nod to Teatro Zinzanni, a circus dinner theater in Seattle, and because LangeTwins grows and crafts Zinfandel in its diverse lineup of wines.

Zinzanni was long ridden dressage by Alexandra Duarte and is now owned and ridden by Jessica Naten in Wilton.

Horses aren’t the only mode of transportation in Lodi named after Zinfandel. Several pick-up trucks and passenger cars cruise the streets and back roads of Lodi with personalized license plates that play on Zinfandel.

Lodi winegrower Todd Maley drives a pick-up truck with the ZINFUL 2 license plate.

Todd Maley’s ZINFUL 2 license plate on his Toyota pick-up once belonged to his father, Joe Maley.

“Two people zinning is better than one, it’s more fun to zin with more people.” said Todd Maley, explaining what the license plate purchased about 25 years ago could mean. “Lodi and Zinfandel go hand in hand.”

Todd Maley is a fifth-generation winegrape grower with family history in Lodi dating to 1864. He farms 250 acres, about half to Zinfandel. Maley’s cousins, the Phillips family, has sourced Maley’s fruit for Michael David Winery’s Lust Zinfandel, a limited production, premium wine.

Maley also farms Chardonnay, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Teroldego.

Lodi winegrower and Klinker Brick Winery owner Steve Felten's license plate says it all.

Steve Felten’s Chevy pick-up truck has plates that read ZINNMAN.

The plates were a birthday gift from Steve’s wife, Lori, and their daughter, Farrah (Jolley).

The plates prompted short-lived controversy.

Steve received a phone call from a stranger shortly after a newspaper article referred to the fifth-generation Lodi winegrower and founder of Klinker Brick Winery as the “Zin Man.” The article was accompanied by a picture of Steve’s license plate. The caller said he had trademarked “Zin Man.”

“No problem,” Felten said.

But as far as the license plate?

“I said, ‘I’m not getting rid of it,’” Felten said. “I kept the plates.”

Lori and Farrah gave the plates to Steve about 18 years ago, just as the family began making wine under their Klinker Brick label. The brand is distributed throughout the United States and several other countries. Recently, Klinker Brick shipped 10,000 bottles of its Old Vine Zinfandel and Old Ghost wines to China for the first time.

Lodi winegrower Stanton Lange went with VINEMAN for his license plate.

No one yet has objected to grower Stanton Lange having the license plate VINEMAN.

At least no one he’s aware of.

There isn’t much of a story behind the plate, Lange said.

“It was something that we just wanted to do,” said Lange, who owns SC Lange Vineyard Management. “I thought it would be fun to have a personalized plate.”

Lange has had the plate for about two decades. He searched DMV records to see which grape-themed plates were available.

“We tried ‘zin’ and we tried ‘grapes’ and we tried ‘wine grapes,’” Lange said. “Vineman was available and so that’s what I did.”

Tonya McMahan, general manager of Macchia in Acampo, has a license plate that reflects her winery's primary varietal -- Zinfandel.

When the McMahan family isn’t in the Sierra Nevada hiking or rock climbing, its attention is centered on Macchia, its winery in Acampo. General manager Tanya McMahan and her brother, Tyler McMahan, have license plates with Zinfandel themes.

“We are a Zin house,” Tanya said. “We make 10 to 12 Zinfandels. That’s our thing, Zinfandel, so when we were looking for license plates, my mom checked for what was available.”

Tanya and Tyler’s mother, Lani, who owns Macchia Winery, bought MSZIN and MISSZIN. Tanya drives a Mazda CX-5 with the MISSZIN plate, and Tyler has a Nissan Infiniti that his mother used to drive with the MSZIN plate.   

Both plates have a silhouette of Yosemite in the background.

“We are all very outdoorsy people, so we have Yosemite in the background,” Tanya said. “We were raised going camping or rock climbing. We are a very outdoorsy family.”

Tyler said he’s looking forward to passing on his plate to his 16-year-old niece, Sierra, so “she can rep the ‘Miss’ part of the license plate.”

Walter Ng, shown here, and his wife, Melissa Ng, are chef/owners of Zin Bistro on Lodi Avenue.

When Melissa and Walter Ng decided to open their own restaurant after managing the food service at the Elks Lodge in Woodbridge for 10 years, they wanted the name to reflect Lodi.

“We named it ‘Zin Bistro’ because Lodi is the ‘Zin Capital of the World,’” Ng said. “And that’s why we chose it.”

Melissa and Walter offer a bistro-inspired menu and a wine list that includes several selections from Lodi. Walter said local wineries send business his way and vice versa.

“We realized when we moved here that the local wineries were very important,” Walter said. “We wanted to keep everything pretty much local.”

Zin Bistro has been open for about four years and is a local favorite for lunch and dinner.

Melissa and Walter built a loyal following working at the Elks Lodge.

“That’s how we know a lot of the winemakers; a lot of them go to the lodge,” Walter said. “We met the community around there. That’s how we got to know people in government. They had their meetings there. When we came here, they kind of followed us.”

Each year, thousands follow their desire for delicious wine and food to the Lodi ZinFest Wine Festival at Lodi Lake. No other name would fit Lodi’s largest annual wine festival. More than 40 Lodi wineries pour a selection of 150 hand-crafted wines, showcasing the area’s delicious Zinfandel and dozens of other winegrape varieties from one of the world’s most diverse regions.

What else would Lodi's largest annual wine festival be called? ZinFest, of course.

Cooking and Wine classes are a big part of the festival, as well as food from local purveyors and merchandise from local artisans. This year, ZinFest is on Saturday, May 19. For more information, visit zinfest.com.

Zinfandel has a special place in Lodi’s history and its growers, winemakers and citizens are proud to show it off.

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m2 Winery estate under April 2018 skies

More and more wine consumers, as well as journalists and online scribes, are starting to notice that the Lodi Viticultural Area produces light, refreshing, perfectly crisp and natural white wines without any winemaker “adjustments,” like the addition of acidity in the winery.

Lodi is also known for Zinfandel – the region crushes nearly 40% of the entire state’s production each year. With the advent of smaller, artisanal Lodi based producers over the past 10 or so years, Zinfandel lovers are starting to notice another salient fact: Lodi produces a more delicate, gentle, fragrant style of Zinfandel – in comparison to the bigger, thicker, riper, jammier styles associated with, say, Napa Valley and most of Sonoma County.

What gives?

For those who still think Lodi is a wine region as hot as the Sahara – or, maybe, the Madera Viticultural Area in Fresno County – this recent evolution seems to defy preconceptions. In one recent online report filed by well-known blogger, Lodi’s growing season temperature was described as “Region V,” making it similar to Madera (re wine-searcher.com's Too Hot to Handle). The Roman-numerical description of Lodi’s climate was in reference to the “heat summation” system originally devised by Professor A.J. Winkler of U.C. Davis during the 1940s to classify the different California wine growing regions: Region I being the coolest climate region, and Region V being the hottest.

Old vine Zinfandel on Mokelumne River-Lodi's east side

To set the record straight: A growing production of white wines with natural, zesty acidity, as well as delicate Zinfandels with floral (as opposed to raisiny) aromas, would be virtually impossible in a Region V region. Ergo: Lodi is no more a "Region V" than, say, Napa Valley (which we explain below). Lodi is far from Madera both climatically and geographically. The driving distance between the cities of Lodi and Fresno is approximately 137 miles; more than twice the distance between Lodi and Napa (about 56 miles).

Thus, not coincidentally, Napa Valley is the wine region with a growing season climate most often compared to Lodi’s, as we pointed out in a blog posted three years ago (re How warm, or cool, is Lodi?), where we compared the average high (day-time) and low (night-time) temperatures of the two AVAs during the months of March through October, when grape vines are active. The figures we compiled, reflecting temperatures recorded by the Western Regional Climate Center going back over 100 years, to 1893:

The numbers speak for themselves, but here’s the thing: Temperatures alone do not describe any wine region’s climate. There are myriad other factors affecting quality and style; such as degree or abundance of sunlight, rainfall, humidity, wind, evapotranspiration, and more (re Lodi viticulturist Stan Grant’s piece on Comparative Wine Growing Climatology).

The Winkler scale, which has become the most widely used method of classifying wine growing regions all around the world, was based upon the concept of “degree-days” – calculated by the amount that each day’s average temperature exceeds 50° Fahrenheit, between the growing season months of April and October. The reason why Winkler’s heat summation is based upon 50° F. is because at temperatures lower than this, grape vines do not effectively photosynthesize. In other words, during nights when the temperatures are hitting 49°, 45° or lower, vines become inactive.

Bokisch Vineyards' Vista Luna Vineyard in Lodi's Borden Ranch AVA

Winkler’s climate classification of regions, from coldest to hottest:

• Region I (2,500 degree-days or less)
• Region II (2,501–3,000 degree-days)
• Region III (3,001–3,500 degree-days)
• Region IV (3,501–4,000 degree-days)
• Region V (more than 4,000 degree-days)

Most recently, however, a number of viticulturists have been arguing for a more accurate climate classification system entailing the true complexity of wine growing regions. The Lodi AVA (i.e. American Viticultural Area), for instance, is divided into 7 sub-AVAs; recognized more for their distinct topographies and soil types than for temperature-related differences. Napa Valley, however, consists of no less than 16 sub-AVAs; all of which are recognized as much for their wide variance of temperatures (or degree-days) as for their differences in topographies, soil types, elevations, slope, aspect, and numerous factors defining terroir.

Other California regions known for the wide temperature variations of their respective sub-appellations include Sonoma County (consisting of 17 AVAs), the Paso Robles AVA (11 sub-AVAs), and Santa Barbara County (6 AVAs). While the average consumer may not understand the impact of sub-appellation variables on what they taste in the bottle, the fact of the matter is that terroir-related factors strongly influence viticultural and winemaking decisions, thus making a huge difference in how wines turn out.

Early April light on ancient vine Carignan on Mokelumne River-Lodi's west side

Perhaps the most influential work done on the differences in climate found in American appellations was done by a Research Climatologist named Professor Gregory V. Jones, who is Director of the Center for Wine Education at Linfield College (McMinnville, OR). In his April 2015 paper entitled Spatial Analysis of Climate in Winegrape Growing Regions in the Western United States*, Jones argued for an updated overview of climate classification that entails minimum as well as maximum degree-day readings, which come a little closer to recognizing the complexities of wine regions. (*Written in collaboration with Andrew A. Duff, Andrew Hall and Joseph W. Meyers).

In his proposal, Jones based his revision of Winkler’s original system of degree-day classification on Celsius units, rather than the Fahrenheit used by Winkler, which alters the formula somewhat. Re:

• Region I (1,389 degree-days or less)
• Region II (1,390-1,667 degree-days)
• Region III (1,668-1,944 degree-days)
• Region IV (1,945-2,222 degree-days)
• Region V (more than 2,223 degree-days)

As an example of the wide variance of degree-days (shortened as GDD, i.e. Growing Degree Days) to be found in the U.S., some of the wine regions cited by Jones:

As you can see in Jones’ revised index, Napa Valley’s 43,000 or so acres of wine grapes are planted in no less than five different degree-day classifications. Its climate ranging from as cool as Region I to as warm as Region V, Napa Valley is a prime example of what Jones calls a “spatial variability.” Yet no one would describe Napa Valley as a "Region V"; especially since, as Jones notes, “the AVA reveals that it is predominantly Region III (56%) and Region IV (30%).” 

Lodi, by the same token, is predominantly and consistently a Region IV; while falling in the lower range of Region V just 22% of the time; despite being easily the most widely planted wine region in the U.S. (at some 110,000 acres, more than Napa Valley and Sonoma County combined).

Jones’ research shows that Paso Robles (about 40,000 total acres) “spans three Winkler regions... Region II, III and IV (14%, 49% and 37% respectively).” On the other hand, the much warmer Madera AVA (about 38,000 acres of wine grapes) “is largely a hot climate type... a Region V in GDD (100%).” This prevailing percentage makes Madera's climate hugely different from that of Napa Valley or Lodi's.

So how do you classify the Lodi AVA? We describe it as a warm winegrowing region, very much in a Mediterranean Climate zone (i.e. warm days and cool nights throughout the growing season). It is both its consistently moderate temperatures and daily diurnal swings that allow Lodi to grow California's greatest diversity of wine grapes - from Albariño to Zweigelt, Sauvignon blanc to Cabernet Sauvignon, and over 100 others – and produce premium quality wines from every one of them. Then again, you may have already known that from what you have been tasting in the bottle!

April sky over Lodi's west side

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Freelance Wines' Adam Mettler between early April showers

The 2015 Freelance Wines Lodi Coup de Grâce ($25) has an eye-catching label depicting George Washington leading his blue-coated men into battle, amidst falling snow looking more like shimmering Fourth of July confetti.

The red wine inside is even catchier: A full throated, dense yet lusciously rounded blend of Lodi grown Zinfandel (47%), Petite Sirah (29%), Petit Verdot (15%), and Cabernet Franc (9%). The aromatic profile is deep and spicy – cracked black pepper mingling with a whiff of smoke, like the proof of bombs-bursting-in-air. What’s not to like?

There are, of course, many other premium red wine blends out in the market. The store shelves, and online shopping sites, are teeming with them. When they came out with their first vintage of Coup de Grâce, a 2011, the minds behind the wine – winemaker Adam Mettler (who holds down two day jobs, as Director of Winemaking at Michael David Winery as well as for Mettler Family Vineyards) and Mike Stroh (Marketing Director at Michael David Winery) – made no bones about their concept of blended reds: They called it Coup de Grâce precisely because it was meant to “vanquish the competition.” Hence, the label on their first four vintages, which depicted sword-wielding samurai warriors and a red ink splattered logo underlining their blood-thirsty aspirations.

“The old label was a little dark,” admitted Mettler, in a conversation on a wet morning earlier this month. “The new label rebrands the wine as a ‘Freelance’ proprietary red. There is still a little violence – a dead red-coat is lying on the ground, at George Washington’s feet – but the label better reflects how we feel about winemaking in Lodi. That this is a region where we can feel freer, or more independent, with the variety of grapes available to us in our blends.”

Adds Mettler: “As in the four previous vintages, the 2015 Coup de Grâce is still based on old vine Zinfandel; which is very ‘Lodi,’ since we have more of that than anyone else. Zinfandel gives the wine its dark fruit and weight, which we enhance with lots of barrel age. The use of Petite Sirah in the blend helps scale back the Zinfandel character a little bit, so it is not so overly jammy. The Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc shift the profile a little more towards a Bordeaux influence – slightly herbal, good structure, and also less jammy. All the components pull together nicely.”

Although the wine is not found in every state, Mettler tells us that Vintage Point, a Sonoma based marketing company, has successfully found placements in 18 states across the country. “The project started as a 100-case job, and they took it to 2000 cases right off the bat – pretty good size for a ‘side’ label.”

Adam Mettler in his Michael David Winery lab

Does the rebranding of the front label as “Freelance” (the “Coup de Grâce” moniker is now found only on the bottle’s back label) signal a possible expansion into other wines? Says Mettler, “That’s definitely part of the game plan – opening things up for possible line extensions. We can’t say what that might be, but we’re tossing around a couple of ideas.”

The Freelance partners, Mettler and Stroh, obviously have an established track record, as part of the team conceiving and executing tremendously successful blends associated with Michael David Winery (sub-brands like Seven Deadly and Freakshow, which started off as single-varietal reds, have been expanded into red wine blends).

Of the art of producing top-selling commercial red wine blends, Mettler tells us: “Half the time, I can’t really tell you what kinds of wines people like to drink. Some people say it’s big alcohol, structure, maybe a little jamminess and sweetness. Yet ours seems to work, and it’s actually less jammy, with almost no residual sugar. Coup de Grâce is a more structured wine, with more luxurious oak, without tasting oaky. Then again, we’re not making a $5-$10 red wine blend. Our wine is meant to sell for around $25, but deliver the richness of a $50 wine.”

Adds Mettler, “Whatever you do when making a red wine blend, it probably just has to be good; have a good mouth-feel, and absolutely no flaws. That’s why, working in Lodi, we might have an advantage. We can do that, get it priced very competitively, and still sort of ‘vanquish’ the competition.”

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