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.
Lodi terroir unleashed at zintastic Lodi Wine & Art Auction
“Gala” doesn’t quite describe Artisan Masters’ Lodi Wine & Art Auction that took place in Lodi’s Hutchins Street Square this past Saturday (10/23). How about, say, an extra-sensory, fantastical, phantasmagoric vinous adventure? The eye opening spices and vividly flavorful barrels of ’09 and 2010 Zinfandels presented by twenty of Lodi’s top wineries certainly made many of our tongues skip such a light fandango.
Or, culinary tours de force? “Culinary,” of course, in respect to wines, great food and people coming together to celebrate how far along Lodi wine has come: to a point where we can pinpoint individual sub-regions and vineyard sites, each elucidating terroir related delineations of that most American of American grown grapes – Zinfandel.
From Plymouth in the nearby Sierra Foothills, the redoubtable owners of Taste Restaurant – Chef Mark Berkner, and his masterly wine maven/wife Tracey Berkner – came down to lead an army of enthusiastic students from the San Joaquin Delta Culinary College through multiple, remarkably zin-friendly courses. Starting with a bang during the barrel tasting with delectables like truffled pancetta figs and pungently herbed lamb lollipops (sorry… you had to be there).
But for the private enthusiasts, invited members of the West Coast wine press, winemakers and growers gathered together on this auspicious night it really did come down mostly to the juice itself: that of the Big Z.
Some notes, arranged in order of age before beauty…
The Lucas Winery: 2005 & 2007 Zin Star Vineyard Zinfandels – Winemaker/proprietor David Lucas, along with d’Art Wines’ Dave d’Art, were the masterminds behind this barrel tasting, winemaker and art event, benefitting Lodi’s Arts and Education programs (kudos, David and Dave!). Although the ’05 and ’07 were poured from bottle rather than a barrel, these zins bear mention because they reflect perhaps the most mature expression of what Lodi terroir is all about; coming, as they do, from Lucas’ 3 acre, 77 year old, CCOF certified organically grown vineyard behind the winery on Davis Rd.; plus the fact that Lucas really is Lodi’s first small, artisanal, modern day winery (founded in 1978). At five years, the ’05 Zin Star was melodiously pure, unadulterated raspberry beret (the Lucas style eschews overt oak influences), meaty and layered on the palate, with a sense of restraint that Mr. Lucas and his winemaker/wife, Heather Pyle Lucas, are known for (Pinot Noir vignerons disguised as zin masters). The ’07 was still in a microbially awkward stage – think of a slightly blemished, unruly but beautiful adolescent – although its leathery notes only served to emphasize wild berry and breathy earth tones, strapped thickly and viscously onto a medium sized frame. Longtime card holding Lucas zin fans know that wines like the ’07 Zin Star will only blossom in five, ten years’ time, which is a rare attribute for Zinfandels from anywhere in the state.
Barsetti Vineyards: 2008 Dhaliwal Vineyard Zinfandel – Proprietors Richard Gray and Janis Barsetti Gray source this wine from a vineyard off Ray Rd. leased from partner Amrik Dhaliwal, and it sits on well drained, slightly less vigorous Acampo Sandy Loam – yielding Zinfandels precisely like this: round yet robust, studded with juicy blackberry and blueberry fruit, tinged with scrubby, almost anise-like complexities. Definitely one of Lodi’s most distinctive zins.
Van Ruiten Family Winery: 2008 Sideways Reserve Zinfandel – This cuvée – coming from Van Ruiten’s Happy Holmes Vineyard (planted in 1952) off Hwy. 12 smack dab in the middle of the Mokelumne River AVA (i.e. American Viticultural Area) – is picked late and aimed towards connoisseurs of ultra-rich styles of Lodi zin; and it’s called Sideways, according to winemaker Ryan Leeman, because he never really knows what direction this wine will take off once it hits the fermenter. Indeed, saturated color (dark as the proverbial Egyptian night) and lusciously concentrated, pedal-to-the-metal yet round, velvet textured varietal qualities sweetened by French oak are all indicators that the ’08 has hit the spot that appeals to aficionados of this epic style.
Abundance Vineyards: 2009 Zinfandel – Dino and Donnie Mencarini’s vineyards in the fine sandy loams of the Mokelumne River AVA west of the town of Lodi produce a feminine style of Zinfandel with alluring perfumes (blackberry, pepper and ground cinnamon) and sleek, shapely, zesty edged medium bodies. Dino makes no bones about the fact that he prefers a no-nonsense, workingman’s style of zin, which is abundantly clear in this forward drinking ’09.
d’Art Wines: 2009 Tamura Vineyard Zinfandel – Joey Tamura’s vineyard off Harney Lane, towards the southeast corner of the Mokelumne River AVA, represents what the deep (30 to 80 ft.) sandy loams of the region can produce; and this 80 year old vineyard tends to yield just over 2 tons per acre, reflected in the deep, bright, almost sweet concentration of wild berry fruit in this ’09, as crinkly crisp and chubby as a sugar crusted Christmas pie.
Heritage Oak Winery: 2009 Zinfandel – Proprietor Tom Hoffmann’s family has lived and farmed alongside the “left bank” of the Mokelumne River, east of the town of Lodi near Lockeford, for nearly 150 years. He elected to show a barrel from his Hoffman Block 14, and it’s already a winner: luscious raspberry jam aroma with black pepper spices; sweet, lively and intense on the palate, while soft and silken to the touch.
Jesse’s Grove Winery: 2009 Zinfandel – Fifth generation grower/proprietor Greg Burns brought out a barrel sourced from the 55 year old Fancy Quest block of his estate, which Burns calls one of his “young” plantings (you can walk through vines dating back to 1884 at Jesse’s Grove). Fancy Quest was also tasting plenty sexy: aromatic sensations of raspberry and blackberryish fruit encased in black chocolate, with a plump, pliant, juicy feel.
m2 Wines: 2009 Soucie Vineyard Zinfandel – Winemaker/proprietor Layne Montgomery was on hand to show off this barrel selection from the Soucie Vineyard, located just off Turner Rd. and I-5 at the cooler, western end of the Mokelumne River AVA. Grower Kevin Soucie allows that a strip of loamier, less permeable Devries Sandy Loam runs through his 94 year old vineyard alongside classic (for most of Mokelumne River), deep, porous Acampo Sandy Loam, but the variant soil types combine to produce Zinfandels that, in the hands of Montgomery, have been not only singularly distinct, but also one of Lodi’s most acclaimed wines during the past decade. In the ’09: an intriguing mix of sweet plum, blackberry, raspberry, bitter chocolate and earthy humus-like notes in the nose, piled on top of palate sensations of meaty stone fruits, grippy tannins, and more of the earthy, dried leafy sensations. Even so, the 2010 from the barrel finishes with a velvet flourish, which fans of the uniquely styled m2s will truly appreciate.
Michael-David Winery: 2009 Berryhill Vineyard (Borden Ranch), Shoup Vineyard (Clements Hills) & Graffigna Vineyard (Jahant) Zinfandels – In their usual generous fashion, Michael-David brought out no less than three different barrels of ‘09s to demonstrate the distinctive styles of Zinfandel possible in Lodi appellations outside the venerated Mokelumne River AVA. Wow. Of the three, the Graffigna – grown in the much more meager, shallow, red cobbly soil of the Jahant AVA (in comparison to the rich sandy loams of Mokelumne) – was showing the most low-yield style concentration (crops averaging less than 2.5 tons/acre each year): the wine, wild with blackberry and sturdy, beefy, toasty oaked, sweet, zesty varietal fruitiness. In the nearby Clements Hills AVA the soil is more of a depleted clay loam on rolling foothills (in stark contrast to the zero elevation, 0-2% slopes around the Mokelumne River), and so the Zinfandel has more of a hillside-driven concentration; in the case of the Shoup: like boysenberry and blackberry jam spread on smoky crisped toast, tasting thick, lush and juicy on the palate. North of Clements Hills are the clay and stone laden foothills of the Borden Ranch AVA, where Zinfandels like the ’09 Berryhill absolutely explode with sweet raspberry/cherry fruit qualities, electrifying the palate with less voluminous, nevertheless bright, buoyant, zesty flavors. It’s working with variant material like this that gives Michael-David that extra edge when blending for complexity – be it in the light, refreshing fruit-and-spice driven 7 Deadly Zins, or in the upscale, Schwarzeneggerian-pumped Earthquake and Lust bottlings.
Peirano Estate: 2009 Zinfandel – Owner Lance Randolph is a fourth generation Lodi farmer, and he tells us that a sixth generation is already waiting in the wings – the type of seamless transition common in France, Italy, Germany, and other classic wine regions, but apart from rare exceptions, practically unique to Lodi in California! The ’09 barrel shown at the Wine & Art Auction came from the family’s 75 acres of own rooted, head trained old vine Zinfandel dating back to the early 1900s, which Randolph believes is the largest single such block in the U.S. Located on the “left bank” of the Mokelumne, in rich yet porous sandy loam soil, it’s a vineyard that consistently delivers wines like the ’09: teeming with bright, chocolate coated berryish fruit, fat with flavor, and to put it simply, perfectly delicious.
Vicarmont Vineyards: 2009 Locust Tree Road Vineyard Zinfandel – Owner Vic Mettler and his winemaker/wife Carrie Mettler focused on a zin from their 34 year old home vineyard, located on the east side, or “right bank,” of the Mokelumne, where the Mettler family originally staked their claim in Lodi at the turn of the twentieth century. True to the style of zins from this area, the ’09 Vicarmont is firm, broad and meaty textured, yet at the same time positively plush and round with Zinfandel fruit.
Klinker Brick Winery: 2010 Nahigan Vineyard Zinfandel – Fifth generation Lodi farmer Steve Felten manages this 80 year old vineyard (“really old, gnarly looking stuff,” he tells us) located east of Hwy. 99 on Curry Rd., between Victor and Kettleman. As it were, the super-porous sandy soil always yields a low crop (about 3 tons) that ripens fairly early (the barrel we tasted was picked this past September 29, and we were tasting it just two weeks after it was pressed off and sent to wood); but in a cool year like 2010, the black cherry/raspberry varietal qualities are all the more intense – even now, clambering over a full scaled, steel rimmed structure to project beams of flavor like a lighthouse through dark, vivid purplish pigmentations. “It’s a fantastic year for Lodi Zinfandel,” says Felten; echoing the ebullience of David Lucas, who told us that “this is a vintage that I may never see again in my lifetime… and one that might put Lodi on the global map.”
Macchia Wines: 2010 Zinfandel – Although as of yet not officially named, winemaker/proprietor Tim Holdener is thinking of calling the single vineyard barrel he was showing Meticulous, since this describes the work of vineyard manager Dave Devine with these head trained, own rooted vines located in the hillier sub-AVA of Clements Hills, east of the Mokelumne River AVA, where clay loam soils yield musclebound reds. In barrel barely a month, the 2010 tasted bright and zesty, with high toned red berry notes underlain by sinewy, fleshy, blacker fruits. Although no one really knows how such young wines will evolve, we’re putting our money on this meticulously crafted dark horse.