The soul of a winegrower in Lodi’s Twisted Roots
When Ross Schmiedt talks about wine quality, family and sustainability – something he does all the time, with inspiring ebullience, even from the confines of his wheelchair (in recent years Mr. Schmiedt has been impaired by ALS) – you quickly realize that in his mind, all three things are one and the same.
First, about quality: you will not find a purer, less mucked up or unfettered expression of Lodi AVA grown Zinfandel than the 2010 Twisted Roots 1918 Old Vine Lodi Zinfandel ($25): an unusually zesty, almost prickly-briary, yet smoothly balanced, moderately weighted style of red wine that is all about the varietal’s quivery raspberry preserve qualities, with light twists of pepper – no more, no less.
The wine is an extension of Schmiedt’s belief that a good wine should taste exactly like the grapes it is made from; not like an oak barrel, and not like a wine made from grapes picked so high in sugar that it tastes more like raisins than berries. In the case of the 1918 Zinfandel: a wine from Mr. Schmiedt’s 8 acre vineyard – originally planted (in 1918) on its own rootstocks on the east side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA – that he has been farming for over 30 years.
Like many other Lodi growers, Schmiedt has always been distinctly conscious of the fact that he is carrying on a legacy handed down from father to son. In the early 1900s, Schmiedt’s grandfather raised dairy cows, grapevines and fruit trees on the same land now occupied by the two family owned vineyards – Dairy Vineyard (belonging to Kathleen Schmiedt Hodge and Mike Hodge, with Carl, Leland and Ross Schmiedt) and CLR Farms (owned by Mr. Schmiedt) – which are partnered in their winery brand, Twisted Roots Vineyard.
Says Mike Hodge, “Ross was farming sustainably long before it became fashionable.” You will find the official Lodi Rules seal for third party certified sustainable winegrowing on the labels of all four of Twisted Roots’ current releases. Perhaps more telling is the quote from John 15:1, imprinted on each Twisted Roots cork: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” There is a strong sense, in Mr. Schmiedt, that winegrowing is not only a soul fulfilling exercise, it is also done with a sense of permanence, and handed down through generations.
In his vineyard home off Cherry Rd. – the happy sounds of grandkids running through the house – Schmiedt shared some of his thoughts on the past and future:
“I remember when I was a kid (Schmiedt was born in 1944), my mother would put my sister in a stroller, and we’d walk down to the 1918 vineyard to watch my dad prune, which he’d do all by himself. Old vine Zinfandel is a labor of love – something you have to thoroughly enjoy to want to keep up. Up until recently, all the grapes used to be packed up and shipped back east, mostly to a client selling to home winemakers.
“Turley Wine Cellars had been wanting to get their hands on the old vines for a long time, and so in 2011 we started selling all the grapes to them, keeping a little Zinfandel for ourselves. What’s great about this is that Turley harvests by acid – they are always the first to pick in Lodi – which makes them an ideal partner because we think along the same lines.”
In conversations with Tegan Passalacqua, Turley’s hands-on managing winegrower, the enthusiasm is mutually palpable. “How great it is to be able to work with a beautiful, perfect vineyard like Schmiedt (Passalacqua refers to the 1918 Dairy Vineyard planting as “Schmiedt Ranch”) – a healthy vineyard that clearly has never been over-cropped, never farmed for tonnage.”
According to Passalacqua, it is the vineyard’s proximity to the river (Dairy butts up against the banks of the Mokelumne) and deep, white, almost pure sandy (and less loamier) soil that defines the wine. “We get more red fruit structure and feminine aromatics in the Schmiedt; like baker’s chocolate and cherry qualities. It’s a little different from dust and tea character of traditional Lodi Zinfandel; bearing some resemblance to the old vine Zinfandels from pure sand soils in Contra Costa, only with better structure than what we get from Contra Costa.”
Thinking longer term, Mr. Schmiedt is now planning on taking Zinfandel cuttings from the Dairy Vineyard, submitting them to U.C. Davis to isolate virus-free wood, and then planting a new heritage vineyard representing the Schmiedt family legacy.
Meanwhile, the Twisted Roots 1918 bottlings will continue to reflect Mr. Schmiedt’s “let the fruit speak for itself” philosophy, attained by picking earlier to avoid excess jamminess and alcohol, and aging in barrels up to 5 years old to round out the tannins without imparting “oaky” tastes.
Nearly as exemplary in terms of value and sheer drinkability, the 2009 Twisted Roots Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) is made in a smooth yet zesty style, plummy with sweet blackcurrant and cedary flavors; and the 2009 Twisted Roots Lodi Petite Sirah ($20) is a bright, vibrant mouthful of blueberryish fruit.
“I want all our wines to be enjoyable, to play a part in meals, the sealing of friendships,” says Mr. Schmiedt. “No beverage is psychoanalyzed as much as wine. I just want to drink and enjoy it, for Pete’s sake!”