The tower of strength behind Lodi's Heritage Oak
When you meet Tom Hoffman, owner/winemaker of Heritage Oak Winery, he strikes you as a reluctant hero, a pensive cowboy, a knight of infinite resignation or eloquent quietude; steadily steering his family legacy, with roots planted firmly in Lodi since 1868, through ebbs and flows, rocks and hard places, while lashed to masts that typify the challenges and constraints of farmers seemingly perpetually endowed in undervalued products…
Like pristinely grown wine grapes, ending up mostly in the crushers of big wineries producing average (at best) quality wines. “We have been principally growers for the big producers through the years, and today over 90% of what we grow still goes to them.” After taking over the management of the family’s 186 acre property (105 planted to grapes) from his padre, Robert Hoffman, in 1981, Tom’s outlook was understandably optimistic, before reality set in. “We thought Lodi would become well known as a wine region, but that never really happened. Things started to brighten up around 1990, but then grape prices leveled off, and during the past ten years we’ve continued that course of going basically nowhere.”
And so the most sensible thing to do was to start a winery, which he and his wife, Carmela, established in December of 2007. “Unless something drastic happens to increase the value of our fruit, our future will be in the winery. The challenging part is that I do everything around here – grow the grapes, make the wine, and sell and market the wines, and so I barely have the time to even stop and talk to people who can help us publicize our wines. But winemaking gives us so many other options that grape growing can’t, like tapping into tourism. We’re in a great spot, right here on the Mokelumne River, with a beautiful riparian habitat that allows us to plan events around the wildlife. Visitors can park their car under our 200 year old blue oak, taste and buy some bottles, walk down a wooded trail to a picnic spot along the beach, and then coast down the river in their canoes, kayaks or rafts.”
But ever that reluctant hero, Hoffman is decidedly low-key when it comes to touting his talent as a winemaker, which is estimable. The 2008 Heritage Oak Block 14 Lodi Zinfandel ($24), for instance, is as fine and rich a Zinfandel as any in Lodi, and any in California: a sweetly ripened, and yet not overripened (i.e. raisiny), nose of peppery spiced wild berries, fleshing out on the palate as juicy flavors revved up by mouth-watering natural acidity. It’s a decidedly “balanced,” cerebral style – what old-timers would call “Claret-like” – of Zinfandel: an elegant profile not exactly conforming to over-the-top fashions, but adding up to quiet pleasures as estimable as the man.
What Mr. Hoffman may not tell you, should you meet his acquaintance, is that he is also a founding member, and to a great extent the original inspiration, behind LAVA: the Lodi Amateur Vintners Association. Before starting up LAVA ten years ago, Hoffman began perfecting his own winemaking skills as an amateur in a pure sense of the word – the word amateur rooted in the Latin word amo, meaning “to love” – in 1985. Many of Lodi’s wine loving oenological enthusiasts (currently made up of about 70 members, mostly couples) have benefited immensely from LAVA’s monthly meetings, workshops, tastings and events; and those who have gone on to establish successful commercial wineries of their own, like Mr. Hoffman’s, include Tim and Lani Holdener of Macchia Wines, Dave and Helen d’Art of d’Art Wines, Greg and Colleen Lewis of Dancing Fox Winery, and most recently, Ryan and Jaylan Sherman of Fields Family Wines, and Aaron and Linda Kidder of the soon-to-be-unleashed-onto-the-world Kidder Family Winery.
The Block 14 Zinfandel also reflects a profile in elegance directly attributable to the qualities derived from the vineyard itself, sitting on one of the Mokelumne River AVA‘s sandier sites right alongside that “beach” where Hoffman encourages his visitors to picnic. There is also a red wine coming from an even sandier, nutritionally meager and thus lower yielding site: the 2007 Heritage Oak Block 5 Lodi Zinfandel ($22). If you prefer a Zinfandel that is a little more rambunctious – slightly fuller and high toned in cinnamon, pepper and smoky spiced red berry perfumes – you may prefer Block 5 over Block 14; although the winemaker’s steadying hand is still pervasive in the wine’s silken fine and snappy texturing.
Fellow LAVA vignerons Aaron and Linda Kidder also grow some beautiful Syrah on their own, recently established family estate near Lockeford, where the soil becomes rockier and start to roll into the Clements Hills AVA. From that vineyard, Hoffman makes a stunning red wine: the 2008 Heritage Oak Syrah ($25) – floral and powerfully perfumed with wild berries, and bright, upbeat, full and mouth-watering, while underlined with a subtle veneer of tannin and sweet American oak.
Like most other Lodi vintners, Hoffman is excited with the intense yet moderately weighted quality of the cooler-than-normal 2010 vintage: made to order for Heritage Oak’s elegant style. You can expect even greater things from the eastern side of Lodi in the coming years – especially from where the Mokelumne River makes that upward blip between Woodbridge and Lockeford, centered around a towering blue oak.