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.
Voluptuary + Lucid embraces Lodi grapes like gifts of nature, perfectly suitable for adventurous winemaking
A "natural" winemaker in flux
There is a micro-winery located in our State Capitol of Sacramento owned by a winemaker named Kevin Luther. Mr. Luther bottles wines under his Voluptuary + Lucid brand, all with curious, almost dreamy, artistic labels reflecting the restless disposition of the winemaker himself.
Not that Voluptuary + Lucid wines are "all about Kevin." Surprisingly, they are not, despite the continuous compulsion to explore perspectives and techniques on the part of this particular Kevin in question.
Take the matter of what is called "skin-contact white wine" which is when winemakers ferment white wine grapes on their skins rather than doing the usual thing, which is to separate the juice from the skins before starting fermentation in order to avoid the bitter components (called phenolics) found in skins, to make a typically smooth, fresh white wine. Skin-fermented whites are also often called "orange" wines, in reference to the deep brassy color (as opposed to pale or translucent straw colors typifying white wines) derived from the pigments in the skins of white wine grapes.
Three years ago Mr. Luther was taking Lodi-grown Picquepoul grapes—bottled as Picpoul Blanc in California—and producing three different kinds of wines from them: 1) a traditional champagne method sparkling wine; 2) a conventional barrel fermented, oak-aged white wine (not unlike many Chardonnays); and 3) a more unusual, nose-tingling, meaty skin-contact style of wine. Each variant of the varietal, is compelling in its own way.
Then two years ago, working with the 2020 vintage, Mr. Luther changed course and decided to ferment all of his Piquepoul—grown, incidentally, by the Bokisch family in their Terra Alta Vineyard, located on the rolling slopes of Lodi's Clements Hills AVA—on the skins, mostly because that was the style many of his subscribers seemed to like.
This past week (in March 2023) when I returned to Voluptuary + Lucid's winery/tasting room in Sacramento, the very first thing Mr. Luther said was this: "I have decided to back off of skin-contact whites, which I'm finding to be very 'niche'—it's not for everyone, certainly not to all my customers's taste. Instead, more people seem to be gravitating towards crisp, fresh styles of whites, which I personally prefer anyway."
In fact, Luther went on to explain: "My style is going away from the idea of 'natural' wines in general, at least in an extremist, dogmatic sense. I'll still continue to buy only organic grapes, but the goal was never to make natural wines, it was to make great wines. What I'd like to become known for are wines that do not necessarily check off all the 'natural' boxes—like native yeast fermentation, minimal or no sulfites, no betonite [a clay material used to clarify white wines], etc.—yet taste as fresh and natural as possible."
Behold, Mr. Luther's latest iteration of Piquepoul: the 2021 Lucid "Tethered Sky" Clements Hills-Lodi Picpoul Blanc ($28), sourced from Bokisch's organic certified Terra Alta Vineyard. This pale gold wine is pungent with aromas of dried apricot, wild honey, and lemon curd; sharply dry, light (11.8% alcohol), and silky on the palate, yet retaining a tart edginess and a subtle, "wild," animal-like note (think of woody/resiny kitchen herbs rubbed between fingers) in the nose.
Explains Luther, "The 2021 Picpoul has a trace of that funk many wine lovers who like natural style wines look for, but it's much fresher than that. The grapes sat on skins for 1 to 3 days—not long enough to turn into an 'orange' wine—but the main reason it hits its mark is that I inoculated for fermentation, but also added a small amount of a 'yeast bay'—a mix of about 100 different kinds of organic yeasts mixed in a jar, which helped create a microbial diversity. The cultured yeasts still did most of the work, but there was just enough of an impact of wild yeasts to give the wine a touch of wildness. After fermentation, the wine was aged in a combination of neutral French oak barrels and stainless steel, before going to bottle."
In other words, this gold-tinted white is not exactly the kind of wine you could describe as free from a winemaker's machinations. Luther's winemaking decisions add up a lot. Yet the wine comes across as naturalistic—it is more like a jarring, palate-scraping, unedited expression of Piquepoul grown in Lodi's Clements Hills. The difference between this Picpoul Blanc and a conventionally made Picpoul Blanc may be subtle—like the differences between raw honey and pasteurized honey—but no question, they're not the same. Luther's 2021 Picpoul Blanc is far from conventional.
2021 Lucid "Tethered Sky" Clements Hills-Lodi Picpoul Blanc.
What is the most important quality factor, a winemaker, a vineyard, or nature?
"Real wine," the great wine importer Kermit Lynch once wrote in Adventures on the Wine Route, "is more than an alcoholic beverage. When you taste one from a noble terroir that is well made, that is intact and alive, you think there is a gift of nature, the fruit of the vine eked out of our earth, ripened by our sun, fashioned by man."
Terroir—or a sense of place, mostly in a geographical sense—is the first operative term in Lynch's observation. The second is "nature," because Mother Nature is always the final arbiter in the quality and character of the best wines. The third is "man"—because wine doesn't make itself, it needs mortal intervention.
"There is so much contained in a glass of wine," Lynch goes on to say. "It is a gift of nature that tastes of man's foibles, his sense of the beautiful, his idealism and virtuosity."
That said, it is only natural that, as wine lovers, we often fall into the sway of the concept of "winemaker," or the individual artists behind the most impressive wines. In these days of hype and hero-worshipping, we often give more credit to winemakers than to nature, to variabilities of vintages, to vineyard sites, or to growers who farm them.
From our perspective: Talented winemakers deserve to be celebrated, like all exceptional artists or craftsmen. But the best winemakers of all may be those who respect nature enough to leave well enough alone. These are the winemakers who are less concerned with leaving their personal "stamp" or brand on a wine, and more focused on bringing out the best in a vineyard, a region, or a clarity of character natural to grapes.
In Lodi, we are open to the work of minimal intervention vintners because, frankly, Lodi is a region that is just beginning to carve out its place in the wine world, despite a history of winegrowing going back 160 years. Lodi-grown wines that express the best natural attributes of Lodi as a wine region can only be a good thing. To know, know, know Lodi is to love, love, love Lodi—if that can be captured in a glass, all the better.
Lodi is easily the largest wine-growing region in the country because it produces most of the grapes going into the domestic wines seen in grocery and liquor stores, where most wine consumers shop. Because of that, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the reason most American grapes come from Lodi is that it is an extremely grape-friendly environment.
Fifty, sixty years ago regions such as Napa Valley and Sonoma County served the exact same purpose. Giant wineries such as E. & J. Gallo used to buy most of the grapes grown in Napa and Sonoma because of the simple fact that these are great wine regions. Now most of the grapes going to big wineries come from Lodi but for the same ol' reason. It is a great place for wine growing.
Lodi may be best for whites, rosés... or something in-between
"It's funny," says Luther, "that Lodi is known for red wines, but all I buy from Lodi are grapes for whites and rosés."
The knock on warm climate regions such as Lodi is that grapes do not ripen with as much natural acidity as colder climate regions, or that grapes ripen so well that wines end up "big" with high alcohol. Luther clearly believes that this assumption is just plain wrong. He simply picks Lodi grapes earlier in the season, preferably around 21° Brix (i.e., grape sugar reading) or less when the grapes are still plenty high in natural acidity. Not only does this result in finished alcohol levels below 12%, but it also results in wines with a touch of minerality—the opposite sensory quality of fruitiness for which California wines, in gene are assumed to have an excess of—because the combination of elevated acidity and lower alcohol is naturally conducive to sensory qualities in wines suggesting minerals.
The 2022 Lucid L.17 "Flying Lesson" Clements Hills-Lodi Albariño ($28), also grown by Bokisch, is a perfect example of that lightness and tartness giving rise to a pervasive, almost briny minerality punctuating fragrant orange blossom and citrus aromas, perceptive throughout the wine's silky textured, bone dry and feathery feel (just 11.8% alcohol) on the palate. "The 2021 Albariño goes the opposite direction of the funky style associated with natural wines," says Luther. "This is more the kind of wine I like to drink—early picked, crisp, fresh, intense in varietal character."
But just to show that he still has a playful streak, Luther also produces little 187 ML sized bottles of Albariño in the partially sparkling style called "pet-nat" (short for pétillant-naturel, an ancient French style of sparkling wine made by capping a fermenting bottle before its fermentation is finished, thus trapping the bubbles). Luther sells the single-portion bottles of 2021 Lucid L.17 "Flying Lesson" Pet-Nat Clements Hills-Lodi Albariño ($11) in his tasting room. If anything, the mild effervescence trapped in the bottle makes the citrus/mineral varietal fragrance even more pungent, tingling the nostrils with touches of honeyed lemon and marmalade. "Mine is more of a hybrid between champagne and typical pet-nat," says Luther, "not quite as sharp, but cleaner and fresher than most pet-nats."
Following Luther's penchant for early picked, tart, light styles of dry whites, a briny minerality in the 2022 Lucid L.21 "The Lady In Gold" Clements Hills-Lodi Viognier ($28) only seems to lift the flowery, tropical scented nose, while pushing a sense of resiny herbiness in a silken fine, balanced, even-keeled body weighing in at only 12.8% alcohol. "This will be the last Viognier coming out of Bokisch's Terra Alta Vineyard," says Luther. "I'm told that they've decided to pull out their block of the grape."
Falling more on the esoteric side, the 2021 Lucid L.01 "Skin Contact" Clements Hills-Lodi White Wine ($28) is a Bokisch-grown blend of Chardonnay (85%) and Viognier (15%). It's almost sad that, as Luther says, "This may be the last skin-contact white I may make," because this gold-tinted wine has a compellingly intense dried apricot perfume tinged with a vivid gingery spicy, a touch of mineral and herbiness that you would never find in a conventionally fashioned Chardonnay, with or without Viognier. On the palate, the wine is meaty textured, and mouth-filling despite its relatively lightweight (12.8% alcohol). Some of the complexity, Luther admits, comes from a sneaky use of acacia, apple, and peach staves inserted into neutral French oak barrels. "The notes of 'other woods' are subtle," says Luther, "but help maximize the exotic character that the skin-fermented Viognier brings to the blend."
Many Lodi growers, particularly Markus Bokisch, have been touting the specialness of the 2022 vintage—Mother Nature was kind enough to bestow her blessings this past year. The 2022 wines of all colors are already showing an extra dimension of fruit character in the wineries. The 2022 Lucid L.18 "Visitation" Clements Hills-Lodi Grenache Rosé ($23) is almost glorious in its vibrant strawberry/rosebud profile, fresh and lively from its herb-tinged nose to its lightly tart, long, and airy palate sensations (just 11.8% alcohol). This is one wine where winemaking dalliance was absolutely minimal—Luther was wise enough to lay off and let the grapes speak for themselves, and you'll find few rosés as vivid, savory, almost umami-like, in naturalistic fruit expression.
If there is a pièce de résistance at this urban Sacramento winery, it may be wines made from grapes from Lodi's Somers Vineyard, which is planted with, of all things, the black-skinned Mission grape. Ironically, Mission—which up until 1850 was the only wine grape cultivated (by Franciscan missionaries) in California—is a grape that the California wine industry has been trying to run away from for over 150 years. The knock is that it produces red wines that are too pale in color, too weak in body, and too feeble in flavor to amount to anything—certainly, not nearly as interesting as grapes such as Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Well, guess what: Consumer trends have recently evolved to a point where pale-colored, light, subtle wines are now something of a rage—at least among a small faction of wine lovers with contrarian tastes. Ten, fifteen years ago Mike Agnagnos, who farms Somers Vineyard, could barely give these Mission grapes away. Now there are a half-dozen or so handcraft wineries standing in line to buy them.
In this day and age of increasingly blurred lines of self-identity, it is hard to say whether the 2021 Lucid L.02 "Urban Flora" Mokelumne River-Lodi Mission Rosé ($28) is truly a rosé, or if it's a pale-colored red wine that just thinks it's a rosé. The wine is best enjoyed chilled, like any bone dry rosé—there is no real red wine tannin (the bitter components of red wines derived from skins and seeds) to speak of. But its bright and vivid orangy-red cast almost gives the game away, and the nose is deep and, well, red wine-ish: intensely fragrant with cherry/raspberry fruit, a touch of "Jolly Rancher" perfume and a slightly herby/kitchen spice funkiness, coming together on a crisp, light (12.9% alcohol) palate feel.
"The Urban Flora definitely treads a fine line between red and rosé," says Luther. "It is fermented with the skins for several days, like you would any red wine, but then pressed off at about 3°, 5° Brix"—the latter maneuver, minimizing extraction of bitter-tasting tannin. Adds Luther, "Aging is in a combinational of steel and neutral French oak, although I did use a little bit of cherry wood in the barrels."
Asked to elaborate on the cherry wood, Luther explains: "You can't really use cherry to make barrels—it doesn't have the flexibility and impermeability of oak—but the wood of the tree is attractive. I use sticks, or staves, inserted into the oak barrels—I have found that cherry wood actually adds something of a cherry-like note to a wine, although it is more like an almond-like character and, believe it or not, the scent of corn nuts, the kind you eat right out of the bag. Whatever it is, it enhances the spiciness of Mission. It's already an interesting grape, it's more a matter of enhancing that character."
If you have a yen for wines that stretch the realms of possibilities of winemaking, while never veering far from the natural profiles of grapes, you should make the time to visit Voluptuary + Lucid at 1015 R St., practically under the entryway to Sacramento's Historic District, at its 1848 grid.