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
April 8, 2024 | Randy Caparoso

At the spring Lodi Wine Festival, wines were showing off the appellation better than ever!

Burlington Chandler proprietor Mark Chandler (middle) and his son Dave (right) pouring at the 2024 Lodi Wine Festival.

Lodi wines are better than ever. 

That's the happy thought I walked away with after a spin through the spring Lodi Wine Festival, taking place last Saturday (April 6, 2024) at the historic Ole Mettler Pavilion on the Lodi Grape Festival grounds.

In what ways are Lodi wines better? Number one, they're fresher and purer than ever, not so much overripe, overly alcoholic or overly oaked as many of them were just 10 or 15 years ago.

Sure, many homegrown Lodi wines are still made in "commercial" styles. A good number of, say, Cabernet Sauvignons or Zinfandels made to taste like what average consumers expect out of a Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel, no matter where they come from. Not, in other words, like it tastes like it could come from Lodi, and only from Lodi.

But that's the way the wine world turns. Wineries produce wines as best they can; that is, in ways they think best to attract their loyal band of customers. It's up to each producer to carve their own path; and for consumers, the choices are there for you to make.

Still, there is a movement, as of yet a small yet steady movement, to produce wines that taste very much like they could only come from Lodi, and that's a good thing. If you want a wine that tastes like it could come from Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Washington or Oregon, why buy one that says Lodi on the label? Lodi as an appellation needs to carve its own path. 

The Ole Mettler Pavilion during the 2024 Lodi Wine Festival.

The fact that this is happening makes me very happy! Some outstanding wines exemplifying these qualities, tasted last Saturday:

2020 Fields Family Estate, Mokelumne River-Lodi Syrah ($28)—I think, because they are so small and low key, this winery is easy to overlook. Don't. What they do is the essence of "handcraft." The wines are honest, unmucked, exceptionally well balanced, bright and ringing, clear as a bell. Such as this Syrah, absolutely fragrant with the violet perfume of the grape, zesty and precise on the palate. Best of all, still sold for stupidly low prices. Only in Lodi!

2020 Fields Family, Stampede Vineyard Clements Hills-Lodi Zinfandel ($28)—Zinfandels grown in Stampede Vineyard, located out "east" next to the rodeo grounds in Clements on Hwy. 88, are considered "cool kid" Zinfandels. Why? Because younger winemakers prefer the fruit which makes wines a tad lighter and zestier in natural acidity than Zinfandels grown nearer to the City of Lodi, east and west side. You can't really see it from the highway, but the vineyard is perched alongside the Mokelumne River; hence, steeped in super-sandy soil, which gives the wine the classic fragrance—bright red berry/cherry and a touch of Japanese black tea—not unlike Zinfandels grown closer to town. As "Lodi' as it gets.

Stampede Vineyard—old vine Zinfandel growing on a sandy bench alongside the Mokelumne River in Lodi's Clements Hills AVA.

2022 Jessie's Grove, Bechthold Vineyard Mokelumne River-Lodi Cinsaut ($55)—Just five years ago wines from Jessie's Grove still reflected an older, somewhat outdated style putting more emphasis on vestiges of long term barrel aging than on freshness of fruit quality. Well, those days are gone, and the wines are now fresh and vivid. While pale red in color, this wine exudes the cranberry/strawberry perfume of grapes grown in the oldest vineyard (Bechthold) in all of Lodi, and the taste is soft, light, lovely. This wine, in fact, comes from the oldest Cinsaut vineyard in the world—as such, doesn't get more "Lodi" than this!

2021 Jessie's Grove, Royal Tee Vineyard Mokelumne River-Lodi Zinfandel ($45)—Complimenting this winery's Cinsaut made from 138-year-old vines, this wine is made from a Zinfandel field mix planted in 1889—the oldest stand of Zinfandel in the entire appellation. I know one winemaker who says you should approach these grapevines with hat off, on bended knee, and he's right—this vineyard needs to be respected for what it is, a living museum producing phenomenally unique wines, not what you expect it to be. What it is is a moderately weighted, almost flowery and feminine style of Zinfandel, although scents of black tea, a touch of leafy green, potpourri-like herbiness and earthiness give it a fruit profile unlike any other Zinfandel in Lodi (in all of California, for that matter). Ten years ago, it should be noted, this winery made wines from this vineyard in a much heavier, oakier style. The 2021 is "all about the vineyard"—bright, pure and buoyant—which is something to celebrate!

Spenker Ranch ancient vine Carignan—going into a wine bottled by Jessie's Grove—on a spring morning.

2021 Jessie's Grove, Ancient Vine Mokelumne River-Lodi Carignan ($45)—This wine is grown in another living museum, qualifying as Lodi's oldest stand of Carignan (planted in 1900), and this bottling is a phenomenon in itself; soaring in bright black cherry perfume, fresh and lively with natural acidity on the palate, settling in with faint touches of earthiness, filling the mouth without giving a sense of heaviness, allowing the fruit and character of the vineyard to do all the talking. 

2023 LangeTwins Family, River Ranch Vineyard Jahant-Lodi Aglianico Rosé ($27)—The Langes are one of Lodi's largest vineyard owners, growing all of today's high-demand grapes, which hasn't kept them from making a huge commitment to lesser known native Italian varieties such as this (Aglianico) because they believe Lodi has the perfect climate (i.e., Mediterranean) for it. You can experience this easy adaptation in this wine, which is seamlessly, almost effortlessly floral, bright, high toned and pitch-perfect in its wild cherry/strawberry perfume; although it is in the light yet crunchy, meaty, zesty, edgy qualities on the palate that the varietal character of the grape really shines through, something almost jarringly different than what you find in the vast majority dry style rosés grown in Lodi and the rest of California (most of the state's rosés are made primarily from the Grenache grape, which produces softer styles of rosé).

Candice Mora (right), Christopher Cellars co-proprietor, pouring her wines at the 2024 Lodi Wine Festival.

2022 Christopher Cellars, Clements Ridge Vineyard Clements Hills-Lodi Dolcetto ($28)—Another example of a native Italian grape demonstrating the basic wisdom of cultivating Mediterranean varieties in a squarely Mediterranean climate such as Lodi's. Just ten, fifteen years ago, a wine like this wouldn't even exist! If you like a red wine that is fresh and super-intense in black fruit qualities, yet has a deep, round roly-poly sense of richness balanced by lots of natural acidity and tannin, yet still comes across without feeling heavy or overweening on the palate, then this Dolcetto is for you. A clear demonstration of why black skinned Italian varieties are tailor-made for Lodi.

2022 Christopher Cellars, Lodi Sangiovese ($32)—It is no coincidence that this particular winery, which specializes in "natural" style winemaking (including native yeast fermentation and more emphasis on fruit rather than oakiness), has latched on to Italian varieties, such as this classic grape of Tuscany. The naturally high acidity and lighter feel of Italian grapes go hand-in-hand with minimalist style vinification; allowing, as an example in this wine, for the delicately floral (rose petal-like), red cherry/strawberry qualities in the nose of this wine to stand out, while silky, seamless, lean yet vibrant sensations light up the mouth-feel. It's subtle, perky, finesseful wines like this that are bound to reverse the Lodi's appellation's reputation for heavy, overripe wines. Lodi grown reds, when allowed to express themselves naturally, are actually light and delicate! Something Lodi "insiders," at least, can enjoy to their heart's content, until the rest of the world catches on.

Albariño in Klinker Brick Winery's vineyard, on the east side of the Mokelumne River-Lodi AVA.

2023 Klinker Brick, Mokelumne River-Lodi Albariño ($17)—There is only one way to describe the sheer value of many Lodi wines, and it is "ridiculous!" Where else in the world do you get such impeccably fresh, crisp, ultra-finely balanced dry white wines such as this Albariño, at this price? Fresh peach, citrus and tropical flower scents practically leap from the wine glass, and the lemony, light-medium bodied taste practically caresses the palate like a spring breeze. Praise the lord and pass the ceviche!

2023 Klinker Brick, Bricks & Roses Lodi Rosé ($17)—This transparently pinkish brick, bone dry wine makes you say, Lodi really, really, really knows how to make rosé. We have the perfect climate for the black-skinned grapes needed to make rosés—in this bottling, Southern French varieties such as Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan—and the wines come out with absolutely pure, subtle and pristine qualities of rose petals, red fruit (strawberry/cherry) and minerals (like pebbles in a mountain streams), with a feel that is light as a feather carried in circles by a Delta breeze (that is, weighing in at less than 12% alcohol). Like I said, really, really, really good stuff.

2020 Burlington Chandler, Estate Clements Hills-Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon ($32)—From what we understand, this vintage of the Burlington Chandler Cabernet—grown by former two-time Lodi mayor Mark Chandler, his wife Jan Burlington and their son David in their riverside bench vineyard between Lockeford and Clements—has not yet been released (the current bottling is a 2018), but has already won a "Best of Class" medal. It is generous in "toasty" (i.e., slightly smoky/vanillin) oak qualities, which suits probably 99% of Cabernet lovers just fine, but is very "Lodi" in terms of its supple tannin, moderate weight, and brightly fruited aroma in the nose. Contact the Chandler family to get this wine!

The Cabernet Sauvignon block in Burlington Chandler Vineyard, alongside the Mokelumne River in Lodi's Clements Hills AVA.




Lodi Wine Visitor Center
2545 West Turner Road Lodi, CA 95242
Open: Daily 10:00am-5:00pm

Lodi Winegrape Commission
2545 West Turner Road, Lodi, CA 95242
Open: Monday-Friday 8:00am-5:00pm

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