Letters from Lodi

An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.

Randy Caparoso
October 14, 2010 | Randy Caparoso

The late and wild 2010 Lodi harvest

While taking a taco truck break with his pickers last week (first week of October) at Egger Vineyard, a stand of 20 year old head trained Zinfandel vines on the north side of Peltier Rd., Jonathan Wetmore ventured an opinion:  “All the wineries have been happy so far with the quality of the 2010 harvest.”  This, you must know, is somewhat of an understatement, considering the joyous whooping and hollering we’ve actually been hearing among those in Lodi’s oenological profession.

Then again, Wetmore is first and foremost a farmer — his Round Valley Ranches owns or manages over 2,000 acres in Lodi (including the high profile Jessie’s Grove estate) — and farmers always act like they come from Missouri, the Show-Me State. It ain’t over ’til it’s over, right?… fat ladies singing and all?  In the meantime, let the winemakers whistle while they work, high on their yearly fermenting Kool-Aid.

Mr. Wetmore, though, also takes an itty-bitty fraction of those grapes he farms and produces wine under the Grands Amis Winery label with his wife/business partner, Catherine Wetmore, and so he is capable of a little of that winemaker enthusiasm. Okay, maybe just by the teaspoon; because, he tells us, “it’s been one of the toughest years I’ve ever experienced… we’re not used to harvesting so late.”

The later harvest is why, incidentally, most of the winemakers have been walking around with dumb smiles:  later picking means longer hang time, and longer hang time for grapes means more intense flavor, especially in markedly cooler years like 2010, resulting in higher acids, slightly lower sugars, but overall better balance in the grapes and, presumably, the resulting wines. Still, Wetmore tells us, “the sugars have been erratic, and there’s been no rhyme or reason as to why some vineyards have been ready to pick sooner, and others have been taking their sweet time.”

For instance, the grapes in Egger Vineyard, which Wetmore was picking that day for a winery in Sonoma, “were sitting at 25° Brix (i.e. sugar reading) most of the past two weeks… it didn’t even go up during that miniature heat wave at the end of September,” said Wetmore.  Then a cloud seemed to pass over (oddly, since it was a crystal blue persuasion day), and he brightened up and said, “Thank goodness the weather is holding out — the days will be nice, clear and steady now through next week (first week of October), and the harvest should finish up nicely.”

Laughing with some of his women pickers standing in the taco line, who come up to barely half of Wetmore’s six and a half foot frame, Wetmore pointed some of them out.  “These ladies do a lot of our pruning and thinning all through the year. Even the people who aren’t with us year-round are still with us every year for harvest.”

Talking about grapes for his Grands Amis label, Wetmore shared this update:  “Barbera came off last week (end of September). Zinfandel at the home vineyard also came off last week, but Petite Sirah will need ’til the middle of next week (second week of October). I know some people have already taken their Alicante Bouschet, but ours is moving up slow — we’ll need ’til the end of the month for that.”

Ancient vine harvest at Jessie's Grove

Meanwhile, in the vineyards surrounding Jessie’s Grove Winery, fifth generation owner/winemaker Greg Burns allowed us to walk beside the Round Valley Ranches picking crew working through the 121 year old Royal Tee Vineyard; and before that, Burns’ “younger vines” of Zinfandel, planted in 1900 by by Burns’ great great grandmother (named Jesse), as well as a block west of the winery planted in 1945 (more young’ns).

“It’s all about Zinfandel today,” said Burns, who was in a jovial mood (he’s a winemaker!). “You’ll notice that we tied pink ribbons on the Tokay, Mission and Carignane vines in the Royal Tee — those grapes we’ll leave alone and pick later in October. The Tokay and Mission, we’ll let hang a long time, because those go into a Port.”

While waiting for the pickers to walk from the west to the east side of the property, we stopped in the Jessie’s Grove tasting room for a sip of the 2006 Jessie’s Grove Ancient Vine Carignane ($32): deep, meaty, thick as a brick, and teeming with boysenberry, black cherry and caramelized wood tones.

Burns commented, “I believe that it takes a Carignane vineyard at least a hundred years before it really begins to show what it can do. I actually pulled out some 75 year old vines a few years back because I didn’t want to wait 25 years for it to come around.” Hmmm. After the exhilaration of experiencing the Ancient Carignane in the bottle, we wanted to shoot Burns for admitting that transgression — but why spoil the moment?

Borra Borra Borra

Earlier last week we spent time at Borra Vineyards, where owner Steve Borra and his vineyard manager Manuel Maldonado where supervising the harvesting of the Barbera, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Alicante Bouschet, and a tiny bit of Zinfandel planted around the winery.  The oldest vines average around 80 years of age, and all of it is picked at one time because they are fermented in one 12 ton tank to make Borra’s Field Blend red; one of the winery’s most coveted wines.

“The Field Blend,” Mr. Borra tells us, “is sort of a homage to the way my grandfather made wine.  He was very Old World — he’d pick the grapes all at once, and everything would go into one vat, no matter what kind of grape it was. Of course, he used wild yeast, and everything was natural — he didn’t know about stuff like sulfur — and he’d siphon the wines into one gallon jugs, one jug at a time, one barrel at a time. Bear in mind, my grandfather could easily polish off a liter of wine at a time — and that was just lunch. He’d finish another bottle and a half for dinner.

“Of course, by the time he’d get to the bottom of a barrel, the wine would no longer be stable, exposed to so much oxygen. And so every time it came time to pop open a new barrel, he’d fill his jug, bring it back to the house, pour himself a glass, and say, ‘oh, this barrel is so much better than the last one!'”

That said, we tasted a 2009 Borra Vineyards Field Blend ($14), consisting of approximately 50% Barbera, and the rest Alicante Bouschet and Carignane. The wine was literally "wild" with raspberries, black tea leaves and a smidgen of earthiness — like sipping sweet, thick, honeyed framboise (raspberry liqueur) while sitting on a pillowy pile of decaying autumn leaves — yet completely dry, dense, and full of zest.  Unfortunately, the ’09 is already sold out — it might be a good idea to stand in line for the 2010.

Walking with the crew out into the neighboring Church Block, a stone’s throw from the winery and purchased by Borra from the local diocese in 1995 (they once considered pulling up the vineyard to build a church — thank heavens that didn’t happen), Mr. Borra told us, “this purchase allowed us to make a field crushed blend in the style of my grandfather. The blend is usually 45% to 50% Barbera from around the winery (38 year old vines), and the old vine Carignane and Alicante Bouschet really give the wine guts — puts meat on the bone.”

In between crushing the half-ton bins of grapes coming in from the field, Borra winemaker Marcus Niggli told us, “how the Field Blend actually turns out every year is always a mystery — it depends upon how much of each of the grapes come in. This year, we received more Barbera than we expected, about 7-8 tons, and that will add bright, high acid components to the wine. Looks like we’ll get about four and a half tons of Carignane and Alicante Bouschet, and so there will still be plenty of color and spicy flavor in the wine.

“It’s been a challenging year for us, because we are still mainly growers, and many of our clients are in the Midwest or back East. Some of the trucking companies have gone out of business because of the economy, and so we’ve had problems finding enough refrigerated trucks to ship our grapes out.  But for our own wines, everything is looking fantastic.  2010 will be a great vintage!”

What do you expect Mr. Niggli to say? He’s a winemaker!



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