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.
The 1980s and 1990s — start of Lodi wine country's modern era
Dawning of a "Golden Age"
Robert Mondavi was a Lodi Union High School graduate who will always be remembered for significant accomplishments in the wine industry. First, he convinced his father, Cesare Mondavi, a Lodi businessman who entered the grape industry during the early ’20s as a grape packer, to buy Napa Valley's Charles Krug Winery in 1943. Robert and his brother Peter Mondavi operated Charles Krug until their famous falling out, which led to the founding of the groundbreaking Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966.
In 1979, Robert Mondavi returned to Lodi to establish Woodbridge Winery (now called Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi) on the site of the old Cherokee Wine Association co-op, introducing the concept of state-of-the-art winemaking to the community. The significance is that the Mondavi presence contributed enormously to the mindset among Lodi growers of higher quality winegrowing, as opposed to large volume, commodity grape growing. Mondavi’s first Woodbridge wines were a generic “Table Red” and “Table White,” shortened by locals to "Bob Red" and "Bob White.” But they would quickly transition to premium varietal bottlings while playing a major role in encouraging Lodi growers to change over from “bulk wine” grape growing to quality focused “winegrowing,” particularly premium grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Mondavi also coined the expression “The Golden Age of California Wine,” in reference to the period of transition, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when consumer preferences evolved from fortified dessert wines and "jug" wines to higher quality varietal wines.
Transition from varietal wines to handcraft wineries and premium branding
This "Golden Age," sparked by energetic visionaries like Mondavi and the groundswell of consumer interest in higher quality table wines, was also what finally pushed Lodi growers to transition from bulk wine production and to take fuller advantage of the region's natural environment, which has always been conducive to an enormous range of top quality wine grapes, from Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon to Albariño, Tempranillo, Teroldego and Zweigelt.
In 1975, third-generation Lodi grower Steve Borra would quietly attain his bond for tiny Borra Vineyards—the first of Lodi’s modern-day small, or “boutique,”-style wineries. After a few ebbs and flows during its first 25 years, Borra remained one of Lodi’s most innovative family wineries, and finally closed following Mr. Borra's retirement in 2018.
Other early, independent premium-quality Lodi wineries were established by David Lucas, who founded The Lucas Winery in 1978, and Michael Phillips, who in 1984 launched Phillips Winery (quickly changed to Michael David Winery after the discovery of a trademark conflict and reflecting the co-ownership of brother David Phillips). The Phillips family—along with their close cousins, west-side growers such as the Bishofbergers and Maleys—were originally descendants of Andrew Harshner, who arrived in Lodi in the 1860s right after the Civil War to homestead on 160 acres of farmland.
Tim and Barbara Spencer founded their Lodi-based St. Amant Winery in 1981. During their early years, the Spencer family specialized in fortified wines made from specialty Portuguese grapes grown in their vineyard in nearby Amador County. In the late 1990s they developed their lofty reputation for Lodi-grown Zinfandel and Barbera, working hand in hand with top-notch growers such as Mohr-Fry Ranches. Today, Tim and Barbara's son Stuart Spencer wears two hats, as executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission and owner/grower/winemaker of St. Amant Winery.
The Mettler family of Mettler Family Vineyards, founded as a winery in 1998, epitomizes the huge influence of farmers of German descent who arrived in the Lodi area during the late 1890s. Larry Mettler took over the family's farming business in 1970 from his father Carl, who was a sixth-generation farmer. Carl's grandfather, George Mettler, was one of five brothers who immigrated from Germany to South Dakota in the mid-1800s and soon trickled down to San Joaquin County; hence the multiplicity of close-to-distantly related Mettlers in the Lodi area. Mettler Family Vineyards, and its vineyard management arm Arbor Vineyards, has long been known as one of Lodi's leading growers of Cabernet Sauvignon. They are staunch supporters of LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing and also farm vineyards that are certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Both the farming and winery operations are managed by Larry and Charlene's three children: general manager Kim Mettler Eells (whose husband Jason Eels serves as vineyard manager), winemaker Adam Mettler (Wine Enthusiast Magazine's 2018 Winemaker of the Year) and sales manager Kelli Mettler Costamagna.
Still another branch of the Mettler family—George and Kathy Mettler, along with their daughter Jorja, married to grower/co-owner Kyle Lerner—founded Harney Lane Winery in 2006, on a vineyard property farmed by their family since 1907. Since then, Harney Lane Winery has emerged as a leader in terroir-driven, vineyard-designate-style Zinfandel and Chardonnay, while also handcrafting impeccable estate-grown Albariño, Petite Sirah, and Tempranillo. As certified LODI RULES sustainable growers, this branch of the Mettlers remains primarily a grape grower supplying other wineries, but the small percentage of grapes they bottle under their own label has made a huge contribution to Lodi's growing reputation for wines of both regional distinction and quality.
Other than Michael David Winery, no other winery in Lodi has done more to familiarize the average American consumer with Lodi appellation wines than Klinker Brick Winery, owned by fifth-generation grape growers Steve and Lori Felten. The Feltens, also of German descent, arrived in Lodi by way of the Dakotas during the early 1900s. According to Mr. Felton, establishing a winery was a way of "taking destiny into our own hands." The Feltens made the transition from farmers to winemakers in 2000, and their brand quickly found success in every market of the U.S. Barry Gnekow, the vaunted consulting winemaker who also helped launch Michael David Winery's success, continues to work hand in hand with Klinker Brick winemaker Joseph Smith to drive a diverse portfolio of premium quality wines.
Although they would not establish their own winery until 2005, the identical twin brothers Brad and Randall Lange epitomize the Lodi story. Their German-born great-grandparents Johann and Maria Lange arrived in Lodi during the 1870s to find instant success growing watermelons and other crops. The family transitioned to grapes in 1916, and during the 1980s they began working closely with the Mondavis as growers to transition the region to premium grape varieties. Today LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards is one of the largest vineyard owners and vineyard management companies in Lodi, while also operating a large scaled, state of the art winery for both their own labels and as a custom crush facility. As one of Lodi's strongest proponents of sustainability (partially motivated by concerns of succession), the Langes' operations are now led by a fifth generation, who are in the process of raising a sixth.
There have been hiccups during this transition to higher quality wine grapes. For instance, Zinfandel, one of the enduring heritage grapes, was utilized primarily to produce mildly sweet White Zinfandel during the 1980s and 1990s. Although on the one hand the White Zinfandel craze helped preserve many of the older plantings and kept growers from pulling out all the old vines in favor of popular "new" varieties, such as Chardonnay or Merlot, it did not exactly enhance Lodi's reputation as a wine region of quality.
On the other hand, when the Lodi Winegrape Commission was founded in 1991 as a self-imposed consortium of growers dedicated to the promotion and improvement of the Lodi grape-growing industry, old vine Zinfandel was one of the readily identifiable grapes that the entire region could hang its hat on. Since then Lodi growers and wineries have learned to hang their hats on numerous other wine grapes, in lockstep with the market’s steadily growing thirst for more variety and finer wines.
Today, Lodi’s wine grapes go primarily into table wines, the vast majority into voracious pipelines feeding giant companies such as Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, or “parent” producers of numerous popular sub-brands, such as those of E. & J. Gallo, Constellation's former Sebastiani brands, The Wine Group/Franzia and Trinchero Family Estates/Sutter Home.
Despite selling off their enormously successful 7 Deadly Zins brand in 2019, Michael David Winery was still ranked #38 on Wine Business Monthly’s 2020 list of 50 Largest Wineries, with estimated yearly sales of 500,000 cases (puny, of course, compared to E. & J. Gallo’s 70 million cases.) Michael David’s Freakshow brand is now carving out a big chunk of the red-hot $18-20 price category, and their top of the line brands—particularly Rapture Cabernet Sauvignon, Inkblot Cabernet Franc, and Earthquake Zinfandel and Petite Sirah—continue to rack up gold medals, high scores and accolades that drive the market for premium-priced wine. In fact it is fair to say that for the majority of consumers across the country and around the world who now consciously seek “Lodi” on the label, their first introduction to Lodi-grown wine was probably through a Michael David Winery product. In 2020 Michael David Winery was named Wine Enthusiast magazine's "American Winery of the Year."
It has taken a while, but Lodi has also become known for top-quality wines crafted by much smaller producers. Out of the 50 or so independent bonded wineries operating out of physical facilities in the Lodi region today, all but one produce well less than 30,000 cases a year and most them less than a third of that.
The wines produced by these small wineries are of impressive quality for the same reason why grapes like Tokay and Zinfandel have always been able to thrive in the region: Lodi’s mild Mediterranean climate and well-drained soils are naturally conducive to Vitis vinifera, the European family of wine grapes. Consumer tastes may have evolved considerably since 1900, but ideal terroir is still ideal terroir—something that’s always been here in Lodi and will continue to hold the region in good stead as it continues its evolution into a premium wine region.