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.
A strategy for holiday wine shopping in 2018
Attention, shoppers. If you haven't already noticed, this holiday season may be the best in years for finding great wine deals. Make that the best ever. Why?
For one, there is more variety of styles on retail wine store shelves than ever. It used to be, for instance, that all California Chardonnays were fat, flabby, and sweetly oaked (tasting like vanilla, sticks of butter or burnt 2x4s); but now there are wineries producing lighter, crisper Chardonnays, tasting more like minerals or steel than woody tutti-fruitiness.
Better yet, it’s not just all about Chardonnay. The alternatives – especially if you’re shopping for Lodi grown wines – are also more numerous than ever. If, for instance, you like a bone-dry white, you can choose between Grenache blanc, Vermentino, Verdelho, Verdejo, Picpoul blanc, Chenin blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Kerner, Albariño and more, plus any number of inventive blends.
For reds, Lodi is not just about Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot noir, and much more than about Zinfandel. There’s also Grenache, Carignan, Cinsaut, Tempranillo, Graciano, Dolcetto, Nero d'Avola, Touriga, Montepulciano, Sangiovese, Barbera, Charbono, Teroldego, Tannat, Alicante Bouschet, Dornfelder, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, and even more. Plus, like today’s white wine choices, any number of fun, delicious red wine blends.
Heck, it’s not even just about whites or reds. As in many other wine regions, Lodi focused producers have recently recognized the fact that consumers also like a good, dry rosé any time of year, not just during spring and summer. Therefore they have increased production, and are making some amazing pink wines from all kinds of grapes (particularly Grenache, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Pinot noir, and even Zinfandel).
In short, here at the end of 2018 it’s become a buyers’ market, and consumers are responding with enthusiasm. In a recent Forbes Magazine article, it’s reported that in “the twelve month period ending in October 2018, total wine sales in the U.S. rose nearly 5%, at $71 billion, of which almost $48 billion accounted for domestic wine sales, an increase of 4%.”
That said, here is our current recommended strategy for scoping out today’s retail wine market:
Buy direct from wineries
No, you don’t necessarily get lower prices when buying from wineries, but there are very good reasons why you should. For one, when you go directly to the source – either online or, better yet, by physically dropping in during tasting room hours – you are more likely to find exactly what you want, since retail stores are limited on what they can offer. Secondly, when you buy directly from a favorite winery, you are supporting their business; and the more support they get, the more they can keep on producing your favorite wines. A little love goes a long way!
Find an honest retailer
There are advantages, mind you, to patronizing a retail store that specializes in wine, as opposed to just picking up whatever's on sale at your nearest supermarket or discount store. The big advantage is service – specialty wine stores are more likely to be staffed with people ready and willing to zero in on exactly the wine you're looking for.
It is worth trying out two or three stores to make your comparisons. When you do, be as specific as possible on what you need. If you're wood roasting some chicken or pork, for instance, go in and ask for a nice, crisp, balanced style of Chardonnay for, say, $12 (don’t be afraid to specify price or style – like, “just a little bit of toasty oak”). A good retailer salesperson will find the perfect wine for you in seconds; but the sign of a truly caring retailer is that he also offers you an extra option or two. Why put more of your trust in a retailer who gives you options, not just a choice of one? Because quite often, sales staffs are trained or compelled to push certain wines that “must go,” rather than prioritizing your needs. For the highest percentage chance of finding the wines you’ll enjoy the most, patronize stores that care more about your pleasure, not what is best for them.
Remember that higher price does not equal higher quality
There are many, many wines that are priced well over $50 or even $100 that are no better than comparable wines priced under $25. Seriously. Price is never indicative of quality. Supply and demand is just as big a determining factor in the price of wine as actual cost of production. Wines are like people – the most popular ones are not necessarily the best, the most interesting or funnest. What this also means is that many of the most underpriced high quality wines of the world are more likely to be ones you never heard of.
Example: never heard of Cinsaut? If you love a red wine that is intensely floral (think of baking strawberry-rhubarb pie), soft yet deep and fleshy (think of the best textural qualities of a Pinot noir and Zinfandel), then you should know that there are about a dozen specialty wineries (including Michael David Winery, Estate Crush, McCay Cellars, Fields Family Wines and Turley Wine Cellars) that produce a Cinsaut from a venerated Lodi vineyard (Bechthold Vineyard) over 132 years old. No other region in the U.S. has a vineyard like this; no other region in the world has a Cinsaut planting as old as this.
To get this kind of phenomenal experience, you need to be willing to go either directly to a winery source or find a good, honest retailer to guide you. The discovery of something new and exciting can also be... well, new and exciting! It's all about altitude (sic): if you're willing to be adventurous and try anything, even if for the first time, your highs are more likely to be higher.
Do not overlook big producers
Yes, it is fun to patronize tiny, hip, independent, artisanal producers, and we strongly encourage that. In Lodi, those are brands like PRIE Winery, McCay Cellars, Bokisch Vineyards, Estate Crush, The Lucas Winery, Fields Family Wines, Harney Lane Winery, Jeremy Wine Co., Markus Wine Co., St. Amant Winery, Riaza Wines, Toasted Toad Cellars, Paskett Winery, and more! But never forget that “big” producers – like Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, Delicato Family Vineyards (which has brands like Gnarly Head and Noble Vines), Oak Ridge Winery (including brands like OZV, Maggio, 3 Girls and Old Soul), and Michael David Winery (although this hugely successful, Lodi family owned winery has recently sold their ubiquitous 7 Deadly Zins brand) – are not only producing better wine than ever, but are also capable of producing wines that are more than competitive in terms of quality and price.
The small-production Peltier Winery and Fields Family Wines, for instance, both produce a Vermentino that is a dry white wine lover’s dream – airy fresh, minerally, sharp and deeply flavorful – but so does, believe it or not, the giant Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi (although the latter’s Vermentino bottling is available only at the winery). It stands to reason why million (or multi-million) case wineries can kick small winery butt. They control more of their own vineyards, after all, and thus have stronger control of production capability and costs. In short, do not dismiss the big guys if you're looking for cool, classy wine!
Treat yourself to good wine glasses
If you're drinking more wine at home and still haven't yet invested in good glassware, now's the time. Glasses can make a difference – a huge difference – between a wine tasting just “okay,” maybe “nice,” or “OMG!”
Everyone knows that wine glasses properly come with a stem (stemless wine glasses are a matter of taste), are crystal clear for visual pleasure, and are curved inward to allow the nose to better enjoy the aromas collecting just below the rim. But size and shape also matter.
Generally speaking, white wines taste best in 12 to 14-ounce glasses with a slender, graceful tulip shape. You can drink red wines from the same glass (especially red Zinfandels, which taste best in smaller, narrower tulips), but many reds will taste even better in glasses as big as 16, 18, or over 20 ounces in size. Why? Because bigger bowls only increase the depth and intensity of aroma; and the more you can smell, the more flavor you taste on the palate. If you doubt it, do a comparison at home or in the next fine restaurant you go to. Taste a wine in a stubby, thick-rimmed 8 or 9-ounce glass next to the same wine in a finer, thin lipped 14 or 16-ounce glass. We guarantee the wine will taste better in the nicer glass.
Riedel Crystal was a pioneer of finer commercial wine glasses (the 12 to 24-ounce Riedel Vivant 4-packs sold for about $30 at Target stores can turn you into an instant connoisseur), although there are plenty of other good, economically priced brands available in any kitchen supply store. Bottom line, if you are still drinking wine in thimble sized wine glasses or highballs, you are only depriving yourself of more pleasure. Life's too short for lousy wine glasses!
Fertilize the vineyards of your mind
That sounds silly, but it is also the point: wine should be fun, unpretentious, thought provoking, and just plain delicious... for drinking, not over-thinking!
Lodi is all over that concept. Why? It helps to be the “underdog” – the wine region that is still often overlooked or disrespected for the simple reason that its surge in premium quality wine production is fairly recent (pretty much over the past 20 years) compared to other California wine regions.
Lodi may be the “new kid on the block,” but underestimate this region’s seriousness at your own peril. It is easily the largest wine region in the U.S. (more acres of wine grapes than Napa Valley and Sonoma County combined; heck, more than all of the states of Washington and Oregon combined, plus another 30%). Lodi’s history of winegrowing started in the 1860s, which is why many of Lodi’s current growers and producers are run by the fourth, fifth and even sixth generation of Lodi farming families (what other American wine region can claim that? Answer: no other).
And sure, the reason why Lodi is such a large winegrowing region is because big, value priced wine producers source their grapes here. But guess where the giant producers (starting with E. & J. Gallo Winery) sourced many of their grapes up until the 1970s? Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Which doesn’t mean that Napa Valley and Sonoma County are only good for low-priced jug wines. It was because these are great regions for growing grapes – natural advantages now found in the Lodi Viticultural Area. Let those thoughts sink in, and...
Happy holiday wine shopping!