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
March 6, 2024 | Randy Caparoso

The magic of Tempranillo (particularly with meaty dishes such as chocolate chili)

Tempranillo cluster in Anaya Vineyards, Clements Hills-Lodi AVA.

Tempranillo is not an obvious wine.

Yet by now, you have had either a personal experience or have heard all about this red wine varietal, made from the cultivar of this name that is native to Spain. 

At least within the Lodi appellation, where the varietal has a place of little more importance than in other American wine regions. Among local wineries, there are now as many bottlings of Tempranillo as Cabernet Sauvignon (but not nearly as many as Zinfandel, Lodi's signature variety).

Like Lodi itself, Tempranillo has a bit of history in California. According to records, Tempranillo was planted in California as early as the 1880s. Only, for the first 100 years or so, it was not actually listed by the USDA as Tempranillo, but rather by one of its synonyms, Valdepeñas. 

"Valdepeñas" was never a household name.

Why did Tempranillo go unappreciated for so long in California? Clearly, it's because of the varietal character of the grape: It was not distinctive enough to interest the wine industry anywhere in the country. 

Tempranillo in one of Lodi's oldest blocks, planted on the east side in the mid-1990s.

For instance, in the authoritative 1976 book called Wines, Their Sensory Evaluation (W.H. Freeman and Company), UC Davis professors Maynard Amerine and Edward Roessler did not list Tempranillo among black-skinned grapes having "recognizable varietal character." Rather, the authors singled out grapes such as Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay, Grignolino, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Petite Sirah, Pinot noir, Ruby Cabernet and Zinfandel.

Everyone know that grapes such as Pinot noir and Zinfandel make extravagantly scented and flavorful wines. That Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet France produce pungently rich wines, often with minty/herby qualities. All tangible fruit profiles, not exactly subtle, but something into which consumers and vintners alike can easily sink their teeth. 

Tempranillo, on the other hand, was never even an afterthought. Mostly because even at the most intense levels, its varietal profile tends to add up to little more than hints or suggestions of berryish fruit, more often than not encased in equally faint notes of leather, tobacco, red meat, and/or earthy nuances. 

Low key, earthy qualities are perfectly okay for classic Spanish red wines such as Rioja and Ribera del Duero, where there is more Tempranillo grown than anywhere else in the world. But for the longest time, this was not good enough for Americans, who like a little more emphatic, easily identifiable taste.

Tempranillo harvest in Lodi's Anaya Vineyards.

Therefore, it was not surprising that Tempranillo was not among the varietals leading the state's modern-day wine boom, which began in the 1960s and '70s. It would not be until the late 1990s that pioneering vintners such as Bokisch Vineyards in Lodi, and Abacela in Oregon, would finally begin to lead something of a charge, finally bringing Tempranillo to the attention of American consumers.

But here's the thing: Once a growing segment American consumers learned to appreciate more understated qualities in wines, interest in Tempranillo suddenly soared. A typical Tempranillo may be more earthy than fruit driven in the nose, but it is on the palate that it comes alive. Once it hits the tongue, a typical Tempranillo gives a gripping yet sumptuous sense of fullness. The flavors come across as textured or layered, and seem to roll and flow and fill the palate. 

Yet unlike, say, a typical Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel, it is a palate-feel that rarely comes across with a burdensome impact of bitter tannin, sharp acidity or excess alcohol. Tempranillo is more like... smooth. Foodies would describe this as a savory taste.

Above all, the varietal profile of a good Tempranillo, elusive as it might be, is a boon for food; particularly high myoglobin protein meats with juicy, savory qualities. It is precisely the savory, nuanced nature of Tempranillo that suddenly become more delineated and intense, often in dramatic or surprising fashion, when enjoyed in the context of dishes. This is true of all the great Tempranillo-based reds of Spain, and just as true in many of the finer Tempranillos grown on the West Coast.

Chocolate chili according to

Chocolate chili, a super-natural match for Tempranillo

Of all the dishes often served in Lodi wineries, chocolate chili may be the single most natural dish for Tempranillo. Why? Because of the deeply savory, almost mole-like textured qualities of the dish. The earthy chocolate and moderate spiciness of chocolate chili are big parts of the affinity with Tempranillo. It seems to coax out the restrained qualities of the wine, bringing definition to the low key fruit and earthy nuances intrinsic to the grape. The flavors in both the wine and the dish meet on the palate, like lovers in the the moonlight.

The following recipe is an iteration by Aysegul Sanford of, and serves approximately six.

Sanford recommends ground turkey, but my preferences are either ground grass fed beef or bison. You can also substitute with ground chicken, pork or any of your preferred blends of meat. Use meaty mushrooms as a vegetarian option.

One ingredient you won't find in Sanford's recipe (nor any online) is Lodi sausages. In Lodi, sausages from Lockeford Meat and Sausage are typically added to chocolate chili because, well, this is landmark Lodi neighborhood butcher shop. Its sausages are phenomenal. By all means, any mildly spiced sausage by your own favorite brand is also recommended in chocolate chili (example:'s Chocolate Chili with Chorizo).

Sanford's recipe calls for unsweetened baking chocolate. 93% dark chocolate or authentic Mexican dark chocolate will also work. Sanford cautions against using sweetened cocoa powder, which will make the chili too sweet and diminish the overall complexity (as well as wine affinity) of the dish.

Chocolate chili ingredients.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large onion chopped ~ approximately 1 cup
2 jalapenos seeded and chopped (or serrano chile or bell pepper, according to desired spiciness)
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 lbs ground turkey (for vegetarian option, use cremini or baby Bella mushrooms)
4 cloves garlic minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate roughly chopped
1 large or 2 medium sweet potatoes peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 15 oz. can of black beans, drained and rinsed
1 15 oz. can of red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes with their juices
3 cups chicken stock (beef broth if ground beef is used)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup fresh cilantro roughly chopped - (Optional) plus more as garnish

Optional toppings:
¼ cup sour cream optional
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
1 lime cut into wedges
Maple syrup (drizzle)

Chocolate chili (lavished by Lockeford sausauge) served at Lodi's Harney Lane Winery.

Heat oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot (like a Dutch oven) over medium-high heat. Add onion, jalapenos, chili powder, ground cumin, and ground coriander. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5-6 minutes or until onions are softened.

Add in the ground turkey and cook, breaking the meat with a wooden spoon, until no pink parts remain. Stir in the garlic and tomato paste and cook for another minute or so.

Add in the cocoa powder, unsweetened chocolate, sweet potatoes, black beans, kidney beans, tomatoes, chicken stock, and salt and black pepper. Give it a big stir. Bring it to a boil, turn the heat down to medium-low and let it simmer for 20-25 minutes or until sweet potatoes are fully cooked. If using, stir in the chopped cilantro.

Ladle into bowls. Top each serving with a dollop of sour cream on top and drizzle with a teaspoon of maple syrup and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. Garnish with pumpkin seeds and chopped cilantro, and serve with earthier styles of Lodi red wine (Tempranillo, of course, or a west side grown Zinfandel).

Bokisch Vineyards grower/owner Markus Bokisch attending to Tempranillo in his Las Cerezas Vineyard, Mokelumne River-Lodi.

Notable Lodi Tempranillos

Lodi grown Tempranillos retain the earth toned character of the grape, although the region's particular variant of Mediterranean climate steers the varietal profile into more of a red fruit spectrum (in contrast to darker fruit qualities typical of Spain or Southern Oregon). If anything, a big plus for spice accented dishes.

Some quick notes on a few key Lodi bottlings of Tempranillo, any of which would make a phenomenal match with a dish like chocolate chili:

McCay Cellars, Lot 13 Vineyard, Mokelumne River-Lodi Tempranillo—Fine, silky, medium bodied style with lots of perky "red" fruit qualities (licorice, strawberry, pomegranate) enhanced by French oak vanillin flourishes.

m2 Wines, Kirschenmann Vineyard, Mokelumne River-Lodi Tempranillo—Similar to McCay's bottling but aged in American barrels, giving "sweeter' oak tones to black cherry, cranberry and dusty/earthy qualities in the nose and on the palate, as silky smooth as any Tempranillo.

Harney Lane Winery, Home Ranch, Mokelumne River-Lodi Tempranillo—"Exquisite" is an operative term, despite crafty splashes of toasty oak, accentuating raspberry/violet/plummy fruit intricacies and a meaty, stewy palate feel, almost filagreed in the finish.

Las Cerezas Vineyard Tempranillo, Mokelumne River-Lodi.

Heritage Oak Winery, Mokelumne River-Lodi Tempranillo—Redolent baskets of fresh, lush red fruit veering towards candied cherry and embellished by mildly sweet oak tones, packaged in rounded, silky textured medium body supported by mild tannin and moderately zesty acidity..

Bokisch Vineyards, Liberty Oaks Vineyard, Jahant-Lodi Tempranillo—Multifaceted nose of plump, ripe, spiced red cherry/berry, smidgens of cinnamon, bacon fat, and rose water, couched in a vanillin oak frame suggesting sprigs of dill. Medium-weight body, firm yet svelte with moderate tannin and restrained oak.

Bokisch Family Estate, Las Cerezas Vineyard, Mokelumne River-Lodi Tempranillo—Bing cherry and red berries define an exuberant varietal aroma with a sense of ripeness, all the more amplified by a rich dose of oak—adding subtle notes of tobacco and dark chocolate—plus the characteristically faint, dusty earthiness. Medium-full, meaty feel generously supported by oak.

Tempranillo "jungle" in Silvaspoons Vineyards, Lodi's Alta Mesa AVA.



Lodi Wine Visitor Center
2545 West Turner Road Lodi, CA 95242
Open: Daily 10:00am-5:00pm

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

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