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
March 4, 2024 | Randy Caparoso

Early sensory report on Lodi's challenging, yet exceptionally promising, 2023 vintage

McCay Cellars' Mike McCay raising a toast in one of his old vine Zinfandel blocks.

California's 2023 harvest, you might have heard, was problematic, especially in the Lodi appellation

In Lodi, the challenges were more economic than those of issues imposed by Mother Nature. It was, in short, a cooler-than-usual vintage. Theoretically, this is good, because Lodi is a warm climate winegrowing region. But as San Joaquin County Viticulture Farm Advisor Jim Kissler put it, “Some growers had trouble obtaining the minimum sugar requirements of 22˚ Brix [i.e., sugar readings]... and growers without a home for their grapes found it frustrating."

As of 2023, the entire California wine grape industry is beset with a problem of oversupply. Many vineyards up and down the state went unpicked last year, with vineyard owners left holding the bag. According to a report posted by Stuart Spencer (Executive Director, Lodi Winegrape Commission) this past December 4 on the Lodi Growers page:

The 2023 wine grape market was one of the worst in recent memory, with uncommitted grapes struggling to find a home and contracted grapes struggling to make it into the winery for a variety of reasons. Sluggish to negative wine sales over the past few years, combined with a global oversupply of grapes and wine, led many wine-grape buyers to search for ways to reduce inventory and produce less wine in 2023. Unfortunately, this situation left many vineyards (growers) without a buyer at the end of the day.

2023 Cinsaut harvest in Bechthold Vineyard, Lodi's oldest continuously farmed vineyard.

In respect to grape integrity, Spencer adds:

The growing season presented several other challenges for growers as well. Most vineyards and grape varieties were at least two to three weeks behind normal, and in some cases, logistical challenges at wineries extended harvest even later. A relatively cool and humid August and September increased disease pressure and pushed harvest later, exposing vineyards to an increased risk of not getting harvested. In some vineyards, mostly Zinfandel, multiple fruit thinning passes by hand was required to remove the rot. A statewide multi-crop “super bloom” of fruit flies this year only exacerbated the rot pressure.

That was the bad news. The good news is that many of the wines will be excellent. Cooler climate vintages, after all, have a way of producing wines with an excellent balance of natural acidity, resulting in more freshness in resulting wines, plus the markedly richer depth of phenolic content (i.e., the natural phenols and polyphenols contributing to the taste, color, and flavor of wines). 

Lodi Winegrape Commission's Stuart Spencer (right) with Bruce and Jerry Fry of Mohr-Fry Ranches.

For instance, Spencer's own 2023s (bottled under the St. Amant label) are already showing multiple facets of spectacular, bright, and pure intensity. Writes Spencer on the broader industry's fortunes:

Despite the challenges and late harvest, winemakers are reporting exceptional quality wines from this year’s crop. Winemaker compliments for the 2023 Lodi vintage include fantastic color, higher acidity, and excellent flavor. And due to the longer growing season, many vineyards achieved ripeness at lower sugar levels resulting in fresher, lower alcohol wines.

Acquiesce Winery winemaker Christina Lopez filed a report going into more detail, pointing out that, apart from cooler weather, in 2023 the Lodi appellation saw 32 inches of rain, more than double the annual average of 14 inches. In all of California's coastal wine regions—including Lodi, which is directly influenced by Bay Area air moving in through the Delta—virtually all yearly rainfall occurs during winter, well before and after there is fruit on the vine. The impact of higher-than-average rain on grapevines was felt at the front end of the season, delaying bud-break by two to three weeks, depending upon vineyards and sub-areas.

Acquiesce Winery winemaker Christina Lopez.

Adds Lopez:

Once the sky started to clear in spring, the benefits of a wet winter began to show. Our cover crop was lush and pushing 7 feet tall in some areas which drew in troves of wildlife. Not only was it wetter, but it stayed cooler for longer. We typically see bud break right around St. Patrick’s Day [in 2023, March 17], but this year it didn’t happen until the beginning of April when we started to see temperatures break into the 70ºs. 

We kept waiting for the triple-digit days to knock us out of our bliss, but we only saw one of those days in June. In fact, we only saw 24 days of 95°+ in 2023, with zero of these days occurring in September... These cooler temperatures provided optimal growing conditions with physiological ripeness occurring at lower Brix and perfect chemistry at harvest. I think this is a vintage California winemaker will be raving about for years to come, going in the books as one of the greats. I expect 2023 California wines to have more restraint, elegance, finesse, and balance.

In other words, while the growers have been struggling, the consumers will benefit from more delicious—and in many cases, more interesting and potentially longer-lived—wines.

Unusually small (for the cultivar) cluster of Grenache, typical of the old head-trained vines in Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA.

In what ways? To find out, we recently sat down with a sampling of six 2023 Lodi reds from individual vineyards, planted to different grapes, currently resting in French oak barrels at McCay Cellars. If anything, according to owner/winemaker Mike McCay, virtually all the 2023s will be brighter, more upbeat, and vivid expressions of Lodi-grown fruit. 

The 2023 vintage turned out to be so unseasonably cool that McCay estimates that all his key vineyards were picked anywhere from three to five weeks later than normal; not that conditions (re battles with heat and drought) over the past ten years could be considered "normal." All the same, says McCay...

2023 could be described in two words—"hang time." Unlike most years, we never had to push because of sudden heat or sugar spikes. Grapes had a chance to reach maturation slowly with few issues. In my vineyards, no rot, no leaf hoppers, none of the curveballs that usually hit us around veraison {i.e., when black-skinned grapes turn color].

Ancient vine Zinfandel harvest in Rous Vineyard, east side Mokelumne River-Lodi growth planted in 1909.

The wines of McCay Cellars are a good barometer of the vintage because they are all produced as naturally, or with as little winemaker intervention, as possible. Therefore, most of what you taste is, indeed, as Mother Nature intended it to be. Adds McCay...

A key indicator of the cooler vintage is that our vineyards, especially Zinfandel, hardly needed watering. If we had needed to water in May or June, this would have facilitated mildew. Neither did we need to drop much fruit. The older vines put out exactly what was needed. I think that for growers who farm well-balanced vineyards, with the right proportions of canopy to fruit, the benefit was better than average quality. For us, this is great because our style involves no acid adjustment, no adds, and all native yeast ferments.

Bechthold Vineyard Cinsaut cluster on 2023 harvest morning.

Our notes on each barrel sample, with Mr. McCay's comments:

2023 Bechthold Vineyard Cinsaut

Bechthold is Lodi's oldest vineyard, owned by the same family since 1886. Says McCay, "Bechthold is usually picked between mid-August and the first week of September—this year was September 20, almost a month later than some recent vintages. As of right now the wine is in neutral French oak barrels, and will be bottled next February (2025)." 

Even now, the 2023 Cinsaut right out of the barrel is super-bright in color and aroma; gushy in unfettered cranberry, blueberry, and rhubarb-like fruit plus, as McCay puts it, "grandma's spice rack... cardamom and dates." 

Adds McCay, "Extra time in the barrel will give the palate more layers and definition... Compared to previous years, 2023 is tasting a little more complex, on the elegant side... alcohol is 13.0%, in line with previous vintages, although it is showing more phenolic structure than usual on the palate... The 2023 will end up with more layers in the nose and on the palate, a good example of what to expect from the vintage."

Manassero Vineyard Carignan—typical of Lodi, own-rooted old vines planted and farmed by the same family since the late 1950s.

2023 Manassero Vineyard Carignan

The Manassero blocks of Carignan, one of Lodi's heritage grapes because of the cultivar's Mediterranean origin, are all own-rooted vines planted in the late 1950s, south of the City of Lodi in fluffy sandy loam soil. The 2023, says McCay, was picked on October 15, approximately five weeks later than normal. 

The barrel sample of Carignan is currently brooding, more earthy than fruit-driven, with cola, plummy berry, and black cherry notes poking out of the wine's haze of funkiness.  What is clear, though, is that 2023 is revved up with considerably more acidity and phenolic content than usual, coming across as chewy, almost "big," although the alcohol is in the moderate 13.0% range. 

Whereas in 2023 other Lodi growers have reported some extreme cases of mildew and rot with their Carignan, the Manassero blocks escaped this, according to McCay, "because they get a good shot of the Delta breeze south of Lodi, minimizing problems... Manassero Carignan is always an earthy wine, more dark plum than bright cherry, and this year the extra phenolic content will make that profile even more prevalent."

Old vine Grenache harvest in Manassero Vineyard, on the south side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA.

2023 Manassero Vineyard Grenache

This 1-acre sliver of head trained own-rooted old vine Grenache is contained within a 30-acre block consisting primarily of Zinfandel, planted by the Manassero family in 1938. The 2023 was picked on September 14, approximately three weeks later than previous vintages.

The barrel sample portrays a bright ruby color and intense, pure, fragrant red cherry, backed up by a more rigid palate feel of tannin and energetic acidity. Says McCay, "I've been tasting a nutty, woody taste that doesn't come from oak [the wine sees strictly neutral barrels], which reminds me of sandalwood, more of a woody spice... You can taste the exceptional acidity in the 2023 Manassero Grenache, which will only accentuate the cherry quality."

In September 2023, a row of immaculate-looking vertical shoot positions trellised Grenache in Abba Vineyard, on the east side of Mokelumne River-Lodi AVA.

2023 Abba Vineyard Grenache

This modern-day, vertical shoot position trellised block, planted in 2007, is perhaps the appellation's premier Grenache planting—always ultra-bright in the red cherry varietal profile tinged by a peppery spice strong enough to be perceived even by consumers normally oblivious to the scent of black pepper (i.e., manifestations of rotundone components) in wines. 

The barrel sample of 2023—picked at 24.5° Brix (converting to just below 14.0% ABV)—is on the mark; if anything, intensified even further by higher than-average natural acidity, giving the palate a zesty edginess despite a moderate phenolic structure. 

Typical of the vineyard, Abba Vineyard's Grenache is rounder, less earthy, and more fragrant and spicy than the Grenache from Manassero Vineyard—the much older vineyard producing smaller clusters with higher skin-to-juice ratios—although sensory differentiations are also due to cultivar selection. Manassero is planted to an unknown selection of Grenache, whereas Abba Vineyard is planted to specific clones with more definable traits, FPS 362 (a French ENTAV-INRA clone) and FPS 10 (a proprietary clone distributed by Alban Vineyards, Inc.), both utilized by McCay.

Mike McCay (left) and Rous Vineyard owner/grower Craig Rous during Zinfandel harvest.

2023 Rous Vineyard Zinfandel

The 2023 Zinfandel from Rous Vineyard—an east-side Mokelumne River AVA growth planted in 1909—is indicative of, possibly, a banner year for Lodi Zinfandel. It is a flamboyantly perfumed wine—redolent of blueberry, violet, plum, blackberry, and white pepper—coupled with a densely textured yet plush, deep, full-scaled feel of the sort not achieved in over ten years. 

The wine is reminiscent of older vine Lodi Zinfandels from 2010, another cool climate year, although not nearly as over-the-top in terms of fruit ripeness and potential alcohol [whereas many 2010s easily topped 15.5% ABV, the 2023 Rous is closer to 14.5%).

Whereas Rous Vineyard—located in one of the appellation's sandiest sites (average yields, 1 to 3 tons) and planted on St. George rootstock—is typically the first of Lodi's old vine plantings to be picked (usually mid-to late August). The 2023 was picked on September 14 and is described by McCay as "unusually intense, benefiting from the extra hang time... I get a mint, sage-like herbiness, not all that unusual for the vineyard... it's going to be phenomenal."

Mike McCay checking out "old school" style goblet-trained Zinfandel in Bonotto Vineyard on Lodi's west side.

2023 Bonotto Vineyard Zinfandel

McCay opted to demonstrate the 2023 Zinfandel from Bonotto as a way of contrasting a west-side Mokelumne River-Lodi planting with an east-side planting (Rous Vineyard). According to McCay, Bonotto was originally planted during the 1930s by Ernie Spenker, a cousin of Joseph Spenker (the latter, who planted neighboring vineyards in the late 1880s, still farmed today as Jessie's Grove).

According to McCay, the 2023 Bonotto was picked on September 28, three weeks later than normal for this block of small, low-yielding (typically about 2 tons/acre) plants. "These are very small, old school style goblet shaped vines," says McCay, "that used to go to E. & J. Gallo, despite their low yields."

The 2023 Bonotto barrel sample is, in fact, very "west side." Meaning, deep, dark berry fruit in the aroma (unlike the Rous, absent of outward fragrant or floral qualities), markedly earthy in a loamy sense, and round and plump, although quite buoyant in the feel. Like the other 2023s, there is a tad more phenolic content than normal, giving a good, dense texture and layering, without a lot of weightiness (alcohol comes across as closer to 13.5%). 

Veraison in Bonotto Vineyard.

Adds McCay, "Typical of Bonotto, the earthiness is a little briny, almost salty on the palate, and in the barrel, the wine has been showing a surprising amount of complexity—particularly, more black licorice, a little like anise, some black pepper spice, and suggestions of blueberry, which is not typical for the vineyard."

Summarizing overall thoughts on the 2023s from old vine plantings, McCay reflects:

It's evident that the older blocks were tired from the previous year. In 2022 they ran a marathon, going through so much heat and rain, so they took a little longer to come around and ripen their fruit in 2023. 

The 2023 Zinfandels are atypical—a little more layered and structured, yet markedly livelier. Because of that, I think we'll find a few more hidden notes as they come around in the barrel. That's why I like to leave them in a little longer—I generally shoot for about 18 months before bottling.

As I said, it's "hang time" that is making all the difference. If you're a Lodi wine lover, you're going to enjoy this vintage!

Mike McCay, walking along the ultra-sandy soil of Abba Vineyard, a quintessential east side Mokelumne River-Lodi site.




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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