Lodi’s busiest consulting winemaker started off big, ended up small, and is lovin’ it…
“You know what it’s like working with a million gallon tank?” asks Chad Joseph, talking about his first job as a winemaker, at E.&J. Gallo in Modesto. “You can’t even throw a football all the way across it.”
E.&J. Gallo, of course, doesn’t just employ winemakers. They employ entire armies of winemakers. In the late nineties Mr. Joseph worked his way up the ranks of teams responsible for brands like Carlo Rossi, Livingston Cellars, Turning Leaf, and Gallo Sonoma; in the end, gaining valuable experience working with Gina Gallo and veteran winemakers like Marcello Monticelli.
After leaving the Gallo fold and coming to Lodi in 2001, Joseph’s winemaking career diverged onto a path going pretty much the opposite direction: from million gallon tanks monitored and controlled by intricate computers, to hand punching fermenting wines in 120 gallon macrobins with zero temperature controls or machinations. Why? “I could finally make wine, and do things like actually hook up a pump,” says Joseph, “rather than press buttons on computers” – talking about his first Lodi venture in the micro-sized (now defunct) winery called Joseph Narcizo Wines, working with partner Patrick Costa out of the multi-winery facility called Vino Piazza (in Lockeford, east of Lodi).
It was an auspicious time, during the turn of the millennium, when many of the vaunted Lodi brands we know and love today – like Macchia, m2, Harmony Wynelands and Harney Lane, among many others – were either in infancy or incubation, and Joseph leveraged his Gallo experience to become a busy consulting winemaker.
“I started picking up consulting jobs while at Vino Piazza almost immediately after coming to Lodi,” says Joseph, “because a lot of guys began to come to me, mostly looking for help ‘tweaking’ their wines – dealing with stuck fermentations, cleaning up flaws, adjusting total acidity or residual sugar before bottling… I think I’ve done work for as many as twenty wineries over the past nine years.
“I came to Lodi at a great time, when new wineries have popped up like crazy… meeting passionate people like Jonathan Wetmore (of Round Valley Ranches and Grands Amis Winery), the Watts family, the Borras, Tim Holdener (of Macchia Winery), and Markus Bokisch. Growers like Kevin Delu helped opened up my eyes to the exciting quality, and great variety of wines, possible in the Lodi wine region.”Joseph Narcizo Wines closed up five years ago, but Joseph has kept his hands full with both consulting and a bourgeoning family (his wife Stacia and four year old son, Jack). Today he focuses much of his energy on seven client wineries, most of them since inception: Harney Lane, Harmony Wynelands, Boitano, Valhalla, McConnell Estates, McCormack-Williamson, and Dancing Coyote.
While wineries seek his expertise, they are not necessarily looking to produce “Chad Joseph” style wines. “I have to listen to what the client wants,” says Joseph, “and make it come about – it’s a process that involves coming up with strategic plans, and in the end all that matters is getting them where they want to go.”
Is there a “Chad Joseph” stamp, visible on every wine under all those labels? “Not so much,” he says. “The Gallo experience taught me when to jump in and intervene on wines, not letting bad things happen. But as a winemaker in Lodi, I’ve had to grow, and take on the mindset of just making the best wine possible, which is also letting wines naturally become what they want to be, not what I want them to be… letting terroir (a wine’s “sense of place”) happen.
“This might mean more more wild fermentations, sometimes warm, sluggish fermentations, and taking risks, minimizing filtering and fining – the opposite of what we did at Gallo. To make artistic wines you can’t be scared, or afraid of making mistakes. You have to have faith and let things ride.”
A tasting of Chad Joseph crafted wines is also an illustration of where Lodi wine is at here in 2011. Some tasting notes from our morning recently spent with this talented gun-for-hire:
2009 Harney Lane, Lodi Chardonnay ($19) – In a way, this current release is as much a transitional wine as it is proof-positive that it is possible to make the type of large, voluminous, multifaceted, French oak barrel fermented style of Chardonnay associated more with areas like Napa and Sonoma rather than Lodi. Nothing shy about the nose – pungent aromas of sweet vanilla and apples are underscored by lemon, citrus peel and slivers of charred, toasted oak – and the body is suitably full, make that big, contrasting crisp edges with thick, silky-creamy fruit and oak phenolics. While satisfied with results, the ever-cognizant Joseph comments, “we may have made this a little bigger than necessary, but we wanted to show what is possible with Lodi grown Chardonnay” – alluding to the fact that future vintages may be scaled back a little bit more.
2001 Joseph Narciza, Borden Ranch-Lodi Alicante Bouschet – While wines made from the purple juiced Alicante Bouschet grape start off black as night and replete with tannin, it is not a wine anyone expects to “age” well beyond five, six years. Like, say, the vast majority of Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs, ABs are most enjoyable in bumbling, blustery youth. Yet even past its ninth year, this bottling – Joseph’s first Lodi grown bottling, sourced from a relatively young (in 2001) vineyard tended by Kevin Delu – is still fairly jamming in raspberry/blueberry perfumed fruit in the nose and flavor, even if measurably dominated by toasted, sweet oak. On the palate, tannins have significantly dropped, leaving the fruit to take on slightly eucalyptic, loamy, and positively old, tack room-like leather qualities. Very encouraging – especially for those interested in this singularly wild and wooly grape variety that few growers and consumers outside of Lodi are aware, much less appreciative, of.
2006 Harmony Wynelands, Mohr-Fry Ranch Lodi Alicante Bouschet ($30) – In dramatic contrast to the elderly ’01 Joseph Narciza, this wine shows what a ponderous yet pleasurable clustereff of a wine this grape can produce, especially when enjoyed within its window of sweet, full breasted plumage of youth. The nose smacks of earthy, jammy, wild berry aromas suggesting blueberry and elderberry, with undertones of black rubber boots. The feel is thick, layered, full and sensual, yet has developed just soft enough a center to push the jammy fruit through the tannin lined coverlet. Ah, Alicante… ah, Lodi!
2007 Valhalla, Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel ($18) – It’s hard to say if this is “traditional” or “typical” – what is traditional or typical in wine regions going through as much transition as Lodi? – but it is a pretty straightforward, fruit-forward, jammy-berried scented Zinfandel, very ripe, although not quite raisiny, sweetened by American oak, and on the round, fat, or (shall we say?) flabby side. A wine like this, with its undeniably rich, wafting, baked cherry/blueberry pie aromas, is like dessert – and you are either a dessert person, or you are not.
2008 Harney Lane, Lodi Tempranillo ($24) – Mr. Joseph’s stab at one of the Iberian grapes that is starting to distinguish Lodi among other California wine regions is as fine, and almost filigreed, as they come. Starting in the nose: a bright, strawberry fresh fruit aroma garnished by sweet mint, a sprinkle of chocolate and whiffs of elegant, smoky oak. On the palate, this skillfully wrought bouquet is manifested in round yet firmly centered sensations, oak and tannin combining to give chewy, tobacco-like feel, the red fruit qualities rising through the finish. Joseph’s assessment? A little simpler: “tastes like a chocolate brownie to me!”
NV Wyneland Estates, Lodi Zinsation (by Harmony Wynelands; $18/375 ml.) – During the days prior to Zinfandel’s resurgence as a dark red (rather than a frilly pink) wine, “experts” used to spout nonsense about how “confused” consumers were about what Zinfandel was all about, often blaming medium-sweet “late harvest” style reds like the Zinsation for the apparent lack of interest in the grape. How wrong can you be? At the Grand Tasting put on by the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) in San Francisco each year, more 7,000 consumers come together to partake in the apparent, overwhelmingly enthusiastic interest in this, the most “American” of American grown grapes. Zinfandel produces fine, delicious red wines, whether made into smooth, medium sized wines, huge, powerfully stacked wines, or decadently rich, almost Port-like wines like the Zinsation: 16.8% alcohol, 2.5% residual sugar and all. Joseph likes to blend late picked Zinfandels of various ages (hence, nonvintaged) to produce Zinsation; younger vintages infusing bright, lively fruit qualities into the rounder, balanced qualities of older vintages. The result is a red wine that is big yet exceptionally smooth, unabashedly lush, and only moderately sweet; dripping in flavors of dried berries and cinnamon stick spices. Do you like wine with chocolates like raw cacao, berry liqueur or lavender infused truffles? How about wet, melting hot, walnut specked brownies? Hard to find a better match than a wine like Zinsation!