This past June 14, 2014, when the California State Fair announced the top awards resulting from its famously rigorous wine judging taking place in Sacramento each year, one Lodi winery loomed significantly among the winners: Lodi’s Michael David Winery.
Michael David’s two awards:
- “Best Petite Sirah” – 2012 Michael David Earthquake Lodi Petite Sirah ($26)
- “Best Lodi Red” - 2012 Michael David Inkblot Lodi Cabernet Franc ($35)
Michael David is easily the largest of Lodi’s premium wineries; having grown from just a couple thousand cases in the early nineties to over 450,000 cases produced each year. Today, Michael David’s brands are sold in every state of the union, plus dozens of foreign countries. No winery has done more to turn consumers on to wines with Lodi on the label than Michael David.
But make no mistake: Michael David has long ceased being one of those boutique wineries handcrafting just two or three barrels of a given varietal. They don’t produce “small lots” – they now work on a larger scale. No question, it is a lot easier to produce a fantastic, world beating Petite Sirah at a 75 to 200-case production level than at a 4,000-case level, which is how much of the 2012 Earthquake Petite Sirah was produced by Michael David.
Yet guess whose Petite Sirah was voted best in the entire state in a completely unbiased blind tasting by some of the most respected, nitpicky wine judges on the circuit? “Better” than any other Petite Sirah from Sonoma County, Napa Valley, the Sierra Foothills, Mendocino, Paso Robles, or anywhere else. Anyway you look at it, that’s impressive.
How does Michael David do it? To find the answer, you probably need to start with the basic building blocks:
- First, the fact that the Phillips family – owned by Michael Phillips (CEO) and David Phillips (President), and now largely driven by Kevin Phillips (VP of Operations) – traces their Lodi farming roots back to the 1860s. Their 750-acre Phillips Farms vineyards used to supply many other wineries besides their own. Today Michael David uses not only 100% of what they grow, they also buy from over 40 other Lodi growers – which gives you the advantage of being able to blend in the best of the best for varietals going into Earthquake or Inkblot.
- Second, as a credit to their long term commitment to the sustainability of their industry as well as to the entire community, the Phillips family farms 100% according to Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing; and they aggressively encourage (practically requiring) their grower-suppliers to do the same, by hinging substantial bonuses upon certification of Lodi Rules.
Although, theoretically, sustainable grape growing does not necessarily equate to top quality grapes, it does in the sense that it puts pressure on growers to pay much more attention to what’s going on in the vineyard than they would otherwise. Growing higher quality grapes always starts with more footsteps in the dirt, more passes in the field, more touches on each plant, more consciousness of individual clusters, leaves and canopy. Third party certified sustainability, in other words, has an indirect yet substantial impact on quality.
Needless to say, it also takes talent to grow top quality grapes. According to Michael David GM Adam Mettler, who heads the winemaking team, grapes going into the 2012 Earthquake Petite Sirah came from three of Lodi’s most respected, and proven, growers: Kevin Delu, Markus Bokisch (of Bokisch Ranches), and the Mettler family’s Arbor Vineyards.
Mr. Mettler attributes much of the award winning quality of the 2012 Earthquake to their yearly process of whittling down the best cuvées supplied by the 35 or so growers contracted for Petite Sirah. Says Mettler: “The first thing we do is shave off about 5% of our most tannic Petite Sirahs. The big tannic monsters don’t stand on their own as well, but they are ideal for our Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel programs, because they build structure into those wines. Lodi Petite Sirah is so good that we use it to improve virtually every red wine we bottle, except for our Cinsaut, which is why a good Petite Sirah year resonates through our entire lineup of wines.
“After the first 5%, we select the highest tier Petite Sirahs to go into Earthquake. These wines are still big – by definition, all our Earthquake wines are ‘big’ – but they are also more refined in their tannin structure. We look for the higher impact lots, showing dark, concentrated fruit; and these are isolated and moved into our barrel program.”
Mettler makes no bones about the fact that oak plays a major part in their Petite Sirah; but when you taste the 2012 Earthquake, the oak qualities are so subtle that they seem to act like more like a handsome frame enhancing a far more compelling subject matter: starting with a purplish, almost black, inky color; moving into black fruit aromas that are sweet and fully ripened without being jammy or raisiny; amplified by smoky, meaty qualities that mingle with the fruit on the palate, extending into broad, fillingly full, long, zesty edged, yet completely proportionate sensations. No wonder the California State Fair judges were impressed.
According to Mettler: “There are no secrets. But a major reason why our Petite Sirahs have been getting better and better each year over the past six years is because we have been shifting to more high-end oak, all French, based upon our extensive oak trials. The idea is not to make an oaky tasting Petite Sirah, but a Petite Sirah that has more elegance in the nose; a cleaner, sweeter vanilla, and higher toast that highlights the fruit without overshadowing it.”
Michael David’s program of “not-more-but-better-oak” is, in fact, staggeringly complicated. In their temperature controlled barrel rooms, the winery currently lodges over 13,000 barrels; and they buy at least 2,000 new barrels each year, costing anywhere from $900 to $1,400 apiece (you do the math). All of the barrels used in their Earthquake program (which also includes a Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon) are French coopered, made from white oak trees grown in the center of France. For a few of their other wines, Michael David also buys American oak barrels (32% of their overall program), and a small portion from Hungary (1%).
Says Mettler, “We buy a lot of oak, from 17 different coopers, because we are constantly in the process of tweaking our barrel selection. Right now we are making comparisons of 62 different barrel types – the wood coming from different forests, different grains of wood, cooper styles, fire vs. water coopering, toast levels, toast lengths, and so forth. My cooperage representatives tell me this is the largest and most complex barrel program of all their other clients. It’s certainly the largest in Lodi.
“What we do is take two or four barrels of every type, and age them in the exact same wine, like a Zinfandel or Petite Sirah. Then we blind taste the results in the spring, which is what shapes my barrel purchases at the end of May each year. After six years of these barrel trials, we have been able to narrow down our style preferences, and concentrate more on coopers and barrel types that have been the best fit for our Lodi wines.”
Among the three varietals featured in Michael David’s Inkblot program – a Tannat, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc – it is the latter that has consistently drawn the most attention. David Phillips has said that this is his favorite Michael David wine of all. The 2012 Cabernet Franc is certainly a show stopper: dark purplish, almost blue tinged in color, with a luscious blueberry liqueur-like fragrance and a touch of violet tinged by sweet vanillin French oak; the pungent flavors brightened by perky acidity and a layered, silken, sensuous texture.
Like that of the Earthquake Petite Sirah, recent vintages of Inkblot Cabernet Franc have gone from strength to strength because of Michael David’s expansive oak program. But unlike the Petite Sirah, the Inkblot Cabernet Franc has been coming exclusively from one 25-year old, 9-acre Sargent Rd. vineyard on Lodi’s west side, farmed by the highly regarded Keith Watts (McCay Cellars has also recently produced exceptional Cabernet Franc from this vineyard).
“I can’t tell you exactly why this Cabernet Franc vineyard has been special,” says Mettler. “We get Cabernet Franc from several vineyards, but every year this is the one that produces exceptional wine. The fruit comes in looking a little scraggly, but the wine comes out having all the dark color and intense fruit qualities that we look for in our Inkblot program. One thing it typically does not have is any of those less likeable Cabernet Franc characteristics – the vegetal, cedar, pencil shavings. All you taste in our Cabernet Franc is dark berries in high concentration, with an unusually big tannin structure for the varietal.”
Still, it is not all about a vineyard, a grower’s talent, an extensive barrel program, or even a family’s commitment to long term sustainability. It is also about Mother Nature – what happens every vintage. Mettler reminds us: “Don’t forget that 2012 was a good year for us. You can compare it to 2011, which was a lot rougher – the wines are not quite as filled out. In 2012 we were able to get our grapes to ripen much more fully – the grapes came in with more weight, a lot more tannin, more fruit intensity. It’s a lot easier to make good wine when you get good grapes – it’s true in Lodi as much as any other region.”
All the same, kudos to the family and entire team at Michael David Winery!