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.
Reports on 2015 Lodi harvest are super-positive thus far
Harney Lane winemaker Chad Joseph is excited about the "perfect" quality of Lodi's 2015 Zinfandel
September 2, 2015 - The Lodi Viticultural Area’s 2015 harvest – which, as in much of California, kicked off in late July – is now entering its second month. This week we asked a few growers and winemakers for their assessments thus far.
Calculated Joy In the Cellar at Harney Lane Winery
“Crazy,” is the first word coming out of the mouth of Kyle Lerner, owner/grower of the prestigious Harney Lane Winery, who farms and owns extensive acreage on Lodi’s east side.
“It’s been crazy fast and a logistical nightmare,” added Lerner. “We started with Albariño on August 15, and soon after we were picking Chardonnay at the same time as Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. Primitivo (a clonal variant of Zinfandel) came in yesterday, and we’ll bring in Petite Sirah next week. We’re basically compressing two months of harvest into three weeks. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the challenge is having enough labor to pick, enough trucks to haul.”
Harney Lane owner/grower Kyle Lerner in his customary harvest-beard
Asked how these circumstances came about, Lerner tells us, “For us, it was a mild summer – vines were able to maintain their canopy structures and bring in a balanced fruit load. So grapes are, just, ready, even if sooner than normal. Yesterday’s Primitivo, for instance, came in at 27°, 27.5° Brix – that’s a little high in sugar, but the pH was about 3.3 and total acidity about .80. This is just amazing – very ‘North Coast,’ considering the ripeness of the fruit.”
Then asked about how this compares with previous vintages, Lerner says, “This is one of those year where each variety we pick, we’re very confident in what we’re bringing in. We had an idea this was happening when our Albariño came in – the sugars where ideal, about 22.5° (which should ferment out to a light, fresh and easy 13% alcohol), the pH was below 3.3 and total acid at .65.”
But it’s not just the “numbers” that seem to bode for an exceptional quality vintage, it’s also the pure and ringing flavors tasted in the grapes and fermentors. Quality-conscious winemakers like to base their picking decisions on the taste of grapes in the field, not on numbers, and this year Harney Lane winemaker Chad Joseph is as giddy as the proverbial baby on a swing.
Says Mr. Joseph, “Lizzy (i.e. Harney Lane’s Lizzy James Vineyard, dominated by vines dating back to 1901) is our barometer. This is our fastest vintage, not necessarily our earliest. We got a little hear spell two weekends ago (August 22-23), so Lizzy’s sugars were a little high by the time we picked – some blocks 25.5°, others 26.5° -- but results are phenomenal. Berry size is small, skins are thicker than normal, and color is the most intense I’ve ever seen. The flavor is already there, in all our lots” – referring to currently fermenting cuvées of Lizzy James Vineyard Zinfandel in macro-bins and tanks, 25% started on native yeast, and the rest with inoculated yeast.
To illustrate the dense quality of the 2015 Lizzy James Zinfandel, Mr. Joseph demonstrated a punch-down of the floating cap of skins formed at the top of a still-fermenting macro-bin (low, open-top, plastic half-ton container). “You see how difficult it is to push down on the cap,” says Joseph, applying muscle to press down with a stainless steel paddle, a tool designed to punch through the rising cap in red wine vats. “We never see this – the thicker skins tell us the wine is more intense than usual, since we get the flavor from the skins. But more telling, it’s in the taste – Lizzy is bursting with meaty, juicy flavor.”
Mr. Lerner chimes in on the unusual quality of the 2015 Lizzy James Vineyard Zinfandel: “It’s a good year, but it’s also the result of 15 years of knowledge working with this vineyard – knowing what the vineyard wants to do, year-in and year-out, and paying attention to every block, every vine. The winemaker often gets the credit, but the vineyard is the most essential thing of all.” Joseph nods in agreement, saying, “My motto has always been that you’re only as good as your grapes, and Lizzy is as good as it gets, especially this year.”
Non-stop Action In Bokisch Vineyards
At the Bokisch Vineyards winery, located further west of the town of Lodi, in the hills classified as Lodi’s Clement Hills sub-appellation, we found winemaker Elyse Egan-Perry pressing the last of this good-sized grower’s 2015 Albariño for a winery-client. The Albariño destined for Bokisch’s own estate bottling was picked more than three weeks earlier (August 5).
Bokisch Vineyards winemaker Elyse Egan-Perry pressing last of 2015 Albarino
“It may seem strange that we’re just getting to this Albariño today. The sugars are higher than our earlier pick – 26° Brix, as opposed to ours, about 23° -- but the acid in this lot is still high, pH about 3.45. That’s the insane thing about this year. It’s not just that we’ve been picking Albariño, Chardonnay, Merlot, even Syrah, all the whites and reds at the same time, in non-stop action over the past three weeks. It's also that the acid balance has been off-the-charts-good.
“All the whites across the board – Albariño, Verdelho, Grenache Blanc, which are finished, and Verdejo still fermenting – have this grapefruit/citrus note. The reds all have acid driven qualities, even the ones picked at higher sugars. Tempranillo (a Spanish black-skinned grape variety notorious for its low acidity) came in at 3.8 pH, which is unheard-of.
“This will not be a year in which any wines will be in need of acidulation. We usually never acidulate our white wines anyway – we just pick them when they’re in balance. But it’s certainly unusual for our red wines.”
Ms. Egan-Perry does not downplay the fast-and-furious nature of the 2015 harvest. “It’s unusual to be picking red varieties at the same time as whites,” she tells us. We’re about to bring in the last of our Graciano from our Terra Alta (in Lodi’s Borden Ranch AVA) and Las Cerezas (Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA) vineyards. After that, all we’ll have left is a little bit of Malbec and Petit Verdot, which we’ll bring in within the next 10 days. As weird as it may sound, we’ll be all done by September 15” – an astonishing prognostication, considering the fact that Lodi harvests typically aren’t completed until the last weeks of October.
For fans of the Bokisch family’s new Tizona brand of Zinfandel, Egan-Perry has good news: “This year we also picked Zinfandel from another old vine vineyard Markus (i.e. Markus Bokisch, Bokisch Vineyards’ owner/grower) just started leasing, which we’re calling Seuss Vineyard, located off Hwy. 88 (on Lodi’s east side). We picked the Kirschenmann Vineyard (a 100-year-old east-side planting owned by Turley Wine Cellars’ Tegan Passalacqua, which Mr. Bokisch also farms and produces wine from) last week Monday (August 25). Kirschenmann came in at about 25° Brix, and the Seuss a little higher at 26° to 28°, but both had really high acids.”
m2 Wines winemaker/co-owner Layne Montgomery barrel-sampling "angry fermenting" 2015 Zinfandel
Angry Fermenting Grape Juice at m2 Wines
Our final stop for this blog report was at m2 Wines, an artisanal style small winery on the west side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA. There we found a sobered Layne Montgomery, m2’s winemaker/co-owner, who told us: “How good is 2015? Our best year ever! Just kidding – we wine producers have to say this every year to get you to loosen up your wallets.
“But seriously, I have no idea how it’s going to turn out, but it’s looking really good. We picked our first lot of Soucie Vineyard (100-year-old Zinfandel planted on Lodi’s far-west side) – part of it for the wild-yeast Lodi Native program – more than two weeks ago. Sugars were at 25° Brix and acid around 3.6 pH, which ain’t normal. I am very impressed by the acid balance – we’re usually picking Soucie at above 27° sugars and 3.9 pH.”
“The Lodi Native lot is now sitting in barrel. It was picked on August 14, then sat in the winery and mocked me for the first five days before it decided to ferment. Then it went ‘boom,’ finished up, and was pressed straight into barrel. That’s just 11 days from field to barrel.”
Tasting us on one barrel of m2’s 2015 Lodi Native Zinfandel, we found the wine to be prickly sharp with acidity, but with lifted, exuberant cranberry fruit sensations along with a smidgen of cherry cobbler sweetness. “Yeah, this barrel is not quite done,” says Montgomery – “right now it’s just angry fermenting grape juice.”
Mr. Montgomery is not quite half-way through his expected picks this year. “We still have Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon out there,” he says. “We’ve crushed 45, 50 tons so far, but we’re planning on 95 to 110 tons by the time we’re done. But I will say this – this time last year we hadn’t done half as much as what we’ve already done this year, and that was considered an ‘early’ year.”
“But hey,” adds Montgomery, “it’s also our best year ever!”
September 1: Winemaker Greg La Follette and Jessie's Grove owner/grower Greg Burns with just-picked Zinfandel from Royal Tee Vineyard (field-mix planted in 1889)