Ripken’s award winning Pinot Noir, home grown in the Delta

Home in the Delta:  Rip Ripken on levee overlooking below-sea level Guard Rd. vineyard

Home in the Delta: Rip Ripken on levee overlooking below-sea level Guard Rd. vineyard

Attention, fine wine shoppers:  Lodi is now growing some first class Pinot Noir!

At least, this is what a discriminating panel thought about the 2010 Ripken Vineyards Lodi Pinot Noir ($20) when they awarded it a Gold medal and “Best of Class (of Lodi)” earlier this month, during the judging process of the 2013 California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.

To attain a Gold in this particular competition, wines like the Ripken Vineyards Pinot Noir are blind-tasted right alongside Pinot Noirs from the entire state, including vaunted regions like Sonoma, Santa Barbara and Monterey.  This year 709 wineries entered 2,625 wines for 72 judges to examine over a three-day period.  Only 207 wines were awarded Gold or Double Gold medals.

IMG_6250The California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition is the country’s longest running commercial wine judging:  it was started in 1855, and has been interrupted only occasionally (like during World War I and World War II).

For the 2013 State Fair judging, a concerted effort was also made by the organizers to involve an even higher level of professional wine judges than ever before.  Nearly half the judges who had manned the tasting panels in previous years were replaced by completely new judges in 2013, coming from California or flown in from other states.  This year’s head wine judge, Mike Dunne – a highly regarded wine journalist with experience judging in many other wine competitions – unabashedly described the jurists at this year’s State Fair as “the finest group of professional wine judges ever assembled, for any competition.”

What was it about the Ripken Pinot Noir that impressed these judges?  First, going on first-hand account, it was this red wine’s keen sense of balance and slightly tart, zesty, palate freshening edginess, unimpeded by a just-right body (not too light, not too heavy).  Second, it was its fascinating interplay in the nose:  bright, floral varietal fruit – suggesting raspberry, cranberry, and a little bit of cassis (i.e. blackcurrant liqueur) – tinged by distinctly earthy aromas suggesting wood roasted red game meats along with dusty, organic soil.

Winemaker Sue Ripken

Winemaker Sue Ripken

Says owner/grower Richard “Rip” Ripken:  “It’s not a simple Pinot Noir, because we don’t go for ‘simple.’”  Ripken’s Pinot Noir planting is located at the center of his vineyard along Guard Rd., which runs atop the levee channeling the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta’s White Slough, located just within the far western edge of the Lodi AVA.  The vineyard levels out at 19 feet below sea level, with only about 4 feet of soil consisting of silty-clay loam and organic peat.  It gets sticky on wet winter days, but your feet feel more like they’re sinking in fluffy, dusty beach sand when you plod through the vineyard during typically dry summers.  “Great exercise!” says Mr. Ripken.

Ripken also tells us, “When we first planted on Guard Rd. in 1992 we were just about the only ones on the west side of I-5.  It was unheard of in those days to do premium wine grapes on land usually rotated with corn, asparagus, wheat and grains.”  Suddenly, however, interest has exploded.  Says Ripken, “I recently lost out on a bid for the parcel right next to us (just south of White Slough), which has about 335 plantable acres.  Vino Farms ended up with the winning bid, and now I’m told that they’re planning to focus on machine harvestable Pinot Noir in that field, which is a smart idea.

“We planted most of Guard Rd. with grapes like Viognier, Pinot Gris, Petite Sirah, Roussanne and Tempranillo.  Eight, nine years ago we whip-grafted 2 acres of Zinfandel to three different clones of Pinot NoirDijon 666, which is very rare, Dijon 115, and a Spanish clone called Beba.  All three clones produce itty-bitty bunches, about the size of your hand.  So yields are low, barely 3 to 4 tons an acre, especially since we usually irrigate only once during the growing season.  This is what gives our Pinot Noir more than the simple cherry/strawberry fruit you usually find in Lodi.  Like I said, I don’t like ‘simple’ – I like to see wild game and complex spice in our Pinot Noir.”

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Tiny clustered Clone 666 Pinot Noir

When asked about the common assumption that Lodi is too “hot” to grow Pinot Noir, Mr. Ripken has a ready answer:  “When people say that, I remind them about the 2003 vintage in Burgundy (France), which was hot – hotter than probably any of our vintages in Lodi – yet they still managed to make great Pinot Noir.  Our Guard Rd. vineyard is in the coolest part of Lodi.  We’ve measured the temperatures:  on the U.C. Davis (Heat Summation) scale we’re about 3,000 degree-days – right at the upper end of Region II, low end of Region III.  The trick is to have the right clones, and not picking at sugars over 25° Brix.  You want your Pinot Noir to be ripe, but never overripe.  Any more than that, you risk losing color, acids and aromatics.”

Ripken grown Souzao (Aug. 2011)

Ripken grown Souzao (Aug. 2011)

According to Sue Ripken, Rip’s daughter who attends to all the winemaking duties at Ripken Winery:  “In 2010 the Pinot Noir grapes came in September 24 at 23.6° Brix.  After an overnight cold soak, it did soak up to 24.5°, so the wine ended up at 14.1% alcohol.  Dad hand-picks all three Pinot Noir clones at once, which we co-ferment in ¾-ton T-bins.  We like short, violent fermentations, and punch-down are done several times a day to push things along.  Aging is just 6 months in 1-year old French oak – just enough to enhance that gaminess that my dad likes.”

Ripken’s clonal selection, picking at moderate sugars, plus the Delta’s silty soil and Mediterranean seasons all contribute to the perky yet earthy qualities of their wine.  “But there’s one more secret to making good Pinot Noir in Lodi,” says Mr. Ripken, “and it doesn’t involve blending Petite Sirah, which is what they do all over the North Coast to add color and body.”

Ripken, one of the state’s more curious vignerons, grows an astounding 50-plus different wine grapes in his vineyards off Guard Rd. and closer to the winery east of I-5, and chooses one of them as his “secret ingredient.”  Reveals Ripken, “In 2010 we co-fermented our Pinot Noir with about 5% of the Portuguese varietal, Souzão.  We’ve found that this particular grape gives our Pinot Noir the little extra tannin, color and acid that it needs here in Lodi.  It also adds a black cherry quality, which Souzão has in spades.”

How does Ripken know for sure that it works?  “In 2012,” he confesses, “we did made a little mistake – we left out the Souzão because we wanted to use it all for a Portuguese style table red, which we blended with Touriga, Trincadeira Preta (a.k.a. Tinta Amarela) and Tinta Roriz (a.k.a. Tempranillo).  The Portuguese blend came out wonderful, but our 2012 Pinot Noir ended up a little on the light side.  We haven’t given up on it yet, but at least we now know how important Souzão is for Pinot Noir.”

The end-result may not be Burgundy, or even a Californian like Williams-Selyem or Hitching Post, but the Ripkens are proving that it is possible to grow a very appealing, upbeat style of Pinot Noir in Lodi; and the proof, as the 2013 California State Fair judges have also concluded, is always in the pudding

Ripken grown Clone 114 Pinot Noir (Aug. 2011)

Ripken grown Clone 115 Pinot Noir (Aug. 2011)

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