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.
Explaining the Victor Book Club and emerging tastes for transparent wines
The Lodi-based Victor Book Club has been around for less than five years, although during the first two years it wasn't called anything. It may not last much longer because, well, times change, people run out of steam or recalibrate, and all groups go through permutations. The Victor Book Club may even become mythical—something existing as a figment rather than actual phenomenon—and therefore, something that might as well be talked about now, while it is still happening.
Whatever its history or fate, this loose-knit group of industry wine professionals has managed to evolve into something of a subculture of surprising influence well beyond the scope of Lodi, a wine region which, ironically, is still looking for some semblance of its own place and identity within the global community of other wine industries, or in terms of wine appreciation around the world.
The Victor Book Club has been taking place at the Victor, CA home of Turley/Sandlands winemaker Tegan Passalacqua, who fastiduouisly cultivates friends and colleagues of like mind from places as far flung as Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Santa Cruz Mountains, Santa Barbara, or even New Zealand and South Africa—all finding their way to sleepy old Victor.
The Passalacqua abode itself is tiny; so tiny that when Passalacqua puts out a table for his guests, it takes up the entire kitchen and living room. And that's just for 10 or 12 people.
Mr. Passalacqua keeps so few actual utensils in his Lodi home that he usually has to stand up and rewash forks, knives and plates for second or third courses. Friends always joke about Passalacqua's idea of healthy eating—it's called a "meat salad" because it consists entirely of thin slices of beef (usually Wagyu level) grilled over oak barrel staves just outside the backdoor. For appetizers, he opens up tins of gourmet anchovy, washed down with Grower Champagne On occasion, to attain some kind of balance, I've had to drag my own wooden bowl from home along with accoutrements for Caesar salad, which Passalacqua then forces me to prepare "tableside," as if I was still a waiter in a French restaurant wearing a prom suit.
There is usually music blasting from a high-tech record player, which Passalacqua dotes on as if it were a beloved big-horned Victrola. He often forces members to listen to personal favorites such as Boz Skaggs' Pain of Love and Dwight Yoakam's Streets of Bakersfield or his version of Purple Rain, several times a night. Passalacqua's house, Passalacqua's rules.
Even the name of the group is somewhat dubious. Although Passalacqua is quite the scholar, viticultural historian and intellectual—he likes nothing better than to pick up a textbook on grapevine husbandry published 50 or 100 years ago, and start reciting passages as if his gatherings were an actual book club sharing Italian poetry from the thirteenth century—but truth be told, 99.9% of the minutes of a Victor Book Club meeting is devoted to wine tasting. Lots and lots of wine tasting. Typically, two or even bottles per person.
That is to say, the Victor Book Club's notoriety has grown far beyond the scope of its actual "membership" mostly because of what it stands for: a different way at looking at, and talking about, wine appreciation. If anything, this involves a lot of talk about "sense of place" in wines—what wine geeks and people with European tastes in wines think of as terroir, whether or not they use that word. Victor Book Club members appreciate the taste of places in wines grown all around the world, although what brings them together is, well, the very idea of meeting in an obscure, little pocket of Lodi called Victor.
The Victor Book Club probably doesn't exist without the pervasive sense of "Lodi"—practically another word for "underappreciated," "unknown," or "well-worth-exploring." Or at least, Mr. Passalacqua's own fervent belief that wines grown in Lodi are just as capable of capturing a sense of place as any other wines in the world.
I was talkin' to Chuck in his Genghis Khan suit and his wizard's hat
He spoke of his movie and how he was makin' a new sound track
And then we spoke of kids on the coast
And different types of organic soap
And the way suicides don't leave notes,
Then we spoke of Lorraine, always back to Lorraine...
Although in the case of the Victor Book Club, discussions always come back to... Lodi, always Lodi.
Rather than talk about these rather curious meetings myself, the following is how a visiting journalist who writes under the pen name of R.H. Drexel recently described her first-time visit to Lodi. Drexel found a seat at the Victor Book Club as a guest of Melinda Kearney, the owner/winemaker of the Napa Valley-based Lorenza Wine, although Kearney sources virtually all her grapes from Lodi. Kearney, like Passalacqua, crafts wine in alternative styles—light, tight, lean, minerally, so pure you almost forget wine is traditionally aged in oak, and more expressive of vineyard than so-called "varietal character." The craftiness of a quintessential Victor Book Club member.
Drexel's accounting, published in the internationally followed JebDunnuck.com page, captures the flavor of the club, at least on this one particular, strangely cold and gray June night. A snippet:
Only about 215 people live in Victor, in farmhouses in varying stages of disrepair, with backyards barely protected by old, dilapidated fences. There’s a small deli, a mechanic’s shop, a post office, a concrete contractor, a welder, and a few other mostly service-oriented storefronts. Passalacqua has purchased the former butchery and hopes to someday turn it into a winery.
Passalacqua’s Victor home is modest gray against a gray sky, with a dried-grass stubble covering the front yard, which is enclosed in cyclone fencing. When we arrive, the party is out back, with just a few people inside, Passalacqua included, prepping for dinner. There’s a menu of what we’ll be eating tonight taped to the wall, the doorway near it still missing a frame. “The house was built in 1912, I purchased it in 2015,” he tells me. “My father and I have remodeled the house, all new plumbing, new roof, insulated, new windows, new trim and baseboards, all new dry wall, new bathroom, had the original Douglas fir floors refinished.” As with most renovation projects, there is always more to do. Currently, he and his father are working on the wine cellar under the house.
Tall, with broad shoulders, he’s physically imposing, but there’s a gentleness about him. He sports an old-timey 1950s haircut and frequently flashes an easy, jovial smile. Passalacqua founded the Victor Book Club in 2021. During the course of a book club evening, dinner will be shared and books on wine and agriculture will be read from, however briefly, by Passalacqua.
Out back, the backyard fence is in disrepair. Some of it is plywood, some of it old boards, barely hanging on. Parts of farm equipment, rusted, lay about. The BBQ pit is made of cinder blocks. Adi Badenhorst, winemaker at South Africa’s iconic Badenhorst Family Wines, shows up in a John Deere cap. He takes a long pull from a beer. Cristiana Tiberio, visiting from Italy, brings her eponymously named wines to share. Her Cerasuolo D’ Abruzzo will later become wine of the night, but for now, we all gather outside, occasional raindrops marking the wood table where champagne flutes sit.
Passalacqua tries to host these evenings when special guests like Badenhorst or Tiberio blow through the state. He says he enjoys “spending time with folks of different backgrounds who have some of the same interests. It feels to me that we are away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world, and we are able to focus on each other.”
Perhaps best known for his work with Turley Wine Cellars, where he became vineyard manager in 2003 before adding the winemaker role to his title in 2013, Passalacqua also helms his own well-regarded wine project, Sandlands. It’s a deeply personal project that focuses on classic California grape varieties that fell by the wayside over the years as other more mainstream varieties gained popularity. He likes working with vineyards grown in decomposed granite (sand), and his lineup includes Carignan from Lodi and Mataró from San Benito County, among other outsider offerings.
“I started coming to Lodi in 2003 for Turley,” he tells me. “I soon fell in love with the place. I started to source more grapes for Turley, and in 2010 I purchased some Zinfandel from the Schmeidt family in Victor. The wine we made really blew me away. It was floral and spicy and red-fruited. Through some luck, I ended up purchasing the vineyard next to the Schmeidt vineyard from the Kirschenmann family in 2012. It’s a 20-acre piece with 15 acres of own-rooted Zinfandel planted in 1915. I sell grapes to Turley, Bedrock, Arnot Roberts, Pr20-acre, and I make some for Sandlands as well. I then fell in love with the house down the road, one mile away.” The house in which we stand. “I have purchased and am planting a vineyard in Amador County outside the town of Volcano. It’s at 2800 feet elevation in volcanic soils. The Victor house has been a great in-between for this project as well.”
Though she was performing needlepoint when I arrived—stitching “VBC” onto white napkins as keepsakes for the dinner guests—Dr. Stephanie Bolton now readies herself for dinner. The Director of Grower Communications and Sustainable Winegrowing for the Lodi Wine Commission, Bolton is a regular guest here. “I’ve found that I can really be myself in Tegan’s home with the crowd that gathers there, and I think others feel the same way,” she says.
“Having the record player and being in a home without a microwave or television adds to the nostalgia that many of us long for. A simpler time where just gathering around a table with each other is more than enough to bring us pleasure. We genuinely like each other and have fun together. Many people in Lodi have lived here for generations, and they truly understand the need to work together to succeed. You really can’t do farming alone. I’ve lived all over the world and have never experienced such a kind, accountable community. You learn quickly that you don’t want to say anything rude or unkind here, because it’s likely that the person whom you are talking with is somehow connected to whatever or whoever you are speaking about! I’ve even learned to drive slower, because it’s likely that I know the people on the road, and I don’t want them to think I’m an inconsiderate driver.”
Rumination on emerging tastes for transparent wines
The Victor Book Club, if anything, is a place where alternative styles of wines are shared, and contemplated. "Transparent" is often a word used to describe these wines. That is, wines grown and crafted to express their origins—not just intellectually, but on an actual, tangible sensory level.
One of Passalacqua's favorite things to do is to force members to taste wines "blind." Which is why a meeting of, say, just eight or ten members usually ends up with as many as two dozen opened bottles. Of course, members must guess what each wine is. The overriding objective, if anything, is to detect some sort of "sense of place" in the wine, which cannot be done by identifying grapes from which wines are made since most of the world's finest wines are made from pretty much the same dozen or so grapes.
Syrah, for instance, can be successfully grown in South Africa, South Australia, up and down the West Coast, and of course, in its original home in several parts of France's Rhône Valley. It is not enough to taste a wine blind and say "Syrah!" You must be able to taste, say, non-fruit elements such as specific manifestations of earthiness, as well as delineate varying levels of acidity, tannin, alcohol and oak, in order to take a good stab at where the wine actually comes from. This, in a way, addresses the priority of Victor Book Club members; that is, their appreciation of the places where wines are grown, rather than the quality of just grapes or grape growing.
Why is this important? Because right now, the wines that most American consumers find mostly in our grocery store shelves or stocked in big box stores are, in fact, products made to fulfill the current predominant market taste for full bodied, fruit-driven wines. This has come about because, over the past forty or fifty years more than 60% of all wine sold in the U.S. are grown and produced in California, and most California wines sold are designed to meet exactly what the average consumer expects out of them. A White Zinfandel and Moscato, for instance, should be light, fruity, a little sweet and fluffy. Cabernet Sauvignons, much dryer, heavier, laden with oak flavor. Pinot Noirs, dry yet softer, more fragrant. Pinot Grigios and Sauvignon Blancs, lemony tart and dry. Chardonnays, fuller bodied yet "buttery" soft and rounded.
There is, however, a tiny yet growing movement of craft style wineries or brands that are finding more and more commercial success by going the opposite direction—producing wines that are less predictable, sometimes achieving profiles or a "sense of balance" that are the opposite of wines made in mainstream commercial styles.
Some of these small, handcraft producers are even exploring a niche that most of the conventional wine industry still considers something of a swear word—they are exploring so-called natural wines. None of those associated with the Victor Book Club are actually trying to be "natural," They just are—producing wines that are native yeast fermented, generally unfiltered and handcrafted with minimal input, almost entirely for aesthetic purposes. They just want their wines to taste better.
The positive thing about this slowly yet steadily growing movement is that when wines are made in this fashion, they are bound to express sensory characteristics reflecting vineyards or regions, not just the work of human hands. These wines tend to be more terroir-focused because you are also more likely to pick grapes lower in sugar and higher in acidity in order to execute low intervention wine production, which requires a minimalizing of potential issues such as microbial spoilage, oxidation, brettanomyces, stuck fermentation, and so on.
When grapes are picked at lower sugars, they are also more likely to produce wines with less fruit expression, much less or no oak influence, yet possessing more mineral or earth-related sensations which, on an aroma/flavor level, can also be associated with "sense of place." This is different from most commercial wines, which are based upon predictable fruit-related qualities (i.e., varietal character) and brand styles. In other words, these wines are being crafted to meet newer definitions of "balance" in order to be true to terroir, rather than to achieve arbitrary notions of balance.
Yet these wines can be very original; mostly because when you let vineyards decide the direction of a wine, the chances of that wine achieving a unique profile are increased simply by the fact that no two vineyards, or no two regions, are exactly the same.
This is, in fact, a more European approach to wine production—something that might be considered unconventional by predominant American standards, but are very much mainstream in terms of European traditions. What's new to most of us is "old hat" across the pond. The Europeans have been appreciating wines made in this fashion, like, forever.
The wine industry, after all, is really no different than any industry. As Americans, we like predictability, but we also appreciate originality. We like our products to be dependable, but we also want them to be new, exciting, innovative... different. And because no two vineyards are really alike, wine can be a perfect way to fulfill this basic, human longing for differentiation, and artistry.
Artistry when it comes to wine, however, is defined as much (or more!) by vineyards as the the people who farm them, and the vintners who craft them—which is why, wine appreciation in the U.S. is becoming more fun and interesting than ever.
Fun enough, that is, for professional tasting groups such as the Victor Book Club to begin to exert its modest yet notable influence not just on one winegrowing community such as Lodi, but also on how wine is thought of across the country and around the world.