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.
What Bob Dylan has to do with good taste in wine, Robert Mondavi and Lodi history
I started out on Burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff. Not really. But I always loved that line from Bob Dylan's song, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues."
As it were, after over 45 years in the wine business, wines made from Pinot noir, the black-skinned grape of Burgundy in France, remain some of my favorites. Why? Because Pinot noir usually produces a a sofer, silkier, fragrantly spiced red wine. I drink it when I'm feeling fancy, or eating fancy (like filet mignon or rack of lamb).
For everyday drinking, though, I prefer good ol' California Zinfandel, which also tends to be soft, spicy and fragrant, only a little zestier than Pinot noir-based reds. More like spaghetti wines, but who doesn't love spaghetti? If Zinfandel also had caffeine and tasted good when hot, I'd probably drink it for breakfast with cereal. Over this past weekend I enjoyed Zinfandel with a spiced sausage ragù and soft polenta (here's a good recipe for this classic dish, in which you can substitute a spicier sausage to zoom in on any Zinfandel's peppery umami profile). Life is good, when Zinfandel is in it.
Parmesan polenta with sausage ragù. saveur.com.
True Burgundy comes from a specific region of that name in France. Back in 1981, when I penned my first-ever newspaper column for my hometown newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser, the "Burgundy" most familiar to Americans was the cheap, easy, and at best inoffensive red colored wine bottled in inexpensive "jugs." You could buy squat 1.5-liter bottles of "Burgundy" by brands such as E. & J. Gallo, Paul Masson, Inglenook or Almadén for as little as $2.99. To the eternal horror of the French, California-grown Burgundy never contained a drop of wine made from actual Pinot noir, the required grape of France's Burgundy.
Many old-timers can still recall when Robert Mondavi "came back" to Lodi. Mr. Mondavi originally moved to Lodi with his family during the early 1920s, graduating from Lodi Union High School. His father, Cesare, made enough money in the Lodi grape packing industry to send all four of his kids to Stanford. The family later purchased a defunct winery in Napa Valley called Charles Krug, which Robert and his brother Peter resuscitated and operated together until the mid-'60s, when Robert founded his seminal Robert Mondavi Winery.
While Mondavi's eponymous Napa Valley brand swiftly took the wine world by storm for its premium quality varietals—such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc (sold by the Frenchified name, Fumé Blanc), as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—Mr. Mondavi himself always believed that California was capable of producing the world's finest wines for everyday drinking, or what the French might call vin ordinaire. But he didn't think it was possible to do this in Napa Valley.
Therefore, in 1979, Mondavi purchased the old Cherokee Vineyard Association cooperative winery east of Hwy. 99 in the Lodi area hamlet of Acampo. He renamed the facility Woodbridge because it was located on Woodbridge Road (not actually in the community of Woodbridge on the other side of the City of Lodi), and today wines coming out of there are bottled under the Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi label.
Instead of generic wines such as Burgundy, Chablis, Sauterne, Chianti, etc., the very first Woodbridge Winery products were called, simply, "Robert Mondavi Table Red, "Robert Mondavi Table White," and "Robert Mondavi Table Rosé." Locals called them "Bob Red," "Bob White" and "Bob Rosé."
These "Bob" wines were blends of multiple grapes, just like the generic Burgundy and Chablis wines popular in the day. Mr. Mondavi emphasized the fact that these were "table" wines because he wanted consumers to think of them as wines meant for daily consumption, belonging on the table with food. He often talked of his dream of Americans adopting the gastronomic wine cultures of Europe, while obviously wanting to get away from borrowing European place names for wine labels.
Because he wanted to get away from the presumably less noble "jug wine" image, he packaged these 1.5-liter bottles in cork-finished magnums (double-sized bottles), forcing countless Mondavi customers across the country to lower the top shelf of their refrigerators to accomodate the extra-tall bottles of white or rosé.
Mr. Mondavi and his team also began exhorting the local growers in Lodi to plant the same grapes that were being successfully sold under the Robert Mondavi varietal labels sourced from Napa Valley: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, and even Pinot noir and Merlot (before Mondavi returned to Lodi, Merlot did not exist in Lodi vineyards—in fact, it was practically nonexistent in Napa Valley as well). As a sign of the times, the Napa Valley Robert Mondavi brand also produced a Chenin Blanc and Zinfandel (both varietals dropped by the winery by the mid-1990s).
Soon after, by the mid-1980s, many California wineries also began to successfully sell varietal wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and (by the late 1980s) White Zinfandel for as little as $2.99 to $4.99 per 750-ML bottle. You can say that Mr. Mondavi's dream of California producing the "finest everyday wine in the world" was coming to fruition. And it is true—the varietal bottlings of the '80s were far more appealing than the generic Burgundy and Chablis wines of the previous decades, and these wines are even better today.
And that, in a walnut shell, is how Lodi quickly grew to become the largest producer of premium wine grapes in the country—growing as much wine grapes as regions such as Napa Valley and Sonoma County, or all of Oregon and Washington, combined. No other American appellation comes close. Mr. Mondavi was not just a visionary, he also had far more common sense than the average vintner. He knew the Lodi AVA has the natural climate and exceedingly grape-friendly soils perfect for growing premium quality grapes, yet can produce grapes for considerably less cost than more coastal California wine regions.
Lodi, of course, also had lots of Zinfandel—since the 1800s, nearly half of all the Zinfandel planted in California—which enabled the region to sustain the popularity of soft, pink, off-dry White Zinfandel for a good twenty or so years (nowadays most of Lodi's Zinfandel grapes goes into red wines).
In recent years the wine industry has been in something of a collective befuddlement over how to get younger generations—consumers in their 20s and 30s—to purchase wine with as much commitment or gusto as previous generations. Especially boomers, who continue to anchor the wine market in general. Problem is, the youngest boomers today have already hit their 60s—who knows how long the old folks can keep consuming the most wine, thus keeping most of the domestic wine industry afloat? At least for now.
We've been hearing it said that part of the problem is that today's wines are expensive. Well, it's true, many of these well heeled boomers and Xers (the latter group, now in their 40s and 50s) are consuming $50, $100, $200 wines like it's nothing. Still, the fact is that there are far more choices of wines priced between $5 and $15 than ever before. Certainly far, far more value-priced brands and bottlings than what boomers were offered 40, 50 years ago.
The reality, it is clear, is not that wines are expensive, but that younger generations don't have to drink wine at all. They have choices. There is something like twenty, thirty times more brands of beers than there were 40, 50 years ago, found on every store shelf in the country. Younger consumers are also gobbling up hard seltzers, ciders, liquors and pre-bottled cocktail mixes in seemingly every iteration imaginable. When they were in their 20s, today's boomers had a choice of Lancers, Mateus, Blue Nun, Miller Lite or, if they really wanted to live it up, Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon. The younger generation is spoiled rotten when it comes to sheer variety of adult beverages.
Fine wine, however, still has something none of the other alcoholic products have: They have more of a sense of artistry combined with a pervasive sense of nature, or what comes organically with Mother Nature's blessings. Yes, you can get the buzz of alcohol consuming wine, but the variations of finer wines are such that they also perk the mind, or stimulate the intellect and natural curiosity. We are, after all, thinking animals. We have the option of choosing to consume beverages for reasons beyond simple satiation or inebriation. Good wine does that in spades.
Where nature comes in is the fact that the finest wines still vary from vintage to vintage simply because they are made from grapes, and grapes grow differently each year, depending upon where they're grown. Vintners, working hand in hand with nature, still have endless options on how to cultivate grapes and how to turn those grapes into wines. Therefore, the finest wines of all end up having some kind of distinct sense of time and place—specific sensory qualities that reflect origins, such as a season, a region, an appellation or specific vineyard.
Such as a Lodi-grown wine. Even the most commercialized Lodi appellated reds tend to be softer and more fresh fruit-forward than red wines from other American wine regions, simply because Lodi has a quintessential Mediterranean climate conducive to that style of wine. Lodi's white wines are also aromatic with fruit qualities, yet are light and crisp because Lodi summers have cool enough nights to help grapes retain fresh fruit acids. This what the French, who originated much of the language used to describe fine wine, have always called a "sense of place."
The beauty of the whole thing, of course, is that wine consumers have nearly endless choices. If they prefer wines that are, generally, less overtly fruit-focused and more earthy or minerally, there is a nearly endless variety of European imports to choose from. If you prefer California wines that are fuller bodied and denser in texture, you can generally find those qualities in products grown in Napa Valley or Sonoma County, especially those made from grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. If you prefer lighter or finer textured reds, there are always Pinot noir-based bottlings from cooler climate zones in California's Central Coast or Oregon.
I believe it was the legendary (even if nearly forgotten) British wine journalist named André Simon who once that that we can all have good taste, but not necessarily the same taste. Think of good wine as being like music or art; or food, since wine is like a food in that it goes down the hatch. Not all of us may like broccoli or brussel sprouts, just like not all of us may like White Zinfandel or red Zinfandel, Dalí or Dylan, Puccini or Pollock, Emily Brontë or Emily Dickenson. We're often told what's supposed to be "good" for us, or what presumed experts tell us is good; but choosing what we actually prefer has always been a personal choice. We choose the wines we prefer just like we choose our books, our food, the fashions we wear, our music and movies or anything else falling somewhere within the realm of artistic or highly personal preferences.
Wine, in fact, may still be a "mystery" to many consumers. I take that as a positive—a help, not a hindrance. It is good, after all, to have mysteries in our lives. Things to investigate further, and to discover to our great joy and illumination. Otherwise, everyday life would be pretty boring, wouldn't it?
But ultimately, good wine is really something very, very simple. We either like it or we don't. If we like a wine, then we buy more of it. If we want a variation of what we like, we look into wines that are different yet similar. Eventually, we all come to refine our predilections. Many of us prefer our wines light and smooth, whereas many of us prefer them heavy, rough or somewhere in between. Knock yourself out, it's your taste. Don't ever let someone else tell you what's good for you.
As for me, I'm going back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough. I'm not exactly sure of what that means, but Bob Dylan once sang that as well, and it still sounds pretty good—the sound of music being as important as the feel of a wine, even if mysterious or unfathomable. Enjoy your wines... enjoy your life!