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
September 30, 2021 | Randy Caparoso

What six visiting wine influencers are saying about Lodi

Six visiting wine influencers with Calhoun & Company's Katie Calhoun (center) in Phillips Farms' Bare Ranch on Lodi's west side, helped pick 2021 Primitivo.

Last week (September 19-22, 2021) Lodi growers and vintners hosted six wine influencers in a 3-day study of the Lodi wine region.

Sometimes it helps to ask someone what they think moments after their experience. Said one of the influencers, L.A.'s Elle Rodriguez, in a video/message transmitted while waiting to leave at Sacramento International Airport: “Omigosh, I'm shocked... Lodi is such a gem."

Upon further thought, Rodriguez added: "Lodi has all the right vibes. If you are into good people, great wine, and authentic experiences, this is the place for you. It’s not at all corporate. The winemakers are hands-on. You see stains under their fingernails and an absence of Rolexes. If this sounds like your kind of experience, come to Lodi before the word gets out."

Visiting wine influencers tasting through newly fermented 2021 barrel/tank samples at Lodi's Bokisch Vineyards winery.

Before their trip, the six wine influencers were polled about what they wanted to experience in Lodi wine country. The group responded that they wanted to do what just about all first-time trade or industry people want to do when they visit Lodi: look at old vines, do a lot of tastings (including blind tastings, since wine professionals love to challenge themselves), and meet the people behind the vines and wines. 

So that's exactly what they did when they weren't partaking in local victuals served at places like Guantonios Wood Oven and Pietro's Trattoria, or at a classic multi-course winery dinner featuring the "Women of Lodi" and the innovative cooking of catering chef Daniel Cortez of Ignis Provisions.

Wine influencers (from left) Jamie Knee, Elle Rodriguez, and Casleah Herwaldt pitching in at the sorting line in Bokisch Vineyards winery.

First question, perhaps, for many of our readers: What is a "wine influencer," and why do they matter? Answer: Wine influencers are exactly that — people who influence other people, what they drink, how they look at things like wine, or the endless occasions to enjoy wine. Only, the difference between today's wine influencers and conventional wine media — by "conventional," means those who get their thoughts and opinions out through print magazines, websites, or online blogs (whether or not "blogging" is now passé is an entirely different subject matter) — is that wine influencers are pretty much an Instagram phenomenon.

That wine appreciation has taken to Instagram like fish to water should be no surprise. The experience of wine, after all, is as much a visceral or sensory activity as it is an intellectual one. Our senses of smell and taste are very much connected to our sense of sight. Visual experiences of wine, which is what Instagram is all about, are as compelling (or more compelling, for many wine lovers) as reading about it.

Popular wine influencers Casleah Herwaldt (left) and Lexi Stephens give each other a hand with a 35-pound lug box filled with Bare Ranch Primitivo grapes.

If you do not indulge in social media through Instagram, however, chances are you have no idea who or what are wine influencers. Understandably, Statista has reported that even as of July 2021, over two-thirds of total Instagram users are 34 years old or younger. Every industry analyst will tell you the same thing: Wine drinkers between the ages of 21 and 34 are the key to success in today's wine market. (Although, what's new? The youngest generation has been driving product marketing since World War II, mostly because they consume so much and also because older generations always endeavor to follow younger ones).

But being a wine influencer involves a little more than being just another pretty face smiling for an iPhone camera while holding up a bottle or glass. Fellow Instagrammers do not "follow" you if you have nothing to show of substance. In fact, out of our six visiting wine influencers, the one with the biggest following happens to be a Black man named Noël Burgess, whose Instagram handle is mrnoelburgess. The Petaluma-based Burgess has over 57,300 Instagram followers. His schtick, according to his profile, is: "Promoting diversity and inclusion in the wine & travel with a focus on the places, the product, and most importantly the people!"

Noël Burgess, tasting at Lodi's Acquiesce Winery, has emerged as one of Instagram's most popular writers/photographers because of his unique and passionate insights into wines.

Earlier this week, Mr. Burgess posted a sunny photo of himself with fellow influencer Elle Rodriguez (the modern our on Instagram) sipping Zinfandel in a Lodi vineyard. Within minutes the image recorded over 3,600 "likes." 

The way I look at it: I have probably been Instagramming for longer than Mr. Burgess (I've posted 1,953 images compared to his 250), yet when I post something I consider it a great victory if I garner more than 25 "likes." My total number of Instagram followers? 1,655 — a lot more than most people, but peanuts compared to Burgess' 57,300+. 

Ergo: Noël Burgess is a "wine influencer" extraordinaire. As are the other five wine influencers that we hosted in Lodi last week.

Elle Rodriguez — taking a moment to put together a multi-image post while picking Primitivo grapes in Bare Ranch — has cultivated a huge following (over 17,600 Instagram followers) because of her identity as an L.A.-based Latina woman, and her determination to bring wine appreciation down to earth (as she puts it, "Elle-voting" wine).

Casleah Herwaldt echoed the entire contingent's thoughts following their trip by telling us: "Lodi very much surprised me. I was awe-struck by the old gnarly vines, the agriculture, and the sustainable care of the land. Bechthold Vineyard, Cinsaut planted in 1886, was really something to behold!"

Still, Lexi Stephens cited other factors: "Of course, everyone knows about Lodi's Zinfandels and old vines, but it is much more than that. I was blown away by the hospitality, history, and people we met. Spending time with the faces behind this historic region allowed me to see how much pride and passion goes into the making of these wines." Jamie Knee concurred, adding: "Beyond the Mediterranean climate and world-class wines, Lodi is all about growers who believe deeply in sustainability, protecting their vineyards for future generations. This place is steeped in culture and history, yet welcomes diversity and innovation."

Primitivo, a clonal variant of Zinfandel, was picked by Lodi's visiting wine influencers in Phillips Farms' Bare Ranch.

Over this past weekend, I posted Elle Rodriguez's 15-second video on Facebook, to which a Napa Valley winemaker with a long, impeccable reputation responded with blunt and honestly felt questions: "What is an influencer? Did they graduate high school? Do they have a higher degree? What have they achieved in their life?" 

After spending three whole days with six of these influencers, the only answer I could give was this: "The smartest of them are extremely wine-wise, talented, and resourceful. We put them through the paces during their visit. I had no doubts, but they proved to be as billed — as impressive as anyone I've met in my 45 years in the wine industry. In many ways, more so. I wouldn't underestimate them."

Photos of a few high points during their visit...

Jamie Knee (Instagram's petitewinetraveler) is a wine influencer with all the chops: a second-level WSET (studies toward a Master of Wine) certificate holder, a Certified Specialist of Wine, a multi-region Wine Ambassador, and an internationally traveled professional wine judge and educator.

Lexi Stephens (Instagram's lexis winelist) has a finger on the pulse of "everyday" wine lovers but brings a formidable résumé to bear, including passing WSET's Level 3 with distinction and a Bachelor's from Lorenzo de Medici Italian International Institute (specializing in Italian art history, language, food, and culture).

Desiree Harrison-Brown (winonoire on Instagram), enjoying the brilliant east side sunset in Acquiesce Winery estate, is an L.A.-based "wine + lifestyle" blogger who is widely followed because of her story — abandoning an East Coast, 9-to-5 corporate career for the "life of wine," garnering a Level 3 WSET certificate in the process.

Casleah Herwaldt (by the stem on Instagram) is duly impressed by the 135-year-old own-rooted Cinsaut vines in Lodi's Bechthold Vineyard and has leveraged an unmitigated passion for wine and experience as a Certified Sommelier and WSET student into an equally passionate social media following.

The visiting wine influencers are introduced to the historic Bechthold Vineyard (own-rooted Cinsaut originally planted in 1886) by Onesta Wines owner/winemaker Jillian Johnson (right).

Casleah Herwaldt, Lexi Stephens, Desiree Harrison-Brown, and Jamie Knee tasting through Harney Lane Winery vineyard-designate bottlings.

Noël Burgess and Elle Rodriguez paying their respects to the Historic Vineyard Society-certified Marian's Vineyard (own-rooted Zinfandel planted in 1901, now farmed by Mohr-Fry Ranches).

Desiree Harrison-Brown picked out MOG ("material other than grapes") during Phillips Farms' 2021 Bare Ranch Primitivo harvest.

A rare tasting on the site of Kirschenmann Vineyard (Zinfandel planted in 1915) with Turley Wine Cellars/Sandlands Wines winemaker Tegan Passalacqua (left), St. Amant owner/winemaker Stuart Spencer, and Elle Rodriguez.

Elle Rodriguez with Turley Wine Cellars barrels and bottles of Sandilands Wines in Lodi's Kirschenmann Vineyard.

Noël Burgess having a talk with Bokisch Vineyards owner/growers Liz and Markus Bokisch.

Casleah Herwaldt enjoying the pure varietal qualities of Lodi white wine specialist Acquiesce Winery.

The visiting wine influencers having a rare pow-wow with Michael David Winery founder/co-owner/CEO Michael Phillips (center).

Lexi Stephens tries her hand at the arduous task of punching down 1-ton bins of fermenting Syrah at Bokisch Vineyards.

Elle Rodriguez taking the measure of the punch-down paddle in Bokisch Vineyards winery.

A lighter moment at the Bokisch Vineyards sorting line with Desiree Harrison-Brown and Noël Burgess.

Our visiting wine pros getting ready to explore the Lodi appellation via kayak through its main waterway, the Mokelumne River, at Lodi Lake Park.

At Guantonios Wood Oven, Elle Rodriguez gets to meet with Craig Haarmeyer, owner/winemaker of Haarmeyer Wine Cellars who produces Lodi-grown Zinfandel and Chenin blanc.

Desiree Harrison-Brown embarks on her exploration of Lodi's Mokelumne River.



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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