The 2008 Barsetti Vineyards Lodi Zinfandel, which recently garnered a Silver Medal at the 2011 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, is not a wine that bowls you over with its alcoholic or oak driven strength. Quite the opposite: it is a Zinfandel that gently tugs at the heart and palate with vibrant, spiced berry and sweet tea-like flavors, unfurled from a meaty, zesty edged, medium sized body, finishing dry and smooth.
In fact, much like the 2006 Barsetti Vineyards Lodi Zinfandel, still in retail stores like the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center: the 2006 began as a tightly harmonious wine like the 2008 is today, but has recently opened up with soft, lush, cassis and cinnamon spiced berry flavors and fragrances; fresh, forward, true and seductive on the palate. Both vintages retailing for just $12, value quotients just don’t get any higher.
There’s a story behind these compelling wines; and like that of many a fine wine, this story involves the fortuitous meeting of fine feathered friends of like mind: Barsetti Vineyards proprietors Janis Barsetti Gray and her husband Richard Gray, together with grape grower Amrik Dhaliwal.
We have to start the story with Janis’ grandfather, Gottardo Barsetti, who came from Switzerland to establlish a farm in nearby Herald in Sacramento County; later joining forces with his son Henry Barsetti in 1941, to purchase a 340 acre Barsetti homestead located east of Galt on N. Cherokee Lane, in the Lodi sub-AVA now known as Jahant. The family raised beef and dairy cattle, and grew alfalfa and corn. After graduating from Galt High in 1968, Janis embarked on a long career with Hertz. In 1980 she married a United Air Lines man, Richard Gray, who worked for 34 years in SeaTac, Washington, even while Janis stayed on in California, working for Hertz and helping with the family farm.
By 1995 Henry Barsetti had passed away, the family’s farm in Galt had dwindled to 120 acres, and Janis and Richard were preparing for retirement. Determined to honor her father by keeping their property in agriculture, Janis made the decision to plant wine grapes in 1995. She and her husband began to search for the ideal partner: someone sharing the same type of long term devotion to land, family, and tradition.
After meeting numerous potential partners, in 1996 Janis and Richard received a man of deep set eyes, and wearing the distinctly wrapped turban, beard and uncut hair of followers of Sikhism — the philosophical, monotheistic religion began by Guru Nanak Dev Ji in fifteenth century Punjab, India. Meeting at the Barsetti home, sparks were immediately felt. A deal was made right then and there for Mr. Dhaliwal to lease and plant 117 acres to Lodi’s heritage grape, Zinfandel, with both parties sharing in the profits.
Today, both parties wax enthusiastically about the partnership. “If it hadn’t been for Amrik,” says Janis, “we wouldn’t be in the winemaking business.” For Mr. Dhaliwal, it’s been not so much a matter of business as the gratifying personal relationship that was struck. “The Barsettis are great clients,” he tell us, “they are honest, cooperative, and have no vindictiveness or greed… they offered a very reasonable lease, and all they asked in return is that we take great care with management of their property.”
Amrik Dhaliwal himself came to Lodi in 1983, and started out as a grape picker making as little as $11 a day. In his native India, however, he had been the head of the agricultural department of the state of Punjab; Punjab itself, long being India’s #1 state in agricultural production, the dairy and cattle industries, medical and engineering universities, and, Mr. Dhaliwal reminds us, “alcohol consumption” (although most of that, spirits rather than wines). “Sikhs make up only 2% of the population in India, Dhaliwal tells us, but the Prime Minister is Sikh, and so is the Defense Minister and the Planning Minister.”*
Be as it may, Dhaliwal set foot in Lodi with creds, and he and his brother, Sabjit Jasbar, soon started up their own vineyard management company called Dhaliwal Vineyards; which now farms 300 acres in Lodi, all of it third party certified by Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing. 80 of those acres, the brothers own and planted themselves: a property located in the heart of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA along N. Ray Rd. between Turner and Peltier, purchased from the Lange family in 1989. It is from 8 rows of Dhaliwal’s 20 year old head trained vines, grafted on Freedom rootstocks, that the multi-award winning 2006 and 2008 Barsetti Zinfandels have been made.
“We planted Zinfandel on Ray Rd. because the sandy soil is very good for Zinfandel,” says Dhaliwal, “although we also grow Merlot and Pinot Noir for clients like Gallo.” So far only “experimental” batches of Zinfandel have been made from the 14 year old trellised vineyard around the Barsetti home in the Jahant AVA, where the loamy soil is much shallower and compacted in clay content than that of the Mokelumne River AVA (a promising 2010 is resting in two barrels at E2 Family Winery on Hwy. 12, where winemaker Elishia Ehlers has been crafting the wines for Barsetti). “Our own vineyard is still too young,” says Janis, still favoring the quality of Zinfandel coming from the head trained vines in Dhaliwal’s Ray Rd. vineyard; although she and Richard are seriously considering a bottling of a home grown Zinfandel in the upcoming 2011 vintage (currently the Barsetti grown fruit goes to a respected wine grape broker).
“As long as I’m alive the Barsetti land will be used for agriculture,” she proclaims. “We feel more strongly about that since our relationship with Amrik and his family has grown to be so fruitful. It’s a give and take relationship, but he has helped us continue my father’s legacy in more ways than we can say. There would be no Barsetti Vineyards if not for Dhaliwal!”
* Amrik Dhaliwal has also just recently retired (in 2008) as President of the Lodi Sikh Temple. For those unfamiliar with the Sikh contributions to the economy in San Joaquin County, Dhaliwal tells us that Sikhs originally began arriving in California in 1890 to work on railroad lines. Subsequent generations have established themselves in agricultural and dairy businesses; and Dhaliwal estimates that today there are about 10,000 Sikh-Americans living in the county, many of them in medical professions (Dhaliwal’s own two sons are U.C. Davis graduates — Parm Dhaliwal currently a vineyard manager for E.&J. Gallo, and Harry Dhaliwal also in vineyard management with the Beringer/Foster’s Group).