If there's one thing we learned on our wine country getaway it's that if you tell a Lodi winemaker or winegrower they can't do something, they're sure as heck going to do it.
The region of Lodi, lying in the Central Valley of California, has a bit of a chip on its shoulder, and for good reason. Producing 25% of the state's grapes, until the last couple decades the name rarely appeared on wine labels. That didn't mean it wasn't respected by those in the know...need a little oomph and flavor in that California red blend? Lodi Zinfandel is your answer. Want to darken up your Zinfandel and add some structure? Lodi Petite Sirah is what you need. Can't afford Napa Cabernet but you need some high quality grapes to add to your blend? Lodi delivers again.
So why the lack of recognition until recently? Part of the answer is simply that the area has always had a lot of winegrowers but not necessarily a lot of winemakers. (And when we say "always" we mean it -- in Lodi you're not considered local until you hit the 3rd or 4th generation.) Without the local winemakers to showcase the wine and market it to consumers, the bigger producers were happy to blend that great Lodi fruit into their other wines. After all, promoting the area would just raise the prices they have to pay for those grapes!
A recent visit to the area courtesy of the Lodi Winegrape Commission showed that the region has radically changed in recent years. But before we get to that let's take a peek back at the history of the area.
The first vineyards were planted in Lodi in 1850 and the first winery was established in 1856. Lying on the edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the water table in this area used to be very high, so high that one point they were actually able to dry-farm watermelons!
The area was settled by Germans who quickly established trade routes for the delivery of their produce. Those trade routes would pay off during Prohibition when the amount of vineyard land in Lodi actually increased as farmers expanded their grape production to satisfy the demand for bulk grapes used in home winemaking.
The area also became known for the Flame Tokay table grape, a red seeded variety that was extremely popular all the way into the 1970s when it was knocked out of favor by the new seedless varieties. The grape was named for the distinctive flame coloring that it developed under just the right conditions, like those in Lodi. The variety was also used in the production of fortified wines which were very popular in the area all the way through the 1960's -- so popular, in fact, that Lodi was once known as "Sherry Land".
Today the area has transformed into a prime wine travel location with over 80 wineries, 60 or more of those with tasting rooms. And the reasons to travel there go way beyond the old vine Zinfandel the area has become renowned for. With over 100 varieties grown across the region's 7 appellations (Alta Mesa, Borden Ranch, Clements Hills, Cosumnes River, Jahant, Mokelumne River and Sloughouse) the diversity of grapes is rather astounding, from some of the oldest Cinsault plantings in the world to Zweigelt, Graciano, Tempranillo and the only Kerner plantings west of the Mississippi. Like we said at the beginning, tell a Lodi winegrower that a variety can't grow here and they'll more than likely prove you wrong.
My wife and I began our Lodi wine country getaway at m2 Wines, home to both remarkable wines as well as a remarkable tasting room.
Even more impressive than the outside of this building made from steel clad foam panels, is the fantastic tasting room, easily exposed to the elements by giant sliding doors.
We tasted through the lineup of the m2's wines with winemaker Layne Montgomery, a man we immediately took a liking to when he readily exclaimed that "food wine" was code for "this sucks unless there's ketchup". Our previous experience with his wines were limited to their Temptingly Tasty Tempranillo, but we were even more pleased to find the beautifully balanced 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel from the Soucie Vineyard planted in 1915. Also exciting was a barrel tasting of a 2014 vintage Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Rieslaner, Weissburgunder blend from the Mokelumne Glen vineyard.
Next stop was Bokisch Vineyards, owned by Markus and Liz, who focus on Iberian varietals like Albarino, Tempranillo, Graciano, Verdejo and Verdelho. The love for these Spanish varieties comes from Markus' time spent visiting his mother's family in Spain every summer as he grew up. And while many scoffed at the idea of growing these grapes in Lodi, the couple persevered and now, in addition to producing about 4,500 cases themselves, sell their grapes to about 50 different wineries.
Their Albarinos were delicate, aromatic and delicious and we already knew that the Tempranillo was very good. The big surprise for us was the rich and spicy 2012 Lodi Graciano. With only 380 cases produced it might be hard to get a hold of, but we heartily recommend that you do.
After enjoying these Spanish varieties we made a stop at perhaps one of the most unique and intriguing vineyards in all of California, Mokelumne (Mo-KUL-uh-me) Glen.
If anyone epitomizes the "I'm going to do just because you say I can't" attitude prevalent in Lodi, it's Bob Koth. For decades he has not only been collecting obscure German and Austrian varieties, but making them flourish in his 9 acre vineyard that is home to 47 different varieties, including 9 new ones just planted this year.
This love of little known grapes is shared by his wife of 55 years, Mary Lou, son Brett and daughter Ann-Marie. In fact, it was a trip to Germany years ago to visit daughter Ann-Marie that sparked this passion. They were simply blown away by the wines they tasted, which were like nothing else they'd ever had.
And while the Koth family toiled away at their passion for many years with little recognition, that has now all changed in with 8 different wineries buying all of the fruit they can produce (and wanting more). One of the people that kick-started this trend was Swiss winemaker Markus Niggli of Borra Vineyards who produces wine under the Borra label as well as his own Markus Wine Co label.
One of our first experiences with his wine was the Borra Vineyards Artist Series Kerner Blend, which featured Kerner, Bacchus and Riesling from Mokelumne Glen. A particular favorite at this tasting was his 2014 Nuvola which is 100% Gewurztraminer. We also enjoyed wines from several other producers at this tasting, in particular the 2014 Uncharted Bacchus from Holman Cellars, the 2014 Sidebar Cellars Kerner and the 2014 Hatton Daniels Zweigelt.
Next stop in our wine country getaway was a tasting of wines from McCay Cellars with Michael and Linda McCay. Michael began making wine in the mid-90s after spending many years growing grapes and selling them to others. In 2007 they launched the McCay label and today they produce almost 5,000 cases. About half of that production is Zinfandel with the remaining being Petite Sirah, Tempranillo and the Rhone varietals Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan and Viognier.
Of particular interest are the 6 different vineyard designate Zinfandels they produce, most aged for 24-30 months in barrel. My favorite of the bunch was probably the 2009 Jupiter Zinfandel made in a big, rich style but still retaining plenty of elegance. Another favorite was the 2012 Abba Vineyard Grenache made in a bit more of an old world style that could have easily been attributed to the Southern Rhone. We also jump at any chance we get to taste Cinsault from the Bechthold Vineyard and McCay Cellars' version did not disappoint!
After a good night of well deserved sleep we began our day at one of Lodi's most recognizable wineries, Michael-David. Producing over 500,000 cases a year (half of which is their 7 Deadly Zins) on 27 different labels, they are one of the wineries most responsible for putting Lodi on the map.
Following an extremely tasty breakfast at the cafe and farmstand that started it all, we checked out the fabulous outdoor tasting area.
Despite the fact that it was still morning, it was then time to taste wine! While we already knew that we loved their 6th Sense Syrah and Petite Petit (Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot), we were especially rocked by their 2013 Earthquake Petite Sirah which was getting ready to be bottled. The 2012 Inkblot Petit Verdot and 2012 Inkblot Tannat were also special treats that while slightly above our normal price point offer excellent examples of single varietal wines you simply don't get to taste very often. And like almost all the tasting rooms we visited, the fees to taste the are extremely reasonable: $5 for 5 wines ($10 for the reserve wines) and all fees are waived if you buy bottles.
Our next stop was the Bechthold Vineyard, whose story we covered previously. Planted in 1885 and thought to be a little wanted variety called Black Malvasia, for years the grapes were sold for $200 a ton to home winemakers. As the yields decreased and thoughts turned to tearing it up and replanting, it was discovered that the grapes were actually Cinsault and that this was one of the oldest Cinsault vineyards in the world.
The 25 acre vineyard is farmed organically today (and dry-farmed at that since the roots go so deep) by Kevin Phillips son of Michael Phillips of Michael David Winery. In addition to the Cinsault there is a little bit of Zinfandel and Carignan mixed in as well.
The next visit on our wine country getaway was to LangeTwins, so named because the founders Randy and Brad Lange were identical twins. So identical, in fact, that when their wives had babies 11 days apart the nurses at the hospital pulled the second brother aside and gave him a good talking-to since they thought he was just there days before with another woman!
We met with Randy's son Aaron who walked us through the winery's extensive and impressive habitat restoration programs that have become the model for many other wineries in the area. They spearheaded the first programmatic safe harbor plan which allows them to plant the flowers, grasses and trees needed for endangered species without risking the loss of their land once those species are established.
LangeTwins produces about 20,000 cases and boasts an impressive production facility that makes wine for 8 different brands beyond the LangeTwins and Caricature labels. They grow 26 different varieties in the vineyard and are even testing Italian varieties like Montepulciano and Nero d'Avola.
They also boast an impressive tasting and cellar room. Some of our favorite wines tasted their include their 2014 Sangiovese Rose and their 2011 Midnight Reserve Bordeaux blend.
The winery, as well as many others in the areas, has also been very involved in the Lodi Rules program which is California’s first 3rd party-certified sustainable winegrowing program. This program is unique in that it goes way beyond just limiting the use of chemicals but also covers overall soil and environmental health and even employee and community well-being. In 2012 20,000 acres were certified as sustainable by the program. To find these wines, just look for the logo on the label:
After our visit to LangeTwins came perhaps one of the most fascinating tastings of the trip -- the 2012 and 2013 vintages of the Lodi Native project.
We'll be covering this tasting in a separate article soon, but the basic idea behind the program was to showcase the diversity of the incredible old vine Zinfandel in the area. Six winemakers participated, each from a different Zinfandel vineyard, some even dating back over 100 years. All agreed to a program of minimalist winemaking, using native yeasts for fermentation and avoiding the use of new oak. The resulting differences in the wines was both fascinating and educational. Like I said, more to come on this soon!
The surprises in Lodi continued at our next stop, Acqiuese Vineyards -- Lodi's only winery producing white and rose wines exclusively. Owner and winemaker Susan Tipton's story is much like many of the others we heard on our trip -- when told that growing white Rhone varietals just wouldn't work in Lodi she set out to prove otherwise. Four years later with all of her wines selling out every year by November, that's exactly what she's done.
The 1,500 cases she produced last year cover four wines -- an extremely light and refreshing Picpoul; a fresh and tasty Grenache Blanc that's a slam dunk with Mexican food; an aromatic and full Viognier; and a dry, light and crisp Grenache Rose. In the tasting room, she pairs each wine with small bites that really showcase each grape.
Next up was a stop at the beautiful vineyards and tasting room of Harney Lane Winery and home to perhaps one of the most famous vineyard dogs and tasting companions in California, Ranger.
The beautiful outdoor and indoor tasting spaces were almost as good as the wine. Besides the excellent Tempranillo that we recently reviewed the bright and refreshing Albarino and the big and rich Petite Sirah were particular favorites.
We then visited the picturesque Oak Farm Vineyards which covers 70 acres. The house on the property dates back to 1864 and sits in close proximity to the 400 year old oak tree pictured on the label of their wines.
After a quick tour of the property, which is also a popular wedding venue, we ventured into the brand new tasting room to try the wines. The wineries 7,500 case production covers everything from Verdelho to Barbera to Tempranillo to Gewurztraminer to Old Vine Zin and more. One of my favorites was the Tievoli ("I Love It" backwards) Zin based blend that also contains a little Petite Sirah and Barbera.
The second to last stop on our wine country getaway was Jeremy Wine Co owned by Jeremy & Choral Trettevik. Jeremy worked at both Sebastiani and Michael David Wines before leaving to start his own design firm a number of years ago. In fact, he has designed more than half of the labels you find from Lodi wineries including the Michael David Winery Petite Petit. In 2010 he decided to start making wine and swapped his design work for rent. The operation has flourished and he now makes 21 different wines, all in small lots, and all almost exclusively sold through the tasting room in downtown Lodi.
In fact, the tasting room itself is quite a sight to see with it's 1850s bar originally from a saloon in Wyoming that Jeremy managed to score on Craig's list. Another bonus at the tasting room is that you can buy the refillable 1 Liter Jeremiah's Jug ($30, $20 for refills), a blend of primarily Zinfandel, Dolcetto, Barbera and Primitivo.
Speaking of the Barbera, a variety Jeremy describes in Lodi as being like "your pudgy best friend -- it's easy and approachable", we particularly enjoyed his 2013 Barbera which lived up to his description. We also loved the value to be found in his 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel from a vineyard planted in 1900.
The last stop on our whirlwind tour of Lodi was to taste the wines of Vinedos Aurora with owner and winemaker Gerardo Espinosa. Besides the owner and winemaker titles, Gerardo also has a full time job as an architect and is now a partner in Vinedos Aurora at Pamplona Tapas, the first combined wine tasting room and tapas bar in Lodi. In 2013 Gerardo and Chef Ruben Larrazolo joined up to open the space next to Ruben's restaurant (Alibrijes Mexican Bistro).
We've been a fan of Gerardo's Petite Sirah for quite some time and on this occasion we also enjoyed with light and tasty Albarino that features just the right touch of salinity as well as his luscious and smooth Don Victor blend of Cabernet (60%) and Petite Sirah (40%) made as a tribute to his grandfather.
And with that our tour of Lodi was over. We enjoyed the trip immensely but were also left with the distinct impression that the sky's the limit for this region that is just beginning to hit its stride. It will be fascinating to see how it transforms over the next 5 to 10 years. Thanks once again to Lodi Wine for bringing us out and also to Stuart Spencer of St Amant Winery for the insight and details on the history of this region.