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.
Just picked: one of Lodi’s top Zinfandel vineyards and last of Bechthold Cinsaut
“I was on fire when I woke up this morning,” says Jillian Johnson, the owner/winemaker of Onesta Wines. On Friday, August 30, Ms. Johnson was the last of the slate of stellar winemakers to pick Cinsaut grapes from Bechthold Vineyard, the Lodi AVA‘s oldest vineyard (originally planted by Joseph Spenker in 1886). “I’m always stoked the day I pick Bechthold,” says Johnson. “Year in and year out, this vineyard performs no matter what, giving us beautiful, balanced fruit. It was a great day when Mother Nature first gave us Bechthold.” Johnson, in fact, has been working with Bechthold longer than any of the winemakers currently sourcing from this venerated growth (since 2004, when she was the winemaker for Bonny Doon Vineyard)
Also, early this past Thursday morning (August 29), Bob and Alison Colarossi picked Zinfandel in their home vineyard: one of the first of Lodi’s ultra-premium Zinfandel growths to be picked in harvest 2013. (Note: during the past two weeks, many other growers have been picking Zinfandel at lower sugars, most of which were destined for White Zinfandel vats).
The Colarossis’ Zinfandel is bottled under their Stellina Chiara label, served and sold in the tasting room of Downtown Lodi’s custom crush winery, Estate Crush (owned by the Colarossis, in partnership with Nick and Sandy Sikeotis).
Early in the morning Alison was out in the vineyard with their daughter Chiara, who had run out to check out the action in her colorful pajamas. “The sugars are 25° to 26° Brix,” Ms. Colarossi reported, “and you can taste it – the grapes are deliciously sweet!”
Jonathan Wetmore, the owner of Round Valley Ranches who has been farming the vineyard for the Colarossis the past two years, had one of his all-women crews out, picking the Zinfandel. In case you’re wondering: yes, this is unusual – most picking crews are dominated by men. But according to Wetmore, “I employ all-women crews all year round – they do most of my tying and training of young vines, and a good portion of my pruning.
“When it comes to picking, we get a much cleaner job from the women. They are more meticulous, and they have fast, nimble hands, whereas most guys are out there to pick tons – we end up with more leaves and ‘other material’ when the men do most of the picking. I like to use the women for my better vineyards because they pick the way I want them to pick, and I don’t have to constantly retrain.”
As for the earlier-than-usual August picking of Stellina, Wetmore tells us, “If I had the answer for why this vineyard is always two weeks ahead of all my other Zinfandel vineyards, I’d be a millionaire. Stellina is always on the early side, and that’s all there is to it – we don’t do anything different with it than other vineyards. We pull leaves, we shoot thin, we cut off the water at least a month before harvest, and it still comes in earlier than our other head trained vineyards.”
Insofar as the vintage, Wetmore finds 2013 extremely promising. “This year’s crop is pretty good sized, yet the quality is worthy of this great old vineyard (the 9.5-acre Stellina was planted around 1970), and the fruit is showing a lot of that white pepper spice that always makes this vineyard so interesting.”
Bob Colarossi was even more unabashedly enthusiastic. 2013 will be their sixth vintage since purchasing the property in 2007; and from that perspective, says Mr. Colarossi, “2013 will be a banner year – an incredible vintage. The fruit is delicious and balanced, and once again we will focus on producing a delicate, understated zin that is complex, with our usual spicy finish and just a hint of oak.”
In fact, past vintages of Stellina have been among the most refined, feminine styles of Zinfandel coming out of Lodi (and all of California, for that matter), with flowery, blueberryish fruit aromas tinged with that spiciness – the aromatically “hot” scent of cracked pepper combined with the barky/vanillin eugenol scent of clove – to which both Colarossi and Wetmore allude.
The following morning in Bechthold Vineyard, as she was picking out the M.O.G. (“material other than grapes”) from the T-bins being filled by the all-male picking crew of Phillips Farms (Becthold is organically farmed by Michael David Winery‘s agricultural arm), Jillian Johnson shared her glowing assessment of the 2013 Bechthold Cinsaut: “This is going to be the best harvest we’ve seen in a while… by far. The flavors are very concentrated, intense, yet the acids are pretty high. Berries and clusters are just right, hardly anything small of over-sized. It’s been a dry year, which probably contributed to the intensity.”
According to Johnson, her sugar readings in the north-east corner of Bechthold Vineyard — where the 127-year old vines are the scrawniest and the fruit the most intense because of low water table under the sandy loam soil — were reading just above 25°. Although nearly three degrees higher than what Turley Wine Cellars (who picked 11 days ago) looks for in the Cinsaut, this is exactly where Johnson wants it. “I’m always the last to pick in Bechthold,” says Johnson, “because I’m looking for a little more flavor maturation.”
Turley is always the first to pick their Bechthold Vineyard Cinsaut because they go for a softer, fruitier, partial carbonic maceration style of red wine, and earlier picking gives them the grape acidity to balance that out. For her Onesta Cinsaut, Ms. Johnson will do a partial “bleed” (i.e. saignée) of the juice just before fermenting to intensify the flavors further; and she combines the light pink juice drawn off from her red wine vat with Cinsaut picked at lower sugars at the south end of Bechthold Vineyard (where the ancient vines and clusters are larger because of the higher water table) to produce her luscious, dry Onesta rosé.
Still, the Onesta wines are hardly what you’d call “masculine.” The large berried, fairly delicate skinned Cinsaut grape just does not produce that kind of wine. Instead, you get a silky, fine, perfumed style of red wine, redolent of red fruit qualities resembling, in Johnson’s words, “strawberry-rhubarb pie” — like Pinot Noir, only with a sun baked, Provençal sluttishness.
Finally, this just in: because Ms. Johnson took just 12 tons of Bechthold Cinsaut, this left just over two tons of primo quality fruit still hanging in the center of the vineyard. And so Phillips Farms honcho Kevin Phillips called in a special “mop-up crew” to do some eleventh hour (actually, mid-day) picking: for the first time ever, Michael McCay of Lodi’s celebrated McCay Cellars will be working with a little bit of this prized Cinsaut. As of this writing, Mr. McCay is not 100% sure how he will use the fruit. “It could go into a blend to vastly improve one of my red wines,” he tells us. Whatever he does, it should be interesting.
Two great vineyards that work on their own time table to produce wines of their own distinct character, plus some decidedly women’s touches: what more could a Lodi wine lover want?