Michael David’s annual Zinfandel growers tasting reveals east vs. west side distinctions
Michael David Winery hosted their yearly Grower Barrel Flight Tasting for their Zinfandel growers this past April 24 and 25 at the winery’s Bare Ranch facilities.
This annual rite of Spring, organized Kevin Phillips –Michael David’s Vineyard Manager and VP of Operations – is put on to give the winery’s Zinfandel suppliers the opportunity to taste, and evaluate, over 60 of their own single-vineyard wine lots from the previous vintage, while the wines are still in a raw, unblemished state (without the influence of new or extended oak barrel aging). The tasting is done “blind” – no one knows whose wines are whose – and the top rated 20%, according to scores given out by the growers themselves, are eligible to receive $125/ton bonuses from the winery.
Says Phillips, “This means some of the larger growers, who have multiple blocks in the barrel lot tastings, have been receiving checks as large as $50,000, $75,000 as a result of some of these tastings over the past few years. We grow a lot of our own Zinfandel at Phillips Farms, but the winery has grown so much that we now need to supplement our own fruit – about 60% of our Zinfandel comes from about 40 other growers.
“That adds up to be a lot of wine, and so we do our annual grower tastings over a two-day period – one day devoted to Zinfandels from the east side of Lodi (vineyards located east of Hwy 99 in the Mokelumne River, Clements Hills and Borden Ranch AVAs), and the second day focused on Zinfandels from the west side (pretty much all falling within the western end of the Mokelumne River AVA).”
Adds Phillips, “The barrel tastings are a good way to let growers know they’re being held accountable for their work. You must also be qualified by following Lodi Rules.” The Protected Harvest certified Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing is an industry model for comprehensive farming that goes beyond pest management to promote practices enhancing biodiversity, water and air quality, soil health, and employee and community well-being.
The result is a steady increase of both quality of wines and quality of life. In respect to the Michael David Zinfandel program, according to Phillips, “Because Lodi Rules requires strict accounting of everything they do in the vineyard, it helps us to keep track of things, too. This makes it easier for us to suggest ways to improve their grape quality, and they can track their own progress by tasting for themselves at these annual barrel lot tastings.”
Like the Phillips family, many of Lodi’s growers have been farming in Lodi for well over 100 years (Kevin Phillips represents the sixth generation of his Lodi farming family). Lodi being the way it is, most of these families have always stuck to either the east or west side of the appellation. Says Phillips, “Out of all our growers, only one of them has Zinfandel vineyards on both sides of the highway.”
Since Michael David’s growers usually attend just one day of these barrel flight tastings, what they don’t really experience is the fascinating differences between Zinfandels grown on Lodi’s east side and west side: something that is easier to glean when you taste wines on both days. Although the Mokelumne River AVA, for instance, is defined by an overall consistency of soil type (classified as Tokay sandy loam), the east side is marked by slightly warmer growing seasons plus significantly deeper, sandier soils and lower water tables – often resulting in lower cluster weights and smaller berry sizes. It is the higher skin to juice ratios that give east side Lodi Zinfandels slightly sturdier tannin and a little more acid zip.
Lodi’s west side, in contrast, is marked by loamier soils with slightly more water holding capacity, plus slightly cooler temperatures by dint of more immediate proximity to the Delta. This results in plumper clusters, which give plumper, rounder wines, often tinged by subtle yet distinctive earthy, organic, composty aromas and flavors. East vs. west side distinctions, of course, are often blurred by individual vineyards and vintage variables, but are nonetheless apparent in broad tastings like Michael David’s annual two-day barrel flights.
Especially in this past week’s tasting of 2012s: a vintage marked by higher than average yields (according to Phillips, 20% more than normal, and nearly twice the crop of 2011), yet relatively free of rot, excess raisining or other issues. Consequently, east side Zinfandels grown by Jon Graffinga Jr., Dave Devine, John Lakso, Pat Hale, and Fermented Vision – to name just a few showing very well last week – tasted very “east side”: fairly tight, reticent, and full bodied with solid tannin structures, despite slightly lighter colors (the large-crop 2012s as a whole showing lower pigmentations).
West side Zinfandels grown by Gary Cusumano, Bob Bishofberger, Mohr-Fry Ranches, Kevin Soucie, LangeTwins, Matt Lauchland, Yvonne Perrin, Todd Williams, Todd Maley, Bob Schulenburg, and Phillips Farms’ own Bare and Bender Ranches tasted very “west side”: round, juicy, fruit-forward, yet very earthy (mushroom broth, rubber boots, even touches of “poopy diaper” — in a pleasing sense — as one guest journalist put it).
Most Zinfandel specialists also agree that their best wines tend to come from classic, old, head trained, spur pruned vines. Although requiring cultivation and picking by hand, the advantage of head trained vines (as opposed to vines trained up on trellis wires, which allow for more machine work) is that the leaf canopies from overhanging canes protect the sensitive skins of Zinfandel grapes on all sides of the vine.
Which is not to say that smartly done trellised plantings (usually with cross-bars that help replicate the overhanging canopy of head trained plantings) can’t also produce excellent fruit. Phillips Farms, for instance, excels at trellised Zinfandels. Says Phillips, “I would say that over 75% of the Zinfandel we get are from old, head trained vines. Take away the trellised vineyards that Michael David owns, it’s more like over 90% coming from head trained vines.”
Well over 90% of Michael David’s Zinfandels go into their eponymous 7 Deadly Zins label – a $16 suggested-retail red wine that is always a soft yet rich and sturdy red wine, brimming with autumnal fruit qualities suggesting wild berries and pungent spices of cinnamon, pepper and clove. The runaway success of 7 Deadly Zins has been an industry model for going on 13 vintages. Subsequently, brands like Ravenswood, Gnarly Head, OZV, Deep Purple, !ZaZin, and Cameron Hughes have been going after their own piece of the pie in the $12-$22 Zinfandel category, but Michael David continues to lap the competition in terms of output as well as quality precisely because of aggressive, team building incentive programs like their annual grower tastings.
In a rare moment of disclosure, Mr. Phillips tells us, “Michael David’s annual production is now approaching 450,000 cases – something we never dreamed of in 1992, when I first joined the family business, when we were doing less than 15,000 cases. Nowadays we actually produce about 700,000 cases worth of wine each year – but we bulk out all the excess, which basically consists of wines that don’t meet our quality standards.
“But it’s a win-win all the way, because not only do our winemakers get to pick and choose the best lots going into our wines, the demand for Lodi wines is so high that we also command some of the highest prices on the bulk wine market. Other wineries are gobbling up what we consider our ‘worse’ lots, and we can continue to fuel our winery growth through increased quality, not by flooding the market with sub-standard stuff.”