When you stroll through the Royal Tee Vineyard belonging to Lodi’s Jessie’s Grove Winery, you literally brush up against history. This 5 acre vineyard was originally planted by Joseph Spenker in 1889; so long ago, even American history buffs have trouble recalling who was president then (it was Benjamin Harrison).
Today, these majestic vines – twisting, whirling arms rising from tree-like trunks, like graceful, oversized bonsai – produce red wines that are emblematic of the recent growth of Lodi as a region known for ultra-premium wine growing: namely, Jesse’s Grove’s Ancient Vine Carignane and Royal Tee Zinfandel.
We can talk into the night about Lodi’s heritage Zinfandels, but it is the Royal Tee’s Carignane that is perhaps the vineyard’s definitive wine. The 2006 Jessie’s Grove Ancient Vine Lodi Carignane ($32) is full bodied, dry red that staggers the senses as much as the mind: bushels of blackberry and black cherry in the nose. The gushing aromas turn into bright, boysenberry-like flavors on the palate; plump and teeming, like caramelized syrup seeping through a gripping palate. And optimal for that time of the season, which is now: for red meats in slow cooked stews, or marinated, grilled or roasted meats or game birds, served up with wintry root vegetables.
Spenker’s great great grandson, Greg Burns, is Royal Tee’s current gatekeeper and winemaker/proprietor. Walking us through the vineyard this past November – the vine leaves all around us set ablaze in autumnal reds and golds, with his stealthy, black winery cat (named Pooh Bear) following behind us – Burns shared some of the family history: “Although there was a good market for wine grapes 121 years ago, we never produced wine of our own until Jessie’s Grove was bonded in 1999. The winery was named after my great grandmother, Jessie Spenker, who really was the one who kept the ranch going after Joseph Spenker’s passing at the beginning of the last century.”
An early environmentalist, Jessie was also the one who set aside 32 of the ranch’s 320 acres, preserving the grove of 100-plus year old oak trees that you see today next to Royal Tee. Continuing the story, Burns tells us, “up until the mid-nineties, our grapes were sold almost exclusively to E&J Gallo. Before I took over in 1996, the vineyard was farmed by my great uncle, Joe Beckman. For many years, Julio Gallo used to fly into Lodi in his helicopter to make his yearly rounds, and then he’d come over to our little shack, which is still on the property, sit down and play cards with great uncle Joe. After a couple of hours talking about everything but, they’d finally get around to hammering out an agreement on the sale of grapes. Of course, in those days, all contracts were done by handshake.”
The change came in the mid-nineties, when Larry Turley – the owner of Turley Wine Cellars (if not California’s most prestigious Zinfandel producer, certainly the most cult-like) – came knocking. According to Burns, “Larry and his assistant winemaker, Ehren Jordan, suggested some cover crops, and helped with the bunch thinning and leaf pulling. During the harvest they drove the tractors pulling the macro-bins themselves, and there were some fantastic Turley zins made from our grapes in ’96, ’97 and ’98.
“Naturally, that motivated us to start our own winery. But not all of our old vines were productive. 42 of the original acres planted by my great great grandfather were in very poor, sandy soil, and the plants were very small – half the size of the vines you see in Royal Tee – and struggled to produce grapes, struggled to stay alive, especially since they were always dry farmed. So in 1996, we made the heartbreaking decision to pull most of them out and replant; keeping the healthier ancient vines, with the deeper root systems in loamier soil – and that’s the Royal Tee, affectionately named after one of our brood mares.”
The good news: the new Zinfandel plantings, trained on trellises and benefitting from judicious irrigation (as opposed to the head trained “bushes” of Royal Tee, which is still dry farmed), is now the source of incredible wines of their own; including arguably the finest $12 Zinfandel made today, the Jessie’s Grove Earth, Zin & Fire.
Talking about the Carignane coming off the Royal Tee, Burns says, “the vineyard is interplanted with several grapes – only about four of the five acres is actually Zinfandel, and we mark the odd varieties with ribbons so that the pickers can tell the difference when they pass through. The Carignane adds up to about three-quarters of an acre, and the rest is a mix of Black Prince, and Mission. There is also some classic, old, pink table grape, Tokay, which we use to make a Port.
“I believe Carignane vines really need to be at least 100 years to truly express the grape. Even so, not every year. Maybe we’re picky, because we know what a phenomenal wine it can be, from great vintages like ’02 and ’04. We didn’t make an Ancient Vine Carignane in ’07 or ’08. The past vintage (2010) was a great one for all of Lodi; but in the fermentor our 2010 Carignane did not quite hit us with the aromatic distinction we look for, and so we decided to blend it into our Westwind Zinfandel.”
But here’s some inside scoop, Lodi wine lovers: because of the injection of Royal Tee Carignane into the blend, according to Mr. Burns, we need to “watch out for the 2010 Westwind Zinfandel… it’s going to be intense!”