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
July 1, 2024 | Randy Caparoso

Belize-born Lodi winemaker Joseph Smith releases a puristic Marsanne, razor-sharp Chardonnay and Provençal style rosé under his JSL family label


JSL Wines owner/winemaker Joseph Smith.

JSL Wines is a new Lodi-based brand, founded in 2021, but is far from new in respect to its owner/winemaker, Joseph Smith.

If you have enjoyed the wines of Klinker Brick Winery over the past decade and a half, for instance, you are very familiar with Mr. Smith. He has been the head winemaker of Klinker Brick since 2007.

In recent years Klinker Brick has come to be known for far more than the Zinfandels upon which the brand was built, now sold in 49 of the fifty states. Most significant, as a bow to the entire nation's rapid embrace of lighter, sleeker, fresh and pure styles of wines, Klinker Brick has become known for its Albariño, Grenache Blanc and authentic style of dry rosé⏤the latter, crafted from Southern French grapes and finished in a minerally, flower petal nuanced style reminiscent of classic rosés of France's Provence, tasting more like a Provençal style rosé than most rosés imported from Provence.

The hands and brains behind these impeccably conceived, contemporary style wines? None other than Joseph Smith.

The Smith family: Joseph, Sanaya Saignée and Lorraine. JSL Wines.

Therefore, it's been no surprise that Mr. Smith has recently ventured out on his own, even while remaining at Klinker Brick. JSL Wines  was established in partnership with Smith's wife, Lorraine. There is a 10-year old daughter, Sanaya Saignée. If all goes well, JSL will eventually become Sanaya's brand as well (let's give her a few years).

Before we go further, let's get this out of the way: The JSL wines are outstanding. Predictably. Do you think a masterful winemaker would screw up on wines sold under his (and Lorraine's) own initials?

Please see our notes below on the current releases. Meanwhile, the salient story to know is that Mr. Smith was born and raised in Belize, a tiny coastal country in Central America, just to the east of Guatemala. And we mean tiny⏤the population of Belize is less than 350,000 (the population of San Joaquin Valley alone is more than 10 times that size).

The back label of JSL wines proudly proclaiming, "California grown, Belizean owned."

After all these years, though, Smith's family ties in Belize has remained unshakable. To this day, he still travels back and forth between Lodi and Belize as much as five times a year. I know this because, whenever I need to have a chat with Mr. Smith about this or that, it is never surprising to catch him on his cell as he's walking down the street or about to meet with students⏤Smith has founded a vocational school in his home country⏤in Belize.

In fact, JSL Wines was founded primarily for sales in Belize, where Smith also owns a wine bar/retail store, as well as his own distributorship. At this point, more than 75% of JSL wines are sold in Belize, although the brand's latest production has increased enough to allow more sales here in good ol' Lodi (available both online and at the Lodi Wine Visitor Center).

Things are looking up for JSL Wines because, to begin with, the wines are so darned good; and because as you might imagine, Mr. Smith is the de facto "Wine King" of Belize, while doing all he can to inspire up and coming fellow Belizean natives to follow in his footsteps.

Notes on the current JSL Wines portfolio:

2022 JSL Wines, Manna Ranch Mokelumne River-Lodi Marsanne ($30)⏤Although Lodi has become extremely well known for white wine grapes of Rhône Valley and Southern French origin⏤no-brainers in the region's Mediterranean climate and sandy soils conducive to floral qualities in white wines⏤up until now Marsanne has been left somewhat out in a cold. No real reason. Marsanne grows just as easily in Lodi as Grenache blanc, Viognier, Roussanne, Piquepoul, Bourboulenc, Clairette blanche, and other fabled grapes of the Rhône.

This is exactly why Smith felt it was high time someone stepped in to specialize in Lodi-grown Marsanne. Says Smith, "I started buying Marsanne grapes from Matt Manna from his vineyard on the east side of Lodi three years ago, in 2020. The first two years we put the wines in blends, with Viognier or Roussanne. I knew the grape was special from the beginning, so we made it into a stand-alone wine in 2022.

Lodi-grown Marsanne.

"The JSL Marsanne is 100% Marsanne, fermented in stainless steel, no oak, just pure varietal character. The grape doesn't need anything, it's beautiful on its own. It has enough body and texture to be an alternative to Chardonnay, but obviously it's a much crisper style of dry white wine."

The overriding profile of the grape in the JSL bottling is lemony citrus and flower petal perfume. Its medium weight body comes across as light and zesty, while the slightest amount of glycerol gives a faint feel of silky viscosity. The important thing is that it is not like other white Rhône varietals, and neither should it be. It's Marsanne!

2022 JSL Wines, Lorraine Lodi Chardonnay ($30)⏤Why produce a Chardonnay? Probably because he can, although Smith manages to skip perfectly along a razor thin balance beam, producing a light golden straw-toned, bone dry white wine that is creamy in both the scent and texture, lemony crisp and edgy on the palate, and tropical fruit nuanced in the nose.

Explains Smith, "I call this a partially traditional style because it sees some barrel fermentation, although just 75%. The other 25% was fermented in stainless steel. The oak aging was in 70% neutral barrels with 30% new, enough to produce a balanced style of Chardonnay, the opposite of an 'oak bomb.' 

"The wine has a very edgy acidity because only 50% of it went through malolactic fermentation (i.e., the natural transformation of tart malic acid into softer lactic acid), and we did lees stirring (resulting in smoother texturing and a faint yeastiness) just once a month. 

"The idea is to produce a Chardonnay with the bright acidity to pair with more foods, although the tiny bit of butteriness opens up the possibility of even more food pairings [think of fish or crab cakes in buttery sauces... heaven!]."

2021 JSL Wines, Saignée Lodi Rosé ($30)⏤No doubt about it, bone dry style rosé is a Smith spécialité. The 2021 JSL is a crafty blend of Grenache (40%), Mourvèdre (25%), Carignan (25%) and Cinsaut (10%). This transparent, rusted pink toned wine exudes flower petal fragrances which just touches of mineral in the nose and on the palate.

Smith can probably achieve this kind of perfect balance⏤an airy lightness, tingly acidity and nostril-caressing scents⏤in his sleep, he is that good at this.

However, don't let yourself be misled by the name, Saignée, which is in reference to Joseph and Lorraine's daughter's name, not to the method of rosé production involving "bleeding" (what the French call saignée) of lightly pigmented juice off of vats of fermenting red wine. The JSL rosé is made entirely from whole clusters of black skinned grapes that were gently pressed, going straight into a stainless steel fermentation tank. 

Says Smith, "All the grapes were fermented separately and then blended, which allowed me to get a more precise balance of sensory qualities. Everything is pure, absolutely no manipulation. Exactly the kind of wine we want for our JSL label!"

Joseph Smith, JSL Wines.




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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