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Satisfying glass (red, red Lodi grown Zinfandel)

Because we are nosy, we asked a few people associated with the Lodi wine industry about the first time they became hopelessly “hooked” on wine. Not everyone is born into it, like many of the third, fourth, even fifth or sixth generation winegrowers in the Lodi wine region (in that regard, Lodi is almost “weird," or very European, compared to other American wine regions).

But for many wine professionals, there is very much a definitive “first time” – especially for those who had been bitten by a “wine bug” so bad, they decided to make it their career, or life-long pursuit.

Long ago, Microsoft founder Bill Gates philosophized, “We all do best what we love most.” For many of the most successful people in the wine industry, this is precisely the credo that they live by. Almost no one, of course, finds as much untold wealth in his or her pursuits as Mr. Gates; but as Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Happiness is not in the mere possession of money – it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort."

In a word, it’s about satisfaction. The same feeling that a good glass of wine can often deliver. No wonder the wine business is such a happy business!

A few of these stories:

Van Ruiten Family Winery's John Giannini

John Giannini (winemaker at Van Ruiten Family Vineyards and former oenology instructor at California State University Fresno):

“I grew up in an Italian household in Brooklyn, New York, where wine is an integral part of dinner. Our family always ate together – that was a house rule. I remember a gallon-jug with a screwcap sitting on the floor next to my father’s chair at the table. My recollection is the jug being consumed over a period of several weeks. Looking back, I can’t imagine what that wine must have been like after several days of being open, let alone weeks. My grandmother tried to give me a small juice glass of half red wine and half water. It was awful – give me a soda! Later, in my younger days as an adult, I carried on the tradition of having wine with dinner; but the wines I consumed were typically unremarkable. I never gave wine a second thought.

“While living in Richmond, Virginia, I was part-owner of a video retail store. While running the store I decided to go back to school to complete my Bachelor’s degree in Dietetics. As part of that training I was required to take a Hospitality and Hotel Purchasing class, which offered two optional evening wine tastings.

“The tastings were conducted by a local wine importer and distributor who explained how we should smell and taste the wines. I remember a tasting of three French Bordeaux and three Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. As I brought the first glass near my nose to smell, the aroma coming from the glass was astonishing. I took a sip – amazing! Each wine, although different, was as delicious as the last. I was intrigued.

“Soon after, I believe, the wine that ultimately pointed me in the direction I would ultimately go was a 1985 Château Lynch-Bages (a famous Bordeaux grand cru).

“I began attending wine tastings with some frequency and reading books about wine.  Fast-forward another five years, to 1994: I was having dinner and drinking a very nice bottle of Barolo (legendary red wine region in Northern Italy’s Piedmont) with my good friend Joe, and he said ‘John, we should start a winery.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Joe, that’s it... I’m going to California to learn how to make wine!’”

Lodi Winegrape Commission's Dr. Stephanie Bolton

Dr. Stephanie Bolton (Lodi Winegrape Commission’s Director of Grower Communications & Sustainable Winegrowing):

“It was 2008 and I was five years out of college, working as a nanny and a personal assistant in Atlanta, Georgia. Life was really fun – I played with kids and organized a gold record collection during the day, then partied at night with a gorgeous group of friends.

“Despite having a college roommate who tried to introduce me to wine in between Solo cups of vodka, I hadn’t moved too far past the Beringer White Zinfandel that I ordered at graduation dinner. But I was lucky enough to have enjoyed my ’Aha, wine is good for something other than alcohol!’ moment with a glass of Domaine Pichot Vouvray (slightly sweet white wine from France’s Loire Valley). I promise that if you haven’t had this moment yet, it is coming.

“Then came the experience that, more than anything else, has shaped the last ten years of my life. The musician I was dating had a gig in the north Georgia mountains at Crane Creek Vineyards. It was love at first sight – for me and the vines. With my handsome guy’s music playing in the background and a glass of wine in my hand, I twirled around and caught fireflies between the grapes with the owner’s children. It was pure magic. I knew right then and there that I had to have a vineyard in my life one day.

Lodi Director of Grower Communications & Sustainable Winegrowing, Stephanie Bolton

“Since my boyfriend was following his passion for music, it really bothered him that I didn’t know what my passion was yet. He helped me realize that I could use my chemistry degree for more than promising children a volcano when they got potty trained – I could use it in the world of wine, which would help me get a vineyard in my life. So, I started doing one thing every day to prepare for a sustainable career in the wine industry, my new passion: I took a part-time job at a wine shop in a fancy grocery store. I attended industry tastings, worked a harvest at my favorite winery, and studied wine formally in graduate school. I even taught a study abroad wine course in Tuscany, and traveled to wine regions all over the world while pouring wine at a restaurant. My goal was to forge my own, unique path; tasting at every opportunity, and learning from others along the way. 

“Today I have over 120,000 acres of vineyards in my life, and I am the director of a sustainable winegrowing program in the largest single winegrowing region in the U.S. Isn’t it funny how life can give you what you want most after all?!”

Wine & Roses Hotel sommelier Scott Reesman plying his craft (blind tasting wines)

Scott Reesman AIS, CMS (sommelier at Wine & Roses Hotel’s Towne House Restaurant):

“I grew up in a small town in Calaveras County, in an area that has since become part of what is known as the Sierra Foothills AVA. As the region has become more wine-centric, so have. I moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and began working in the restaurant business in 1987; but didn’t get serious about wine until 2003, when I worked at KOI restaurant in West Hollywood. I was the bar manager, and my GM was a sommelier. I rented a room in his apartment for a short time. When we would finish work, we’d pop a bottle or two. He grew up in Napa Valley, and would tell me stories of the wines and different terroirs in the region. It got me exited about learning more, and it didn’t hurt that we were drinking some of the great wines of Napa! I have to credit Mr. Andrew Spence for being my ‘sommelier father.’

Sommelier Scott Reesman serving Mettler Family Vineyards' Kelli Mettler-Costamagna

“I like to think of the projection of my wine career in terms of the great wines I have tried. One of the notable bottles that first got me hooked on wine was a 1999 Shafer Merlot from Napa Valley. I also remember wines like a 1997 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, a 2000 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne (a great white Burgundy from France), and a 1998 Joseph Roty Gevrey-Chambertin (red Burgundy from France). What opened my eyes to the Lodi region was a tasting of six Lodi Native wines in 2015, when I attended the Lodi SOMM Camp with other colleagues from across the U.S.

“Seeking to learn more about wine, I have become certified as a sommelier through Associazione Italiana Sommeliers, and am currently pursuing an Advanced Certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers; while also being a member of the North American Sommelier Association and serving as sommelier at Towne House Restaurant in Wine & Roses Hotel.”

Restaurant Taste's Tracey Berkner (photo courtesy of Comstock's Magazine)

Tracey Berkner (co-proprietor of Restaurant Taste and Rest Hotel in Plymouth):

“When I was 22 years old, I attended my first Berkner family Thanksgiving where my future brother-in-law, Fred Scherrer (winemaker/owner of Sherrer Winery in Sonoma County, and brother of Mark Berkner, Ms. Berkner’s chef/partner), opened a Riesling Kabinett from Germany. I had never tasted a German Riesling before, and was immediately star-struck – the clarity of the wine, the bright flavors, the never-ending finish! I don't recall the vintage or producer, but I remember asking him about the wine throughout the dinner. To this day we always share Riesling during the holiday family gatherings, along with Champagne

Tracey Berkner serving Lodi's Acquiesce Winery whites in her Restaurant Taste

“From then on, I would always seek out different wines that I had never heard of. I took a food and wine pairing class at the California Culinary Academy a few years later, which further fueled my passion for wine.  When we first moved to Amador County the number of wineries there was about 12; and now there are over 50. We began hosting winemaker dinners and wine education seminars for our curious guests. I love that every week I learn something new about wine. It never ends – I still get ‘hooked on’ wine every day!”

Fields Family Wines' Ryan Sherman

Ryan Sherman (winemaker/co-owner, Fields Family Wines):

“When I was a kid, our family entertained a lot. There were always people over at our house – my parents were very social. I don’t really ever remember seeing much in the way of wine around other than a random carafe of Paul Masson or a bottle of Lancer’s. Maybe indicative of the time, it was mostly just cocktails and beer, but a lot of great food and entertainment.

“My first significant job out of college is what really set me down the path towards wine and an appreciation for the culinary commingling of the two. During the late ‘90s and early 200s, I spent just over eight years in the pharmaceutical industry prior to the government crackdown on Pharma/Physician entertainment. I worked in our cardiovascular division, which was a very crowded field, competing against the likes of Merck and Pfizer. We were a smaller Swiss pharmaceutical company (Novartis). At that time, senior management had given me and my sales team nearly a carte blanche budget to court doctors in our Northern California market, which put me in direct contact with restaurants like The Kitchen in Sacramento and the French Laundry in Napa Valley.


Fields Family Wines' Ryan Sherman and Russ Fields

“Of course this is where the doctors wanted to be, and I soon learned that these people were very much into their wines. As a way to stand out from other events/competitor companies, I would allow physicians attending these meetings to choose the wines for the evening, as long as they brought their peers. Of course they were happy to do this because it allowed them to puff up their chest and show off their wine knowledge to their cronies. And these guys really took advantage – indulging in the best Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa wines – although at the time I had no clue what wines were being consumed, or how special they were.

“That’s when I first met Randall Selland (chef/owner of The Kitchen), I believe we were the first Pharma company at the time to write a check and take over The Kitchen for an entire evening. I would love nothing more than to have a do-over on some of the amazing food and wine that were consumed in my younger days. It was at one of those dinners, when bottles of 1995 and 1997 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon really made me stop and pay attention to what was in the glass. I still remember grabbing the bottle off the table and looking at it and trying to understand what it all (on the label) meant, and just going back to the glass time and time again.

“But of course, I didn’t really go all in and become fully afflicted with the wine bug until 2004, when I met Russ Fields (Sherman’s partner at Fields Family Wines). At that point, the rest of the story is entirely his fault.”

Ryan Sherman (left) with other Lodi Native vintners at Fields Family winery (from left, Stuart Spencer, Layne Montgomery, Tim Holdener, Chad Joseph, Mike McCay and Todd Maley)

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Silvaspoons Vineyards' young Mencía block in Lodi's Alta Mesa AVA

At the beginning of this month (December 2018), PRIE Winery quietly released its 2017 PRIE Silvaspoons Vineyard Alta Mesa-Lodi Mencía ($33). Only 1 barrrel (adding up to 22 cases) was made; representing, as it were, the first commercial bottling of Mencía grown and produced in California – significant even if a single barrel is less than an eye-drop in the vast ocean of wine produced all around the world each year.

But it means something because, well, big things always start off as an inkling in someone's mind; followed by a first cautious, maybe even shaky, step. 

As wine grapes go, Mencía is a relatively little-known red wine varietal, even if cultivated in Spain’s Bierzo region probably since the days of the Roman Empire. While Mencía is not a mainstream varietal, there are more than a dozen different brands imported into the U.S. from Spain. Consequently, over the past twenty or so years, Mencía has become something of a wine geek’s varietal.

When asked why he planted Mencía in his Silvaspoons Vineyards in the first place, Lodi grower Ron Silva told us, in his usual unvarnished style, “It seemed like an interesting thing to do.”

We have written several times over the years of Mr. Silva’s habit of putting carts before horses; that is, planting grapes without really knowning if any winery would be interested in it. Twenty years ago, for instance, he instigated a modest trend by planting Verdelho after finding the grape growing in the patchwork quilt of tiny, lava rock walled gardens in his ancestral home of Ilha do Pico – one of the lonely volcanic islands in the Portuguese Azores. “Somehow, cuttings of Verdelho fell into my suitcase,” he has explained; and today, Silva’s plant material is registered with U.C.Davis’ Foundation Plant Services and available to the rest of the American wine industry.

Silvaspoons Vineyards' Ron Silva

As it turned out, Verdelho – along with Torrontés, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Amarela, and other examples of underappreciated, up-and-coming varieties courageously taken up by Silva –  is now one of many grapes which have found a natural second home in Lodi’s Mediterranean terroirs, adding to the region's growing reputation for "alternative" wines.

Before committing 100% to planting less than an acre of Mencía in his Alta Mesa-Lodi vineyard, Silva did his due diligence by purchasing a mixed case of Spanish produced Mencías from a specialty retail store in California. Says Silva, “I read somewhere that the grape was thought to be related to Cabernet Franc, but the Spanish Mencías I tasted seemed to have a fruit profile with a closer resemblance to Zinfandel than to a Cabernet, only with a rustic quality more typical of European wines.”

PRIE Winery

Mencía, as recent DNA profiling has established, is not related to Cabernet Franc. If anything, its closest relative appears to be a Portuguese grape known as Jaén do Dão, a grape even far more obscure than Mencía (correctly pronounced, incidentally, as men-thee-ah).

As you would expect, wine journalists who revel in geeky grapes have written quite a bit about Mencía. It produces a red wine of sensory qualities so elusive, it invariably inspires somewhat colorful rhetoric. Eric Asimov of the New  York Times, for instance, has described Mencía based reds as “haunting... in all its exotic fruit, wildflower and mineral glory.” In SFGate, Jon Bonné once wrote of the grape’s “primal, sometimes fierce aromas... beautifully sanguine, in addition to floral, spicy, animal scents and powerful mineral... (and) blood is a scent I don’t usually discuss... in polite company.” The Chicago Tribune’s Bill St. John describes Mencía as a red wine like “many colored buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the wind... red and blue fruits... wet black stone, slate stone... and a kind of ‘wine-iness,’ a grape-y sapidity... liquid, juicy in texture...“

PRIE''s John Gash tasting his 2017 Mencía with Ron Silva

It takes far less of a flight of fancy to appreciate the 2017 PRIE Mencía’s intense cherry skin perfume, which comes laced with tea-like scents and tannin, while tasting firmly dry with a tannin/acid edge and sensations suggesting more minerals than fruit.

This past November, PRIE’s married winemaking team of John and Lisa Gash invited Ron Silva to their winery for a final tasting before the launch of their first Mencía in December. Mr. Silva swirled, took a whiff, a sip and said: “The rustic quality of this wine comes across more like a European wine than a California varietal in that there is more on the palate than in the nose. Also like a European wine, there is a nice balance of tannin and acid – nothing soft and fruity about it.”

2017 Mencía clusters in Lodi's Silvaspoons Vineyards

Prompted by Silva’s observation of the wine's low-key aroma, Mr. Gash transfered his pour from a narrow, tulip shaped glass to a round “Burgundy” bowl. Finding, as he expected, more perfume when swirled in the more voluminous glass, Gash commented: “I agree with Ron, but there is also a beautiful, floral quality to the wine – subtle red cherry fruit, with a scent of rose petal.

“Maybe more important,” added Mr. Gash, “this will make a wonderful ‘food wine.’” Silva immediately concurred, saying: “Already I am thinking of dishes made with caramelized onions; maybe in a tart, served with good, aged cheeses... I also think it might be delicious with paellas made with combinations of seafood, meats and sausages.”

PRIE Winery co-owner/co-winemaker Lisa Gash

Commenting on the production, Mr. Gash told us: “The 2017 was aged in one neutral barrel and bottled early, to avoid oxidation and to preserve as much of the subtle fruit qualities as possible. We got double the amount of fruit in 2018, which will allow us to age the wine in a puncheon (i.e. roughly double-sized barrel) – again, to emphasize more of the varietal fruit character rather than the taste of oak.”

Added Silva: “I hope people understand that our Mencía vines are still young – 2017 was its first harvest – although quite often a vineyard’s first harvest is one of its best because of the natural balance of fruit and leaves you get in new vines. But insofar as the wine itself, our Mencía is still a work in progress. As the vines age, I think we'll get more distinct characteristics of the grape, like you find in Spanish Mencías. Still, I think we can all agree, this first vintage is extremely promising!”

PRIE Winery grounds

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To kick off 2018’s National Zinfandel Day week, this past November 14, over 100 winemakers and growers came together from both inside and outside the Lodi AVA for a Technical Workshop co-sponsored by the Lodi Winegrape Commission and ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers). This educational industry event took place in Oak Farm Vineyards’ historic redwood barn, built in 1864.

On the agenda were two 4-man panels – one representing “Growers’ Perspectives,” and the other “Winemakers’ Perspectives” – who addressed the current and future state of Lodi grown Zinfandel. Particularly, exactly what steps can be taken to save many of Lodi’s venerated old vine Zinfandel plantings, now in danger of disappearing as a result of the recent market plunge of both White Zinfandel and value priced red Zinfandels ($10 and under). Each panelist also presented two Zinfandel bottlings representing what they grow or produce.

Zinfandel Workshop (from left) moderator Stuart Spencer with panelists Bruce Fry, Jeff Perlegos, Keith Watts and Markus Bokisch

Lodi Winegrape Commission Executive Director (as well as St. Amant Winery winemaker/owner) Stuart Spencer kicked off the proceedings by reminding the audience of vintners and growers: “Zinfandel has a place in the hearts and minds of the Lodi community. Most of it is grown by independent growers who have been farming their vineyards for generations – something you don’t see as much anywhere else in the world, except in Lodi.

“Our goal is to keep these vineyards for generations to come by connecting them with winemakers across California and in other states, and find these grapes a home. We also know that, with the cost of farming today, these vineyards probably need to go into more premium priced wines.

“The four growers on our panel today have been particularly successful in connecting their vineyards with winemakers because they have been able to tell the story of their old vine vineyards, and communicate the value and quality of their product to winemakers willing to pay for those grapes.”

Excerpts from the panel discussions, along with notes on the Zinfandels presented by each of the eight panelists:

Growers’ Perspectives: What It Takes to Sell Zinfandel Fruit Bruce Fry (Mohr-Fry Ranches):

“Our family has been farming in California since 1855, and we have been here in Lodi since 1965. I am a fifth generation California farmer, and our operation continues to be family run. Right now we farm about 600 acres on five different properties in the Mokelumne River-Lodi appellation. On average we sell to about 25 wineries; out of that, about 11 different Zinfandel buyers from two zin properties. Our home property on West Lane has 8 different blocks of Zinfandel, ranging from 5 acres to 15 acres. Marian’s Vineyard, planted in 1901, is the oldest, and the rest date back to the 1940s. All these vineyards are own-rooted, on sub-surface irrigation.

“How do we sell these grapes, market them, and find people to buy them? Around 1994 we began custom crushing and selling wine from these grapes on the bulk market. Once we got our license to do custom crushing, we drove up and down the coast showing potential buyers what our grapes can do. We also tried to over-deliver on logistics. We have a certified scale and are able to deliver in macro-bins or whatever which way wineries need it to be handled.  We also over-deliver on quality. If they ask for X, we give them XX; which is hard to do since every year we also deal with Mother Nature, but you try. Communication is key – telling buyers what’s going on in the vineyard, how’s the crop level, the disease pressures.

“’Telling your story’ is all about branding. We constantly tell our story of who we are, where we’ve been, and the uniqueness of each individual block. We were among the first to farm in the LODI RULES (for Sustainable Winegrowing) program, which started in 2005. All of our Zinfandel vineyards have been certified ever since. Our Zinfandel blocks are registered by the Historic Vineyard Society – the Mohr-Fry Ranch blocks and Marian’s Vineyard separately. We have also trademarked our Mohr-Fry Ranch name.

Bruce Fry (left) and Stuart Spencer in Mohr-Fry Ranches' Marian's Vineyard

“Farmscaping and signage, marking our Historic Vineyard Society blocks, around the vineyard are just as important: making sure your vineyard is clean and neat, with roses planted at the end of rows along the road. We’re often asked why there are roses. Well, because it looks nice!

“Finding buyers is the first step. Then we ask our wineries to vineyard-designate our wines. Of course, you have to give them a reason for it by communicating the uniqueness of your property and the story behind it. Between the vineyard-designate bottlings by wineries like St. Amant, Oak Farm, St. Jorge, Macchia, Chouinard and other wineries, we are able to demonstrate the quality of our Zinfandel to potential buyers. They may all have varied winemaking, but they share a common lineage, and show the quality of the place.

“We’ve been taking the time to market ourselves since 1995. It’s an idea my dad (Jerry Fry) originally got from Robert Young, who did that with his Sonoma County Chardonnay. My dad got to know Robert Young really well through CAWG (California Association of Winegrape Growers). It set a good example of what anyone can do with Lodi grapes. When people think of Lodi, we want them to think of Zinfandel from Mohr-Fry Ranches; and when they think of that, they think of Lodi.

Oak Farm Vineyards proprietor Dan Panella (center) during National Zinfandel Workshop in Oak Farms' 154-year-old barn

“The Zinfandel from Marian’s Vineyard, planted in 1901, grows bunches that are distinctly more elongated compared to our 1940s blocks. The vines have more vigor and produce more fruit, and still gets 3, 4 tons depending on the year. That’s the mystery of old vine Zinfandel. We have no idea of where the wood originally came from. They (the Mettler family, in 1901) just stuck the cuttings into the ground, and they’ve continued to grow in their own unique style, and it makes our best and most unique Zinfandel.”

2016 St. Amant Winery, Mohr-Fry Ranch Mokelumne River-Lodi Zinfandel ($18) – From the Fry family’s Block 416 off West Lane; nose of red berries, soft leather and loamy earth; medium-full, firm, compact feel.

2016 St. Amant Winery, Marian’s Vineyard Mokelumne River-Lodi Zinfandel ($24) – Red berry nose with floral and cedary notes; sense of size in its medium-full body, yet zesty, silky, long and buoyant on the palate.

Added Stuart Spencer, who crafted the St.  Amant wines: “As winemakers, our goal is not to screw up the quality of the grapes we get from Mohr-Fry. Our relationship with the Fry family was sealed in the mid-‘90s, when our own vineyards in Amador County were dying of phylloxera, and my dad (the late Tim Spencer) was looking to supplement our St. Amant Winery production with Lodi grapes with 1 or 2 tons here or there.

“In typical Lodi fashion, one day Jerry Fry showed up with 7 tons of Zinfandel. He had started on a block, then decided to pick through the entire block. My dad was totally freaked out – he couldn’t figure out how he was going to pay for it. Jerry said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just make the wine and we’ll see what happens.’ We made the wine and it turned out beautifully, so we bottled it as a vineyard-designate (Marian’s Vineyard) in 1996. It won a bunch of awards and sold out within a few months. We’ve continued with that ever since, and now it’s our largest production wine.”

Marian's Vineyard Zinfandel, planted 1901

Jeff Perlegos (Stampede Vineyard):

“I am a second-generation Lodi grower. My parents came from Greece some time ago, began a business in town (Lodi), then bought some land where they planted Tokay and Zinfandel. We farm about 50 acres, including 22 acres of grapes and Bing cherries on the west side of town.

“We added Stampede Vineyard in December 2012. It’s a 25-acre old vine Zinfandel vineyard, located east of town, in Clements. Everything we do with Stampede we do with the thought, ‘What would a winemaker want?’ We’re wine lovers, and so everything we do is done with that in mind.

“The 2014 Fields Family Stampede Zinfandel was produced by our first customer, after we bought Stampede. Our vineyards typically give anywhere from 22° to 25° Brix (i.e. sugar reading), but our pH is consistently quite low, about 3.2, 3.3. The vineyard characteristically produces higher acid grapes. Part of the reason is because we really watch our irrigation and potassium – part of our philosophy of maintaining the vineyard in the way that our winemakers prefer. Besides Fields Family, this includes Bedrock Wine Co., Maître de Chai and Carlisle.

Jeff and John Perlegos in their Stampede Vineyard

“I like to over-communicate with our winery/partners. If they come out, I want to be there to walk the vineyard so that we can plan on what to do together. Our decisions and timing have evolved as we came to know both the vineyard and our winemakers better.

“Stampede is basically halfway between here (Lodi) and Amador County. We tend to get characteristics in the wine typifying both counties. It’s makes a pretty high structure wine – its color, density and tannin is more like a mountain grown Zinfandel.

“The Maître de Chai Zinfandels have consistently been made from one particular part of the vineyard each year. They prefer the least vigorous portion, and their winemaking involves native yeast fermentation and use of whole cluster. Overall, Stampede Vineyard Zinfandels have been very fresh styles of the grape. Both of the wines we are showing today are pretty low in alcohol – closer to the 12% to 13% range – showing that we really don’t have to get the grapes really ripe to make a fine quality Zinfandel.

2014 Fields Family Wines, Stampede Vineyard Clements Hills-Lodi Zinfandel ($28) – Ultra-fresh, exuberant red berry/cherry nose; sleek medium body buttoned down with zesty acid and fine grained tannin, finishing with savory, red licorice notes.

2017 Maître de Chai, Stampede Vineyard Clements Hills-Lodi Zinfandel ($33) – Youthfully tight yet bright, effusive red cherry nose with subtle cedary flourish; firm and zesty feel to cherryish fruit spiced up with pepperminty herbiness towards the finish.

Taking notes during National Zinfandel Day Technical Workshop

Keith Watts (Keith Watts Vineyards/TruLux Vineyard):

“I am a third generation Lodi grower. We farm 800 acres, including about 100 total acres of Zinfandel – some on wire, and older ones that are head trained and can’t be irrigated very much without effecting fruit quality. In 1999 my father started Watts Winery, which my brother (Craig Watts) has since taken over. That’s when we first started producing our first vineyard-designate Zinfandel (Watts Winery’s Pescador Vineyard Zinfandel; now bottled as TruLux Vineyard by McCay Cellars).

“TruLux is about 25 acres, and is located on the west side of town behind Van Ruiten Family Winery. The original vines were planted on St. George rootstock during the 1940s. In an effort to increase production, vines on Freedom roostock were interplanted during the ‘80s.

“My philosophy now is to keep the vines healthy throughout the season. We really try to control berry size early. This vineyard naturally produces a lot of loose clusters, which helps, but we control water application based on vine efficiency. We’ll irrigate during heat spells to keep the vines healthy, although it’s important to shut off the water a week or better before harvest to help berries develop more concentrated flavor.

Mike McCay and Keith Watts saluting their winemaker/grower partnership in TruLux Vineyard

“This is also one of the first vineyards in the region to be certified with LODI RULES, which has been pretty rewarding. Herzog puts the LODI RULES seal on their label. The fruit goes to five different wineries – Michael David, Macchia, McCay, Macchia, and Watts. Mike McCay, who is a close friend of mine, is very passionate about the wine, and has done a lot for us by promoting the vineyard.

“100 tons or so are picked for our biggest buyer, Herzog Wine Cellars. It is crushed at a local winery (LangeTwins Family) and trucked down in tankards to their winery in Oxnard. Their wine is flash pasteurized (part of Herzog’s kosher protocols), and is value priced for larger markets. Picking for them can be a little challenging because they have special holidays, but each year we get it done.”

2014 McCay Cellars, TruLux Vineyard Mokelumne River-Lodi Zinfandel ($32) – Cola berry fruit nose embellished with pungent sweet peppercorn/brown spice with undertones of loamy earth; firm yet fleshy medium-full body with a well rounded feel, carrying the earthy/berry fruit into a savory finish.

2015 Baron Herzog, Lodi Zinfandel ($9.99) – More of a sculpted iteration of TruLux Vineyard; smoky, plummy/berry fruit in nose, becoming earthier in a round, easy-peasy, medium-full body marked by pliant tannin; finishing with smoky/tobacco notes.

Süess Vineyard Zinfandel in Lodi's Clements Hills

Markus Bokisch (Bokisch Vineyards):

“I ‘discovered’ Lodi in the late 1980s; realizing this was a very unique community, after living and working in Napa Valley. Today we are a farm management company, farming 2,800 acres of wine grapes in 4 different counties of California. Our winery produces about 5,000 cases.

“We grow all the important grapes, but we came to Lodi to specialize in Iberian varieties. A few years ago, a good friend by the name of Tegan (Passalacqua) asked, ‘Why aren’t you making a Zinfandel?’ I said, ‘Well, that’s not really my story.’ But when I thought about it, I realized Zinfandel really is part of my story; at least for my children, who grew up in Lodi. So we now farm 87 acres of Zinfandel, all within the larger Lodi AVA, in 4 different vineyards – two of them younger vines on wire, and two older, head trained vineyards. Neyers Vineyards in Napa Valley is one of the wineries purchasing fruit from Vista Luna Vineyard, which is on wire. The other wine we are showing is from Süess Vineyard; an older planting, about 95 years old.

“Early on, I realized how important branding is. Whenever we developed a vineyard, we would immediately give it a name. The Vista Luna Vineyard got its name somewhat haphazardly. It used to be an apple orchard, which I never thought it should have been, and I had been waiting and waiting for the opportunity to buy it. I remember the night we finally closed on the property. We drove out there with a bottle of California sparkling wine, and sat on the tailgate drinking it. It was dusk, and up came a beautiful full moon. So we said, this is the ‘Vista Luna Vineyard,’ and that was that.

Markus Bokisch in his Vista Luna Vineyard Zinfandel planting just prior to modifying trellises with cross-arms

“The name itself doesn’t get a vineyard sold. It takes a lot of elbow grease and right decisions to get it recognized. The first thing we do when selecting a site is look for the right soil, choose the right grapes and clones, and the right rootstocks. In the case of the Vista Luna Zinfandel, we chose a really vigorous rootstock (5BB) because the soils in Borden Ranch are so poor. The whole purpose is to take advantage of a site. We originally decided on 9’ by 6’ spacing and a modified VSP (vertical shoot positioning) trellis. We quickly found out that a straight VSP wasn’t going to work because, for Zinfandel, you really need to spread out the canopy to duplicate what you get in a head trained vine – lots of air space, and speckled light shining into the fruit zone. We put on cross-arms to achieve that spread-out structure to improve the fruit quality, it indeed it has really worked out well.

“Achieving fruit quality is also all about partnerships with your buyers. It’s important to invite them to come in and give you feedback. As growers, we all need larger wineries to survive, but those relationships can sometimes become antagonistic – prices aren’t good, tonnage not right, or they’re fighting for higher quality while there may not be enough money in the agreed-upon budget to work the vines to everyone’s satisfaction.

“Working with smaller, ultra-premium wineries is usually more of a pleasure because in this case you’re working in closer partnership – buyer and seller working towards a common goal, finding tweaks and improvements to implement in the vineyard. This involves a lot of conversation, and I feel we are still scratching the surface where this is concerned. We have a good idea of what Nyers Vineyards wants, for instance, because we’ve been working together for over 10 years – the 2017 is their tenth vintage of Vista Luna Zinfandel.

Cobble, rocks and clay soil among Vista Luna Vineyard Zinfandel vines

“From a branding perspective, it’s a tougher road when you’re dealing with a young vine planting like Vista Luna. All vineyards need to develop an identity, starting with a name. It continues with increasing the appreciation of the appellation, Borden Ranch, which has very unique volcanic soils. There are people out there seeking this. Vista Luna is also in LODI RULES, and that’s really important. The general consumer may not completely grasp the importance, but LODI RULES means a lot to the grape buyer, as it implies that the grower is really taking the time to achieve these high standards, which is not an easy bargain. In 2019 Vista Luna will also gain (CCOF) organic certification, which demands even more attention to detail.

“Süess Vineyard presents a different challenge as an old vine planting. The vineyard is leased from the Süess family, and is slightly different from other old vine vineyards in Lodi. Historically, it’s been dry farmed; but prior to our taking over, it was producing little more than a ton per acre and getting maybe only $450/ton. So it was on a quick race to the bottom.

“But I had known and loved this vineyard for a long time, and was aware of its pedigree in terms of potential wine quality. So we thought we’d take a shot. When we took over it was a 15-acre vineyard only in theory. It was more like a 12-acre vineyard because of all the misses (i.e. dead vine spots). We installed sub-surface irrigation and commenced a program of replanting.

“The vineyard was originally planted in the late 1920s on a slightly rolling hillside, in Tokay sandy loam – a completely different soil type from the rest of the Clements Hills, but typical of old vine Zinfandel throughout the Lodi appellation. The vineyard is on traditional 10’ by 10’ spacing for a potential of 455 vines per acre, although there were only about 350 vines to the acre before we kicked it up with young vines. There was also some very bad pruning going on previous, requiring a lot of restructuring of spur..

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First two pages of the Wine Spectator story on Lodi wine country, depicting Bokisch Vineyards' Markus Bokisch in his Terra Alta Vineyard (image courtesy of Wine Spectator; photograph by Michelle Drewes)

In the current (December 2018) issue of Wine Spectator – America’s most widely read wine magazine – Lodi is described as “the engine of California’s wine industry” in a 6-page spread, entitled Lodi Looks Ahead – California’s grapegrowing dynamo is adding fine wine to its résumé.

It’s almost funny that Lodi – by far, the largest winegrowing region in the U.S. – should be considered an “underdog,” or “up and coming” wine region. As Aaron Romano – the author of this excellent Wine Spectator article (we strongly encourage you to pick up a copy at your nearest newsstand, as it also has some spectacular photos by Michelle Drewes) – also notes: “Lodi is a good place to grow grapes – some might say too good” (our italics).

Yet, it’s perfectly understandable that abundance should also be viewed dubiously. Especially in the case of Lodi, since the region did not begin to evolve out of a decades-long dominance of grower/co-op wineries specializing in “dessert” wines (i.e. fortified sweet wines) until the 1980s; at a time when other West Coast wine regions were well on their way towards establishing reputations as sources of premium, even world class, table wines. Ironically, one of California’s greatest (if not the greatest) visionaries, Robert Mondavi, was the son of a Lodi grape packer. In fact, Robert Mondavi contributed much to Lodi’s eventual resurgence when he established his Woodbridge winery (taking over an old co-op) in 1979.

Writes Romano, “By the mid-1980s, Mondavi and a team of local vintners were introducing new winemaking and viticultural techniques, conducting trials with new trellis systems, varieties, clones and rootstocks.” Michael David Winery co-owner/president David Phillips is quoted to say, “It’s taken the next generation to turn what were once commodity wines into an art form.” Bokisch Vineyards owner/grower Markus Bokisch adds, “What was missing 20 years ago was the multitude of wineries that now exist.”

Romano also smartly points out that the vast majority of grapes grown in “the area’s 110,000 acres and vineyards” by about “800 grapegrowing families” goes into “inexpensive, large-volume wines labeled as appellation California... thirty of the top-selling wine companies in American have ties to vines in Lodi.” Hence, the all-too-common assumption that Lodi is only about lower-tier wine.

Well known figures among Lodi's multi-generational heritage: grower Bob Bishofberger and Michael David Winery's David Phillips

What many fail to remember, however, is that also up until the 1980s, well over 50% of the grapes grown in regions like Napa Valley and Sonoma County went to E. & J. Gallo for their “jug wine” production. Most of the rest of these regions’ grapes historically went to mid-sized wineries such as Sebastiani, Charles Krug, Louis M. Martini, Inglenook, etc., who for decades maintained portfolios of a dozen or more SKUs “value” priced at well under $10. Did this mean Napa Valley and Sonoma County were only good for lower-tier wine? Of course not. Between the 1940s and 1970s, big producers sourced primarily from Napa Valley and Sonoma County because these were great regions to grow grapes.

As much of the North Coast transitioned to premium wine production, the larger producers turned to Lodi for the same reason: Cultivation of high quality wine grapes in the region just east of the Delta is a no-brainer. This has been common knowledge since the 1860s, when pioneering wineries first began to source from Lodi. It is also why Lodi’s acreage has more than doubled since 1986, when Lodi was first officially recognized as an American Viticultural Area (i.e. AVA).

Among the best and brightest of Lodi's latest generation: Michael David/Mettler Family winemaker Adam Mettler (recently honored as the 2018 Wine Enthusiast "Winemaker of the Year")

As Romano points out, one thing that Lodi also has an abundance of is an enduring legacy of “family farmers,” many of whom “have started their own wineries, committed to transforming Lodi’s workhorse reputation with fine, bespoke bottlings... a quiet movement that has been gaining momentum.”

Bokisch Vineyards is singled out in the Spectator article as an example of another quality distinguishing the Lodi Viticultural Area, apart from its sheer size (more than twice the production of Napa Valley and Sonoma County combined): a huge diversity of commercial wine grapes (over 120 total) made possible by the region’s friendly Mediterranean climate, very conducive soils and topography, and economics that no longer make it possible to grow anything but mainstream grapes in high-cost regions such as Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Santa Cruz Mountains, etc.

One of Lodi's many stellar growers-turned-winemakers: Heritage Oak Winery's Tom Hoffman

Writes Romano: “(Markus) Bokisch has opted for diversity, pursuing his passion for Spanish varieties such as Albariño, Tempranillo and Verdejo... there are also hidden gems such as old-vine Carignan and Cinsaut that are now being tapped by innovative and ambitious winemakers” (for a fuller, illustrated list of cultivars, see our post What are the 100 grapes of Lodi?)

Romano describes the influx of smaller artisanal producers over the past 20 years as a “dogged grassroots effort to chart a new course for Lodi away from commodity production, and to spur investment in higher quality wine... vintners feel like they’re just now scratching the surface.”

And so, here’s to (hopefully!) more, future follow-ups in the Wine Spectator on Lodi’s burgeoning wine industry. It is not, of course, as if the region has more to grow in terms of size, which is already gigantic. If anything, it will be the smaller, artisanal producers – or else, larger producers recognizing the wisdom of taking advantage of the region’s intrinsic, and distinctive, terroirs – who will be making things happen. As Romano duly notes, in Lodi there is a “strong sense of community, and camaraderie is high... Lodi’s tide appears to be rising.”

Living proof that Lodi's future is in great hands: Round Valley Ranches' Aaron Shinn with his meticulously grown Zinfandel

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Winemaker's daughter (Marina Holman) with bounty of Lodi grapes

What makes a wine “very Lodi?”

First, it’s more than just grown and produced in Lodi. It’s also a wine that would be hard to duplicate elsewhere in the world.

The finer white wines grown in Lodi, for instance, tend to be light, fresh, and ringingly pure in their fruit qualities. The region’s dependable Mediterranean climate and well drained sandy soils dictate a lot of that. Lodi’s white wine specialists tend to pick their grapes early in the season – early August is the norm, but sometimes it’s as soon as late July – before the grapes reach higher sugar levels and before they lose their natural acidity. Lower sugars means moderate alcohol levels (12% to 13%), and more natural acidity means tingly tart tastes; framing the natural fruit aromas and flavors in a pristinely fresh, crisp packages.

Lodi experiences the growing season diurnal shifts – warm summer days over 80º and nights dipping down to the mid 50°s – typifying nearly all of California’s coastal regions, from Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma all the way down to Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara. But at the same time, Lodi’s temperature swings are not exactly the same.

Harvesting of ancient vines in Spenker Ranch (a.k.a. Jessie's Grove estate)

It gets even hotter in the day and colder at night, for instance, in Paso Robles. Much of Napa and Sonoma see more early morning cloud cover due to immediate proximity to the Bay Area. San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara are even closer to the coast; hence, their climate is marked by cooler days, significantly narrowing their diurnal swings.

Lodi is also influenced by cool ocean air flowing through the flat (generally below sea level), levee-quilted expanse of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, representing the only break in the coastal mountain range in the entire state. At the same time, Lodi is just far enough from the coast that fog is not a factor between April and October; and so grapes – and the leaves that generate fruit qualities through the process of photosynthesis – see full sun from dawn to dusk. Hence, the bright fruit qualities of white, red as well as rosé style wines grown in Lodi.

This climatic influence explains why descriptors such as “round,” “smooth” and “gentle” typify Lodi grown reds. Lodi reds tend to be softer in tannin compared to tannin levels typical of reds grown in other California regions. When Lodi reds as well as rosés are vinified and aged with restraint in a winery, the wines are often tinged with unmistakable earthy qualities – vestiges of the porous yet vigorous sandy loam soils around the City of Lodi, or the shallower, rocky clay soils of hillsides predominating along the eastern edges of the Lodi appellation. And that sums up a “very Lodi” taste.

1941 Lodi Grape Festival queens

As we approach the 2018 holidays – marking approximately two decades of a “Renaissance,” of sorts, for more artisanal style Lodi based winemaking – what wines would we single out as “very Lodi,” at this particular juncture? With an additional thought on wines that would also be ideal for Thanksgiving celebrations, here are our dozen choices:

2017 Van Ruiten Family Winery, Lodi Sparkling Rosé ($20) – There is wet kiss of sweetness in this emphatically crisp, bracing, pink sparkler, crafted entirely from estate grown Syrah, which lends a “very Lodi” exuberance of flowery, strawberry/watermelon fruit qualities. Think of it as like a sophisticate's White Zinfandel. Yes, it’s ideal for people just getting into the joys of fermented grapes – not everyone gathering around a Thanksgiving table has to be a wine nut or geek – but think of this wine in another way: Classic holiday turkey is typically slathered in sweet, zesty cranberry relish. Why? Because that’s the way virtually everyone loves their turkey. And not just turkey, but also the salty/sweet taste of baked hams slathered in their own sweet glazes. So pooh-pooh Van Ruiten Family's fruity, bubbly rosé all you like; but even the most seasoned connoisseur cannot deny the wisdom of matching all-time favorite dishes with sensibly endowed wines.

LVVR owner/winemaker Eric Donaldson examining individual bottle of sparkling wine

LVVR Sparkling Cellars, Lodi Rosé ($24) – If you haven’t yet heard the news – and we can’t blame you if you haven’t, since we’re talking about a one-man, under-the-radar operation quietly crafting tiny quantities of wines – Lodi is now home to a winery (LVVR Sparkling Cellars) producing authentic, champagne style sparkling wines. Meaning, the bubbles are induced by “secondary fermentations” in each individual bottle, as opposed to the mass production style of manufacturing bubbles in large tanks. Sparkling wines produced in the original French fashion tend to yield finer bubbles, and also flavors laced with the fresh biscuit-like qualities resulting from the autolysis of expended yeast cells trapped in every bottle. It’s like the scent of an early morning bakery laced with, in this case, the citrus and rose petal fragrances of “very Lodi” grown grapes. Here, the residual sugar is restrained enough so that the sweetness is more like a whisper on the tongue; while bubbly fruit qualities are braced by the palate slaking zest of natural grape acidity. This is an ideal turkey wine – it revs up the taste of the bird without clobbering it with sweetness – but like any good, off-dry sparkler, it is a pure joy to sip on its own.

2017 St. Amant Winery, Lodi Barbera Rosé ($15) – Three of the twelve wines we are recommending for your upcoming holiday meals are unabashedly pink styles of wines; and not just for culinary reasons – what can be more food-versatile than wines made from red wine grapes in the fashion of white or sparkling wines? – but also because they do indeed represent unique aspects of Lodi winegrowing. Red wine grapes absolutely love the warm, steady Mediterranean climate of Lodi; yet even when picked early, still bristling with sharp natural acidity, they’ve still absorbed enough of the Delta sun and breeze to retain exuberant expressions of the grape. In this case, it’s Barbera – a Northern Italian grape notorious for producing red wines so high in acid and tannin, none but the connoisseurs of pain and liquid leather usually indulge in it. In St. Amant’s iteration, crinkly skinned grapes from an old vine block (planted in the early 1970s – which is ancient by the standards of trellised Barbera) ring out notes of cranberry, strawberry and rhubarb with twists of lemon peel and iced tea; finishing bone-dry, tart-edgy yet deftly fluid and balanced on the palate. If your holiday meals are typically American – meaning, a wide range of foods (from turkey and seafood to meats and greens) – there may be no better overall match than this “very Lodi” dry rosé.

Lodi Barbera harvest

2017 Sand Point, Lodi Sauvignon Blanc ($12) – Earlier this year we pointed out the reasons why this $12 wine won “Best of Class” at the 2018 International Women’s Wine Competition, which is judged entirely by women wine professionals. It is, basically, a light (12.5% alcohol), clean, crisp and refreshingly dry white. Not sweet, not exactly soft, but eminently easy to drink. But when you dig a little deeper, the Sand Point – which is one of the labels grown and produced entirely by Lodi’s LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards – has a lemon/citrus nose (mixing the scent of the oils in the rind with the fresh fruit quality of the pulp); and on the palate, the lightly tart flavors are neatly folded with something of a precise origami edge, finishing with a smidgen of honeydew, a touch of mineral, and lingering depth of grapefruit – all with a sense of unfettered purity (that is, not weighted down by woody oak or excess alcohol). In that sense, a “very Lodi” white; particularly for its lack of pretension (and not in the least because of its ridiculously good price). And since Thanksgiving turkey is, after all, essentially a white meat (even the dark meat is not that dark as, say, a duck’s or goose’s), it is ideally matched with perfectly balanced, light and dry whites like the Sand Point. But if dishes like Dungeness crab, shrimp and oysters are also part of your usual holiday menu, all more reason why you should be drinking this Lodi grown varietal.

2018 Lodi Sauvignon blanc harvest

2017 Fields Family Wines, Delu Vineyard Alta Mesa-Lodi Grenache Blanc ($24) – If Lodi is the epitome of Mediterranean winegrowing, Grenache blanc is the epitome of a Mediterranean white wine grape. It produces floral scented wines that are just quietly perfumed; sometimes suggesting violet, sometimes lavender. Its fruit qualities are also more like suggestions – pear, green apple, maybe a sliver of apricot, then again maybe not. The feel is light, airy, with an edgy tartness, but also a touch of fleshiness – like a glimpse of skin peeking out of an otherwise modest dress. In the case of this interpretation crafted by Fields Family (stainless steel fermented, finished in neutral barrels), the tartness is almost sharp, cutting to the point of puckering. Nothing wrong with that, because a palate made ready by puckering is even readier for the taste of foods. Let’s come out and say it: a good Grenache blanc is come-hither without actually having to say it. It just is; unlike, say, typical Chardonnay, where what you see is what you get because, well, Chardonnay usually lets it “all hang out.” You may prefer Grenache blanc; no one says you have to. These oak-free renditions may come across as a little demure, but are always “very Lodi.”

2018 autumn colors in Phillips Farms vineyard

2017 Oak Farm Vineyards, Lodi Estate Chardonnay ($28) – Speaking of which: If you’re looking for typical California Chardonnay in this bottling, turn around and go the other way. Not all California Chardonnays are Oklahoma! girls – you know, the ones who cain’t say no. What’s becoming increasingly clear from wines like this is that Lodi grown Chardonnays are clear and bright with the apple/pear/whipped cream qualities associated with the varietal, but they don’t bang it against your eardrums like a marching band. The issue, of course, is that it’s the Chardonnays with the big, gigantic fruit aromas – the “hedonistic” oodles of so-called varietal character – that usually get the most fanfare. Still, quietly, effectively, Lodi based wineries like Oak Farm Vineyards (and The Lucas Winery and Harney Lane Winery, to name two more) have been crafting Lodi grown Chardonnays with plenty of clarity of fruit, wrapped in lower key, silken textured packages with just the right amount of crispness and unpresuming je nais se quois. Plus, as any longtime Chardonnay lover knows, this varietal is tailor-made for Thanksgiving turkey; especially with the traditionally saged bread or crouton stuffing and golden brown natural gravy. If you happen to smoke a turkey in something like a Big Green Egg, all the more reason to open a judiciously oaked Chardonnay like Oak Farm’s. It’s a combination that, as Madonna once described Streisand (in Saturday Night Live), “is like buttah” (or, “two sticks of buttah lashed together in a rough hewn manner”).

Schatz Farms (Peltier Winery) Vermentino

2017 Peltier Winery, Black Diamond Lodi Vermentino ($18) – Vermentino is another true-azure Mediterranean white varietal, but with even more of a transparency (that is, a tendency to express sense of place, or terroir) than, say, Grenache blanc or the more familiar Viognier. Last we checked (re the 2017 USDA California Grape Acreage Report), there was a total of 91 acres of Vermentino grown in California; 32 of which are in Lodi. Which makes sense, since few American wine regions have the steady yet moderate sun drenched weather reminiscent of Provence, Corsica and Sardinia – regions where the grape is known to excel (whereas plantings of grapes like Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc are near near-negligible). Vermentino in Lodi has smidgens of the pervasive minerality found in European versions; as well as the bracingly tart and phenolic edged dryness plus moderation of weight (that is, restrained alcohol) characteristic of the varietal. Peltier Winery’s Cosumnes River-Lodi’s provenance is reflected in its savory/salted honeydew melon/lemon/kiwi/white pepper profile, and a mouth-watering, meaty taste suggesting the stringy flesh around the pit of a peach. In other words, “very Lodi,” yet very Mediterranean – perfect for a holiday feast of turkey meat, ham, Dungeness, or even lobster.

2018 Kerner harvest in Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

2016 Markus Wine Co., Mokelumne Glen Vineyards Nativo ($12) – Much of what makes a Lodi wine “very Lodi” is its sense of originality, which can verge on iconoclasticism. Blending can be free-form – done in a fashion that works in Lodi and maybe not elsewhere (and vice-versa) – which is reinforced by the fact that there are over 100 varieties of wine grapes commercially grown in the region. Case in point: The recent work of winemaker/owner Markus Niggli with grapes grown by the Koth family’s riverside Mokelumne Glen Vineyards – consisting of over 50 grapes of German or Austrian origin. On paper, a wine critic might say that a Mediterranean region like Lodi has no business planting grapes from Germany or Austria. But guess what? Not all of Germany and Austria is ice-cold. There are warmer parts of these countries, and that’s where grapes like Kerner (69% of Niggli’s Nativo) and Bacchus (21%) come in. The balance of Nativo – which is a field crush (i.e. all the different grapes harvested at one time) and native yeast co-fermentation – is 20% Riesling, which has also been known to adjust to a surprising range of climatic conditions around the world. What matters most, of course, is that this blend ends up being a steely dry white driven by a pervasive minerality, eclipsing even the floral/citrus notes typical of Kerner and Riesling. Its ultimate objective is to express a single vineyard (Mokelumne Glen) and one winemaker's aesthetic disposition; not the "varietal character" of grapes. Where else in California is a white wine that comes even close to this description even grown? Yet it happens – at least in Lodi. So if you’re into incorporating very special and unique (yet extremely food-versatile) wines into your Thanksgiving agenda, you can’t do much better than Nativo.

Picking knife and Mokelumne Glen Vineyards Kerner

2017 McManis Family Vineyards Lodi Estate Grown Pinot Noir ($12) – Much of what Lodi does falls in the “proof-is-in-the-pudding” category. Hey, we all know Pinot noir grows beautifully in places like Sonoma Coast, Santa Barbara and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. But here’s a question: Can these vaunted regions produce an exceptional $12 Pinot noir? Maybe they could, but would it be with the exuberance of this McManis Family bottling, which absolutely exudes varietal fruit in an unabashedly fresh, pristine, strawberryish spectrum, with loamy and sweet tea-like undertones underlined by a soft, round, supple, medium bodied feel, unfettered by external sensations like oak tannin and aromas. Over 90% of the fruit going into this wine is Lodi grown (the rest comes from McManis Family’s River Junction Vineyard further south). The beauty of any good Pinot noir, of course, is that it is hugely food-versatile – soft enough to enhance white meats and seafoods, yet just grippy enough to go with red meats. If your Thanksgiving menu happens to mix in, say, roast beef or lamb along with the turkey and/or ham, lush, rounded reds like the McManis Family Pinot Noir could be heaven-sent. A lot of this versatility is built into the varietal character of the grape itself; but a lot of it from the fact that it is grown in Lodi, where roundness and purity of fruit expression happens to be a signature of the region.

Grenache cluster, headed for McCay Cellars

2014 McCay Cellars, Abba Lodi Grenache ($35) – This red wine is “very Lodi” on several levels. Some say, for one, that Grenache may be the “Pinot noir of Lodi” – since Grenache is a decidedly Mediterranean grape (certainly not grown in places like Bordeaux or Burgundy), yet produces round, sensuous reds with its own brand of perfumed complexity. This bottling by McCay also represents an approach to winemaking more and more vintners, inside and outside of Lodi, are taking to capture the subtleties of Lodi grown fruit; particularly native yeast fermentation, aging in strictly “neutral” oak (older barrels that don’t impart the flavor of wood that might obscure nuances of the fruit), and minimal handling (such as zero filtration) all the way to bottling. The result is a wine bursting at the seams with more pepper/cardamom (or is that clove or allspice?) than you can shake a grinder at. No other region on the West Coast grows Grenache like this (we know because we’ve done the blind tasting tests). As it were, the spice is also part of a nose plump in red cherry varietal fruit qualities, a discreet scoop of loamy earthiness (another “very Lodi” giveaway), and the zippy yet soft tannin sensations also characteristic of the grape. It’s the roundness and spice, of course, that makes this an ideal holiday red: smelling like the cooking coming out of the kitchen, and making itself perfectly at home with practically any dish, from white to red meats and sweet to savory sauces and relishes.

November in the vineyard

2015 PRIE Winery, Spenker Ranch Block 4 (1900) Lodi Carignane ($27) – Lodi is known for its old or “ancient” vine Zinfandel; but also surviving through the rigors of time and ever-changing markets are a small number of venerated plantings of Carignan, dating as far back as 1889. When you think of it, there’s really no reason for it. There was never a “White Carignan” craze. And sure, Carignan was a major ingredient in the jug wine “Burgundies” of yesteryears, but those days are long..

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Burlington Chandler grower Mark Chandler taking sugar reading of 2018 Malbec with his refractometer

Mark Chandler and Jan Burlington Chandler are well known in the Lodi community – Mark as the former Executive Director of Lodi Winegrape Commission and a current wine industry consultant and Lodi City Council member, and Jan as President of San Joaquin Sulphur Co. and a Co-Chair for Lodi Memorial Health Foundation – and together they are now producing wines under the Burlington Chandler label, all grown from their own estate vineyards in Lodi.

Last week – during the final days of harvest at the Burlington Chandler Vineyard on the north and south sides of E. Peltier Rd. near Des Moines Rd. – Mr. Chandler took the time to chat about his two current releases:

2015 Burlington Chandler, Lodi Malbec (about $22) – Floral/hibiscus, tropical/cherry fragrance under a veil of vanilla; firmly dry, sturdy, medium full body, zesty with natural acidity suggesting a good striploin of beef, grilled and served Tuscan style with a drizzle of olive oil, sprinkle of minced rosemary and squeeze of lemon wedge.

2014 Burlington Chandler, Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon (about $22) – Black cherry/blackcurrant aroma with subtle toasted/vanillin oak qualities; meaty yet round, finesseful, medium-full, emphasizing bright berry fruit rather than the herbiness usually associated with the varietal – think beef, lamb or portobello mushroom with a rich, suave sauce of demi-glace, if not melted garlic/shallot butter.

Quadrilateral trellised Cabernet Sauvignon on Burlington Chandler estate

Chandler’s story echoes the fortunes of many other Lodi growers and vintners. He tells us: “Although I’ve been growing grapes here in Lodi for over 20 years, I feel like I’m finally returning to my roots, since I started off in the wine industry as a winemaker. My experience in that part of the business began in the early 1980s, when I worked at Andrés Wines in British Columbia. That was also when I got my first experience working with Lodi grapes – we used to haul truckloads of Lodi grown fruit all the way up to Canada.”

Chandler has been farming 40 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in Lodi’s Clements Hills AVA since 1997; but the wines going into the current Burlington Chandler wines all come from their 140-acre parcel at E. Peltier Rd., just west of California Hwy. 99. Adds Chandler: “The property was originally known as the Jahant-Hutchins Ranch, named after two families who settled in Lodi in the 1860s. The entire piece was first planted to Tokay grapes, and then replanted with Zinfandel. By its third generation of vines, there was Zinfandel south of the road (in what is now known as the Mokelumne River Viticultural Area); and Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and a little Zinfandel north of the road (in what is now the Jahant-Lodi AVA).

Mark Chandler with Burlington Chandler estate grown Malbec

“The south side of E. Peltier Rd. has a very fine, yet deep and rich, (Tokay Series) sandy loam – classic Mokelumne River AVA soil. That’s why Tokay and Zinfandel was originally planted here. U.C. Davis studies have determined that our parcel south of the road is 98% effective in water draining straight down into the aquifer.

“Closer to the road on the north side, the soil is still a little sandy; but when you go a few yards in you get more into the clay soils, more suitable to Cabernet Sauvignon than Zinfandel. The transition of soil types was especially obvious in 2016, when we got those heavy winter rains, and the clay areas were where the water was standing for months. We were planning to plant our Cabernet block in the spring, but we weren’t able to do it until the end of the summer, when the ground finally dried up.

2018 Burlington Chandler Cabernet Sauvignon harvest (for Michael David Winery)

“Our Malbec comes from a 28-acre block south of E. Peltier Rd. We hand pick a little of that for our own wine, and the rest is sold to Delicato Family Vineyards. It was Michael David Winery that contracted the 80 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted north of the road in 2016, and I believe most of it goes into their Freakshow bottling. Working hand in hand with wineries is the way to go. We bought the Jahant-Hutchins property back in 2004 when the grape market was on a down-swing, and it took a few years before we were able to land contracts allowing us to go ahead and plant.

“All our new plantings are certified ‘green’ according to LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing; and all of them are planted on quadrilateral trellises, which open up the canopy and allows us to optimize the fruit quality. Since our first vintages of Malbec, we’ve already discovered that the fruit ripening is measurably improved when you have a beautiful canopy of leaves. We hand pick grapes for ourselves as well as for Michael David, but the trellising also allows us to do things more efficiently in terms of mechanical harvesting – now that labor has become scarcer and more expensive each year.

"Certified Green" seal for LODI RULES on back of Burlington Chandler Cabernet Sauvignon bottling

“We’re very committed to Cabernet Sauvignon – that’s the grape in greatest demand today. Mike McCay (of McCay Cellars) began producing a Malbec for our Burlington Chandler label in 2014; fermenting it his style, entirely with native yeast, and aging it entirely in French oak. Our first vintage, the 2015, is just beginning to show some of the bright blueberry fruit, which is a hallmark of the Malbec varietal. And our Burlington Chandler Cabernet Sauvignons have been produced for us by Estate Crush.

“We are just now beginning to feel our way into the market, which is very competitive. We’re still figuring out the best prices, and the best places to be. Most recently, our wines have been placed in restaurants like Central in Stockton, and Thai Spices and West Oak Nosh in Lodi. You can find our Malbec at the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center. We will also be adding a dry style Rosé of Malbec, which should be out in market as early as next February (2019); and finally, we will soon be adding a French oak aged Burlington Chandler Chardonnay to our portfolio.”

Mark Chandler in his Burlington Chandler Malbec block

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