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
December 13, 2010 | Randy Caparoso

M marks the spot for outrageous zins

A history of Zinfandel crystallizied by the old soldiers behind Macchia’s Outrageous…

However Yoda-like as it may sound, when Tim Holdener, winemaker/proprietor of Lodi’s Macchia Wines, talks about how he earned his reputation as a Lodi zin master, he likes to use the phrase,  “treat the vine like a man, and the wine like a woman.”

Meaning:  if grape vines you stress, even treating them harshly by withholding water and excising severe cluster thinning, possible it is to grow more flavorful grapes; and once those grapes are in the winery, apply you must the gentlest of techniques to coax the most graceful and intense qualities possible out of that fruit.  Ipso fact:  outrageously good Zinfandel!

Case in point:  the 2009 Macchia Outrageous Old Vine Zinfandel ($18), sourced from Noma Ranch, an 80 to 100 year old Mokelumne River AVA vineyard located on the east side of the town of Lodi, where the soil is especially deep, porous, yet rich in sandy, silty loam.  Unlike over 99% of Lodi’s vineyards, however, Noma has always been dry farmed, and so most of its vines have grown low to the ground, barely two feet high, and stunted looking; many of the plants looking like they are crawling, under sparse foliage like creased, balding men, yet still managing to deliver the goods from prone, almost horizontal positions.  Those goods:

1. Extremely low yields – Noma Ranch couldn’t produce more than 2 tons per acre even if it tried (in some years the yield is closer to half a ton, compared to the 4 tons typical of most of Lodi’s older plantings).

2.  An extreme, “outrageous,” off-the-charts intensity of Zinfandel aromas and flavors resonating wild berries; and elevated by a heightened acidity that gives Noma grown zins their signature zestiness, and the type of chocolaty textures that send Zinfandel lovers into swoons.

The ’09 Outrageous is nothing if typically Noma-ish:  thick velvet cords of concentrated, bobbing blackberry jam; and despite its full scaled 16% alcohol, balancing on the palate like a mattress on a bottle of wine.  Even the aromas scrape the eyelids like smoke in autumn; and the initial taste is wild, even uncouth, while the finish is sleek, unblemished, uncommonly fine – like Angelina Jolie, dressed to kill in designer silks.Says Holdener, “year in and year out, Noma is probably our most consistent vineyard in terms of intensity and complexity, and without a doubt it’s the dry farming, the low yields, the size of the vines, the smaller than usual size of the clusters, and the uneven size of the berries in each cluster that make it one of Lodi’s most unique wines.  When you taste Noma, you always know it’s Noma.

“Some of that is the elevated acidity which always gives Noma that brightness; and some of it is the tiny bit of residual that is often left in some of the barrels.  Even though Noma is usually picked earlier than other vineyards, the grapes come in with so much concentration that it doesn’t always ferment completely dry.  But that’s okay, because barrels that are a little over the edge, we can always blend back into our larger blends like Mischievous, and separate the best barrels for our Outrageous and Oblivious bottlings.”

Which begs some further thought process, like:  if ragtag, water deprived old vines like Noma’s are able to consistently produce such beautiful fruit, why are most of Lodi’s old vines either equipped with irrigation lines or furrow irrigated?  The immediate answer is Lodi’s recent history:  up until ten, fifteen years ago almost all of Lodi’s Zinfandel plantings needed to be cropped for maximum yields because they were going into inexpensive White Zinfandel rather than ultra-premium quality red Zinfandel.  Sure, as they say, the first duty of all good wine is to be red, not white or pink; but if the White Zinfandel craze had never happened, no doubt most of Lodi’s 50, 80, 100+ year old Zinfandel vines would have been pulled out long ago, and replaced with grapes like (gasp) Chardonnay or Merlot.

Although most of Lodi’s old zin plantings are indeed irrigated, the reality is that the vineyards going into the best of Lodi’s Zinfandels see very irrigation anyway (the operative industry term being “deficit irrigation” – somewhat like Fabio taking an inch off the ends).

But it wasn’t always like that.  When winegrowers from the “old country” – Italy or Spain, Portugal, Greece, Germany or France – first flocked to America 100 to 150 years ago, they often staked out their plantings on hillsides with poor, shallow, rocky soils, because their conventional wisdom dictated that vines need to be “stressed” to an extreme to make flavorful wines.

Part and parcel of this vines-are-meant-to-suffer tradition was the idea that vineyards also need to be dry farmed.  In fact, the custom of withholding water has remained so ingrained in European cultures, to this day the highest quality wines in regional classifications like France’s Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) and Spain’s Denominación de Origen (DO) also ban the use of irrigation.  The thinking being:  if you give the vines that produce the best wines a drink of water, then they overproduce, and the quality and flavor distinctions of those wines become blurred – tasting all the same.  In which case, why have a classification system at all?

Makes sense – just not in California, where the value of individual regional and vineyard delineations have only recently begun to be appreciated, much less understood.  But times change, like people and preferences; and part of the recent changes seen on the West Coast has been a resurgence of interest in old fashioned dry farming.  Zinfandel specialists like Turley Wine Cellars, for instance, have practically made a fetish out of identifying and preserving old, dry farmed sites, and have been rewarded by critical acclaim and the prestige of “cult” status.

Even big, commercial wineries like Napa Valley’s Frog’s Leap now cultivate hundreds of non-irrigated vineyards out of the firm belief that dry farming, combined with cover cropping and tilling, leads to deeper rooting, and hence healthier vines and, ultimately, higher quality wines.  This deliberate movement back to ways of the “olden days” also fits in with contemporary values like sustainability, water conservation, and less alcoholic, more food friendly wines, and more power to that!

In Lodi, deep rooted vines have never been an issue, with or without irrigation:  growers here have never had to deal with issues like clay or sedimentary hardpans, and shallow soils and rooting zones eaten alive by root louse like the infamous phylloxera.  That’s why thousands of Lodi’s old vine acreage remain ungrafted – why bother in these naturally friable yet rich, ridiculously deep (over 30 feet in most parts of the Mokelumne River AVA) soils, where vines can thrive even on their own rootstocks largerly impervious to phylloxea?

The first generation of grape growers arriving in Lodi before and after the turn of the twentieth century found a Delta influenced terroir so friendly to virtually any variety of Vitis vinifera, Lodi’s reputation within the wine industry soon became that of a place to grow good quality grapes with ease and, better yet, low costs:  a perfect storm for the bulk wine industry.

Ah, but therein lies the rub:  that same moderate climate (Lodi’s seasonal temperature readings are pretty much identical to regions like mid-Napa Valley) combined with a plethora of healthy, long established plantings (especially Zinfandel!) also make Lodi capable of producing wines as rich, varied and interesting as anywhere on the West Coast.

Yet make no mistake:  there has never been a direct correlation between lower yields, water deprivation, and pure quality.  At Noma Ranch, one ton per acre results in great quality because that’s the balance these bonsai sized plants have naturally found under the stress of a century of dry farming.  For most of Lodi’s old vine plantings, optimal quality is hit at yields closer to 4 tons/acre, given the fuller size of the plants growing in richer soil regimes, carefully managed with deficit irrigation.

One thing that does correlate, though, is value:  recently, in toe-to-toe tastings, many of Lodi’s $10 to $25 Zinfandels have consistently equaled or surpassed Zinfandels from, say, Napa Valley or Sonoma, selling for $25 to over $50.  The equalizing factor?  Those longtime family owned 50 to 100+ year old plantings in Lodi, adding up to over 40% of all the Zinfandel crushed in California each year.

It may sound simplistic to say that all it took was a will to find the way, but for Lodi, that’s what has basically transpired over the past ten or so years.  Following the lead of higher quality minded producers like The Lucas Winery’s David Lucas and Heather Pyle, and the success of the Phillips family behind Michael-David Winery, wineries like Macchia quickly found its niche – or “spot,” as the word macchia translates from Italian – by harnessing the power hidden beneath Lodi’s Delta terroir.

Not too long ago, in the late nineties, Mr. Holdener was still a home winemaker, fooling around with a few barrels in his garage, and just dreaming the life of a zin master.  Now he practices his calling everyday; producing over 10,000 cases of über-concentrated old vine Zinfandel each year, and easily selling every drop to a growing legion of enlightened followers.

So what if the national press hasn’t gotten the memo quite yet.  Mais fica.  Besides, according to Holdener, “I don’t mind the role of underdog we play in Lodi.  Most ‘experts’ still think we are a Central Valley hot climate grapegrowing region.  But then we come out on top in all the blind tastings… and I love it even more!”


Noma's dry farmed Zinfandel



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