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.
Legend of the red shorts & immortal zin
It was on the last day of this past November when we met with Lance Randolph, owner/winemaker of Peirano Estate, one of Lodi’s original landmark wineries; located just off of Hwy. 99, south of Peltier. Mr. Randolph, conspicuously, was wearing a warm flannel shirt and a clean pair of jeans rather than bright red shorts: the latter accoutrement signaling, to the entire Lodi wine community, that harvest 2010 is now officially over.
Wassup with that? A long, long time ago, perhaps when dinosaurs walked the earth, Lance Randolph took to wearing red shorts first purchased on sale from a local sporting goods store because, well, Lodi summers were too darned hot to wear jeans while working his 300 acre vineyard estate. The red shorts, along with Randolph’s “skinny legs,” soon became the butt of unending jokes within the farming community. This went on for a few years until 1994, when at a meeting of Lodi grape growers – following the usual hoots about trunks and appendages – Randolph stood up and explained to his colleagues just why he wore the red shorts.
His story – while not quite as sobering as the lyrics of Johnny Cash’s Man In Black – was that the red shorts were worn from April 1 of each year until the very end of every harvest to protect the grape crops from slings and arrows of natural misfortunes, such as spring frosts and autumn rain storms. Call it superstition, Randolph is now quoted to have said at that fateful meeting, but that piece of red clothing represents “my sacrificial shorts to the weather god.”
Flash forward to November 1, 1997, when the weather forecasts were calling for cold weather with clear skies and “no chance of rain,” and just about all of Lodi’s grapes were picked with the exception of Cabernet Sauvignon, which is always slow to ripen. Thinking that everyone was pretty much home free, Mr. Randolph took off his shorts and put on his jeans. About three hours later the sky suddenly darkened, and two inches of rain came pouring down. Randolph’s cell phone was also deluged – with messages from some 136 growers, all asking the same question: “Lance, do you still have your red shorts on?”
Hours later, while finally getting around to returning all those frantic calls and acknowledging that he had shamefully shirked his wardrobe related responsibility, Randolph slipped his red shorts back on. The rain immediately ceased.
As it turned out, the final load of Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon in 1997 was not picked until early December, at which time Randolph was finally able to don his jeans. Minutes later, it began to rain.
But that’s not all we’re here to talk about. Despite that temporary lapse in judgement, Mr. Randolph has more than accounted for himself during the past two decades as a grower and winemaker: by making darned good wine. Perhaps the quintessential Periano product at the moment is the 2009 Peirano The Immortal Zin Old Vine Zinfandel: a silken smooth, rather elegant rendering of this classically Californian grape; chiseled with fine, yet never overwrought or ungainly, tannins, brightly aromatic notes of wild raspberry and cranberry, and zesty flavors that linger with sprinkles of cocoa dust and scrubby earth.
A balanced style of Zinfandel, Randolph says, that harkens back to a time when “Zinfandel was made to go with foods we actually eat, like pasta and steak,” although his most recent favorite match was The Immortal Zin drunk with “a lamb kabob made with mushrooms and peppers,” during a meal also accompanied by bruschetta, rice pilaf, olives and a Greek style salad.
Even more amazing? Like each and every wine sold under the Peirano label, The Immortal Zin sells for just $12/bottle!
What’s also amazing, in a reverse sort of way, is the fact that even though Randolph began producing wine under the Peirano label in 1992, for about ten years (prior to the ’08 vintage) he wasn’t making an estate grown Zinfandel at all: all the Zinfandel grapes from his vineyard – originally planted by Randolph’s great grandfather, Giacomo Peirano, in 1896 – were being sold to other famous Zinfandel producers, like Rosenblum, Ravenswood and Ridge (the “three Rs,” as Randolph calls them).
But “no more,” says Randolph – “2010 will be the last year when we sell Zinfandel to other wineries… starting in 2011, all Peirano estate grown Zinfandel will stay with Peirano… we have decided to go back to our roots.”
Those roots run as deep as Lodi’s sandy loams. As Randolph tells it, in 1879 a young Giacomo Peirano came to the West Coast with just $50 in his pocket, in search of gold. But rather than go into the prospecting, he started a successful mercantile store (G. Peirano Provisions) in Lodi, which in 1890 allowed him to return to the family nest in Genoa, Italy to collect two things: a blushing bride (named Maria), and a suitcase stuffed with Zinfandel cuttings from the original family vineyard.
After purchasing the 300 acres in Lodi still owned by the family today, Peirano propagated those cuttings and planted them on 75 acres; which remain, according to Randolph, “the largest single block of 100-plus year old, natural rooted Zinfandel vines in existence today.”
Walking with Randolph through these gnarly, twisted, head trained vines, at the moment stripped nearly naked of crinkled leaves by this past Thanksgiving’s steep temperature dips (to 28° F.), we noticed the unusually short, stubby heights of most of the Peirano vines, barely reaching Randolph’s knees. According to Randolph, head trained vines in the late 19th century were usually trained to accommodate the stature of the people who were tending them, and his great grandfather was only five feet tall.
Yet these little Zinfandel “bushes,” with their arms (or spurs) protruding from all sides, are still the ideal way to achieve an even, dappled sunlight exposure for grape clusters, ripening under an umbrella-like canopy of leaves. For Randolph, it works so well that, starting in the nineties, he began to interplant other varieties – namely, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Malbec and Tempranillo – between the ancient Zinfandel vines, following the same traditional style that Giacomo Peirano learned in Italy. “I don’t think you’ll find head trained white wine grapes, or reds like Syrah or Tempranillo, anywhere else in California,” says Randolph, “but it has worked fine for us.”
So fine, that wines like the 2006 Peirano Tempranillo – flush with fresh strawberry/cherry aromas and sumptuous textures as firm and giving as soft Spanish leather – have taken a double-gold at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (Peirano’s current release, the 2007 Tempranillo, took a silver in the same judging in 2010). Evidently, even hoity-toity Bay Area wine judges agree with Randolph, and his painstakingly cultivated, hand harvested approach to producing first class $12 wine!
His great grandfather, Randolph tells us, “was a businessman who sold his grapes to other wineries, but he was totally dedicated to his work in the vineyard, which is why it is in such good shape today.” As with many old Zinfandel plantings, the grapes were shipped to home winemakers on the East Coast and in Canada during Prohibition, and the hard work kept things in good stead even during the difficult years of the Great Depression.
For most of the last century, Peirano grown Zinfandel went exclusively to winemakers like Julio Gallo, who “spent his first summer of vineyard work right here in Lodi, working for my grandfather.” Because of that personal attachment, plus Gallo’s love for both Zinfandel and the Peirano’s heritage planting, Mr. Gallo returned to the family vineyard each year.
Randolph has many childhood memories of Julio Gallo walking through the fields with his father and grandfather. Says Randolph, Gallo had an “extraordinary palate” and was very much a “hands-on winemaker,” but “there was no Peirano label wine made until my father was finally able to let go and let me take an active role in the business, and we were able to start a bonded winery in 1992.”
Because of the Peirano provenance just west of Hwy. 99 (in fact, their historic home had to be moved back from its original location, which would now be in the middle of the bustling freeway), the Lodi community also began to beg the family to open a tasting room; which they finally did, in the old family home, in 1999. “We think of Peirano Estate as the ‘drive-by’ introduction to Lodi for lot of people,” Randolph laughingly says, although the Peirano name is now known far beyond Lodi – their wines successfully distributed in 35 other states besides California.
As with any well respected winery, that success has been driven primarily by quality in the bottle: the Peirano brand has established itself as a solid source of reliably smooth yet richly composed wines like the 2008 Peirano Cabernet Sauvignon and 2009 Peirano Petite Sirah.
Even more successful for Randolph – in this age of fickle consumers always on the prowl for the new-and-exciting – has been his creative blends: like the easy going, off-dry, opulently fruited 2007 The Other White (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier); and the deliciously smooth yet spicy scented 2008 Peirano The Other Red (Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot and Syrah). Like all the Peirano wines, carrying that recession shattering $12 price tag – something possible only in places like Lodi, where long and continuously family owned vineyards still rule the roost!
Perhaps the most intriguing Peirano blend of all? As you might suspect: the dry yet deftly balanced, zesty edged, strikingly Italian-ish 2006 Peirano Red Shorts red wine blend (mostly Syrah with Petite Sirah, and smidgens of Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier). For if anything, you can now always be rest assured: Lance Randolph takes his duties as a winemaker and Lodi grape grower seriously!