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
February 14, 2024 | Randy Caparoso

Christopher Cellars' blend of classic Lodi grapes among Best of Class winners at 2024 San Francisco Chronicle Competition

Christopher Cellars' 2022 Grand Cuvée, one of eight Lodi-grown wines that achieved lofty Best of Class awards at the 2024 San Francisco Chronicle Competition, was judged among 5,500 other wines from all over North America. Christopher Cellars.

The yearly San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition is a massive affair, taking place at the end of each January. The 2024 edition involved 52 professional judges tasting over 5,500 wines. 

Wines are entered from anywhere in North America. Consequently, when the 2024 winners of the 177 classes of wines were announced, winning bottlings hailed from everywhere from California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County to Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Texas, Idaho and New York.

Lodi, as it were, had its share of 2024 Best of Class winners, on top of dozens of gold and double-gold (i.e., when judges agree unanimously) recipients. 

Acquiesce estate owner/grower Sue Tipton (middle, in blue) with visiting wine influencers.

Acquiesce Winery, for instance, entered 13 of their Lodi-grown white wines and rosés into the San Francisco competition. All 13 wines achieved awards, including double-golds for their 2024 Jolie (Viognier/Grenache blanc blend) and 2022 Grenache Rosé, and golds for their 2022 Bourboulenc, 2022 Roussanne and 2021 Sparkling Grenache Blanc. Acquiesce owner/grower Sue Tipton called it a "clean sweep."

One of Lodi's newest wineries, Christopher Cellars, garnered a Best of Class for their 2022 Christopher Cellars Lodi Grand Cuvée ($30), a blend of three black-skinned grapes: Carignan, Zinfandel and Cinsaut. The Class in which this red wine was entered was "Red Blend" in which Carignan is one of the leading grapes.

Classic Mokelumne River-Lodi old vine growth: Mule Plane Vineyard Carignan, first planted in the late 1920s.

It is no surprise that any Lodi-grown wine made from Zinfandel, Carignan, or Cinsaut does well in a blind-tasting competition. These are classic grapes of Mediterranean origin, and Lodi has what is classified as a Mediterranean Climate (meaning, cold wet winters and warm bone-dry summers marked by significant diurnal temperature swings which keep grapes fresh and balanced in terms of sugar/acid). 

Zinfandel, Carignan, and Cinsaut are as natural to Lodi as apples to Washington, and mango or papaya to Hawaii.

What is new—something we've been seeing only within the past five or so years—is how these heritage grapes of Mediterranean origin are now being used to wonderful effect in blends, rather than just as stand-alone varietals. Prestigious handcraft brands such as Sandlands, Marchelle, and McCay have recently been producing blends of the same heritage grapes that outshine even their vaunted varietal bottlings.

Christopher Cellars owner/winemaker Christopher Mora foot-stomping Lodi-grown Cinsaut grapes. Christopher Cellars.

We asked Christopher Cellars winemaker/proprietor Christopher Mora to talk about his 2022 Grand Cuvée, and he told us: 

The Grand Cuvée consists of 50% Carignan from Mule Plane Vineyard [one of Lodi's historic vineyards, planted in the late 1920s], 25% Cinsaut from Sprague Family (a recently planted vineyard in Lodi's Clements Hills AVA], and 25% Zinfandel from Stampede Vineyard [another historic vineyard, planted between the 1920s and 1940s in Clements Hills]. 

This unique blend captures the essence of Lodi, going beyond a mere combination of grapes to represent the region itself. Carignan brings refreshing acidity, Zinfandel contributes robust structure and rich mouth-feel, and Cinsaut adds enchanting perfume. Its most distinctive features are its layering of fruit and velvet texturing.

Stampede Vineyard, a Certified Historic Vineyard Society block in Lodi's Clements Hills, contributes to Christopher's Best of Class-winning red wine blend.

It also helps that Mora crafts his wine in what is considered something of a contemporary, minimalist, "natural" style: implementing native yeast fermentation of whole clusters and whole berries, while backing off on the influence of oak (all French oak, mostly "neutral," i.e., previously used) to emphasize the natural, high toned, super-vibrant bearishness of the grapes, plus their tingly natural acidity layered beneath the silky qualities of the moderate tannin typical of the three varieties.

Mike Dunne comments on Lodi's Best of Class winners

In recent years, longtime former Sacramento Bee wine editor Mike Dunne—also the author of an outstanding new book entitled The Signature Wines of Superior California—has been contracted by the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition to pen the "official notes" on the yearly Best of Class winners.

Fiano grapes in Oak Farm Vineyards, source of a Best of Class winning white wine at the 2024 San Francisco Chronicle Competition.

First, the list of Lodi-grown wines joining Christopher Cellars' Grand Cuvée in the 2024 winners circle:

2022 Oak Farm Vineyards, Fiano, Mokelumne River-Lodi ($28)

Dry Rosé (One Varietal)
2023 Trevor Grace, Silvaspoons Vineyards Touriga Rosé, Alta-Mesa Lodi ($26)

Zinfandel ($29.00-$34.99)
Milliaire Winery, Rous Vineyard Zinfandel, Mokelumne River-Lodi ($30)

Alicante Bouschet
2021 Sunce Winery, St. Jorge Vineyard Alicante Bouschet, Lodi ($40)

Alicante Bouschet, another heritage grape that is so well adapted to Lodi that wines made from this grape are consistently top medal winners in competitions such as San Francisco Chronicle.

2017 Peltier Winery, Schatz Family Estate Reserve Teroldego, Mokelumne River-Lodi ($60)

All Other Red Varietals
2021 Sunce Winery, Mokelumne Glen Vineyards Dornfelder, Mokelumne River-Lodi ($40)

Red Blend (Zinfandel as leading grape) Up to $24.99
NV Mettler Family Vineyards, Copacetic, Lodi ($19.99)

Acclaimed wine author Mike Dunne among ancient vines in Mokelumne River-Lodi.

As Mr. Dunne explains, "My role at the Chronicle these days is to taste best-of-class wines and write tasting notes for the competition's website, Unfortunately, time constraints and the sheer number of classes (177) prevented me from producing notes on every one of them this year. Therefore, I wasn't able to taste the winning wines by Oak Farm, Christopher Cellars, and Mettler Family Vineyards, although I would have wanted to."

Nonetheless, Dunne did have some notes to share, executed in his customarily compelling and erudite fashion, on the other Lodi-grown Best of Class winners:

2023 Trevor Grace, Alta Mesa-Lodi TourigaTrevor Grace practices his craft atop a high ridge in California's El Dorado County. Alta Mesa is an appellation within the Lodi American Viticultural Area in California's central flatlands. Together, they combined to produce this charged and beefy rosé based on the Portuguese grape variety Touriga. This is one driven rosé, assertive in both aroma and flavor, solid as granite, and as muscularly rhythmic as a snowboarder or skateboarder, zipping and twisting across the palate with assurance and glee.

Touriga Nacional, a classic Portuguese grape grown in Lodi's Silvaspoons Vineyards, source of a 2024 Best of Class red.

2020 Milliaire, Mokelumne River Rous Vineyard ZinfandelFrom vines planted in 1909 in what now is the Mokelumne River American Viticultural Area of Lodi, Steve Millier has sculpted a Zinfandel of uncommon finesse, brilliantly colored, with abiding fresh berry fruit and pinpoint acidity, all draped on a frame svelte and sturdy.

2021 Sunce Winery, Lodi Alicante BouschetLong exploited for the vivid color it brings to blended red wines, Alicante Bouschet on its own can be a varietal wine of alluring if elusive aroma and flavor, pliable tannins, and backing acidity. The Sunce stands out for its suggestions of a deli case—a good thing—as well as pipe tobacco, dark fruit, and wispy smoke.

Machine harvesting of Lodi-grown Teroldego in the Schatz family estate at Peltier Winery.

2017 Peltier, Lodi Estate Schatz Family Reserve TeroldegoKudos to the Rodney Schatz family not only for a best-of-class designation for one of their Peltier wines but for delaying the release of this big-boy Teroldego until it was ready to drink. Still, its tannins are as imposing as its color is inky and its dark-fruit flavor is rich. But don't let that stop you from pairing it tonight with prime rib.

2021 Sunce Winery, Lodi Mokelumne Glen Vineyards DornfelderBred in Germany and only released for cultivation in 1979, the black grape Dornfelder is rising in planting and prestige. It was created in large part to bring more color to Germany's customarily lightly hued red wines, and it does that almost to the point of overkill, being a veritable barrel of ink. Don't be intimidated by all that color, however. The Sunce is sunny, juicy, and supple, its fruit plummy and figgy, with a note of peppermint. The winery suggests it be paired with Hawaiian pizza, Kung Pao chicken, and fish and chips, showing its adaptability at the table.

Dornfelder, is an extremely rare (for California) German grape grown in Lodi's Mokelumne Glen Vineyards.



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