Tokay & Zinfandel’s affair to remember
One of our most illuminating conversations during the 2010 harvest – pretty much wrapped up, here in Lodi, by almost everyone just before the rain this past weekend (10/23-24) – was with Jonathan Wetmore. Mr. Wetmore owns the boutique sized Grands Amis Winery; and his vineyard management company, called Round Valley Ranches, has been farming grapes for other wineries (currently, over 2,000 acres for folks like Jesse’s Grove, Bogle, Delicato, E&J Gallo, Geyser Peak, and many more) since 1976.
“There’s been a lot changes since I first started” he told us. “In the seventies, harvest never started until after Labor Day, and only because that was when Gallo opened its doors to receive grapes. There was no Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Sauvignon Blanc to deliver – those varieties didn’t exist in Lodi at that time. It was primarily Zinfandel for wine; although the big, seeded table grape, Tokay, was the premier grape in Lodi.
“The idea of ‘picking for flavor’ wasn’t in the picture either. We never picked Zinfandel until the 20th of September, and a lot of it had to be done by the week before Columbus Day in October because Columbus Day was when the Italians on the East Coast traditionally made their wine, and we’d need at least a week to get the grapes over to them by rail.
“Because most of the Zinfandel in Lodi was on head trained vines, everything was picked one lug box at a time, which was time consuming. So we’d start the zin harvest in September, when the grapes were around 23°, 24° Brix, and it would be much higher by the end of October when we’d finally get done. What didn’t get shipped back East was sent to the big co-ops, going into generic reds and Ports – not very good wines, even though the grapes were pretty good. This is what gave Lodi a bad rap, which we’ve managed to overcome only recently.”
Driving eastwards over the Mokelumne River on Peltier Rd., Wetmore talked about the historic, almost symbiotic relationship that existed between Zinfandel and Tokay, ever since both grapes were introduced to the region in the 1860s. “The interesting thing about Zinfandel and Tokay, which grew side by side in the old part of Lodi, in what is now known as the Mokelumne River AVA, is that both grapes absolutely thrived in the region’s deep, rich, fine sandy loams (officially classified as Tokay Fine Sandy Loam). The old timers always knew that wherever you could get the Tokay to turn its bright pink color, you could also grow the highest quality Zinfandel. Lodi was the king of Tokay because you couldn’t grow it anywhere else in California. You needed the moderating, cooling breezes from off the Delta to grow good Tokay; and even then, not in every part of Lodi.
“Here along Peltier, for instance, on the south side of the road both Tokay and Zinfandel could ripen beautifully. But on the north side of Peltier (in the sub-appellation now recognized as the Jahant AVA), we couldn’t quite get the Tokay to turn color and ripen optimally. It is possible to grow good Zinfandel in Jahant, and in the hillier areas like Clements Hills AVA on the east of town, where the soil transitions from sand to heavier clays. But only in small pockets closer to the Mokelumne River, where sandy soils predominate."
If anything (calling all wine geeks), a graphic demonstration of the impact of the classic French concept of terroir, or importance of "place." Soil and other topographical factors definitely matter!
“In a lot of ways, growing Tokay for the table market also taught us how to grow wine grapes like Zinfandel,” said Wetmore; an observation echoed during an earlier conversation with Mohr-Fry Ranches’ Jerry Fry, who told us that practices like shoot thinning to achieve a dappled exposure to sunlight in order to fully ripen Tokay were also applied to Zinfandel – decades before the canopy management (i.e. Sunlight into Wine) concepts advanced by modern day viticultural gurus like Dr. Richard Smart. “We pulled leaves to knock out leaf hoppers and concentrate color and flavor,” says Fry, “and it made sense to take care of our Zinfandel the same way.”
In any case, demand for Lodi grown Tokay as a fresh market table grape vanished during the mid-1980s after the introduction of hybridized Flame Seedless grapes, better suited for warmer districts further south in California's Central Valley. Lodi's thousands of acres of Tokay were unceremonously pulled out in favor of wine grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, suddenly in great demand by the rapidly growing wine production industry. Today, precious few plantings of old fashioned, seeded Tokay plants exist; mostly as front-yard heirlooms or ornamentals, if not left to grow wild among patches of weeds.
Lodi’s thousands of acres of old vine, wild rooted Zinfandel might have suffered the same fate by the end of the eighties if not for the sudden popularity of White Zinfandel. Of course, even 50+ year old vines cropped at over 10 tons per acre and picked at 18°, 20° Brix for White Zinfandel produce basically “flavorless grapes,” according to Wetmore. For red wine production, winemakers prefer Zinfandel to be picked at higher sugars, when the grapes attain richer, riper flavors, which necessitates cropping closer to 3 or 4 tons per acre.
Tokay may now be a symbol of the past; but thanks to the wiles and resilience of growers like Mr. Wetmore, Lodi's meticulously grown, quality driven red Zinfandels are now in rapidly growing demand, especially in the market for $8 to $17 bottlings; although sales of $18 to $35 Zinfandels are also booming; not just in the U.S., but also in markets as far flung as China and Scandinavia.
And here’s the rub: almost every grower and winemaker in Lodi is saying 2010 has been either the best vintage they’ve ever experienced or a “once-in-20-years” phenomenon. The best is yet to come, my friends; and if you visit Lodi during its yearly THE FIRST SIP weekend this coming November 13-14 – when wineries pop open barrels of their just-fermented 2010 (which, however infantile, is still tasting like kickaboo joy juice) – you can experience this for yourself… and raise a toast to Lodi’s history with tastes of history itself!