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
September 18, 2013 | Randy Caparoso

Abba Vineyard turns sunlight into Syrah perfection

Stunning Lodi Wine Country sight: Abba Vineyard Syrah hanging from meticulous Smart-Henry trellis, like brilliant Christmas bulbs on a tree.

Stunning Lodi Wine Country sight: Abba Vineyard Syrah hanging from meticulous Smart-Henry trellis, like brilliant Christmas bulbs on a tree.

Last week Friday (September 13, 2013) Michael McCay of Lodi's vaunted McCay Cellars picked his Grenache from Abba Vineyard – owned by second-generation Lodi farmer Louis Abba Jr., and farmed by his son Phil Abba. Mr. McCay's excitement is palpable – not only because his supply has increased, but also because 2013 looks to be "our best Grenache yet… the fruit was perfect, just popping with flavor coming right off the vine."

Phil Abba

Phil Abba

While walking through Abba Vineyard with Phil Abba, Mr. McCay opened and poured a bottle of his 2011 McCay Lodi Grenache ($28): an irrepressibly bright, bouncy, fresh strawberryish, medium-full bodied red, crackling with pungent, peppery spice, zesty acidity and intriguingly earthy, garrigue-like, scrubby notes (like sagebrush and bruised thyme and rosemary sprigs).

The Abbas, says McCay, are "fantastic, meticulous farmers – very conscious of growing for quality, not quantity. They represent the state of the art for Lodi."

Walking us through his 8 acres of Syrah, first planted in 1996, Phil showed us one of the most stunning – indeed, artful – sights in Lodi: perfectly shaped, hand-sized clusters of purplish black and blue Syrah clusters hanging from the center of spectacular vertical trellises like organic musical notes; bathing in the golden afternoon sun against a wall of perfectly foliaged canes stretching in two directions – up towards the sky and down towards the fine Mokelumne River AVA sandy loam soil.

"This is what we call the Smart-Henry system of trellising," explained Mr. Abba. "It's perfect for Lodi because our vigorous soils often push plants to focus more on growing canopy rather than fruit. This trellising keeps the canopy in balance with the fruit load. Scott-Henry is unusual, even for Lodi, because instead of the usual vertical shoot positions where canes are trained only to climb upwards on trellis wires, on every other plant the shoots are trained to grow downwards, towards the ground. This has a natural devigorating effect; especially on the plants growing downwards, since vines don't usually like to grow in that direction.”

This is an illustration of Smart-Henry trellising culled from Richard Smart and Mike Robinson’s landmark industry handbook, Sunlight into Wine:


And a photo of Smart-Henry trellising in Abba Vineyard:


"With Smart-Henry,” says Abba, “we establish a fruit zone in the middle in which clusters are completely exposed, giving us steady ripening of brighter fruit qualities, while minimizes disease pressure. We also significantly increase the amount of leaf exposure to the sun. There are fewer leaves in shaded positions – virtually every leaf is facing the sun. This maximizes photosynthesis, and it's photosynthesis that creates flavors in the grapes. In other words, we're creating the perfect machinery for turning sunlight into wine."

Taking us to the northernmost two rows of his Syrah plantings, Mr. Abba showed still another variation of this unique trellising: a system where canes on each plant are trained to go both up and down from the same two cordons spreading out from the trunks. "This is called Smart-Dyson," says Abba, "which I'm liking even better than Smart-Henry because it produces even more even ripening of fruit. I’m seriously considering converting more of our Smart-Henry rows to Smart-Dyson."

A textbook depiction of Smart-Dyson trellising:


And a shot of Smart-Dyson trellising in Abba Vineyard’s Syrah plantings:


For going on 10 vintages, the Abbas' biggest customer for their Syrah has been Rosenblum Cellars (purchased in 2008 by Diageo). The winery describes its Abba Vineyard Syrah as a "winemaker's wine," and lauds Phil Abba's work with his "Smart-Dyson ballerina trellis system… a divided canopy that creates a dancing figure with 'arms' shooting high into the air and 'feet' delicately prancing below."

A close-up of the gorgeous Syrah fruit, hanging from Abba’s Smart-Dyson trellised rows:


As harvest nears and the brilliantly colored clusters of Syrah are hung across the wall of leaves like Christmas ornaments on a tree, the Abba Vineyard trellises begin to look more like works of art. But as always, the proof is in the pudding; that is, the bottle: the winery describes the resulting Syrahs as a "heady… refined Rhône style with opulent California character… dark and inky in color… seductive aromas of rose petal and Asian spice, with an undercurrent of rich black fruit."

Lodi winegrowing, in other words, among its very best!

Phil Abba and Michael McCay

Phil Abba and Michael McCay


Robert carbone's Gravatar
Robert carbone
@ Mar 22, 2016 at 9:36 AM
What trellis system do you recommend for cold weather vines , I am on the east coast NY, NJ

Thank you Robert


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

Have a question? Complete our contact form.