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 21, 2019 | Randy Caparoso

Portraits of Lodi's passionate vignerons over the past year (2019!)

Third generation Lodi grower Ben Kolber (KG Vineyard Management) with his beloved old Chevy during a LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing gathering this past spring at m2 Wines winery

The French word for wine producer is vigneron. There is no real translation for it, but it refers to a person who grows grapes and turns them into wine, based upon an assumption that this person is always one and the same, both farmer and winemaker.

In that sense, vigneron sort of means "winegrower," inferring that wine is not so much made as it is grown, like any other agricultural product. That describes the Lodi Viticultural Area perfectly: America's largest winegrowing region, where wine grape growers are the dominant force, and winemakers and wineries are an extension of that industry.

Sometimes it takes an "outside" observer to elucidate the meaning of that. In the most recent issue of a nationally read wine trade magazine called The SOMM Journal (December 2019/January 2020), a restaurant sommelier from Austin, Texas penned a nice, little article on her visit to Lodi last summer, entitled Why Lodi? According to the author Krista Church, when colleagues learned that she was visiting Lodi they asked: "Why Lodi? I understood their incredulity... I don't know what I expected when I arrived, but I know that the actual experience defied anything I could have imagined."

Visting Austin sommelier Krista Church (right) testing the sandy soil with a post digger in Harney Lane Winery's ancient vine Lizzy James Vineyard, to the amusement of Chicago sommelier Ali Martin 

What seemed to have impressed Ms. Church the most was the passion ingrained in both the vines and veins of the people farming the land and producing the wines. Lodi wine, she wrote, is "the product of a hundred years of hard work and land stewardship. Many of Lodi's vineyards have been in the same family for generations. The majority of their winemaking clans are farmers first, taking great care to preserve the land that will be passed down to their descendants."

Therefore, as Church quickly discovered, "The answer to the aforementioned question 'Why Lodi?' is increasingly easy to answer. The region has been a well-kept secret in the California wine world, but there's a new horizon in view for its farming families and innovative winemakers, and it's an honor to be on the front lines of this movement."

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards manager Brett Koth, a third generation Lodi grower, showing rare (for California) Zweigelt grapes to visiting sommeliers

As we've done every year since establishing our blog, in 2019 we've taken numerous photos of these Lodi (shall we say?) vignerons. Many of them are both growers and winemakers, and many of them strictly growers. Most are the faces of third, fourth or even fifth generation winegrowers. Lodi's sixth generation, for the most part, is just coming out of high schools or colleges, but in a few more years we'll be photographing them as well. 

Then there are the faces of those who are not from long established Lodi families, but rather growers and vintners who are relatively new to the region — arriving over the past 20 or 30 years, a handful just 5 or or so years ago — who have embraced the Lodi grape culture and are now playing important roles. To both locals and the growing number of avid Lodi wine lovers, these "newcomers" have become as familiar as those whose families have been here for over 100 years.

We hope you enjoy looking over these portraits as much as we had taking them!

The Lodi "force" is strong in this one: Aaron Shinn, who traces Lodi farming roots on all sides of his family as far back as the 1850s, and now manages some of Lodi's most prestigious vineyards for his uncle Jon Wetmore's Round Valley Ranches as well as his own Shinn Farms

Third generation Lodi vineyard manager Alex Lopez, who now manages contacts for Galvan Farm Labor Service

Tyler and Amy Blagg, wine grape, hay and dairy farmers with long family histories in Lodi (particularly Ms. Blagg,  coming out of the Valente family who have been farming Lodi grapes and dairy since the 1920s, and who now leads winegrowers as the Executive Director of Lodi District Growers Association)

Aaron Lange, a fifth generation vineyard manager for LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards, one of the leaders and foundations upon which the modern day Lodi winegrowing industry has been built

Super-power trio in one of Mohr-Fry Ranches' classic old vine Zinfandel blocks: from left, Chad Joseph (celebrated consulting winemaker for wineries such as Harney Lane and Oak Farm), Bruce Fry (Mohr-Fry Ranches GM), and Stuart Spencer (owner/winemaker of St. Amant Winery and Executive Director of Lodi Winegrape Commission)

Third generation winegrower Craig Ledbetter who is VP/Partner of Vino Farms, the award winning, industry leading Lodi based company that now owns and/or farms over 15,000 acres of vineyards throughout California, largely under LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing

Heather Pyle Lucas, who came to Lodi 22 years ago after a successful career as head winemaker for Robert Mondavi, and became one of region's most respected consulting winemakers while managing the vineyard and crafting the wines for The Lucas Winery estate with husband David Lucas

The "Greg" dynamic: The internationally celebrated Alquimista Cellars winemaker/co-owner Greg La Follette (left) and Jessie's Grove's fifth generation Lodi winegrower Greg Burns, field sampling Zinfandel grapes from Mr. Burns' 1889 block (in 2019 La Follette harvested Alquimista's fifth vintage of Jessie's Grove ancient vine Zinfandel)

Jeff Perlegos, whose farming parents originally immigrated from Greece, and who now owns and farms vineyards with his brother John on both the east and west sides of Lodi — including the Stampede Vineyard in Clements Hills (bottled as a vineyard-designate Zinfandel by several prestige wineries)

Anaya Vineyards owner/winemaker Gerardo Espinosa showing off estate grown 2019 Petite Sirah with his uncle Ramon Anaya — the latter, a second generation Lodi farmer and businessman who grows 90 acres of grapes in Lodi's Clements Hills with his three brothers, Victor Jr., Gerardo and Ramon Anaya

Oak Farm Vineyards owners Heather and Dan Panella — the Panella family leading the Lodi community as both farmers and truckers (Panella Trucking LLC) since 1934, after immigrating from Campania in Italy

Recent Lodi transplant Elyse Egan Perry, who handily manages the complex job of leading the winemaking team at Bokisch Vineyards (which includes custom winemaking for a number of other winery/grape buyers)

Jason Eells, vineyard manager for Mettler Family Vineyards, a huge presence in the Lodi wine community since the late 1890s

McManis Family Vineyards' Dirk Heuvel (left) and Ed Bianchi, both San Joaquin Valley natives who manage vineyards extending from Ripon (further south in the River Junction AVA) all the way to Lodi (in the latter, a total 1,775 acres in 7 separate vineyards, located in four of Lodi's AVAs)

Vino Farms' widely respected viticulturist Chris Storm with his wife Jana, enjoying a break with the wine industry at the annual ZinFest Vintner's Grille (where Lodi growers and vintners cut loose each May with live music and dancing under the stars)

Harney Lane owner/growers Jorja and Kyle Lerner, who operate their acclaimed winery as well as the Mettler & Son vineyard management company, representing another branch of the Mettlers who arrived in Lodi at the turn of the last century

Onesta Wines owner/winemaker Jillian Johnson DeLeon who, while based in Napa, has become so familiar to the community of Lodi vintners that she is considered very much a part of the "family"

Kathy Stonum, the owner/grower/winemaker of tiny Stonum Vineyards (establishing its creds with highly refined estate grown Zinfandel), carrying on the work of carving out this Alpine Rd. family-run estate that she started in 1979 with her late brother Mike Stonum

LangeTwins Family's winemaking team of Karen Birmingham and David Akiyoshi, who bring over 50 years of combined oenological expertise to a growing portfolio of single-vineyard labeled wines capturing the absolute best of Lodi "terroirs"

The closest thing to a "cult" winemaker/owner in Lodi: Markus Wine Co.'s Markus Niggli, who first came to Lodi 15 years ago to manage Borra Vineyards (now operating as a vineyard company, but no longer as a winery), now crafting exquisite and bewilderingly varied blends that are wowing wine cognoscente from Hawaii to New York

For going on 20 years, m2 winemaker/co-owner Layne Montgomery (left) has been teaming up with third generation Lodi grower Kevin Soucie (whose grandfather first planted his family's own-rooted Zinfandel in 1916) to produce the distinctive all-time Lodi classic, m2 Soucie Vineyard Zinfandel

Fifth generation Lodi farmer Kevin Phillips, who serves as VP of Operations guiding the growing fortunes of the wildly successful Michael David Winery, a cumulation of work and dedication to the Lodi community dating back to the 1860s

A visibly tired and bleary Michael McCay, owner/grower/winemaker of McCay Cellars, in the middle of about 3 weeks of relentless, day and night picking during the 2019 harvest of over a dozen vineyards on both sides of the Lodi appellation

Mario Galvan, one of the Lodi winegrowing industry's "go-to" guys as owner of his Galvan Farm Labor Service, during a picking with one of his crews (numbering over 100 at any given time during the harvest) in one of Jessie's Grove's 1940s Zinfandel blocks

Michael Klouda, who arrived in Lodi from the Midwest just ten years ago with barely more than a guitar case and sack of clothes, but quickly worked up to the position of Viticulturist for Michael David Winery's farming arm (Phillips Farms) while also starting up his own, handcraft Michael Klouda Wines ("MK") wine production business

Bokisch Vineyards owner/grower/vintners Markus and Liz Bokisch showing off clusters of Albariño from two of their vineyards, now numbering over 2,500 acres in five of Lodi's appellations, reflecting tremendously successful growth as both a premium grape supplier (since the mid-1990s) and winery (established in 2001)

R & G Schatz Farms and Peltier Winery owner Rod Schatz, a third generation Lodi grower and one of the region's most successful visionaries

Ron Silva — whose family came to California among the first wave of Portuguese grape and dairy farming emigrants around 1910 — in his Alta Mesa-Lodi AVA vineyard and cattle ranch, called Silvaspoons Vineyards because nearly all the grapes he grows seem to reap medals (from silvers and golds to Best of Shows) for all the wineries that buy them

The story of Rudy Maggio and his daughter Raquel Maggio-Casity, who own and operate Lodi's Oak Ridge Winery, is a familiar one: the Maggios arrived in California straight from Italy in 1906, and then during Prohibition became grape packers (like other Italian families, such as the Mondavis), and have been growing grapes in Lodi since 1928, through famine and feast, thick or thin

Just over three years ago Dr. Stephanie Bolton arrived from Georgia to take the reins as director of grower relations, education and sustainable winegrowing for the Lodi Winegrape Commission; and she has been so successful that Lodi growers have been threatening to marry her into a local family so that she gets "stuck in Lodi" forever

Scott Kirkpatrick — one of several new, Napa based, "cool kid" winemakers drawn to Lodi for the region's phenomenal range of grapes — specializes exclusively in Petite Sirah bottled under his Mountain Tides label, such as one grown by the Anaya family at Viñedos Aurora Vineyard, where Kirkpatrick is depicted in this photo

Ah, the romance (in reality, the drudgery) of the endless days of harvest: Acquiesce owner/grower/winemaker Sue Tipton who personally processes each and every grape among the 63-plus TONS of fruit harvested each year in her acclaimed estate

2019 ancient vine Jessie's Grove Carignan packed up for renowned Turley Wine Cellars winemaker Tegan Passalacqua, who became so enamored by Lodi grapes that six years ago he purchased his own ancient vine Lodi Zinfandel block (Kirschenmann Vineyard, planted in 1915), and soon after an old house and quonset hut building in the little town of Victor where he intends to establish his own brand of wines (called Sandlands)

Spenker Winery's Sarah Spenker pours Zinfandel grown by her father Chuck Spenker, with sister Kate preparing samples of farmstead goat cheese crafted by her winemaker/mother Bettyann Spenker (not in photo) for the family's Spenker Family Winery & Artisan Creamery, located on the west side of Lodi along N. DeVries Rd.

Klinker Brick Winery owner/grower Steve Felten with his daughter Farrah Felten Jolley, who markets the family's high profile wines across the entire U.S., contributing enormously to the positive reputation of "Lodi" in general

Heritage Oak Winery's Tom and Carmela Hoffman, who returned from South America some 40 years ago to take over the Hoffmans' 186-acre riverside property, thus extending a family legacy in Lodi dating back to 1868

LVVR Sparkling Cellars owner/winemaker Eric Donaldson, who recently set down roots in Lodi and turned his curiosity with classic champagne style winemaking into an acclaimed independent winery business

Lodi's newest generation! Sierra Zeiter, born and raised in Lodi and now spreading her wings as a burgeoning winemaking talent at Oak Farm Vineyards




Lodi Wine Visitor Center
2545 West Turner Road Lodi, CA 95242
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Lodi Winegrape Commission
2545 West Turner Road, Lodi, CA 95242
Open: Monday-Friday 8:00am-5:00pm

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