Lodi grows a greater variety of grapes than any other wine region in California, but Zinfandel is still the specialty – the pièce de resistance. Tegan Passalacqua, the grower/winemaker of Turley Wine Cellars, manages his company’s Zinfandel plantings in Lodi, Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Paso Robles, as well as Contra Costa and Amador County. So it’s safe to say that he’s seen a lot, and has a very broad perspective.
But even Passalacqua couldn’t quite account for why, in 2013, the Zinfandel harvest started pretty much on schedule at the end of August (early bud break this past Spring moved the time table up about two weeks ahead of normal), but it took another six, seven weeks for some of the quality driven vineyards to fully ripen.
Passalacqua owns the Kirschenmann Vineyard: Zinfandel vines originally planted in the super-sandy soils on the east side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA in 1916. Passalacqua sells the fruit from Kirschenmann to Turley Wine Cellars and a handful of other wineries (such as Bedrock Wine Co. and Odisea). Theoretically, low yielding, own-rooted 97-year old Zinfandel plantings like Kirschenmann are the first to reach maturity – which contemporary winemakers such as Passalacqua think of as hitting somewhere between 24.5° and 25.5° Brix (i.e. sugar readings), giving a finishing alcohol of around 15% — and younger plantings carrying bigger fruit loads take a little longer to ripen. But reality, or Mother Nature, rarely follows the script.
Last week Monday (October 7, 2013), as he watched two separate picking crews hired by Bokisch Ranches harvest the rest of his Kirschenmann Vineyard, Passalacqua told us, “I’m not sure why the vines slowed down this past month. We picked most of our old vines everywhere else weeks ago. Amador County, which is usually the last to come in, is all done. Dogtown (Turley’s Lodi-Clements Hills AVA planting) came in nearly a month ago. We had a little bit of mite issue (robbing leaves of little bit of chlorophyll needed for photosynthesis) here, which could have stressed the vines and slowed them down, but I don’t know if that’s the explanation. Every vintage has its peculiarities.”
In ironic reference to the myth common in the industry outside of Lodi that this is a “hot” winegrowing region (Lodi’s average temperature readings are roughly on the par with the mid-sections of Napa Valley and Sonoma County), Passalacqua quipped, “Maybe it’s the cool climate of Lodi.”
Tim Holdener, the owner/winemaker of Macchia Wines who also sources Zinfandel (plus Barbera) from both Lodi and Amador County, told us pretty much the same story. “This year we really had two harvests in Lodi,” according to Holdener. “We started out gangbusters at the beginning of September, and then slowed to a crawl. Zinfandel that hit 22°, 23° Brix that we thought would be ready to pick three weeks ago suddenly stalled out. Could have been the cooler weather or the fact that the heat earlier on had pushed the grapes sooner, but whatever it was, the grapes just sat with the same sugar levels for at least a couple of weeks.”
Last week Holdener finally finished up his 2013 Zinfandel harvest with pickings from Keith Watts’ Zinfandel block south of W. Kettleman Rd. (the same block that McCay calls Truluck’s), and Primitivo (a Zinfandel clone) from Maley’s Davis Rd. property. Says Holdener, “The stuff that that came in earlier in September is amazing – good acid balance, no rot or mold. The stuff that came in later, with vines a little more stressed with browning leaves, has been more rustic — typical of mid-October harvests with a tiny bit of rot or raisin, but nothing major that couldn’t be sorted out before going into the crusher.
“If there has been any real issue this year,” adds Holdener, “it was the higher than usual incidence of red berry (something winegrowers also call “water berry” – visibly red, as opposed to purplish-black, colored grapes that are low in sugar, and watery rather than fruitful in the taste), which we also dropped in the field or at the sorting table.”
In Kirschenmann Vineyard last week we saw that the incidence of red berry was so high that nearly a quarter of the clusters that the pickers were loading into the macro-bins were immediately picked out and dropped to the ground by Passalacqua and his field sorters. A few minutes after the action started at 7 AM, the piles of discarded fruit next to the bins sparked a little bit of friction with one of the picking crews (paid by the tonnage), and they began to time their drops into the macro-bins to go in simultaneously to make it more difficult for the sorters to weed out the red berried clusters. Insurrection among the old vines.
This, of course, did not sit well with Passalacqua, who immediately called the crew chief back into the vineyard. Picking was halted a couple of times for mid-field conferences (a second one by Alex Lopez, the vineyard manager of Bokisch Ranches). After explanations were made and warnings issued, eventually everyone got back on the same page. The message: wineries like Turley Wine Cellars would rather leave a huge percentage of their fruit on the vine or tossed to the ground rather than let inferior grapes get into their wine, which sell for ultra-premium prices ($45 to $60 for single-vineyard bottlings of Turley Wine Cellars Zinfandel).
Said Passalacqua, “I wanted them to understand that I lose a lot of money, too, whenever grapes are dropped to the ground. There is an ultimate goal – we want people to think Lodi Zinfandel belongs in the big leagues. I think it does. But it starts here, in the vineyard – we don’t work any magic in the winery.”
Michael McCay of McCay Cellars owns another block of Zinfandel planted in 1916 located just east of Passalacqua’s Kirschenmann Vineyard, which he picked the week before. He concurred with both Holdener and Passalacqua; telling us, “It’s no secret that Zinfandel has been challenging this year. But by and large we haven’t had major problems like mildew and rot – the things we usually have to contend with. We pulled out all the stops to make things happen – managing watering, shoot thinning, veraison thinning, clipping off shoulders from clusters – but that has not stopped some vineyards from ripening sooner than expected, and some vineyards from ripening much later than expected.
“If anything this year, because of the red berry the sorting table has been huge. For example, we picked 4.2 tons of Zinfandel from Lot 13 last week. After we did our sorting we ended up with less than 3 tons actually making it into the fermentors. It hurts, but you gotta do it.
“There’s still a little bit of fruit to come in, and vines are tired. They’ve been pushed to the max and are ready to lay down and die. By the same token, because we haven’t had problems with rot or mildew, the Grenache, Syrah, Tempranillo, and especially the Petite Sirah have all been spectacular this year – perfect sugars, terrific acid balance, beautiful flavors.
“I’m confident that in 2013 Lodi will be taking another big step!”
A few more shots of the 2013 Kirschenmann Vineyard Zinfandel harvest: