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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
 
June 7, 2024 | Randy Caparoso

Why Lodi produces delicate, fragrant styles of red wine contradicting everything you may have heard about warm climate regions

Harvest morning in Zinfandel block over 100 years old on east side of Lodi's Mokelumne River appellation.

When a rose is but a rose

In our previous post we addressed the matter of Putting to bed the myth that light and crisply balanced whites can't be grown in warm climates.

This time around, let's talk about red wines in warm climate regions. Particularly Zinfandel.

For the longest time it has been thought that the biggest, ripest, heaviest and fruitiest Zinfandels come from the warmest regions of California, such as Lodi. Therefore, in cooler climate regions, such as Sonoma County or Napa Valley, it is assumed that most Zinfandels are among the lightest and most subtle in their varietal fruit profiles.

Problem is, as anyone who has ever compared Zinfandels grown in regions such as Lodi, Sonoma County or Napa Valley knows, this assumption is not necessarily true. In fact, it is usually wrong.

Pure Lodi Zinfandels⏤that is, those sourced from one of Lodi's many old vine plantings and crafted without the addition of other grapes (such as Petite Sirah) to increase color and tannin, or the crutch of oak barrels (especially American oak barrels) to add further weight and aromatic punch⏤are, almost as a rule, lighter, more delicate and fragrant than Zinfandels grown in Napa Valley or Sonoma.

Typically small cluster of Lodi Zinfandel from vineyards over 75 years old.

You may ask, how can this be so when "everyone" says the opposite? The fundamental issue starts with the way the vast majority of people interpret logic, the supposed science of reasoning.

I think it was Aristotle who first posited formal principles of logic. Starting with: For all propositions p, it is impossible for both p and not p to be true. Or, as with all birds, it is impossible for a bird to be a bird if it is not a bird.

I know, I know, easier said than done. Try using, for instance, the same logic when explaining to your spouse why you forgot to pick up milk on the way home, or why you can't pick up the kids and be expected to prepare farm-to-table dinners by 6:00 PM every day. In real life, reasons, or any amount of reasoning, can often seem unreasonable.

I think, however, it was Gertrude Stein who best verbalized why logic does not apply to everyday circumstances when she wrote, "A rose is a rose is a rose." Pretty much meaning that sometimes a rose is just a rose, not something metaphorical or which can be explained away as having another meaning. Put it another way: The fact that you forgot to buy the milk doesn't mean you don't love your kids or respect your spouse. Let's be reasonable. Sh-- happens.

Morning light on old vine Zinfandel pickers in Lodi's Mokelumne River appellation.

The climatic reasons why a Lodi style Zinfandel is a Lodi style Zinfandel

If you think everyday logic has nothing to do with wine, think again. We live in Lodi, known as the "Zinfandel capital of the world." Lodi growers didn't start saying this because they were trying to turn reality on its head or scam the public with the usual market hype. It is because there are more acres of Zinfandel in Lodi than in all of California, and therefore the rest of the world.

As it is, the reason there is more Zinfandel in Lodi than anywhere else is because the cultivar grows so well here. The grape loves Lodi's steady, warm Mediterranean climate and sandy loam soil. When a grapevine such as Zinfandel finds itself easily acclimated to a region, it also becomes easier for it to thrive for over 50, 75, as much as 100 years, explaining why there are more old vine Zinfandel plantings in Lodi than anywhere else in California, hence the world.

Why, in turn, do old vines exist? Historically speaking, vines are cultivated for a long time when it is economically feasible to keep them in the ground, rather than tearing them out and planting something else, like a different grape variety or another agricultural product. Sure, Zinfandel has found an ideal environment in Lodi. The other reason is, simply, cost-benefits. If it makes money, it stays. If not, it's gone.

Close-up of own-rooted Mokelumne River-Lodi Zinfandel over 100 years old.

What many people also often forget is that Lodi's climate has a coastal influence, even though Lodi is not exactly on the California coast. Then again, neither is Sacramento or Stockton, yet these neighboring cities originally grew and thrived as seaports, receiving ocean-going vessels via the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, flowing down from the Sierra Nevada and into the California Delta.

Therefore, sitting smack dab between Sacramento and Stockton, the Lodi winegrowing region is strongly influenced by breezes pushing steadily through the Delta, bringing down the night-time temperatures even during the dog days of summer. Cool nights, in the world of wine grapes, equals fresh fruit quality, which translates directly into fresh and focused wines. This unique twist on coastal climate explains the other reason why there is so much Zinfandel in Lodi: Because it produces very good Zinfandel. If Lodi's 50, 60, 75 or 100-year old vineyards didn't produce good Zinfandels, they wouldn't still be here. 

Much of the wine world, however, is not so logical as that. You can go online, for instance, or pick up many a book on wines or vineyards of the world and find the following bits of information, passed on as if they were gospel: 

• Cooler climate wine regions tend to grow grapes with lower sugars and higher acidity, while taking longer to ripen on the vine⏤thereby producing wines that are lighter in body (i.e., alcohol), crisper in acidity and fresher, more subtle and more finely focused in fruit profiles.

• Warm climate wine regions tend to grow grapes with higher sugars and lower acidity, while ripening faster on the vine⏤thereby producing wines that are heavier in body (i.e., alcohol), softer in acidity, bolder in fruit profile, though not as fresh or finely balanced.

It is not that there is something flawed in this logic. It's just that, in the real wine world⏤not the one found in books or uttered by lazy-minded educators⏤these propositions are not always true. It is a p that is not always a p, hence not a probable conclusion.

Not only is this seemingly basic conception of climate, grapes and wines not always true, it also implies a third improbable conclusion: That cooler climate regions produce finer, thereby superior, wines than warmer climate regions.

While the Lodi AVA is an inland wine region, it is a watershed replete with grape-friendly soils, influenced by moderating breezes flowing in without impediment from a coastal waters far closer than usually thought.

This may sound counterintuitive, but there is nothing logical about basing perception of wine quality on climate generalizations. No matter what anyone says, appreciation of wine simply does not lend itself to that. Who says, for instance, that a Lodi Zinfandel is not as fine or enjoyable as, say, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, a Malbec from Argentina or Shiraz from Australia? Many, many wine lovers would much rather drink a Zinfandel every day, rather than anything else. How "fine" a wine is is always in the mind of the beholder.

In respect to valuations based upon climate as a pervasive factor: In our previous article pertaining to white wines we bring up the simple fact that there are many wine grapes which, in fact, have been domesticated over the past 1,000 to 2,000 years to produce perfectly light, fresh, finely focused wines possessing crisp acidity even in the hottest climates. Cool climate is not a prerequisite. This is a p that is very much a p.

Visiting sommelier in a +90-year-old Zinfandel block, tasting the wine from the vineyard made in a pure, unadulturated style in order to express sensory qualities specific to the "place" (i.e., terroir).

Yet even putting aside the factor of adaptation of grape varieties to different climate zones, the logic of cool-climate-wines-good and warm-climate-wines-bad thinking makes little sense because...

1. Winegrowers and vintners in cool climate regions may choose to produce fuller bodied wines that are lower in acidity and humongously unsubtle in fruit profiles simply by picking grapes when they are super-ripe and lower in acidity.

2. Winegrowers and vintners in warm climate regions may choose to do the opposite⏤produce lighter, crisper, subtle and finer wines by picking grapes when they are less ripe and higher in acidity. 

3. There are a myriad other factors beside climate or temperature that determine the fruit profiles and sensory qualities of wines, chief among which (along with human intervention) is probably soil...

Cool waters of Woodbridge Canal drawn off the Mokelumne River utilized to irrigate vines over 130 years old (on right) on the west side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA.

How soil contributes to the structural and sensory style of Lodi Zinfandel

In respect to point #3, a primary reason why Zinfandel is such a fine and delicate red wines in Lodi, compared to other parts of California, is because of the sandy loam soils that predominate in the area surrounding the City of Lodi, as well as along the banks of the Mokelumne River as winds down from the Sierra Nevada.

Although we don't want to get too geeky about it, there is lots and lots of literature on the impact of soil types on resulting wines in regions all around the world. Among the most layman-friendly summaries of three of the major soil types conducive to winegrowing can be found in winemakermag.com's article entitled Dirt Don't Lie. Re...

Sandy loam soil as rich as it is porous, as big a factor as climate accounting for the delicate yet ultra-fragrant style unique to Lodi Zinfandel.

Sandy Soils (Sand, Sandy Loam): Simply put, sandy soils are great for drainage, retain heat well, but generally have very low fertility, require supplemental irrigation in all but areas that get lots of summer rainfall, and commonly have difficulty in exchanging nutrients. Sandy soils are already deficient in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus: The macronutrients of plant growth and regulation. Add to that that vine roots cannot absorb nutrients from phyllosilicate because it lacks a positively-charged ion (cation) to make that exchange.

Sandy vineyard soils tend to make pale red wines in warm regions and highly aromatic wines (that can produce good color) in cool climates. Sandy and sandy loam soils produce some of the best US Pinot Noirs from coastal areas: Santa Maria, Sta. Rita Hills, Sonoma Coast among them. The greatest vineyard in Barolo, Italy (Nebbiolo in this case), Cannubi, is grown on sandy soils, with just enough clay to allow some nutrient exchange to help the vineyard struggle, but thrive. Sandy soils also tend to be more resistant to major vine pests like Phylloxera.

Dropped Lodi Zinfandel cluster on ultra-fine, extraordinarily deep sandy loam soil from grapevine over 95 years old.

Loamy Soils: Loam is a gardener’s dream. It is an equal mix of clay, silt, and sand with organic material (humus) mixed in. By itself, loam is too vigorous of a soil to grow quality winegrapes. It would be the soil that the Romans would plant grain, fruit, and vegetables. The magic of loam is how it impacts mixed soils. Sandy loam, clay loam, and silt loam tend to make up the greatest wine soils in the world. The combination of sand’s drainage, clay’s ability to help a vine uptake nutrients as well as water-holding capacity, and silt also helps with heat retention and water holding.

Clay Soils (Clay Loam, Sandy Clay Loam, Silty Clay, Silty Clay Loam): Clay is the soil engine for water holding and efficient uptake of nutrients by the roots. Clay provides the chemical means for a vine to uptake nutrients, which is called cation-exchange capacity, or CEC. In general, the higher the clay content, the higher the CEC. Clay also keeps soil cooler and wetter, and holds water the longest of any soil type. Calcareous clay soils are rare in the world, but when they have the right location and aspect, produce some of the greatest wines in the world including Barolo, Burgundy (Marl soil), and much of the Napa Valley. In general, clay vineyard soils produce dark and structured reds.

Comparison of super-deep Tokay fine sandy soil of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA (top) with the shallower rocky Redding clay soil (bottom) of Lodi's hillside sub-appellations (the Clements Hills, Borden Ranch and Sloughhouse AVAs). It is the differentiations of soil that explains why Zinfandel is grown in Mokelumne River, whereas clay soils are considered more suitable to grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah (the old-timers never grew Zinfandel in clay soils!).

The alluvial soils in which Lodi's Zinfandels have historically thrived is a combination of each of the first two categories, sand and loam. Not only is this very well drained soil, it is extremely rich⏤as high in fertility as any farming soil can get. The direct impact of this sandy loam on wines such as Zinfandel is intense aromas that are on the floral side, complimented by softer tannin structure accentuating the delicate sensory qualities on the palate and suggested in the nose. And also, of course, super-healthy, long-lived vines.

Storie Index analysis comparing soil vigor of appellations falliing in the Lodi AVA, singling out the Mokelumne River—where virtually all of Lodi's top quality Zinfandel is grown—as having the richest soil by far.

The additional factor characterizing most of Lodi's Mokelumne River Viticultural Area, the AVA surrounding the City of Lodi, is the sheer depth of the sandy loam soil that defines the appellation: Over 50 to as much as 100-feet deep before hitting a hardpan. These are phenomenal circumstances, practically unheard of in the rest of the wine world.

Ergo, phenonomenal wines that defy assumptions.

Crusty head of gobelet trained ancient vine Zinfandel (dating back to the 1880s) in Lodi's Mokelumne River appellation.

In a nutshell, a Lodi style Zinfandel is a Lodi style Zinfandel because of the circumstances unique to the Lodi region, the same way a rose is a rose is a rose. Do not overthink this, or believe anything to the contrary that you may read in a textbook or online about wines, viticulture or winemaking.

Reality is different from what you read in books. Warm climate red wines can indeed be more delicate, finely scented and just as zesty in acidity as cooler climate wines. It is specific terroir, the adaptation of cultivars and the intervention of growers and vintners that make the only differences that count.

Zinfandel harvest in Cherryhouse Vineyard on the west side of the Mokelumne River-Lodi AVA.

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