Getting a gold medal at each January’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition is a big deal because it has been involving over 5,500 wines submitted from more than 25 states; making this easily the largest single judging of American wines in the world. Also because the Bay Area wine professionals doing the judging are among the best in the world (also see our previous post, Smallest Lodi wineries earn biggest awards at San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competiton).
All wine judgings, as it were, are direct reflections of the taste of the individuals doing the judging – no more, no less. If you or I were the judges, there’s a good chance that the results would come out differently: maybe not by much if you (like the San Francisco Chronicle judges) are very familiar with many of the wines produced today, and probably by a lot if (like a many wine lovers) you tend to go your own way, paying scarce attention to hardware or punditry.
If anything, San Francisco Chronicle gold medal winning wines are direct reflections of what or how one particular gathering of respected, in-the-know critics, journalists, producers, sommeliers and retailers are defining wine quality as we know it today.
In that sense, the results of this yearly judging are also reflections of what many consumers are looking for in today’s “best wines” – since how wines are made, which ones are selected for resale, and what is usually written about them are all responses to how consumers are buying and enjoying wines as well. The best wine professionals, after all, are very much in tune with the taste of consumers who are doing the buying. Attention may be on a dog’s wagging tail, but it’s the dog that wags the tail.
To that end, it’s interesting to note that one Lodi AVA producer – Estate Crush, which qualifies as a cool sort of urban winery, located at the corner of Downtown Lodi’s W. Lockeford and N. Sacramento streets – managed to garner three gold medals in the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition:
- 2010 Stellina, Chiara Lodi Zinfandel ($32) – a “double gold” winner (i.e. a judging panel’s unaminous choice) for $30-$34.99 Zinfandels
- 2010 Alma de la Viña, Lerner Vineyards Lodi Zinfandel ($22)– for $20-$24.99 Zinfandels
- 2010 Twisted Roots, Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) – for $25-$29.99 Cabernet Sauvignons.
Estate Crush is a modestly sized yet fully equipped custom crush facility that produces and sells no less than 65 different wines each year; the vast majority of them from grapes farmed by longtime Lodi growers. Total production of Estate Crush clients who sell their wine commercially tends to be small – less than 500 cases apiece – but they are a varied, and therefore very interesting, lot.
The nature of a custom crush winery like Estate Crush is such that you cannot expect to find wildly experimental or extravagantly scaled wines: when you produce tiny quantities for numerous clients, the tendency is to practice “safe” winemaking – you don’t take a lot of chances with things like native yeast fermentation or foregoing filtration when someone hires you to vinify just 4 barrels (yielding about 100 cases).
But what you can expect to find at Estate Crush are wines that tend to be less adorned with the trappings of larger wineries that often define “pushing the envelope” as heavy use of expensive oak barrels (often dominating the flavor of end-products), and techniques such as acid adjustment and alcohol reduction (the latter practice, commonly done through rehydration – that is, dumping water into fermentors when grapes are picked overly high in sugar) to resolve the very issues presented by large scale grape growing and winemaking.
There are advantages, in other words, to conservative, small-batch winemaking: if you start out with fewer problems, you tend to end up with wines that taste more cleanly or purely of the grape and vineyard, and less like a “commercial” product manipulated and pounded into some sort of preconceived style.
Perfect case in point: there really is nothing “enormous,” “full throttled,” “hedonistic,” or even “opulent” – descriptors commonly associated with 90+ point wines in certain wine magazines – about the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon by Twisted Roots Vineyard. Instead, what you find is a judiciously expressive nose – chocolate tinged berries and holiday blackcurrants, with touches of cedarwood and just hints of a leafy herbiness mixed with nuances of mushroomy earth – with flavors of the same neatly tucked into a firm yet finely textured medium-to-full body. This wine does not throttle the senses, it caresses them – which obviously seemed to suit the choosey San Francisco Chronicle judges just fine.
If anything, the judges are saying this: we no longer dish out the golds to strictly the biggest, baddest Cabernet Sauvignons – consumers are looking for kinder, gentler, deliberately under-oaked and finely balanced wines (like the Twisted Roots Cabernet Sauvignon), and so are we.
Last week at Estate Crush, when asked about the gold medal awarded his Cabernet Sauvignon, Twisted Roots owner/grower Ross Schmiedt told us, “When I first found out I thought, that’s exciting – and a little bit of a vindication of our viticultural practices, and the good winemaking that goes into it.”
Mr. Schmiedt has always made his philosophy of wine plain and simple: a matter of letting “the fruit speak for itself,” which he attains by picking earlier in the season (as opposed to waiting for maximum “flavor” ripeness) to avoid excess jamminess and alcohol; and by aging in barrels up to 5 years old to round out the tannins without imparting “oaky” tastes.
But for Schmiedt, a third generation grape grower – and one of the region’s most respected icons – it has always started in the vineyard: the Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the family’s 11-acre Dairy Vineyard, tucked up along the Mokelumne River at the end of Schmiedt Rd., on the east side of town. Schmiedt grafted over this vineyard on selected rootstocks in 1998, utilizing two clones that have become the choice of many other top Cabernet Sauvignon specialists up and down the state: clone-377, known for its small clusters that deliver bold fruit with little of the green, herby pyrazine taste typical of the varietal; and clone-15 Cabernet Sauvignon, prized for the structure and tannin it adds to blends.
Says Schmiedt, “we planted on 5-foot spacing to allow each vine to bear less fruit and gain more intensity, and we trellised to allow foliage to fall over the fruit zones, giving us dappled sunlight, which is the secret to burning off pyrazines while preventing the fruit from being cooked in the warm Lodi sun. You can’t pick or prune mechanically with this kind of trellising, but that’s not the kind of fruit we’re going after anyway. We want our Cabernet Sauvignon to be hand tended in the vineyard, and in the winery.”
In a similar vein, Alma de la Viña‘s 2010 Zinfandel is more of a style of Zinfandel that old-timers used to describe as “claret-like” – medium-full bodied, but not heavy in taste. In fact, more of a bouncy, buoyant style, with the ripe black cherry/berry qualities typical of Lodi grown fruit smoothed over by pliant tannins and a touch of vanillin oak – think of an innocently rounded Jennifer Lawrence in a bunny suit (the kids’ kind, not Playboy Mansion’s).
The Estate Crush crew works with Alma de la Viña proprietor Rod Wurst on this Zinfandel – Mr. Wurst, a longtime wine buff and “garage” winemaker (his day job is as an orthopedic coordinator at Sacramento’s Sutter General Hospital) who finally got a chance to go “commercial” with his yearly 4 barrels of wine when Estate Crush was established. Wurst sourced from the 49-year old Mettler & Sons planting along Harney Lane (farmed by Harney Lane Winery owner Kyle Lerner): a perfect vehicle for the type of wines he aspires to – reflecting the alma de la viña (“spirit of the vineyard”), which also earned that golden stamp of approval from the San Francisco Chronicle judges.
Then there is Stellina‘s 2010 Chiara Zinfandel – an extremely lush, tender, velvet pincushion of a wine, oozing floral, red and blueberry scented fruit, tinged with clove, blackpepper and whiffs of an organic earthiness in a markedly moderated, medium-weight body, carrying a mildly tart, mouth-watering edginess to go along with very subtle sweet oak.
By awarding the Stellina (owned and grown by Estate Crush partners, Bob and Alison Colarossi) a double-gold, the judges sent this resounding message: we love a subtle, balanced and drinkable style of Zinfandel – very low in oak influence, falling squarely in a middling alcohol/tannin range, and with some pointed acidity to go with fruit and terroir complexities.
Make no mistake: the Chronicle judges also awarded golds to two of Lodi’s bigger, brawnier Zinfandels – m2’s 2010 Select Block and Michael David’s 2010 Lust (both sourced primarily from Lodi’s venerated Soucie Vineyard, on Lodi’s west-side). Yet Lodi’s other top rated Zinfandels (garnering double-golds or “best of class” distinctions) – namely, the 2010 Mikami, Harney Lane’s 2010 Lizzy James Vineyard, Klinker Brick’s 2010 Marisa Vineyard, and McCay’s 2009 Truluck’s – all share common traits of a little more emphasis on restraint and poise than on raw, oak enhanced power.
Let’s be brutally honest about this: just five years ago, wines like the Twisted Roots Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Stellina and Alma de la Viña Zinfandels, would probably have not merited as much positive feedback at a gigantic competition such as the San Francisco Chronicle’s. Their decidedly discreet charms would have been (and almost always were) lost amongst the throngs of bigger, showier wines. Wine judges used to have trouble seeing the forest through the trees – either because of peer pressure, or simply because they weren’t placing value on sense of moderation as a quality in itself.
Is this progress, or just a passing trend? Only time, and consumers, will do the telling…
Whatever the case, on this leveled playing field the type of lush, friendly, Lodi wines grown by vintners with a sense of restraint are now taking their place among the nation’s “finest” – praise the wine gods, and pass the ammunition!