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The Sacramento Bee's Mike Dunne, judging in The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition's sweepstakes round (photo courtesy of Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Mike Dunne is one of those newspapermen whose unimpeachable creds as a published wine pundit were established roughly in the Stone Age. That is, when The Rolling Stones were still considered a voice of “youth” (who knows what you should call them now).

Mr. Dunne officially “retired” from The Sacramento Bee in 2008 after working for this flagship McClatchy daily as a food editor, restaurant critic and wine columnist for some 30 years. But like the Stones, he just never goes away. Instead, he continues to regularly file his impeccably composed “Dunne on Wine” columns at the Bee, covering every conceivable wine region from Washington and Oregon to Chile and Australia, every nook and cranny of California and much of the “old country” in Europe as well. His interests, and therefore insights and erudite commentary, are decidedly global. Plus, as a professional wine judge, Mr. Dunne’s services are in demand up and down the West Coast, and beyond (for a short time, Dunne also served as head judge for the venerable California State Fair).

The Sacramento Bee "Dunne on Wine" silhouette (image by Kevin German, courtesy of Mike Dunne and The Sacramento Bee)

This explains why Mr. Dunne doesn’t write all that much about Lodi wine country, located just a few miles away from his home in Sacramento (he and his wife Martha – another outstanding wine judge – also spend quite a bit of time in their second home in Mexico’s San José del Cabo). Not that Lodi escapes his notice. How can it, it’s so darned big. Which is why we received a request from Dunne this past January, following another winter retreat to Mexico, requesting a tasting of the “latest Lodi wines,” demonstrating “where Lodi has been and where it is going.” Music to our ears.

Without further ado, the following constitutes Dunne’s summary, “as is” (zero edits from our side), of what he ended up tasting. When Dunne sent over his notes, he entitled it “What’s Up in Lodi.” In fact, this collection of wines represents a current cutting-edge of Lodi. Put it this way: none of these wines even existed nine or ten years ago. They’re that new, yet are already speaking for what Lodi is all about.

Monastrell (a.k.a. Mourvèdre) in Bokisch Vineyards' Sheldon Hills Vineyard, in Lodi's Sloughhouse appellation

Here are the general impressions that Mr. Dunne came away with, following the tasting:

Lodi's standing for straight-forward, high-value varietal wines like Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon is yesterday’s news, I learned while recently tasting through 19 current and pending releases from the area. Though not yet widely recognized beyond Lodi, a much more diverse portfolio of wine styles is emerging from Lodi’s vineyards and wineries. Clairette blanche? Vermentino? Monastrell? And would you look at all those proprietary blends that speak to a new sensitivity and intricacy evolving from the sweeping and varied Lodi appellation.

The page looks to have turned to the dawning of a new era of creativity and diversity in Lodi, where you still can find the kinds of bold and muscular Zinfandels largely responsible for the area’s reputation but also varietal wines and blends of striking finesse and complexity. Never before has there been as many reasons to loiter in Lodi.

And Mr. Dunne's wine notes:

2016 Acquiesce Winery, Mokelumne River-Lodi Grenache Blanc Sparkling Wine ($55) - The aroma is akin to walking into a winery during crush, it is that enveloping and fresh. This is one fruity sparkler, with aroma and flavor suggestions running to apples and pears, underscored with notes of yeast. It’s dry and on the light side, gentle but not quite soft, with respectable acidity. Oysters, please.

Grenache blanc harvest in Lodi's Acquiesce estate

2017 Fields Family Wines, Estate Vineyard Lodi Grenache Blanc ($21) - Here, the apple and pear orchards have been joined by a grove of lemons, both in aroma and flavor. It’s dry and light-bodied, though the neutral oak barrels in which it was aged give it body and roundness.

2018 Acquiesce Winery, Mokelumne River-Lodi Clairette Blanche ($28) - “Clairette blanche” may look and sound like some move expected of ballerinas or competitive ice skaters, but it’s a green grape, here yielding a white wine of uncommon beefiness and earthiness, with a tantalizing floral fragrance and rich sweet fruit offset by suggestions of Indian spices and white truffles.

2017 Acquiesce Winery, Mokelumne River-Lodi Bourboulenc ($28) - Another exotic green grape making inroads at Lodi, Bourboulenc here yields a modest and fleeting wine notable for its thread of minerality and delicate suggestions of spiced apple and citrus. A little soft, a little short, it demands that the taster pay attention to appreciate its coy charm.

2017 Bokisch Vineyards, Terra Alta Vineyard Clements Hills-Lodi Trencadis White ($23) - An inspired name, “Trencadis” is a technique whereby a mosaic is created with irregular pieces of ceramic, glass and tile. In this case, the tiles are five green grape varieties, including Grenache blanc, Piquepoul and Marsanne. The result is a portrait of a spring and summer white wine high in floral fragrance, complicated with suggestions of watermelon, orange and lemon, lifted with refreshing acidity and sophisticated in its balance and elegance.

Mike Dunne (center) during a 2012 Lodi wine country visit with (from left) W. Blake Gray (The Gray Report), Kevin Phillips (Phillips Farms), Deborah Parker Wong (WSET and Tasting Panel/The SOMM Journal) and Virginia Boone (Wine Enthusiast)

2017 Fields Family Wines, Delu Vineyard Alta Mesa-Lodi Vermentino ($24)- Here is a Vermentino of exceptional vigor and persistence, more lush and round than the usual take on the varietal, but with the sass of revitalizing acidity.

2017 Peltier Winery, Schatz Vineyards Estate Cosumnes River-Lodi Sauvignon Blanc ($18) - Though partially barrel fermented, the precision with which this Sauvignon blanc was made doesn’t let obvious oak undermine the faithfulness and vitality of the variety when it is grown in climates customarily seen as cooler than Lodi. It has lemon, lime and herbaceousness in equal and complementary measures.

2017 Anaya Vineyards, Potrero Vineyards Estate Clements Hills-Lodi Pinot Gris ($32) - Not your customary one-dimensional and light-hearted Pinot gris, but one of richness and build, with sweet melon fruit dusted with pie spices. It is dry and medium bodied, with enough acidity to pair comfortably with lightly sauced gnocchi. The skin contact and neutral French oak aging was applied sensitively, giving the wine breezy complexity without upstaging its fruit.

2016 Peltier Winery, Schatz Vineyards Estate Cosumnes River-Lodi Preeminence ($28) - A well-chosen name, if the intent of the wine is to recognize the stature of citric fruits. In perfume and flavor, they all are here – lemons, oranges, limes, grapefruit. The result is that while the wine is mouth filling it also is exceptionally refreshing. It also is seamless, with a lean European build.

2016 Alquimista Cellars, Jessie’s Grove, Mokelumne River-Lodi Ancient Vine Zinfandel ($52) - Who will pay that kind of money for a Lodi Zinfandel, especially one with 15.1% alcohol? On paper, this looks like an example of the style of Zinfandel Lodi is hoping to shed. On the palate, however, it’s a Zinfandel of exceptional complexity, youth and zest, capturing classic Lodi fruit but delivering it with a level hand. A lot of effort went into this wine, including native-yeast fermentation with such varieties as Carignan and Mission (it’s still 80% Zinfandel) and partial carbonic maceration (i.e. fermenting in whole berries to enhance fruitiness and extract softer tannin). In color, it’s a brilliant ruby/purple. In aroma and flavor, brambles, briars and spice add interest to its spirited boysenberry fruit. The acidity is yeasty, the alcohol not at all intrusive, the tannins stretched and the oak marginalized.

2014 Tizona (by Bokisch Vineyards), Lodi Gran Reserva Tempranillo ($60) - Any wine called “Gran Reserva” sets high expectations for mass, drama and persistence, and the Bokisch Tizona doesn’t disappoint. This is one lush wine, generous with black-cherry fruit, black-olive sensuousness, retreating tannins, French oak and spice, as well as insinuations of roses and tobacco. Despite its monumental size, it travels across the palate gracefully.

2016 Tizona (by Bokisch Vineyards), Lodi La Colada ($32) - A blend largely of Tempranillo and Graciano, the La Colada is younger and more sprightly than the Gran Reserva Tempranillo. It is a delightfully layered wine, which in addition to strawberry and cherry fruit is shot through with suggestions of mint and anise. A slightly bitter note in the finish does more to add interest than consternation.

Mike Dunne plying his usual trade (tasting zillions of wines)

2016 Bokisch Vineyards, Sheldon Hills Vineyard Sloughhouse-Lodi Monastrell ($25) - A terrific bargain for its telltale Monastell (a.k.a. Mourvèdre) spiciness and earthiness, to say nothing of its juicy berry/cherry fruit, supple tannins and overall bounce.

2016 Markus Wine Co., Gill Creek Ranch Lodi Sol ($39) - Shows that a truly elegant wine can come out of Lodi, by which is meant a wine with svelte structure, silken texture, laser-like focus to its fruit and an embracing aroma and flavor not often found in a release based largely on Petite Sirah.

2016 Markus Wine Co., Spenker Ranch Block 8A Mokelumne River-Lodi Blue ($39) - Based on Petit Verdot, the Blue is a deeply colored, lean, dry and freshly fruity wine, its lilting cherry fruit threaded with currents of licorice and dried herbs.

Bokisch Vineyards' 2014 Tizona Gran Reserva Tempranillo (scheduled for release in early 2020)

2016 Markus Wine Co., Gill Creek Ranch Clements Hills-Lodi Zeitlos ($39) - Here is a pretty brawny take on Syrah, its color dense and its dark-fruit aroma and flavor textbook in meatiness and blue fruit. The big surprise here is how supple the tannins are.

2016 Fields Family Wines, Lodi Syrah ($25) - A Syrah that seizes the variety’s blueberry and spiced-meat character with boldness and symmetry. This is one graceful Syrah, a veritable study in equilibrium, with tannins stretched thin and acidity zingy.

2016 Anaya Vineyards, Potrero Vineyard Clements Hills-Lodi Nebbiolo ($48; barrel sample) - A model that California winemakers will want to emulate if they hope to sell Nebbiolo – light in color, plenty of spice, relaxed tannins and subtle layering in its red-fruit aroma and flavor. There’s some stemminess in there, but it adds interest rather than distracts from the fruit.

2011 Peltier Winery, Schatz Family Reserve Mokelumne River-Lodi Teroldego ($60) - Char and smoke, so much that Teroldego’s character is smothered, and Teroldego is a somewhat hesitant wine that benefits by a relaxed hand with the oak.

Thing of rare beauty: Anaya Family Vineyards Nebbiolo, grown in Clements Hills-Lodi

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Mountain Tides winemaker/owner Scott Kirkpatrick at Clements Hills-Lodi's Viñedos Aurora Vineyard

There are plenty of American wineries founded with the intention of specializing in one grape, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot noir or Zinfandel. There is a much smaller handful hanging their hats on grapes like Tempranillo, Syrah, Mourvèdre or Grenache. But Petite Sirah? That may take some guts.

And there is one, based in Napa, sourcing most of its Petite Sirah fruit from... Lodi!

Mountain Tides Petite Sirah

The 2017 Mountain Tides Clements Hills-Lodi Petite Sirah ($32) has the inky colored, thick, brash, tannin laden character Petite Sirah aficionados love about the varietal, but also something a little more: a perfumey “smile,” like a wave seeming to say “hey, dude, I’m a product of the Lodi sun,” plus a certain wild, scrubby earth tone and whiff of lavender reflecting a winemaker’s touch, or rather restraint from too much touching – particularly in terms of 100% native yeast fermentation, use of neutral oak barrels and picking of grapes early enough to maximize the tastes of terroir (i.e. place or origin of the grapes – in this case, Lodi’s Clements Hills) as opposed to oak or overrripe fruit.

So what, or who, is behind Mountain Tides Wine Co.? He is, in fact, a former musician, a factor that makes you think of two great songs about the risks of blind ambition: The Rolling Stones“You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and Jimmy Cliff’s slightly less famous (but rocksteadier) “You Can Get It If You Really Want.”

Scott Kirkpatrick punching down his Mountain Tides Petite Sirah (photo courtesy of Mountain Tides Wine Co.)

Scott Kirkpatrick, the owner/winemaker of Mountain Tides, definitely subscribes to the brighter outlook of the Jimmy Cliff song. It really wasn’t that long ago, in 2013, that he moved to Napa Valley from Louisville, KY, a literal son of a preacher man who would never touch alcohol. Kirkpatrick himself had grown tired of the all-night life of restaurants, even as a a studious sommelier at an appropriately named restaurant called RYE, havng already left the on-the-road life of a musician behind.

“When I came out of Kentucky I had just a few dollars left in my pocket,” Mr. Kirkpatrick tells us. “My goal was to get a job in the wine industry – any job.” Kirkpatrick managed to land a spot as a harvest intern at a custom crush winery. “I worked hard, met some great winemakers like Philippe Melka and Aaron Pott, and then after the harvest I was hoping to get hired, to be able to stay on at the winery. It didn’t happen...

Mountain Tides wines throwing shadows like phases of the moon (photo courtesy of Mountain Tides Wine Co.)

“Then I got lucky – I got a call about a temporary job at Eleven Eleven Winery. It was basically a janitorial position – sweeping floors. I took it, but hey, five and a half years later I’m still there and guess what... I’m now the Cellar Master!”

Kirkpatrick’s conception of his own wine company also evolved somewhat serendipitously, but with unexpected speed. It started with a partner, an artist/photographer named Allison Watkins. Kirkpatrick met Watkins at a Napa bar (through an online dating connection - it happens!) in early 2014. They fell in love, eventually married, and she is now the Co-Proprietor/Creative Director of Mountain Tides Wine Co.

Shortly after the When Scott Met Allison story, at 3:20 AM on August 21, 2014 the residents of Napa were literally tossed out of their beds by a 6.0 earthquake. “The combination of all these events,” says Kirkpatrick, “had a profound effect on us all. I started thinking about things that were far bigger than what can be controlled in our own lives – like the perpetual movement of mountains on a tectonic plate, moving slowly but surely away from the ocean. That morning we felt the power of the land. It was almost as if we were being called to make our own move. This is what led to the establishment of our own wine company (and hence the name, “Mountain Tides”).

Mountain Tides' Allison Watkins foot treading incoming Petite Sirah

“I always knew I wanted to start my own winery, but thought that would be 10, 15 years down the road.” So, prompted by the momentous events, Kirkpatrick broached the subject of crafting two or three barrels worth of his own wine with the owners of Eleven Eleven, utilizing the winery facilities. They agreed. Another friend mentioned that he was buying Zinfandel from a grower in Lodi, who happened to have some Petite Sirah – precisely the grape Kirkpatrick was thinking about building his own winery project around.

That Lodi grower was the Anaya family, who farm 100 acres in the rolling red clay soils of the region’s Clements Hills AVA, just east of the little communities of Victor and Lockeford. Says Gerardo Espinosa (son of Leticia Anaya), who at the time was producing Petite Sirah under the Anaya family’s Viñedos Aurora label: “I got the call from Scott about our Petite Sirah out of nowhere. At first, I told him sorry, that fruit is already spoken for. Then he said that he was looking for only a ton and a half (approximately 3 full macro-bins of fruit), and so I thought, why not?”

Gerardo Espinosa (front) and Ramon Anaya harvesting Viñedos Aurora Petite Sirah

Says Kirkpatrick, “I always knew that if I started a winery, I would specialize in Petite Sirah – but Petite Sirah made more in my style, which is lighter, with more floral aromatics, higher in acid and better for food. Not the usual super-ripe 16.5% alcohol style, made more for dessert than dinner. I had no idea how to find the fruit, and certainly didn’t have much to spend, on my cellar master’s pay. The Lodi grown Petite Sirah turned out to be more in my price range, but I still had no idea what the fruit would turn out to be since I wasn’t familiar with Lodi, let alone Clements Hills.”

As if to fulfill the Jimmy Cliff song, however, about getting what you want if you really want it – with, of course, a requisite amount of grit, smarts, and open-eyed willingness to take a leap into the great unknown – it turned out that the Anaya family grown Petite Sirah was exactly what Kirkpatrick was looking for.

Scott Kirkpatrick among the wintering Petite Sirah vines and clay slopes of Viñedos Aurora

Clements Hills, as it were, is essentially a hilly appellation marked by clay slopes and cobble, and none of the flat, rock-free sandy loam soils distinguishing the more historic region (the Mokelumne River AVA) immediately surrounding the City of Lodi. Yet these volcanic slopes are the very distinctions that first prompted Lodi growers like Markus Bokisch and Keith Watts to seek a separate appellation status for this sub-region back in the early 2000s. These topographical peculiarities allow black skinned fruit to retain more acidity, significantly deeper color and more robust tannin than red wine grapes grown in other parts of Lodi, and these sensory components are also the hallmark of wines made from Petite Sirah.

Says Kirkpatrick: “That first year (2016), we came into the picture a little too late to call our own preferred sugar levels, and the Petite Sirah was picked at 24.2° Brix (i.e. sugar reading). Yet the wine turned out beautifully. We let sit in cold soak (that is, prior to fermentation letting fruit sit in refrigerated temperatures to allow juice to absorb more flavors from the skins), and after 5 days it started to spontaneously ferment. Although I was planning to inoculate (i.e. add commercial cultured yeast) further into the fermentation, the wine didn’t need it. It fermented easily on its own native yeast, smelling great, and tasting great all the way through. It even went through ML (i.e. a secondary malolactic fermentation, when sharper malic acids are converted to milder lactic acids) all by itself.

“Although the 2016 ended at 14.2% alcohol (maybe half a percent higher than Kirkpatrick’s ideal range), everything about the wine was pretty, yet it had so much dark fruit and intense purple flower aromatics. The clay soil seems to naturally give this Petite Sirah intensity and richness. So much, in fact, that friends who tasted it later would swear to me that the wine had seen some ‘new oak,’ even though it was aged completely in neutral barrels. Clements Hills Petite Sirah doesn’t need new oak to attain richness and depth.”

The 75 or so cases of Mountain Tides Petite Sirah produced in 2016 sold out on its own volition as easily as it fermented. The currently released 2017, picked at slightly lower sugars than the 2016, finished at 13.4% alcohol. Tasted alongside the 2016, the 2017 is slightly zestier and livelier in natural acidity. It still has a compelling strength, and sense of brooding depth – proving that even “lighter” styles of Petite Sirah, when grown in Lodi’s Clements Hills, will finish with the formidable fruit/tannin profile associated with the varietal. But with its acid tilted balance and moderate alcohol, the 2017 is a prime candidate for long term aging – 15, 25 or more years perhaps within its range.

Viñedos Aurora grown Petite Sirah grapes during 2016 harvest

Says Kirkpatrick, “I want to follow the model of Burgundy (in France), where I focus on wines made from one grape (in Burgundy, it’s all about Pinot noir) but follow a hands-off winemaking style that emphasizes distinctive qualities of vineyard-designate wines, chosen from special places.”

Following this master plan, in 2018 Kirkpatrick produced three more Petite Sirahs: one from Lodi’s Borden Hills AVA (tasted out of the barrel, an even bigger, unrulier wine than the 2016 and 2017 Clements Hills bottlings), one from Contra Costa County (also still in the barrel, tasting extremely perfumey but raggedy with hard hitting, unresolved tannin), plus still another one from Contra Costa made in a soft, light (barely 12% alcohol), easy drinking “carbonic maceration” style (i.e. fermented from whole berries, which generates a gentle style of red wine that can be drunk within a few weeks or months, like French nouveau).

Finally, there is also an orangy-pink, bone dry 2018 Mountain Tides Clements Hills Rosé of Petite Sirah ($22), also from the Anayas' Viñedos Aurora block, but picked at lower sugars than the red wines to capture higher natural acidity and more flowery perfumes. The nose of the rosé seems to whisper “sweet nothings” of crushed cherry and a faint, stony earthiness. Says Kirkpatrick, “The clay soils of Clements Hills enhance the dark fruit and the high volume feel of Petite Sirah when it is made into a red wine, but in a rosé it seems to give a lot of minerality plus a fresh acid energy to the wine.”

Proving you can get what you want!

Viñedos Aurora Petite Sirah harvest for Mountain Tides Wine Co. (photo courtesy of Mountain Tides Wine Co.)

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View of Vino Farms' Grand Vin Lands - a showcase LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing vineyard - through one of its meticulously cultivated, bio-diverse insectories

Lodi is known for its heritage Zinfandel and, increasingly, its huge diversity of grapes and wines (over 100 commercially grown varieties, by recent count). Where else in California can you say, for instance, you can find more brands of Albariño and Tempranillo than Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon?

You can also think of the Lodi Viticultural Area’s place in the American wine grape industry in the same way you think of Salinas Valley, which is often called the nation’s “salad bowl.” Salinas Valley doesn’t grow all of the country’s lettuce, spinach and broccoli, but it easily grows more of that than any other single agricultural region.

Lodi grows approximately 20% of California’s wine grapes. Napa Valley, by comparison, grows less than 4%. So while many Americans think of Napa Valley when they think of “California wine,” the vast majority of California wines that Americans actually drink come from Lodi. And when you consider the fact that California produces over 60% of all wine sold in the U.S. (including all imports and wines from the other 49 states), you can truly describe Lodi as “America’s wine country.”

Lodi Winegrape Commission's Director of Sustainable Winegrowing, Stephanie Bolton PhD

Yet there is still another extremely pertinent fact about the Lodi wine region, and that is this: It is also the leader in sustainable winegrowing, and has been ever since the Lodi Winegrape Commission – a mandatory group of all the wine grape growers in Lodi, a.k.a. California District 11, now numbering over 750 members – was established in 1991, and then immediately embarked upon a concerted effort to establish a certification process of grape growing that is environmentally and socially (meaning, benefitting people) responsible, while being economically viable (that is, sustaining businesses for the long term).

Out of this grew, starting in 2005, a third party certification process now called LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing; and you can now find the Certified Green seal for LODI RULES grown wines on over 150 wines (and growing!).

Certified Green seal on back label of LODI RULES sustainably grown wine

But wait, there’s more: The impact of Lodi’s sustainable winegrowing on the wine industry across the country has been so significant, it has not only spawned numerous other sustainable programs borrowing directly from Lodi’s original blueprint, LODI RULES has grown to such an extent that nearly half of all LODI RULES certified vineyards aren’t even located in Lodi. You can now find LODI RULES certified vineyards in 12 other California Crush districts – including parts of Sonoma County, Napa Valley, Lake County, San Francisco Bay, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Yolo County and the Sierra Foothills.

As of yet, there are no LODI RULES certified vineyards in other states. But there is, as of 2018, 550 acres of LODI RULES certified wine grapes in the Galilee wine region of Israel!

Here is a graph showing that out of the 47,358 acres of wine grapes now certified by LODI RULES, 23,228 acres are located outside of Lodi/Crush District 11:

To encourage the growth of LODI RULES vineyards outside the Lodi AVA, the Lodi Winegrape Commission recently established a new seal for participating growers and wine bottles, identified as CALIFORNIA RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing. The requirements to qualify for this are exactly the same as for the LODI RULES seal. For a bottle to carry a CALIFORNIA RULES or LODI RULES Certified Green seal, a minimum of 85% of the wine (guaranteed by a Certification Mark License Agreement) must come from certified sustainable grapes.

Wineries do not pay a fee for the use of these Certified Green seals, but the practice helps encourage farmers to participate in this sustainable winegrowing program. Since 2010, more than $9.5 million in bonuses have been paid to LODI RULES or CALIFORNIA RULES farmers, giving further impetus to this progressive movement.

The CALIFORNIA RULES Certified Green seal

So why has the influence of LODI RULES expanded so far outside the Lodi region? First, of course, it is because farmers everywhere are concerned about being environmentally and socially responsible. For many of Lodi’s longtime families, it’s a multi-generational concern – being able to turn vineyards over to future generation in better than their original shape. For many growers outside of Lodi, it’s all about the economic advantages of sustaining the health of soils and vines, smart water and safe pest management, improving human resources, contributing positively to communities, etc.; and LODI RULES furnishes clear-cut guidelines to meet such objectives through no less than 101 practices or “standards” – by no means an “easy” hurdle in the yearly audits.

LODI RULES Certified sign in Bokisch Vineyards' Terra Alta Vineyard (which is also CCOF Certified Organic)

To get a good idea of the thought process of sustainable growers outside the Lodi region, we queried a few of them, and this is how they spelled it out for us:

Warren Bogle – President, Bogle Vineyards (Clarksburg):

A couple of years ago the Lodi Winegrape Commission approved the use of the term CALIFORNIA RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing for vineyards farmed outside the Lodi region that are certified under the program otherwise known as LODI RULES. I think this was a good move by the Commission because it helps businesses like ours, which were already in the program but based outside of Lodi.

Bogle Vineyards President Warren Bogle, a true believer in CALIFORNIA RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing

As a family winery, Bogle Vineyards purchases grapes from approximately 2,000 acres in the Lodi AVA that are all certified in the LODI RULES sustainable program, and as a vineyard operation we own and farm another 1,250 acres of vineyards outside of Lodi, which are all CALIFORNIA RULES certified.

Our reasons for being in the CALIFORNIA RULES program have to do with the environment and the social impact of what we do. CALIFORNIA RULES requires a yearly third party audit, which I believe is the important difference between it and all other sustainable programs.

As farmers, we want to be able to pass something on to the next generation, and to do that we have to be sustainable. CALIFORNIA RULES is particularly meaningful because there is traceability – it involves documentation and meticulous vineyard planning, and all that helps you become a more conscientious farmer, and better addresses our concerns about succession.

Goldbud Farms' Ron and Charles Mansfield

Charles Mansfield – Vineyard Manager, Goldbud Farms (El Dorado):

Goldbud Farms follow LODI RULES sustainable program as part of what we do for wineries like Bogle Vineyards. They asked us to certify all grapes delivered to them, and since 2017 we have complied with fruit from just under 200 acres of vineyards in the El Dorado region, all LODI RULES grown.

It is important to remember that programs like LODI RULES are also a great opportunity to spend extra time in the vineyard and observe things that may have slipped by (like a broken drip tube or a hole in fence). So, the omnipresence required is one of the best direct benefits of the program, definitely impacting the quality of our grapes, which increases their value to wineries.

Victor Schoenfeld of Golan Heights Winery, in Israel's Galilee wine region

Victor Schoenfeld – Head Winemaker, Golan Heights Winery (Israel):

Golan Heights Winery, and our subsidiary label Galil Mountain Winery, works with about 1,500 acres of vineyards in Israel. We manage 550 acres of those vineyards ourselves, all of it LODI RULES certified since 2018.

Before that, we had been thinking about the concept of sustainability for a long time, doing all sorts of things to promote long term vineyard viability and health. One of the more dramatic things we did was agree with Entav-Inra (a French based grapevine material supplier) in 2008 to establish a vine propagation project and nursery under license to them. In fact, our 100% winery owned nursery is currently the only place that you can be sure in Israel that you are buying high quality disease-free vines for planting. Because of a problem in a government lab years ago, for years all leafroll virus analyses returned (false) negative results, allowing leafroll virus to get out of hand in Israel. So we were forced a decade ago to rethink sustainability and how to achieve it.

Winter fog in Golan Heights Winery's LODI RULES certified Bar-on Vineyard

We also felt that we needed to promote sustainability as an important concept for the Israeli wine industry. So we came up with the idea that we would develop our own sustainability program and then get other vineyards and wineries to adopt it. I originally contacted SureHarvest (LODI RULES’ third party auditor), thinking maybe we could work with them to establish our sustainability program. They put me in touch with Cliff Ohmart (one of the original authors of LODI RULES), whom I first met at U.C. Davis in May 2014. Cliff came to Israel in March 2016 to consult with us, and this led to our working with the Lodi Winegrape Commission and the idea of joining LODI RULES.

What we liked about LODI RULES is its mandatory third party certification process, which seemed like a high quality, logical approach to us. Big picture, I think it is important to have a framework for instituting a sustainability program with a broad outlook as well as transparency within the company and with our customers.

Even without the program, we would be naturally sensitive to the environment and to our workers, etc. So I think the most important part of the program is heightening the awareness of our growers and making them even better vineyard managers. And for us, having better vineyard managers translates into better quality fruit, which then translates into better quality wine, which is our ultimate goal.

The 104-acre Mount Saint Helena Vineyard, sustainably farmed by Bella Vista in Middletown, Lake County

Keith Brandt – Compliance & Safety Manager, Bella Vista Farming Company (Lake County):

Bella Vista Farming Company farms two Lake County vineyards totaling 129 acres of premium wine grapes, all third party certified under LODI RULES. The reason for that was originally economic – we were asked by each site owner to join LODI RULES’ sustainable program, as the grapes from each site are being sold to wineries which have requested sustainable certification.

But beyond the economics, our goal is to meet fundamental tenets of measuring land/crop stewardship and to enhance community relations. The LODI RULES guidelines are also an excellent tool to measure our operations performance, which are helpful to our site owners, our vineyard managers and local community. Hence, the LODI RULES program is a good fit for everyone, starting with our vineyard management company. It helps us achieve a viable sustainable operation – for now and into the future.

Pristine, sustainably farmed Barbera in the McManis Family's estate in Ripon, South San Joaquin Valley

Justin McManis – Vintner & Supply Chain Coordinater, McManis Family Vineyards (Ripon):

As a grape growing family, McManis Family Vineyards has always been concerned with sustainability. Therefore, when we first began to certify our vineyards under LODI RULES, we didn’t need to change much of our practices. We did, however, learn how to keep better records, and that in turn has turned us into a better farming company. And since we’re more of a grape supplier than a wine producer, this is very important.

We own and farm a total of 2,617 acres of grapes, all LODI RULES certified. Out of that, 1,537 of those acres are in Lodi, and 1,080 acres are split between Districts 12 (South San Joaquin County) and 17 (Yolo county). Growing sustainably is all about focusing on quality, consistency and value. If we can do that, we can be assured of producing the highest quality wines, and great wines always start in the vineyards.

But I think that, like a lot of Lodi growers, the most important benefit of being in the LODI RULES program is that it helps us focus on our future. It’s never about the current vintage, or even vintages 10 or 12 years out. It’s about making sure we remain good stewards of the land, which I want to turn over to my children, to their children’s children, and all the way down the line.

McManis Family Vineyards' Dirk Heuvel (Vineyard Manager) and Ed Bianchi (Vineyard Operations) in the LODI RULES certified Brown Lake Vineyards (Ripon, South San Joaquin Valley)

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Oak Ridge Winery's new, talented winemaker Noel Basso, with one of the few remaining old vine Zinfandels planted by Rudy Maggio in 1952

There are a few new things afoot at Lodi’s Oak Ridge Winery, which is good news for wine lovers who appreciate a good $10, $12, $16 or $18 wine. And who in their right mind doesn’t appreciate a good $10 to $18 wine? Man does not live by fancy-schmancy $100 wine alone.

While Oak Ridge Winery was founded in 2002, its Lodi ties go back a long ways. The winery sits on the10-acre site of the old East-Side Winery, one of Lodi’s historic old co-ops once operated by as many as over 100 growers at a time, specializing in fortified sweet wines (which was what most of America drank when it came to “wine” up until the late ‘60s). Today, the historic feel of Oak Ridge Winery is reinforced by a visit to the winery’s tasting room, which is housed in a beautiful 50,000-gallon redwood tank that used to be part of the long-defunct Roma Wine Co. facility located across the street.

Oak Ridge Winery CFO Raquel Maggio-Casity and Owner/Founder Rudy Maggio

Lodi’s Maggio family joined the East-Side Winery co-op in 1982, which eventually led to the establishment of Oak Ridge Winery with co-owners Don and Rocky Reynolds. The Maggios brought the grape growing power, and foundation, to the partnership. Between all the properties owned by Co-Owner Rudy Maggio and all his grown kids, the Maggio family farms some 2,500 acres of grapes, over 90% of that located in the Lodi Viticultural Area. Not all of the fruit goes into the winery’s multiple brands – which includes OZV, Old Soul, Maggio, Oak Ridge, MossRoxx, Silk Oak, Blazon and 3 Girls – since two-thirds of the family business is still custom crushing, entailing wine production for other wineries or brands.

All of the Maggio vineyards are located west of the City of Lodi, which started with the family’s original 60-acre property on N. Ray Rd., and now includes a huge parcel (called Rio Blanco Vineyard) in the Delta west of I-5, tucked into the far south-west corner of the Lodi AVA., closer to Stockton.

The beautiful, old redwood tank now serving as Oak Ridge Winery's tasting room

In a conversation this past week, Mr. Maggio told us: “Before joining the co-op, for nearly 40 years my family was in the grape packing and shipping business (re a history of Lodi's grape packing industry). My grandfather first came to California in 1906 from Rapallo, a little town in the Italian Riviera, close to Portofino. My grandparents on my mother’s side came from Lucca in Tuscany, in 1910. Both sides of the family were farmers. My grandfather landed in San Francisco right after the big San Francisco earthquake. He was there for five years before moving to Stockton, and in 1928 he bought the ranch on N. Ray Rd.”

Maggio speaks very frankly about the realities of the grape and wine market. Like how the Zinfandel market has recently fallen to such a low that he has been forced to replace the family’s higher-cost head trained old vines with newer, mechanized trellised vines, including almost all of the beautiful own-rooted plants that he personally put into the ground on N. Ray Rd. back in 1952.

“Right now,” says Maggio, “the Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon grape market is in the dumps, but we’ll still focus on these grapes because of the cyclical nature of the industry. I remember when grape prices were sky-high in 1988, and that was only two years after we couldn’t give our grapes away. While Zinfandel is in over-supply, it is still our bread-and-butter because it can be used in so many ways – as a red wine blender or in a dry rosé, and it is still the varietal driving over 50% of our sales.

Oak Ridge Winery's Rudy Maggio sharing the master plan for his family's winery expansion

“And despite the slowdown over the past year, our production and sales have risen dramatically over the past five years. Because of that, we’re in the middle of a big winery expansion. We’re increasing our tank space, the number of crushers and presses, we’ve put in a new bottling line and filtering equipment, and are right about to break ground on a large, new storage facility on the west side of the tracks along Victor Rd., where there used to be a little block of 100-year-old vines.

One of Rudy Maggio’s three daughters, Raquel Maggio-Casity who, serves as Oak Ridge Winery’s CFO, gave us an update on the winery’s recent growth:

“Our flagship wine, OZV Zinfandel, is what keeps the lights on. It sells in the $9.99 to $12.99 range, and has grown to 200,000 cases. A recent addition is the OZV Red Blend – a Zinfandel based (70%) red, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Merlot – which has been quickly growing, and is now up to 50,000 cases.

Oak Ridge's flagship OZV Zinfandel label

“We’re also excited about our first vintage (a 2018) of OZV Rosé of Primitivo, which is basically a dryer style of White Zinfandel (Primitivo being a clonal variant of Zinfandel) meant to fill the growing consumer demand for dry rosés. So far the response has been very positive.

“Everyone, of course, is talking about the recent uptick in sales of $15-$17 wines. In that price category, sales of our Old Soul brand have seen a dramatic increase across the U.S., especially in California. Our Old Soul Cabernet Sauvignon has been doing the best, and Old Soul Pinot Noir second best. We’ve also been very competitive with our Old Soul Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Chardonnay. Although recent bottlings of our Old Soul and OZV wines have been carrying a California appellation, all the wines are Lodi grown. Therefore, we are in the process of making the label correction, and all the new wines will go back to a Lodi appellation.”

Vintage Elhorn Fruit Co. box harking back to the Maggio family's grape packing days

But the news that the Maggios are most excited about is the work of their new winemaker, Noel Basso, who came aboard in May 2018. Says Maggio-Caisty, “Noel brings a wealth of experience in brand production, coming to us from The Wine Group (the Livermore based multi-brand group that recently purchased Lodi’s 7 Deadly Zins, and already works with over a dozen other top selliing brands, including Almaden, Benzinger, Big House, Concannon, Cupcake, Franzia and Glen Ellen).

“It’s been less than a year, but we’re already seeing the differences – a lot of changes in our winemaking, like a breath of fresh air. He has introduced different oaks, distinctly improving our Chardonnays and reds. There is more consistency in all our wines, and quality has been measurably improved. More importantly, we are seeing more differentiation in all our wines, which is what we’ve needed to make each brand and price point more distinctive.

“Noel is passionate about his work, and has family ties in San Joaquin Valley. We also feel good about the fact that he went California State University Fresno with Adam Mettler (Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s 2018 Winemaker of the Year).”

Oak Ridge Winery's bright, new, dry style OZV Rosé if Primitivo

Adds the elder Maggio, “We may be a longtime, five-generation Lodi family, but we’re constantly updating. Like all successful companies, we've learn from mistakes, and the important thing is that we’ve been getting better and better each year.”

A sampling of some of the latest Oak Ridge Winery wines, with notes and commentary:

2018 OZV, Rosé of Primitivo ($15) – A blend of this Zinfandel clone grown, picked and pressed as a pink wine, with 10% Pinot noir saignée (i.e. a pink “bleed” of juice from a fermenting vat of red wine). Pretty, pale salmon-pink color and airy, floral, bright fragrance, with the lightest touch of leafy herbiness underlining the fresh fruit quality. Soft, easy, light-medium bodied feel with a silky, svelte feel, with just a trace of sweetness (5 grams of residual sugar arrested in the primary fermentation) finishing this otherwise dry tasting wine. Say winemaker Noel Basso: “The acid in this wine is completely natural, coming entirely from the fruit, which was picked after midnight at just 19.5° to 20° Brix (i.e. sugar reading), all coming from our Rio Blanco estate in the Delta. I think this wine has everything a rosé drinker is looking for in the way of harmonious, smooth balance of fresh acidity and red berry-like fruit.”

Oak Ridge Winery winemaker Noel Basso in the Delta located Rio Blanco Vineyard

2017 Old Soul, Chardonnay ($16) – A gently tart, silken fine and floral style of Chardonnay, tasting light on the palate with scents of fresh cream, spring flowers and lemon tingling the nose. While fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel, according to Basso, this Chardonnay is seasoned with “the equivalent of 40% new barrels.”

2016 OZV, Red Blend Blend ($15) – 70% Zinfandel with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Tempranillo, adding up to a purplish red wine with an aroma of unsuspected depth of cedarwood, black fruit, and a trail mix of nuts and berries tinged with oak spices. Smooth, rounded medium-full body with a smidgen of tannin backing up the cedar and spiced fruit qualities.

2017 OZV, Zinfandel ($13) – Maggio-Casity makes no bones about the fact that the expected character of this, the winery’s most popular wine, is a “jammy fruitiness.” The nose is plump with ripe black and red berryish fruit, and this lush, juicy quality in the nose is delivered in a round, soft, pliant package on the palate.

Oak Ridge's MossRoxx Ancient Vine Zinfandel label wth its images of the iconic Lodi Arch and California Golden Bear

2015 MossRoxx, Lodi Reserve Ancient Vine Zinfandel ($24) – This is Oak Ridge’s premium level cuvée, hand picked from the shrinking stands of generally +50-year-old head-trained vines still cultivated by the Maggios. A purplish-red color is coupled with a deep, lush, black cherry aroma tinged with a faint loamy earthiness, coming across as round, velvety, full yet giving on the palate. A sweet dose of oak (12 months in the barrel) fills out the fulsome feel.

2016 Old Soul, Petite Sirah ($16) – Found in some retail outlets for as low as $12, this is undoubtedly the family’s “best buy” (Rudy Maggio calls it his “favorite Oak Ridge wine”). Grown primarily in the family’s far west Delta property (Rio Blanco Vineyard), the wine has the black-purplish, teeth staining color expected in a good Petite Sirah, and the nose has the peppery spiced, blue and black berry qualities of the varietal, filled out with cedary oak and just enough tannin to give a dense, moderately full (a proportionate 13.5% alcohol), compact feel.

2016 Old Soul, Pinot Noir ($16) – Burgundy-red color and forward, fragrant red berry nose, and soft, light feeling, almost Beaujolais-like easiness on the palate. If your expectations are not too high, this makes the perfect, no-nonsense, all-around red for any table of mixed plates, from fish (especially salmon or tuna) to steaks, salads to pastas. 

Palm tree and Delta slough alongside Oak Ridge's Rio Blanco Vineyard

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Tasting of pristinely fresh 34-year-old (left) and 24-year-old Lodi Zinfandels

There is an old adage in the industry, oft-repeated by the usual pundits: California Zinfandels do not age.

Not that Zinfandels fall completely apart after, say, 10 or 15 years in the bottle. But rather, that they just don’t get any “better,” or more enjoyable, than when they are usually consumed, less than 5 years after their vintage date. The biggest concern is that all those bright, berryish, often “jammy” fruit qualities that Zinfandel drinkers love simply start to fade once the wines get old, and all you have left is, say, the harsh taste of high alcohol (a legitimate fear, since even the lightest commercial Zinfandels of today are at least 15% alcohol) or the drying taste of oak (especially Zinfandels aged in American oak barrels, which are not exactly known for their subtlety).

Ergo: The recommendation given even by most wine producers, that Zinfandels are best drunk when they are young, or pretty much as soon as they hit the market.

Old bottles of Lodi Zinfandel, ranging from 1984 to 2010

But that thinking may be changing, especially as more and more producers begin to specialize in restrained or minimally manipulated styles of Zinfandel. Zinfandels, that is to say, that aren’t picked at super-high sugars in order to achieve ultra-ripe varietal flavors, and then “adjusted” in the winery – with water to lower alcohol levels, and then acidulated to make up for low acids in the grapes. Zinfandels that are aged in more subtle French oak barrels, and with larger percentages of “neutral” barrels (older barrels that do not impart as much wood flavor and tannin).

The thinking is that when Zinfandels are crafted in more restrained, balanced, more or less “natural” styles, there is greater possibility for the wines to evolve into finer, zestier wines with fresh, compelling perfumes, even after more than 10 years in the bottle. And in fact, this is what many Zinfandel lovers have been discovering – particularly with older bottles produced prior to the 1990s, when giant, high alcohol/oak “fruit bomb” styles (No wimpy wines!) of red Zinfandel suddenly became all the rage.

But here’s the thing that many proponents of old school or more balanced styles of Zinfandel are also finding out, that goes against a lot of conventional thinking: That even higher alcohol Zinfandels, at over 15% or even 16%, can age just as well as lighter, 13%-14% alcohol Zinfandels, if they are crafted with a strong sense of balance, especially in terms of

1. A good, solid core of natural grape acidity, which can keep a Zinfandel tasting fresh and lively, even after over 20 years in the bottle.

2. A bright and concentrated core of fruit, which you are more likely to get from older vine blocks (presuming that the reason why a vineyard may be over 50, 75 or even 100 years old in the first place is because it has been valued has a source of high quality wine for all these years, and thus worth keeping in the ground).

"Walking" old man Zinfandel in Lodi (Marian's Vineyard, planted 1901)

Of course, tannin – the phenolic compounds derived from grape skins and seeds that give red wines their hard or bitter taste, especially when young – plays a major part in the ageability of Zinfandel, just like it does in all the world’s finer styles of red wine. But the funny thing about Zinfandel is that it is more like grapes like Pinot noir and Grenache than varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Nebbiolo or Tempranillo: It is not a grape that has a large amount of tannin. Yet we know that, like a good Pinot noir or Grenache coming from a favorable vineyard, a finely crafted, well balanced Zinfandel can age just as gracefully as the darkest, highest tannin reds. It ain't the meat, it's the motion.

The Lodi Viticultural Area, where some 40% of California’s entire crop of Zinfandel is grown each year, has been carving out a reputation for richly fruited styles of Zinfandel that, compared to Zinfandels from other regions (such as Sonoma County and Napa Valley) tend to be even softer in tannin, and thus “lighter” or "easier" in feel even at higher alcohol levels. These are terroir (i.e. “sense of place”) related characteristics, which beg the question: How well do Lodi grown Zinfandels age?

Judging by a recent tasting of a dozen wines 8 to 34 years old, we’d have to say: Lodi Zinfandels can age quite well, thank you. In fact, you may be surprised by how well. But don’t take our word for it. For this tasting, we also solicited the insights of some of the most respected vintners in the state, who of course also contributed the wines.

Our old Lodi Zinfandel tasting panel

Our impeccably credentialed old Zinfandel panelists:

David Lucas – After working for Robert Mondavi Winery for 16 years, Mr. Lucas produced and bottled his first Lodi Zinfandel under his The Lucas Winery label in 1978. This makes him a pioneer of sorts, being among the first of the modern era vintners (along with Steve Borra of Borra Vineyards and Michael Phillips of Michael David Winery née Phillips Vineyards) to establish a small, independent winery in the Lodi region.

Heather Pyle Lucas - Like her husband David, Heather Pyle Lucas labored for Robert Mondavi Winery for 16 years – known for her work as a winemaker on special projects like Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve and Opus One – before relocating to Lodi in the early 1990s. She now handles the winemaking and farming of The Lucas Winery’s ZinStar Vineyard – an 18-acre block of own-rooted Zinfandel, first planted in 1933 – as a co-owner, while also consulting for as many as three or four wineries at a time in the Lodi region.

Tegan Passlacqua – Mr. Passalcqua has been working with the Napa Valley, Amador County and Paso Robles based Turley Wine Cellars – since the early 1990s, arguably California’s most prestigious producer of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah – since 2003. After managing Turley’s vineyard opearations, he became the winery’s head winemaker in 2013, and has also recently started up his own independent brand (Sandlands) while establishing a second home in Lodi’s Victor area, near his Kirschenmann Vineyard (mostly own-rooted Zinfandel first planted in 1915) located at Bruella and Schmiedt roads.

Michael McCay – The owner/grower/winemaker of Lodi’s McCay Cellars who produced his first commercial vintage in 2007 (after more than 10 years as a home winemaker), quickly establishing his brand as the cutting-edge of vineyard-designate, minimal intervention style Zinfandel in Lodi.

The Lucas Winery's ZinStar Vineyard estate, planted in 1933

The tasting and conversation over the old bottles were particularly interesting because of the exchange between David Lucas, a self-admitted “old school” winemaker, and the newer generation Zinfandel specialists (McCay and Passalacqua) with Heather Pyle Lucas, whose experience with Lodi Zinfandel started in the 1990s. As Stephanie Bolton (Lodi’s Director of Grower Communications & Sustainable Winegrowing), who was also there, put it: “I've tasted many old vintages of wine, but never with people who have lived the stories behind those wines – especially Heather talking about the weather during the various vintages, and Tegan processing new bits of Lodi history gleaned through David.” 

The wines tasted, with an edited version of our subsequent commentary:

1984 The Lucas Winery, ZinStar Vineyard Lodi Zinfandel 1994 The Lucas Winery, ZinStar Vineyard Lodi Zinfandel

Lucas: Like our first vintages (starting in 1978), the 1984 ZinStar came entirely off our estate vineyard on the west side of Lodi, and was fermented with “domestic” (i.e. native) yeast.

Pyle Lucas: There is a little mustiness in the ’84, but it’s hard to know, when you have a wine as old as this, whether an off-note results from cork taint, or if it’s just a little mustiness from sitting in a bottle for so long. My first impression is of a nice, creamy or lactic character with very pretty fruit, and the mustiness is very faint.

Passalacqua: David, what were your winemaking practices back then, in the ‘70s and early ‘80s?

Lucas: We fermented in shallow, open top milk tanks; and it was punched down – with the feet of “virgins” of course, which are getting harder and harder to find these days. I also included a lot of information on the back of the bottle: (Reading off of the label) there were 1,000 cases produced in ‘84, and we picked three times – this was when I often picked three times because I was so concerned with getting enough natural acid – on August 26 at 18.8° Brix (i.e. sugar reading), September 2 at 22.0°, and September 16 at 24.2°. This way, I could be reasonably sure of getting both the acid and flavors I needed. The alcohol on the label reads 12.6%. Fermented 5 days in stainless steel, and aged in French oak barrels for 14 months.

McCay: What was the thought process? Were you going for, say, a “Bordeaux” style of Zinfandel, or something lighter and softer, like “Burgundy?”

Lucas: Alcohol... the thought process was mostly that I didn’t like alcoholic Zins. I wasn’t thinking in terms of style, like Bordeaux or Burgundy, but more about a style a Zinfandel that I like.

Passalacqua: I recall that there were a number of influential Ridge and Carneros Creek Zinfandels back in the ‘70s and ‘80s that were very high in alcohol. One of the original benchmarks for Zinfandel in those days was one made by Mayacamas that was over 17% alcohol.

Lucas: In those days, the wines Mike Phillips (of Michael David Winery) and I were making generally fell in the 13%, 13.5% alcohol range. After my Mondavi experiences, doing a lot of traveling with Tim Mondavi and tasting wines from all around the world, I saw no reason to make wines that were high in alcohol and didn’t go so well with food. Then in the early ‘90s we turned a corner, and started to learn more about things like shoot thinning, and deficit irrigation strategy, a lot of it as a result of working with Woodbridge’s QET (Quality Enhancement Team) team led by Brad Alderson (longtime former Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi GM). This helped us better understand things out in the vineyard, and getting the quality to start from there, not from what we were doing in the winery.

Back label of 1984 Lucas ZinStar Vineyard Zinfandel (note: the 1917 date given for the planting of the ZinStar Vineyard was corrected a few years later, and the winery's official date is now 1933)

Pyle Lucas: I recall that you put in drip irrigation in the early ‘90s, just before I got there.

Lucas: In our early trials we found that grape quality as well as specific aromatics were very closely connected to irrigation practices. Especially when dealing with own-rooted vines like ours, which don’t have extensive root systems. People don’t realize how phylloxera, while it might not kill vines in sandy soils, still has a major impact on root systems, even in Lodi where most of the old vine plantings (i.e. vines planted before the mid-1960s) are on their own roots.

McCay: This brings up one of our recent experiences, where we dug up one of our own-rooted vines planted in 1915, in our Lot 13 Vineyard. What we pulled out of the ground was a vine with one, long tap root, which must have went down at least 30 feet, but it had almost no feeder roots. We hung that vine up from the ceiling in our tasting room.

Pyle Lucas: That’s very interesting – excavating around a vine, like an archeologist, to see what you can find.

Lucas: That’s why for a long time old vines in Lodi weren’t irrigated. Or maybe once, around the fourth of July, and that was it. The water table used to be so much higher than it is today, so the vineyards didn’t need as much constant watering, which you see going on today.

McCay: This was before projects like the Camanche Dam, which was completed in the mid-‘60s. Before then, vine roots didn’t need to go down too far to find a natural source of water.

Passalaqua: You know that water used come up higher every year because all the older homes, like on my property, were built at least 3-feet off the ground.

Long, "own-rooted" tap root of 102-year-old Zinfandel vine hanging in McCay Cellars tasting room

Caparoso: Speaking of the two Lucas wines, I found them both to be wonderful. You can easily get past the mustiness in the ’84 because the fruit is still very fresh and pretty – lots of raspberry and perfume. Even better, look at the balance under the fruit aroma – I just love the acid. In the ’94 you get a denser feel, and a lot of the same bright fruit. These wines are aging wonderfully. What you don’t find, which is common to a lot of old Zins, is a tired, beef brothy sort of character. In older bottles, a lot of times what happens is the fruit drops out, and you no longer have any floral or fruit notes – just a soupy, soy sauce-like taste – but these two wines don’t have that at all. They’re as bright in the nose as they are in the mouth. This also speaks to the soundness of David’s original philosophy of going for moderate alcohol and higher acidity. David, what was the alcohol in the ’94?

Lucas: 13.0%.

Caparoso: From what I remember of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, 13% was plenty enough for most wineries. 12.5% was more the commercial norm, and 13.5% was considered “big.” It was the odd Zinfandels that went over 14.5%, which is the low-end today.

Pyle Lucas: I believe that the ’94 was a single pick, if I’m not mistaken. But I agree, what often happens with older wines like these is that they have a moment where they’re showing beautifully, and then do some sort of nose dive in the glass. I’m kind of shocked that these wines aren’t doing that at all. That have a nice structure, and lots of mouth-feel, and the fruit remains pretty intense.

Turley Wine Cellars' Tegan Passalacqua

Lucas: It’s interesting when you think about what is often said, that “Zinfandels don’t age,” I recall reading a Wine Spectator in 1979 about a tasting of older California Cabernets, which were compared to older California Zinfandels. Their findings turned out to be the absolute reverse of what they expected: the tasters thought the Cabs were the Zins, and the Zins were the Cabs, and only because the Zins aged so much better!

Passalacqua: I know that, for Court of Master Sommeliers, when they’re teaching people about the Russian River Valley, what they teach is that in a blind tasting involving Russian River Valley when a red wine has good acid it’s probably a Zin and if it doesn’t have good acid it’s Pinot noir. Most of the students have a hard time believing that, but it’s the truth – that’s how you deduce the differences in blind tastings.

Pyle Lucas: And both of these Zinfandels are, in a way, Pinot-like. What we’ve found with our own Lucas wines is that they are more obviously “Zin” during the first six, seven years, but as they age they pick up more of a finer, floral “Pinot” character – not that you ever want a Zin to taste like Pinot.

Passalacqua: I think it’s the character of Zinfandel, where even as they age and become identified more as a “beautiful red wine” rather as “Zinfandel” I think a lot of it has to do with the spice. It is the natural spice quality of Zinfandel that stays in the older wines, along with the acid and floral notes.

1996 Makor, Mohr-Fry Ranches Lodi Zinfandel 1997 Turley Wine Cellars, Dogtown Vineyard Lodi Zinfandel

Caparoso: The bottle of ’96 Makor was recently obtained directly from the winery by Stephanie (Bolton). Makor was a joint Zinfandel project of the Au Bon Climat/Qupé contingent in Santa Barbara, involving Jim Adelman, Jim Clendenen, and Bob Lindquist. They produced several vintages, all coming from Mohr-Fry Ranches’ Marian’s Vineyard, consisting entirely of own-rooted vines dating back to 1901. The Makor Zinfandels, in fact, pre-date the first vintage of Marian’s produced by Tim Spencer at Lodi’s St. Amant Winery (starting in 1999). Today, Stuart Spencer now takes almost all the fruit coming off of this historic 8.3-acre block for St. Amant.

Pyle Lucas: The Makor has a very interesting aroma, which I can’t quite put a finger on, but there’s a lot of stuff in it. Nice mouth-feel and thickness.

Caparoso: It goes toward pumpkin spices, with caramelized berry qualities. I recall tasting the Makor Zins back when they were young, in the mid-90s, when it was practically my favorite California Zinfandel. I always recall the sweet spice along with a consistently plump, round feel, but always with balanced qualities – never really excessive in alcohol, even when hitting 15%. It’s nice to see that all of this put nicely together, after over 20 years in the bottle.

Passalacqua: Color-wise, this is the first of the older Zins we are tasting showing its age with a brick color, whereas the first two wines (the ’84 and ’94 Lucas ZinStars) are a brighter red.

Pyle Lucas: There seems to be some slight residual sugar in the Makor. It’s under the threshold (i.e. less than 5 grams, or -.5%), but adds to the impression of sweet fruit, without ending up sweet.

Passalacqua: The aromatics to me seem “later” than the stated 14.7% alcohol. Aromatically, it expresses fruit that was picked riper than 25° Brix, possibly with some raisinated berries.

The Lucas Winery's Heather Pyle Lucas

Pyle Lucas: I’m also sensing the presence of some high toned, slightly shriveled fruit. But it’s not “Porty,” and certainly not tired. I think it’s still fresh, and very exotic, covering some edible and non-edible aromas, suggesting ripe fruit and earth. There’s a lot of mid-palate feel to the wine. I just like its uniqueness – it has distinct qualities all its own.

Passalacqua: Going to the Turley, the ‘97 was the first vintage of Zinfandel that we did from Dogtown. We first started working with Lodi Zinfandel in 1996 with fruit from the Spenker Ranch, now called Royal Tee by Jessie’s Grove. The Dogtown vines date back to 1944. It’s 100% Zinfandel, and it’s always been dry farmed because the property is not level – its slopes has never made furrow irrigation possible. Yields are very low – usually just 1 to 2 tons per acre.

Caparoso: Tegan has tasted me on the ’97 Turley Dogtown at least twice over the past few years, but this is by far the freshest and brightest of the bottles he’s opened. In previous tastings, I found wines that were closer to the edge of oxidation, with less floral notes and more of those beef-brothy qualities, and less zippy in the mouth.

Passalacqua: Dogtown has always been one of our most naturally expressive Zinfandels – usually picked at about 25° Brix at 3.4 pH. It usually comes in early, in August, but I know that in ’97 and ’98 the Dogtowns came in really late, as October picks – but these were the only times they were ever picked in October.

Caparoso: The Dogtown has an “OMG” nose of cherry and raspberry perfumes, and a light, zesty feel..

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2019 Lodi Wine & Chocolate festivities at m2 Wines

Happy Valentine’s Day from Lodi wine country!

For our photographic memories of this past weekend’s 22nd Annual Lodi Wine & Chocolate Weekend (February 9-10, 2019), we asked local online marketing specialist Frances Siria – who applies her multifaceted talents to her own Signature Online Marketing company – to memorialize some of her favorite moments.

Signature Online Marketing's Frances Siria

Here is what Frances had to share with us, along with her vivid images...

Love was in the air all during the 2019 Lodi Wine and Chocolate Weekend. Wine lovers from all over flocked to loveable Lodi to celebrate their romance with Lodi Wine. Whether you were there and you want to reminisce or you missed it, take heart, we have some photo highlights of the event for you to savor. 

Good times and love in the air at McCay Cellars' Downtown Lodi tasting room

We chased away the rain for most of the prime tasting hours. The dark clouds and a Saturday downpour did not dampen anyone's spirits.

Starting off at Jessie's Grove Winery on the west side of town, we found tents set up for outdoor tastings, and fun, lively vendor booths in full swing. The fan favorite (besides the winery's vaunted wines, made from Lodi's oldest ancient vines)? Jessie’s Grove’s ever-popular chocolate fountain. What a way to begin!

Just-pruned naked vines, seen everywhere you go in Lodi wine country during the month of February

At Oak Farm Vineyards, an ominously overcast sky could not diminish the celebratory feeling in the air. In fact, the big, puffy clouds quickly gave way to the sheer pleasures of Oak Farm's deliciously fresh, finely balanced wines, plus... whiskey – that is to say, Whiskey Kiss, Oak Farm’s live band, which brightened everyone's spirit, while whetting our appetities for more adventurous Lodi wines, of which we soon found aplenty at our subsequent stops.

Whiskey Kiss rocking away the dark clouds at Oak Farm Vineyards

When we got to St. Jorge Winery, the clouds began to break, and the sun was peeking out. Lodi is one of the few California wine regions where you find the winery owners (St. Jorge’s George and Jenise Vierra) as well as winemaker on hand to personally pour the wines and take all the time in the world to chat with each guest. News flash: we also found out that the folks at St. Jorge – who farm their own, authentic Portuguese grapes – will soon be offering a new Port Club (highlighted by preview tastings of their rare and exotic Tinta Cão Port), so stay tuned for that!

All about the juice at St. Jorge Winery

While fun-loving crowds were everywhere, they especially seemed to flock to m2 Wines. To fuel the energy, this open-air winery plopped among a sea of vines offered barbecued pulled pork sandwiches in a variety of flavors. There was a “Wall of Love” set up for anyone to post Valentine messages to their sweet-someones, and there were a lot of these heart shaped notes. There was even a rare sighting of a pink “vineyard flamingo,” humorously plopped down in the water accumulated below the estate vines, residuals from Lodi’s recent heavy rains (still, welcome after so many years of dry winters and stressful droughts).

Lips were sealed at m2 Wines

At Consumnes River Farm, Lodi Wine & Chocolate lovers found the perfect place to unwind in a “countryside” setting. While a solo guitarist strummed soothing tunes, they had a fire pit going, around which you could enjoy their award-winning wines. The owner and winemaker were also on hand to enthusiastically share their creations, along with some chocolate treats, as well as a tasting of olive oils from their own olive trees and balsamic vinegars bottled under their Consumnes River Farms brand (the latter products, highly recommended!).

Hearts on fire at Consumnes River Farm

At Macchia Wines, we found a good sized crowd settling in, as if they had found their “spot” (or “macchia”) for the day. We found everything a Lodi Wine & Chocolate lover would want at Macchia: good food, live music, happy wine lovers lounging around an outdoor fireplace, and plenty of places to sit and relax while sampling Macchia’s full range of famously intense wines. It was the sheer warmth of the place drew us in and enhanced our experience of the Lodi grown wines.

Deliciously intense and luscious Late Harvest Zinfandel at Macchia Wines

For the first time, Klinker Brick Winery held its Wine & Chocolate Weekend festivities at an off-site location, creating a wonderful tasting experience in the Lodi Vintners barrel room on Woodbridge Rd. Doing so, they were able to fully accommodate their guests with better parking and a larger room – an absolute necessity for a winery that is so popular and widely acclaimed! – complete with a live band, vendors and multiple pouring stations. More space, more wines and chocolates, and more fun all around. We saw that it even drew in the biking crowd!

Wine & Chocolate lover outside Downtown Lodi's Cellar Door

Downtown Lodi, however, seemed to be where the “party” gravitated later in the afternoon. Groups of friends and lovers gathered for the convenience of being able to walk from tasting room to tasting room, coupled with the large diversity of wines – something for which Lodi is becoming increasingly known – offered at each Downtown venue.

Lodi grown sparkling wines poured by several wineries during Wine & Chocolate Weekend

At the Weibel Family Tasting Room on N. School St., everything seemed to sparkle and shine – from the wines (Weibel specializes in bubbly) to the “good times” shared by friends and the electric feeling of romance in the air.

Barrel samples of Syrah futures offered at Downtown Lodi's McCay Cellars tasting room

Next to Downtown Lodi’s historic railroad station at McCay Cellars, we found a bevy of beautiful, natural style wines that fit in perfectly with the McCay family’s renowned hospitality. Owners Mike and Linda McCay, of course, were on hand to personally greet us, and offer their startling range of wines. Everything feels like “family” at McCay Cellars, not to mention their outdoor patio adorned with succulents, welcoming guests looking for a little outdoor comfort in which to enjoy the McCays' adventurous styles of wine.

A toast to love and wine at Downtown Lodis Weibel Family Tasting Room

At Dancing Fox Winery & Brewery, as usual, the food was a big hit. They offered a delicious array of appetizers and treats to compliment their fun variety of wines. 

It's all good at Michael David Winery's Cellar Door

But when it comes to the ultimate Downtown Lodi experience, Michael David Winery’s Cellar Door wine bar is still the “original.” As Lodi Wine & Chocolate lovers discovered, all good wine roads lead here. Their knowledgeable staff, as always, was extremely attentive, and the lively atmosphere only seemed to enhance our weekend experience of love, love, love!

And a few more of Frances Siria's vivid images from Lodi's 2019 Wine & Chocolate Weekend...

Chocolate covered strawberries at St. Jorge Winery

Soulful strumming at Consumnes River Farm

Wine, chocolate and cycling enthusiasts outside Klinker Brick's Wine & Chocolate celebration

Chocolate treats at Downtown Lodi's Cellar Door

Taking it easy on McCay Cellars' outdoor succulent patio

Hanging loose at m2 Wines

Specimen of +100-year-old Zinfandel vine hanging over McCay Cellars tasting room

Bright sun peeking out from behind puffy clouds at m2 Wines

Corks and official Lodi Wine & Chocolate Weekend stemless glasses at McCay Cellars

"The Love Wall" at m2 Wines

Freakshow moment at Michael David Winery's Cellar Door

Flamingo sighting at m2 Wines estate

Enjoying life and Lodi wines at Downtown Lodi's Weibel Family Tasting Room

Wintering vines and historic Devries home in Oak Farm Vineyards

Another sip of Michael David's Freakshow Cabernet Sauvignon

Here's to more days of wine, roses and love in Lodi wine country!

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Wine lovers in Lodi's Clements Hills AVA

In her yearly summary of the latest statistical reports, Dr. Liz Thach MW, who teaches at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, describes the state of the American wine industry in 2019 as “Slowing but Steady, and Craving Innovation” (our italics).

Somewhat alarming, perhaps, to Lodi Viticultural Area grape growers – who supply a whopping 20% of the California wine grape crop each year (while California produces about 60% of all wine sold in the U.S., according to beveragedaily.com) – is the fact that, to quote Dr. Thach, “after 24 years of continuous growth in wine consumption the U.S. market slowed to only 1.2% in volume in 2018” (in previous years, the growth has been closer to the +2% range).

Nonetheless, says Dr. Thach, Americans, “desire higher quality wine and are spending more per bottle.” The professor cites recent sales reports showing that wines priced at $11.99-$19.99 retail has grown by 8% in volume over the past year, while wines priced at $10 or under are showing zero growth – indicative of the fact “that premiumization continued to thrive during 2018.”

Celebrating Lodi grown wine at Lodi's annual ZinFest Vintners Grille

Hence, the current movement of the Lodi industry from commodity grape growing to premium winegrowing (see our June 2018 blog on Premiumization of Lodi grapes and wines addressed at 2018 Lodi Vineyard & Wine Economics Symposium). While the vast majority of American consumers still pay an average of just over $10 (or less) a bottle for their wine – a price range akin to what used to be called the “jug wine” category – the Lodi wine grape industry is no longer focused exclusively on that price point.

In fact, results in competitions such as this past January’s American Fine Wine Competition – a yearly invitation-only “best of the best” wine judging (that is, only wines with established track records are chosen to be entered) taking place in Miami – where 2019 “Best of Class” winners including Lodi grown wines by Klinker Brick Winery (for their Grenache Blanc as well as Farrah Syrah), Acquiese Winery (their Belle Blanc specialty white wine blend) and Michael David Winery (their $59 Lust Zinfandel) only confirm what discriminating wine judges have been finding for years: that premium level Lodi wines take a backseat to none other. Lodi is a great place to grow top quality wine.

Millennial wine lovers enjoying a Lodi Wine & Chocolate Weekend

Dr. Thach’s latest Snapshot of the American Wine Consumer survey also sheds a light on the continuous generational evolution of American wine consumers, which is always a big focal point for the wine growing and production industries. Re:

 Millennials (ages 24-41) are today's largest group of wine consumers, responsible for 36% of wine sales in the U.S. While Dr. Thach opines that this age group is “not adopting wine as much as had been predicted,” it remains to be seen how this generation’s vaunted impact and endlessly theorized predilections will continue to shape the U.S. wine market in years to come. Their tastes will only determine even more of the type of wines we will be seeing.

 The familiar yet aging Baby boomers (at 54-77, an age group that naturally slows down in alcohol consumption) are still important, but now make up 34% of American wine consumers – focus on their wants and needs now surpassed by those of Millennials.

 19% of America’s wine consumers are of the so-called Gen X (ages 42-53) – if anything, a disappointing figure in consideration of the fact that adults of this age, in any generation, are usually more predisposed towards healthy product consumption and comfortable income levels than other age groups.

 The so-called iGen (or Gen Z, currently at the ages of 21-23) already makes up 6% of today’s wine consumers.

 “Matures” (+72 years) are still about 5% of today's consumers.

Profile of the American wine consumer in 2018 (image courtesy of lizthachmw.com)

The message to wine producers is clear: Continue to serve late-50 and 60-somethings, but cater even more product lines, wine styles and marketing efforts towards today's late-20 and 30-somethings. That is to say, work more on "innovation," as Dr. Thach suggests. This is also, of course, where wine producers' bread is buttered.

If anything, the overall picture is very positive, and indicative of a growing culture in which wine has become accepted as an everyday part of the American diet and lifestyles – a far cry from just 30, 40 years ago, when wine lovers were a definite, geeky minority. According to 2018 Wine Market Council research cited by Dr. Thach, 40% of Americans of legal drinking age are now classifying themselves as “wine consumers.” 33% of this group now drinks wine “frequently” (more than once a week), and 67% are “occasional” consumers (once a week or less).

There also seems to be a slight shift in the percentages of female vs. male consumers as purchasers of wine. Also according to a 2018 Wine Market Council report, 56% of wine consumers are female, and 44% are male (compared to 2017 figures showing a 59%/41% female to male ratio).

Lodi winemakers Markus Niggli (Markus Wine Co.) and Layne Montgomery (m2 Wines)

Otherwise, the American wine industry appears to be in good shape. According to the most recent Wines & Vines Analytics Report, sales of wine in general rose nearly 5% (by $4.5 billion) in 2018, with sales of domestic wines ($47.2 billion) accounting for 66% of the total market (totaling $70.5 billion). Adds Dr. Thach: “Total volume of wine sold in the U.S. was 408 million 9 liter cases, up 1.2% from 2017.”

As in the previous year, sales of imported wines in the U.S. increased at a higher percentage (7.72%) than domestic wines (3.46%) in 2018, although both figures represent a +2% increase in percentages compared to 2017. This is another sign, as Dr. Thach suggests, that Americans may be slowing down in terms of rate of increase in the amount of wine consumed, but they are most definitely spending more for higher and higher quality wines. In fact, she reminds us, “the U.S. remains the largest wine consuming country in the world,” despite being lower in per capita consumption than traditional European wine producing countries. This also explains why the U.S. is “a target for many foreign wine producers” as an export market.

It is also interesting to compare the dollar sales of 2018’s five most popular wine categories in the U.S. with that of the previous year (according to Dr. Thach's 2019 and 2018 reports):

Three observations:

 Cabernet Sauvignon is now the biggest selling wine category, surpassing Chardonnay (the leading seller in 2017 and most of the past few decades). American consumers, in other words, are steadily morphing into red wine consumers, although white wines (going by historic ebbs and flows) will always will be popular.

 Also indicative of consumers’ movement towards red wines, “red wine blends” as a category is continuing its upward trend of the past four, five years, outselling all but the two most popular varietals. It is also indicative of the fact that consumers are no longer equating varietal wines with top quality – they are quite willing to explore the myriad brands and imaginative proprietary blends exploding into the market.

 Sales of both Pinot grigio (a.k.a. Pinot gris) and Pinot noir ontinue their growth pattern; indicative, if anything, of a growing preference for light, and lightly tart-edged, dry whites, and lighter reds of finer, food-versatile qualities.

Parking signs at Lodi's Heritage Oak Winery

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Zinfandel and chocolate lover at Macchia Wines tasting room during Wine & Chocolate Weekend

The wines of Lodi, perhaps more than that of any other wine region, are known for their round, gentle, fruit-forward qualities, which are intrinsic to the appellation’s mild Mediterranean climate and grape-friendly soils.

But another big reason why Lodi’s annual Wine & Chocolate Weekend attracts both seasoned and burgeoning wine lovers alike from near and far is the fact that everywhere you go, all the Lodi wineries are serving food, which is good for the body and great for the palate since the taste of wine is always amplified by dishes – especially when the match is juuust right!

To give you a taste of what’s coming up during 2019’s Wine & Chocolate Weekend (February 9 & 10), let us reminisce some of the funner, and more mind blowing, combinations we have been fortunate to experience over the past few years. Read all about it...

Grilled tri-tip with Port-Zinfandel chocolate reduction sauce with Stellina Estate Lodi Zinfandel

Downtown Lodi’s Estate Crush owner/winemaker Bob Colarossi justifiably takes a lot of pride in this personal concoction, matched with estate grown Zinfandel from his own vineyard on the west side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River sub-appellation. Zinfandels from this pocket of the AVA (along Lucas Rd.) are known for their fragrant, sleek yet plump and plush character, and the Port-Zinfandel chocolate reduction echoes those enchanting qualities, while the faintly charred grill marks on the tri-tip mingle with the subtle toasted oak complexity of the wine. If you ask Bob, this is what heaven tastes like, and who’s to argue?

Estate Crush and Stellina estate owners, Bob and Alison Colarossi

Meatballs in homemade chocolate habanero Zinfandel Port reduction sauce with Macchia Mischievous Lodi Zinfandel

‘O sole mio, this is always good one: the black cherryish, raspberry-bright, smooth and zippy Mischievous Zinfandel by Macchia Wines, washed down with meatballs dipped in a hair-raising, spicy-sweet chocolate sauce. This pairing works on multiple levels: the habanero spice bringing out the peppery nuance intrinsic in Zinfandel, the meatballs lending a grip for the Zinfandel’s mild tannins, and the thickness of the chocolate gelling with the plush, pillowy qualities of the wine. Drop in for this year’s version!

Grandma’s rocky road chocolate with McCay Cellars Lodi Paisley 

“Grandma,” in this case, comes from Linda McCay’s side of the family, and her husband Mike is McCay Cellars owner/grower/winemaker. Paisley is their Zinfandel/Petite Sirah blend, which offers exuberantly exotic spices (think ginger, peppermint, cracked pepper and Chinese dried plum, or li hing mui) with red licorice/cherry fruit qualities tucked into a silky, bouncy, moderately full and voluptuously rounded body. It is precisely this sexy spice and bounciness that creates this surprisingly seamless match, making for a chocolate and wine lover’s wet (or shall we say, marshmallowy) dream. 

Barrel tasting at McCay Cellars' Downtown Lodi tasting room

Churros dipped in hot Spanish chocolate with Tizona (by Bokisch) Late Harvest Lodi Graciano or Bokisch Estate Lodi Graciano

This wine/chocolate match is one for the ages: Bokisch Vineyards' crunchy hot churros dipped in cups of melted, spicy/earthy chocolate served with a moderately sweet (that is, not too sweet), perfectly balanced late harvest red wine made from the Graciano grape, which exudes sumptuous, exotic sensations suggesting blueberry syrup, quince paste and blackberry-filled truffles. If you’re even bolder, you might want to try Bokisch’s churros with their Estate Graciano, which bursts with the same mysterious fruit qualities, only as a 100% dry, svelte, curvaceously rich and fleshy red wine.

Bokisch Vineyards' exotically scented, rich and curvaceous Graciano

Chocolate chili with d’Art Lodi Port

Ever try a chocolate chili? Fact is, seasoned cooks have been using chocolate as an ingredient – long before cacao was turned into a sweetened “candy” – for thousands of years, dating back to the Mayans and Aztecs. Each Wine & Chocolate Weekend, several wineries offer this favorite Lodi dish: chili intensified by chocolate. d’Art co-owner Helen Dart’s recipe reaps a thick, dense, viscous, red chili spiced, good ol’ fashioned medicated goo, and the lusciously sweet, fat, plummy, perfectly balanced fruitiness of husband Dave Dart’s exquisitely crafted Port does an amazing job of soothing the palate after the electric sting of each meaty morsel. A wine and food match with real cojones!

d'Art Wines' Helen and Bob Dart

Chocolate chili con carne with Heritage Oak Lodi Petite

Heritage Oak Winery often competes with other Lodi wineries for Wine & Chocolate Weekend’s “best chocolate chili.” Heritage Oak co-owner Carmela Hoffman has a recipe for a “chocolate chili con carne” that is not quite as thick or mole-like as d’Art’s, but has a red pepper spiciness and enough pungent seasoning to make a dynamite match with dry red wines. Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate adds to the texturing, which is why we'd recommend Heritage Oak’s thick and meaty Petite – a 50/50 blend of Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot – with the dish. This blend is a rambunctious amalgamation of black pepper spice, floral/violet scented blueberryish fruit and subtle oak nuances, rich enough to freshen the palate after every loving spoonful of the chili’s chocolaty richness.

Heritage Oak's Carmela and Tom Hoffman

Carmela Hoffman’s recipe:

Chocolate Chili con Carne
(serves 4)

4 tbs. olive oil
3-4 garlic cloves
1 lb. ground beef
1 medium zucchini
2 small red potatoes
2 large carrots, peeled and diced
3 stalks celery, washed and diced
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup milk
2 tbs. tomato sauce
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup red wine
14 oz. chopped tomatoes
14 oz. can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
14 oz. can black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate (preferably Ghirardelli 60% cacao)
1 tsp. each, salt & black pepper

Secret to perfect chocolate chili recipes: Ghirardelli 50% cacao chocolate (image courtesy of ghirardelli.com)

Heat 2 tbs. oil in pan. Brown meat. Drain fat and transfer to a bowl and set aside. Add 2 more tbs. olive oil. Sauté onions, then add celery, garlic, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, cumin, oregano, cinnamon and pepper flakes. Cook until carrots and onions have softened.  Return meat to pot.

Add milk and turn up heat until all traces of milk have evaporated (this is an Italian method that adds a smoother taste). Add tomatoes, tomato sauce, red wine vinegar and wine, and bring to boil. Once at boiling point, add chocolate. Stir well, ensuring chocolate is completely absorbed. Cover with lid and simmer for 1 hour.

Add beans, stir well, and cook for another 5 minutes. Serve anyway you like: with steamed rice, over a baked potato, or on its own with crusty bread. As an option, top with grated cheese.

Bokisch Vineyards' churros dipped in hot Spanish style chocolate

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Heritage Oak Winery's Tom and Carmela Hoffman in their idyllic vineyard estate, on the east side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA

Tom Hoffman, Heritage Oak Winery’s owner/grower/winemaker, likes to have things both ways. On one hand, he appreciates the beauty of pure varietals – wines expressing the qualities of one grape, and one grape only. At the same time, he well knows the advantages of blending – weaving the qualities of multiple grapes into seamlessly and intricately layered qualities that can’t be achieved in 100% varietal wines.

Either way, Hoffman demonstrates a mastery of both approaches to the discipline of winegrowing and craft of winemaking in his latest releases. As he explains: “In 2012 we put in a lot of new vines and replantings with many different varieties – three to five rows of each, 65 vines per row. Hence, my latest blends and varietal reds from the 2016 vintage, and new varietal whites from 2018. It’s sort of experimental, to see what works. The only variety that I’m not so happy with so far is Nebbiolo – I can’t seem to get a reasonable amount of color out of it.”

The towering, ancient blue oak in the Heritage Oak estate

Of the 100% varietals, the most exciting might the 2018 Heritage Oak Estate Lodi Chenin Blanc ($18), from a 2-acre Mokelumne River-side block along Bruella Rd. The wine’s nose is the essence of the varietal: super-fresh, honeyed and flowery, with slightest touch of minerality and leafy rose petal. On the palate, the wine is steely dry, crisp with natural acidity and light as a feather. Comments Hoffman, “Chenin blanc is an underrated grape with a potential to be wonderful, but because of its history – in the ‘70s and ‘80s it was made into a sweet wine – it’s hard to get people to look at it again. I well remember the Chenin blancs popularized by E. & J. Gallo. In fact, I still use the jugs it used to come in, in the winery!"

From another one of Hoffman’s riverside blocks, the 2018 Heritage Oak Estate Lodi Sauvignon Blanc ($15) has the unerringly pure, leafy herbiness typical of the varietal, along with scents of grapefruit and lemon skin; these citrus juice, skin and leaf fragrances manifested in light, long, refreshing lemony crisp sensations, as bright and pristine as a proverbial spring day. “This vineyard is so close to the river,” says Hoffman, “that it flooded in 2017; it’s just coming back, and we got 3 tons of fruit from it in 2018.”

Among the 100% varietal reds, the 2016 Heritage Oak Estate Lodi Graciano ($28) might be the most intriguing to connoisseurs of more esoteric grapes now strongly identified with Lodi. This brightly pigmented red has a subtle yet dark, exotic nose suggesting black fruit and an herby, wild scrubby spice, and comes across as moderate in weight yet deep in flavor, with a slightly gripping palate-feel filled out by zippy acidity and firming tannin. While his Graciano is an exceptionally smooth and voluptuous wine, Hoffman tells a different story: it was kept in neutral barrels for a while, he explains, “because I wasn’t sure if it would ever smooth out, but it did, even though it was rough and edgy right up until bottling.”

Mr. Hoffman’s approach to purely varietal reds, if anything, lends itself perfectly to wine lovers who prefer a balanced, finely textured wine that compliments food, rather than overpowering dishes with high alcohol, rough tannin, and a fat, sweet fruitiness. A perfect example is the 2016 Heritage Oak Estate Lodi Sangiovese ($28), which practically screams for pastas or slow cooked stews with its easy, zesty, buoyantly balanced medium body and floral red cherry/raspberry fragrances unfettered by spare, polished wood undertones. And if you like the green herby/minty taste of a Cabernet without the huge weight or mouthfuls of tannin and alcohol, the floral/berry scented, slim, zippy and even keeled 2016 Heritage Oak Estate Lodi Cabernet Franc ($28) is the red wine for you.

Then again, it is with blends that Hoffman may truly show his craftiness as a winemaker. “What I like about blending,” he tells us, “is you can get a full mouth experience, from the front all the way to the finish, whereas with single varietals you see nuances of individual grapes.” This vinous gestalt is on full, joyous display in Hoffman’s 2016 Heritage Oak Estate Grown Lodi Carnival ($18), an almost musical harmony of Tempranillo (50%), Graciano (25%) and Malbec (25%): aromas of red and black fruit mingling with floral notes, flowing in dense yet fluid, svelte, layered sensations, velvety in the feel and zesty in its barely medium-full body.

Tom Hoffman holding old E. & J. Gallo Chenin blanc jug, still used in his winery

Explains Hoffman, “Because the grapes are both traditionally grown alongside each other in Spain, we've always known Tempranillo and Graciano go well together; but I was surprised by how well the Malbec fits, bringing a central structure to the wine without upsetting the balance of red and dark fruit of the other grapes.” While there is nothing “big” about the 2016 Carnival, Hoffman contrasts this Tempranillo/Graciano/Malbec blend with the the combination of Tempranillo, Graciano, and Garnacha in the 2015 Heritage Oak Estate Lodi Spanish Suite ($28), which is also a current release. While similar in its floral interplay of red and black berry qualities, the 2015 comes across as zippier and lighter in its medium sized body – the use of Garnacha adding a fresh squeeze of red cherry (as opposed to the darker berried weight of Malbec in the 2016 Carnival) in the finish.

The 2016 Heritage Oak Estate Grown Lodi Triolo ($28) is Hoffman’s ode to Italian traditions, although the choice of grapes – Sangiovese (50%), Barbera (25%) and Zinfandel (25%) – is very “Lodi,” the latter two varieties having a much longer, storied history in the region’s winegrowing industry than the Tuscan grape, Sangiovese. Nonetheless, the Triolo is very “Italian” in its bright, energetic, food-friendly qualities: a nose like a bowl of fresh red, black and blue berries set out for breakfast, unvarnished by oak or any other excesses, and a zesty medium body carrying flavors ending with a tingly, mouth-watering touch of natural acidity.

The 2015 Heritage Oak Estate Lodi French Blend ($28) is an even more intricate layering of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc; an extra year in the barrel giving the Cabernet Sauvignon extra time to round out its intrinsic tannin and green herby/eucalyptus aromas and flavors, and the other varieties adding just enough textural complexity to compose a medium-full bodied wine with a round, polished grip of tannin, with a even keeled, finesseful feel through a long, smooth finish.

Last but far from least – in fact, probably the most interesting for specifically “Lodi” wine lovers – is Hoffman’s 2016 Heritage Oak Estate Petite ($18), a 50/50 blend of Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot. A reference point, of course, is Michael David Winery’s enormously popular “Petite Petit” Petite Sirah, which is usually blended with around 15% Petit Verdot (for details, please see our previous post, Lodi grown Petite Sirahs command more respect). Hoffman’s 50/50 approach allows the dark colored yet less overtly fruited, moderately weighted Petit Verdot to put even more of a kibosh on Petite Sirah’s habit of overpowering any wine, or any palate, with ripeness and sheer size. The result, in Hoffman’s “Petite,” is a deep purplish wine with a sweetly concentrated nose – the violet qualities of Petit Verdot singing above the Petite Sirah’s blueberry liqueur-like intensity – and a dense, meaty, firm yet fleshy and compact feel on the palate, the scented fruit punching through the grippy layering.

“People like a nice, dark red wine like Petite Sirah,” says Hoffman, “but I like it better when there’s a synergy and balance... the use of more Petit Verdot creates a more ‘complete picture’ in this blend.”

And what a beautiful picture it is!

One of dozens of birdhouses in the Lodi estate vineyard of Heritage Oak Winery

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Petite Sirah harvest in Kevin Phillips' vineyard (picked for Michael David Winery) in Lodi's Jahant AVA

Recently, to update ourselves, we conducted a blind tasting of 14 of our Lodi grown reds fashioned from Petite Sirah (a.k.a. Durif). We found a uniformity of quality comparable to Petite Sirahs from other California wine regions (example of Lodi’s competitiveness: at the recent 2019 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competion, Lodi-based producers such as Karen Birmingham, St. Amant, Mettler Family, Peirano Estate and GoodMills Family all walked away with gold medals), as well as a little bit of movement towards styles reflecting the current evolution of California wines in general.

That is, a move towards a little more subtlety – particularly in terms of oak barrel aromas and flavors – and a little less of the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am intensity of alcohol, tannin and ripe, sweet toned fruitiness (please see out notes on specific wines below) for which Petite Sirah has been known. Still, if anything, Petite Sirah has never been considered a “subtle” varietal, and undoubtedly never will, even in more restrained guises.

Black purplish color of Petite Sirah, and even splashier circus label of Michael David Winery's popular Petite Petit

A Petite always gotta “Petite,” which is to appeal exclusively to wine lovers with a yen for red wines spiked with outsized proportions, and marked by more teeth-staining, inky color than just about any other red wine in the world. Because of that, the varietal has never been counted among the world’s “great” red wines, despite an evidently fanatical fan base driving steadily growing production (according to PS I Love You, a Petite Sirah Advocacy Organization, there are now over 1,000 brands of California Petite Sirah, which is well over 10 times more than just 15 years ago).

So why the Rodney Dangerfield-like disrespect? Besides being a love-it-or-leave-it sort of thing, Petite Sirah is a varietal more strongly associated with winery or brand styles than vineyards or appellations. The finest wines in the world, however, are more than just intense, iconic or enjoyable. They are also closely identified with the specific vineyards and regions where they are grown. An intellectual appeal, as much as a sensory one.

Put it another way: A region like Napa Valley, like Bordeaux in France, is closely associated with Cabernet Sauvignon, and vice-versa. When wine lovers talk about Pinot noir, they talk about favorite vineyards and sub-regions in places like Burgundy in France, Willamette Valley in Oregon, or Santa Barbara, Santa Lucia Highlands, Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley and Anderson Valley in California. Even Zinfandel – which has Rodney Dangerfield-ish issues of its own – is at least identified with vineyards in regions like Amador County, Dry Creek Valley, Rockpile or Lodi.

Slightly shriveled skin (an optimal harvest quality favored by most Petite Sirah producers) of typically broad shouldered Petite Sirah clusters grown in Lodi's Clements Hills AVA

Specific regions celebrated specifically for Petite Sirah? If you’re drawing a blank, join the crowd. Petite Sirah is grown up and down the California coast; and in fact, it is a grape that does well in numerous places, especially warm Mediterranean climate zones like Napa Valley and Lodi. But even after 135 years (at a Zinfandel Advocates & Producers conference earlier this month, Bedrock Wine Co.’s Morgan Twain-Peterson pointed out that Petite Sirah was first introduced in Sonoma Valley in 1884), Petite Sirah has remained a varietal considered more of a wine that is manufactured – even when meticulously crafted by talented winemakers – as opposed to grown, and not so much a wine that expresses a strong “sense of place” (or terroir) in the bottle.

Hence, the overriding objective of the majority of brands or winemakers, which is to stuff as much of Petite Sirah’s “varietal character” as possible into a bottle. But oh, what a varietal it is: predictably humongous, densely textured flavors, topped by heady aromas of blueberry-ish fruit often laced with peppery spice, preferably with perceptible “smoke-of-oak” – the more oak the better, it seems, for most Petite Sirah lovers.

While Lodi grown Petite Sirahs still tow the party line, far from being clinics on vineyard (or terroir) related delineations, there is a movement – an almost unnoticeable one, but a movement nonetheless – towards a little more restraint in alcohol, oak, tannin and fruitiness, and that's a start. The next step would be a focus on vineyards from different parts of the appellation, which might start with wineries daring to bottle Petite Sirahs from individual AVAs (contrasting, say, fragrant styles from the sandy loam terroir of Mokelumne River with the meatier styles of Jahant's gravelly clays and the even denser, high color/phenolic styles grown in the rocky red clay hillsides of Clements Hills). While achievement of individual vineyard or appellation distinctions in Petite Sirah is more than possible, will has to come before way.

Lodi Petite Sirah bottles lined up following blind tasting

Meantime, will this mean Petite Sirahs that no longer taste like “Petite Sirah?” Hardly. As you might glean through our notes on the current batch of Lodi grown releases below, there is still plenty enough to please the most hardcore connoisseurs of the grape:

2015 Mettler Family Vineyards, Estate Brown Lodi Petite Sirah ($25) – Mettler Family’s bottlings have been a crème de la crème among Lodi grown Petite Sirahs for the past ten or so years. The opaque, cloth-staining, black-purplish hue is totally in keeping with the varietal profile, as is its concentration of blueberryish fruit, only heightened by a discreet backdrop of smoky/vanillin oak. The feel is rounded (a sizeable yet completely proportionate 15% alcohol frame) and both fleshy and meaty, with the concentrated fruit loading up the palate in fluidly textured layers upon layers. This is California Petite Sirah at its best, but the question may arise: is this specifically “Lodi?” There is, in fact, a pliant quality in the texture and a feel tilted towards lush fruit that echoes the emerging styles of other Lodi grown varietals (particularly Zinfandel, Grenache and Carignan). All the same, a first class Petite.

2016 Petite Petit (by Michael David Winery), Lodi Petite Sirah ($14) – This 85% Petite Sirah/15% Petit Verdot – the latter, a Bordeaux grape that almost equals Petite Sirah in blackness of color and skyscraping tannin, while typically zestier in acid, lighter on its feet and more floral (violet-like) in perfume – gives a good accounting for the runaway success of this proprietary blend (its colorful circus label certainly increases the appeal). The saturated black fruit qualities of Petite Sirah are only enhanced by the flowery, cedary, slightly herby (black olive and eucalyptus) notes of the Petit Verdot component. The feel is weighty with, at the same time, a sense of moderation in both the alcohol (14.5%) and firming tannin, coming across with a surprisingly zesty, textured feel. That is to say, just enough restraint and extra aromatic dimension to appeal even to red wine drinkers who are not necessarily diehard Petite Sirah fans.

2015 Peltier Winery & Vineyards, Black Diamond Lodi Petite Sirah ($20) – Properly varietal black-purplish color and sweet toned concentration of fruit – a lavish, plummy blueberry/blackberry aroma – tinged with smoky/coffee-like oak embellishments. The generous fruit is framed by a full yet svelte, well rounded body – the oak, tannin and fruit acidity working in synch to keep the “big” sensations (a moderate 14.5% alcohol) even keeled all the way through a sturdy, lip smacking finish.

2016 Harney Lane Winery, Lodi Petite Sirah ($28) – While there are crafty cinnamon toast-like vanillin oak flourishes and a seamlessly textured feel distinguishing this Petite Sirah among others of its ilk, the Harney Lane’s heady nose (teeming with concentrated berry liqueur-like fruit) and dense, gargantuan feel (the label reads 15% alcohol, but feels even bigger) slaps a “strictly-for-Petite-Sirah-lovers” (or, “no wimpy wines”) sign on this bottling. Petite Sirah lovers will dive right in, but for others: you have been forewarned.

2016 Mikami Vineyards, Lodi Petite Sirah ($39) – Even with a not-so-subtle veil of pungent vanillin/toasted oak, this varietal rendering rings true and compelling with its slightly floral raspberry/blueberry liqueur-like fruit and sumptuous, velvet texturing, wrapping around the concentrated fruit sensations and firm yet crackling core of chunky tannin like a decadent chocolate truffle, the polished oak veneer only adding to an overall sense of balance and freshness notwithstanding the wine's typically varietal “bigliness.”

2017 Ironstone Vineyards, Lodi Petite Sirah ($14) – Three words: value (an amazingly good buy), moderation (13.5% alcohol, which is positively waif-like by Petite Sirah standards), and complexity (considerably more black pepper spice – always one of the grape’s most intriguing elements – in this wine than in the average California Petite Sirah). The spice-inundated blueberry/blackberry qualities of Ironstone Petite Sirahs, incidentally, are no accidents, or products of sneaky winery manipulations; but rather, certainly reflections of the chunky river rock soils of the Kautz family’s plantings, sitting on a Sloughhouse-Lodi AVA hilltop, and thus markers in every vintage. All the same, the wine’s svelte, rounded feel is a predilection of the house – they simply believe in balanced, food-versatile styles of wine – which doesn’t mean you can’t get all the lavish qualities of the grape that a true-blue Petite Sirah lover would want in this ridiculously well priced wine.

Kautz Farms' Teichert Ranch Petite Sirah block on a rocky slope in the Sloughhouse-Lodi AVA

2016 Markus Wine Co., Lodi Sol ($39) – Owner/winemaker Markus Niggli continues to demonstrate his uncommon touch when it comes to blending: 70% Petite Sirah/10% Syrah from Borra Vineyards’ Gill Creek Ranch in Clements Hills-Lodi, plus 10% Petit Verdot/10% Carignan from Mokelumne River-Lodi's Spenker Ranch. Consequently, you will find a lush blueberry varietal quality in this wine – only, wrapped up in a flowery, finely delineated nose of cassis/framboise, violet, drops of cinnamon and coconut, a squeeze of fresh cherry. On the palate, Niggli also successfully tames the rough, rambunctious personality of the grape (even if traditionalists may not think this has to be tamed), giving this 70% Petite Sirah more of silky, moderately weighted feel belying its 14.6% alcohol, punctuated by zippy natural acidity (Niggli favors native yeast fermentation and minimal winery “adjustments”). The question, of course, is this deftly fashioned wine a true “Petite Sirah?” Technically, and probably aesthetically, it isn’t. It certainly isn’t going to “blast” any pureblooded Petite Sirah off a table. But does it have to? If anything, it amply demonstrates another, gentler, yet equally interesting side of the grape.

Markus Wine Co.'s Markus Niggli collecting 2018 Petite Sirah cluster samples in the Borra family's Gill Creek Ranch (Clements Hills-Lodi AVA)

2015 Earthquake (by Michael David Winery), Lodi Petite Sirah ($26) – This brand will stick to its style – black color as dark as the proverbial moonless night, and massive fruit/tannin/alcohol (15.5%)/oak structuring – like guns-and-religion, and will rarely disappoint. There is varietal fruit aplenty – rendered in plummy/blueberry/fig sensations – immersed in smoky oak fumes suggesting roasting mocha/coffee. You can practically cut into this wine with a knife and fork. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what makes a mercilessly big Petite Sirah ideal with, say, a char-grilled steak, a leg of lamb, roasted wild boar, buckshot venison, or... you get the picture – when you go big with a wine, go big with the fatty, high-myoglobin meat.

2015 Van Ruiten Family Vineyards, Signature Reserve Lodi Petite Sirah ($35) – Indicative of this winery’s steady move towards more elegant, culinary styles of wines, this Petite Sirah successfully captures a more restrained varietal profile: floral, perfumed nose of just slightly jammy berry/cherry fruit packaged in faintly caramelized, understated oak, following through in a zesty, moderately weighted medium-full body giving a firm yet polished sensation despite the suggestions of jammy fruit qualities.

2014 McCay Cellars, Lodi Petite Sirah ($35) – This was the oldest vintage in our blind tasting; and subsequently, it came across as a more supple, medium-full, tactile wine with restrained yet focused varietal notes suggesting blueberry compote with a dash of cocoa powder, plus the lightest, tongue tingling drizzle of balsamic syrup. In the customary McCay house style, native yeast fermented towards a more “naked,” balanced, somewhat organic sensations.

2017 Karen Birmingham, Lodi Reserve Petite Sirah ($19) – This well-priced bottling is crafted, packaged and sold by LangeTwins Family co-winemaker Karen Birmingham through NakedWines.com (members, or “angels,” pay a lot less than $19), and grown in a new, high-efficiency trellised block off Lodi's Jahant Rd. It is, in fact, a lot of bang for the buck: opaque black/purple color and sweet toned plummy/black cherry fruit concentration, turning into even blacker berry qualities in a fairly big, broad, densely textured mouth-feel, punctuated by toasted oak.

2016 Old Soul (by Oak Ridge Winery), Lodi Petite Sirah ($16) – While leaner and relatively moderate in weight (13.5% alcohol), a black-purplish color, sweet berry and cedary/toasty aromatic notes combine with fairly sturdy tannin on the palate to meet just enough of the varietal expectations to make this wine more than worthy of its modest pricing (going for less than its suggested retail price in numerous retail outlets).

2015 Twisted Roots, Lodi Petite Sirah ($30) – This is a dryer, slimmed down version of the varietal, which suits a Petite Sirah lover looking for the black color and blue fruit, but underlined by more of an edgy, angular tannin than the big, rounded, overtly fruit driven styles more typical of California iterations. Slightly caramelized, toasted vanillin oak helps drive the point home in this zesty, toothsome yet moderately sized (as Petite Sirahs go) wine.

2016 m2, Nancy’s Vineyard Estate Lodi Petite Sirah ($20) – There are black and blue fruit qualities galore in this wine, made from more recently planted vines around this vaunted winery. The exuberance of these fledgling vines is also manifested in distinctly green herby/minty aromas (if you love herbaceousness in red wines, you'll love "Nancy's"), beefed up by sweet American oak qualities, mingling in a palate feel that is suitably big, bold and bouncy in its dense, round, teeth staining composure.

Petite Sirah harvest in Kevin Phillips' Jahant-Lodi AVA block

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