The significance? There are, after all, thousands upon thousands of wonderful wines produced around the world each year that don’t make prestigious top 100 lists. More importantly, this is one of the first times a Lodi wine was conscientiously picked to be among an elite. Sure, in recent years Lodi grown wines – especially our heritage Zinfandels – have stockpiled awards like golds, platinums, double-golds, double-platinums and occasional Best of Shows, but those have been circumstances under which mainstream wine judges (i.e. “experts”) were forced to recognize Lodi wines: situations where the wines were tasted “blind” – the identities unbeknowst to the judges – and thereby circumventing the usual prejudices against wines produced in a place John Fogerty once castigated in song (although, years later, Mr. Fogerty revealed the fact that when he originally wrote Stuck in Lodi, he had never been to Lodi – he actually picked “Lodi” because he thought the name sounded “cool”).
Ah, but here’s the dry rub: those of us who have always truly followed the art and zin of Lodi maintenance are aware of other things.
Like the fact that Michael McCay, McCay Cellars’ cerebral winemaker/proprietor, does not even consider the Jupiter Zinfandel to be his finest wine (that would be McCay’s Truluck’s Zinfandel). But hey, let’s cut our esteemed experts at the Chronicle some slack: the Jupiter is an extremely worthy, bright, sassy, energetic red wine, bursting with perfumey, framboise-like raspberry fruitiness, and silky smooth and zesty on the mouth. Resistance is futile.
But think of When I’m 64 on the Fab Four’s Sgt. Pepper’s album: it’s catchy, it’s charming, you can snap your fingers to it and appreciate the exquisite craftsmanship entwined in its melodious score. But is 64 the “best” song on Sgt. Pepper’s? Unlike that of Lodi Zinfandel, connoisseurs of beatlemania are a jillion times more legion, and most of those connoisseurs would probably say that songs like A Day In a Life and Lucy in the Sky are far deeper, symphonious, lyrically literate and musically inventive, yet just as fresh, or more, than 64. N’est-ce pas?
What’s a-day-in-a-life-deep about the 2007 McCay Truluck’s Lodi Zinfandel ($24)? Start with its multifaceted, sonorous nose of crushed autumn leaves, Christmasberry spices and smoky tobacco nuances curling up from a concentrated core of blackberry fruit, just hinting at raspberry purée. Then when Truluck’s hits the palate, the feel is svelte, fullsome, meaty and velvety rich, while totally avoiding the usual zin baggage (i.e. ponderous, flabby or raisiny excesses). Lodi-ites might be interested to know that local superstar chef Ruben Larrazolo of Alebrijes Bistro considers Truluck’s to be the world’s finest match for his duck dabbed in his phenomenally thick, dark and sexy chocolate mole sauce; and there is indeed a lot of that sensuous, quivering fleshiness in the Truluck’s as well. ¿¡Por qué?!
Then there’s the matter of viticultural genesis: the Jupiter does come from an ideal site, steeped in Lodi’s classically deep, rich sandy loam, on the east side of the Mokelumne River AVA off Victor Rd.; but the vineyard is a relative baby (nearing 40 years of age) by Lodi standards, vertically trellised, and grafted to Dogridge rootstocks. Truluck’s, on the other hand, is sourced from a vineyard located on the slightly cooler, western side of the Mokulumne River AVA, south of Hwy. 12 behind the Van Ruiten Family Winery; and consists of 80 year old, own rooted, vertically head trained vines (spurs protruding ladder-like in all directions, on gnarly 5 ft. trunks), inter-planted with 40 year old vines trained in the same fashion as their older siblings. Lodi zin lovers on intimate terms with these kinds of old, doddering, creviced, hollowed out, downright stingily productive old-man vines know what usually comes of that: even more intense, densely textured, vividly pigmented and powerful wines.
In the hands of a vigneron like Michael McCay – whose deft touch is tempered by an instinct for understated, balanced wines, transparent enough to show more of a sense of place, or terroir, as opposed to a more simplistic, ultra-ripe, when-I’m-64 fruitiness – grapes from a vineyard like Truluck’s can yield something to behold: Lodi style Zinfandel at its finest, truest… and funnest!
‘Nuff of that – who is Michael McCay and why is everybody suddenly talking about him? Though he may be Mr. Chronicle, contrary to unfounded rumors his head still fits easily through the door where most anyone might find him, and taste and buy his wines: at Lodi Wine Cellars, downtown at 112 Pine St., where McCay wines are poured alongside those of Benson Ferry, Heritage Oak and Vicarmont (nothing shabby about that lineup either!).
This past week we sat down with him to absorb a little more of his vino-philosophy. “I have an Old World palate,” was the first thing he said. Second thing: “I’m not a fan of the r.s. style of Zinfandel” – meaning, Zinfandels made from grapes picked extremely high in sugar, resulting in ultra-ripe flavors and, as often the case, wines that don’t ferment completely dry, leaving perceptible residual sugar. “By picking a little earlier (usually between 24.5° and 25.5° Brix) than usual for Lodi, I can produce a dryer, less jammy style of Zinfandel, without the high octane alcohol.”
That said, Mr. McCay proclaims, “I truly believe Lodi has the best climate in the world for Zinfandel, and also for Petite Sirah, which is why I’ve chosen to specialize just in those two wines.” By picking earlier to make a lower alcohol, less jammy-sweet Zinfandel, McCay also swings open the door for wines of more distinctive vineyard expressions. “I love to taste the different characteristics of Zinfandels grown on the east side of Lodi (as in his Jupiter zin), while making contrasting Zinfandels from the west side (epitomized by Truluck’s).”
Farming for flavor in 100% accordance with Lodi Rules for Sustainable Grapegrowing, hand harvesting, meticulous work at the sorting table, small batch fermenting and hand punching in macro-bins, and aging a minimum of 30 months strictly in French white oak: these are all part of McCay’s recipe for success. Considering the fact that 2007 represents McCray’s first commercial vintage (although he’s been making wine since 1994, and began growing his own grapes soon thereafter), everything bodes well for Lodi’s dramatically expanding talent pool. It’s getting better all the time!