What an influential wine blogger thinks of Lodi wines

Elaine "Hawk Wakawaka" Brown getting up close and personal with Slivaspoons Vineyards Torrontes grapes grown by Ron Silva (right) in Lodi's Alta Mesa AVA

Elaine “Hawk Wakawaka” Brown, iPhone in hand, gets up close and personal with Silvaspoons Vineyards Torrontes grapes grown by Ron Silva (right) in Lodi’s Alta Mesa AVA

Elaine Brown, a.k.a. Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews, is a wine blogger, journalist, photographer and inveterate illustrator with a moderate yet rapidly growing, significant following.  How significant?  Somehow her observations, as she travels up and down the West Coast wine regions and (occasionally) the Old Country, always seem to pop up in places like Eric Asimov’s New York Times wine articles, or in Jon Bonné’s San Francisco Chronicle pieces.  Brown, in other words, is influencing the influencers… messin’ with the messers.

Brown taking note of Maley's Weget Vineyard (west side, Mokelumne River AVA)

Brown taking note of Maley’s Weget Vineyard (west side, Mokelumne River AVA)

It helps that Brown has a cat’s (i.e. curious) nose for wine quality and is instinctively drawn to the cutting-edge, which is precisely why other wine professionals follow her.  “Following” someone, in this day and age, is not like stalking or tapping phone lines.  It’s keeping up with where they’re at, and what they’re doing, all during the course of their days via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, and other (or multiple) social media devices.

We are now equipped to live our lives, after all, under one gigantic peekaboo blanket.  You don’t have to play, but it’s a helluva way to learn about things like what’s happening out in the great big wine world, especially when you’re plugged into someone with boots on the ground, like Ms. Brown.

Old-time wine journalists still jot things down on notepads.  Brown is constantly tapping on her iPhone, sending off thoughts and images to Timbuktu or thereabouts.  Show her something interesting, and a few hundred other people are also seeing or learning about it, literally within seconds; and if it’s super-interesting, those messages in the social media bottles reach thousands.

Brown herself is a Lodi “outsider” who is trying to peek into, and learn more about, what makes the Lodi’s wine industry tick.  She’s made two concerted efforts thus far:  six full days earlier this summer, when she explored the historic Mokelumne River AVA as well as most of the Lodi AVA’s outlying “new” regions (where more than half of Lodi’s 100,000+ acres of wine grapes are planted); and this past weekend (September 13-15), doing follow-ups with some of the vignerons that are interesting her.  This amounts to a lot more time spent in Lodi than most other wine journalists of note; and according to Brown, she’s not done yet.

Naturally, in Lodi we are as interested in learning the perspective of outsiders like Brown as she is in learning about Lodi.  So we asked her to share a few thoughts on what she thinks so far.  If anything, she speaks honestly — with sobering thoughtfulness and purpled persuasion.  Her comments:

Besides Zinfandel, what kind of wines do you think Lodi can become better known for?

Lodi is full of quality fruit and good sites.  The wines that especially stand out to me in terms of quality are Lodi whites and some of the lighter bodied reds.  I believe there is a ton of potential in continuing to develop these as quality wines.  With the softer tannin common to the area, the Bordeaux varieties show a few more challenges, though I can see too how they are popular as value wines.  It’s interesting though to see the effect of softer tannin on the still big shoulders of a grape like Petite Sirah.

Brown with Harney Lane Winery owner Kyle Lerner, with just-picked (last week Saturday) macro-bins of Lizzy James Vineyard Zinfandel

Brown with Harney Lane Winery owner Kyle Lerner, with just-picked (last week Saturday) macro-bins of Lizzy James Vineyard Zinfandel

What do you think it will take for Lodi to gain respect as a premium quality wine region, not just a place where jug wines come from?

Touring Lodi, it is clear that the region can make quality wine.  It’s also still in the early stages of that development.  The difference is simply a matter of time.  It takes many examples of good vintages for people to begin to see a region as a place for reliably good wine.  Right now the perception from outside is still at the skeptical stage.  But that will change over time as the region continues to grow in terms of local focus on globally recognizable quality.  To put it another way, both things are true – quality wine is there, and more work still needs to be done.  This is true of any area that has quality to offer.

Any specific thoughts on what growers and winemakers can do to make a positive “perception” come sooner?

My hope is that winemakers in Lodi will be willing to experiment more with their picking times and winemaking style.  Lodi has no issue with achieving clear fruit character in its wines.  With that point in mind, there is no risk in turning the attention away from a focus on fruit (it will still be there) instead to other aspects of the wine like texture, site differences, and a purity of fruit expression.  There are some winemakers doing this already, of course. 

Brown takes a gander at Noma Ranch (tiny, dry farmed +100-year old east-side Mokelumne River AVA Zinfandel) with Macchia's Tim Holdener

Brown takes a gander at Noma Ranch (tiny, dry farmed +100-year old east-side Mokelumne River Zinfandel vines) with Macchia winemaker/owner Tim Holdener

In what ways do you see some Lodi winemakers focusing more on sites and textures, and less on fulfilling “varietal fruit” expectations?

One of the projects I’m excited about that I think plays with this idea of shifting the attention is the Lodi Native group (note:  Lodi Native is a soon-to-be-unveiled 2012 Zinfandel project involving six top Lodi winemakers, all producing native yeast fermented, minimalist style single-vineyard bottlings) as well as other winemakers utilizing similar methods.  Use of enzymes, water adds, or a lot of apparent new oak obscures purity of fruit and site expression in the wine.  By practicing winemaking without reliance on these techniques the attention turns to picking earlier to allow for fruit flavor with lower alcohol and balanced wine achieved, through the vineyard rather than afterwards in the winery.

Taking temperature — do you feel good about what you’ve seen so far?

I am excited about Lodi wine, and I appreciate the warmth of the community.  It’s a place I enjoy spending time, and am excited to continue getting to know the area and see the wines continue to develop.

A few more photos of Ms. Brown, during her recent forays into Lodi Wine Country:

Brown hears about the history of Lodi winegrowing with Wanda Woock Bechthold (owner of Lodi's oldest vineyard, the 127-year old Bechthold Vineyard)

Brown learns history of Lodi winegrowing from Wanda Woock Bechthold (owner of Lodi’s oldest vineyard, the 127-year old Bechthold Vineyard)

Brown sending out signals in Stampede Vineyard (Clements Hills AVA Zinfandel, now going to Bedrock Wine Co., Fields Family and m2 Wines)

Brown sending up signals from Stampede Vineyard (Clements Hills AVA Zinfandel planting, now supplying Bedrock Wine Co., Fields Family and m2 Wines)

Tasting vertical of Turley "Dogtown" Zinfandel (Lodi's Clements Hills AVA) with Turley winemaker Tegan Passalacqua

Tasting vertical of Turley “Dogtown” Zinfandel in Dogtown Vineyard (Lodi’s Clements Hills AVA) with Turley winemaker Tegan Passalacqua

Happy California winemakers:  Chad Joseph (Harney Lane, Maley Brothers, etc.) on left; Layne Montgomery (m2) on right; in Maley's Weget Vineyard

Happy California winemakers: Chad Joseph (Harney Lane, Maley Brothers, etc.) on left; Layne Montgomery (m2) on right; in Maley’s Weget Vineyard

With Acquiesce Winery's Sue Tipton, with just-picked Piquepoul Blanc and Grenache grapes

With Sue Tipton of Acquiesce (Lodi’s only “white-wine-only” winery) with just-picked Piquepoul Blanc and Grenache grapes

Ms. Brown takes break from vineyard and winery visits to enjoy butterflies at this past weekend's Lodi Grape & Harvest Festival

Ms. Brown takes a break from vineyard and winery visits to enjoy butterflies at this past weekend’s Lodi Grape & Harvest Festival

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