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Lodi Zinfandels from Kirschenmann Vineyard blow a few minds at 2014 ZAP
I’m going to grow my hair down to my feet so strange
'Til I look like a walking mountain range
Ride into Omaha on a horse
Out to the country club and golf course
Carrying the New York Times
Shoot a few holes, blow their minds…
- Bob Dylan's I Shall Be Free No. 10
Kirschenmann Vineyard – a prototypical, own-rooted east-side Lodi Zinfandel planting dating back to 1915 – made a memorable debut as a vineyard-designate bottling by five different prestige winemakers in the ballroom of the luxurious Four Seasons San Francisco last week Friday (January 24, 2014).
As part of Zinfandel Advocates & Producers' (i.e. ZAP) FLIGHTS Experience, the Historic Vineyard Society (HVS) put together a three-part tasting of 2012 Zinfandels sourced from three vineyards – Kirschenmann in Lodi, Bedrock in Sonoma Valley, and Monte Rosso in Sonoma Valley – led by the winemakers presenting the Zinfandels crafted by each of them from these respective growths. Historic Vineyard Society is a recently formed association of growers and winemakers who are dedicated to the preservation of California's historic winegrowing sites (vineyards they define as those dominated by vines planted prior to 1960).
For probably the majority of the hundreds of ZAP members sitting in the Four Seasons ballroom, this was the first time they had ever tasted Lodi grown Zinfandels in a setting in which the wines were placed in the same context as other venerated California vineyards. Something even a lot of Zinfandel lovers would still think unlikely – like a cowboy crashing a black tie affair (or an early Dylan at a country club)…
Monte Rosso, for instance, has long been considered royalty among Zinfandel specialists and aficionados alike: an 800-1,400-ft. elevation vineyard originally purchased and replanted, beginning in 1938, by the Martini family, on spectacular slopes overlooking Sonoma Valley and the San Francisco Bay in the distance. Bedrock Vineyard, owned and farmed by Joel Peterson (of Ravenswood fame), dates back to 1854, with its oldest continuously farmed Zinfandel vines dating back to 1886.
So how did the 2012 Kirschenmann Vineyard Zinfandels fare in the comparison? Pax Mahle, the respected winemaker behind Wind Gap and Wilde Farm wines, put it most succinctly, describing the Kirschenmann Zinfandels as "pure, linear, streamlined." Tegan Passalacqua, the current owner/grower of Kirschenmann – and also the head winemaker/grower of Turley Wine Cellars – described his experience of being "blown away by the freshness and transparency of Zinfandel fruit character" in wines wines coming not just from Kirschenmann, but also from a block located just a few feet away owned by Ross Schmiedt (going into Turley's Schmiedt Ranch Zinfandels, and also into Schmiedt's own Twisted Roots 1918 bottlings).
Added Passalacqua, in his presentation of the 2012 Turley Kirschenmann Zinfandel to the crowd, "When I purchased the vineyard in early 2012, from my experience with Schmiedt I knew the vineyard would never make a big, dark, inky wine… I always knew it would produce a very feminine wine – the opposite of what many people think of Lodi. But this is a Lodi style of wine – just not what most people expect out of Lodi."
The sensory contrast between the Kirschenmann, Bedrock and Monte Rosso Zinfandels could not have been more dramatic. First of all, the average alcohol of the five 2012 Kirschenmann Zinfandels was 14.9%; compared to the 15.16% average alcohols of the five 2012 Bedrock Zinfandels, and the 15.58% average of the 2012 Monte Rosso Zinfandels.
But alcohol is not the only telling sign in a Zinfandel. The Bedrocks, while magnificently rich and concentrated, were also chewier, a little more ungainly, almost drying in tannin and extract; while the Monte Rosso Zinfandels, in compared to the Kirschenmanns, were much riper, almost sweet in their opulence of varietal fruitiness.
Clearly, for Zinfandel lovers who prefer a more sophisticated, balanced, restrained – and yes, feminine – style, Kirschenmann might be the preferred choice.
Of course, the entire premise of the ZAP/HVS FLIGHTS Experience was not to demonstrate which style of Zinfandel is "best," but to emphasize the impact of terroir, or "sense of place," on these wines; and to increase appreciation of each and every Zinfandel for what they are – not what they are supposed to be in terms of "varietal" expectations. At this level, we are appreciating vineyards, not so much "Zinfandel,” nor winemaking styles.
Joel Peterson, who moderated the panel of five winemakers who produced 2012 Kirschenmanns, commented that "the lightness of these Lodi Zinfandels contradicts many assumptions most people have about the region." Mike Officer, the winemaker presenting his floral scented, gently spiced 2012 Carlisle Kirschenmann Zinfandel, admitted to the crowd, "Before Tegan purchased the vineyard, I'm embarrassed to say that I was pretty ignorant of Lodi. But I was intrigued, and later on I was really struck by the white sandy soil, and the astounding way that the fruit in Kirschenmann is able to retain acidity as it ripens."
The 2012 Arnot-Roberts Kirschenmann Zinfandel was liveliest in acidity – lip smacking, taut, sleek, almost Beaujolais-like in its lightness. Duncan Arnot-Meyers, half of the winemaker/owner team behind the Arnot-Roberts brand, confessed "a little trepidation working with the vineyard because of Lodi's reputation for big, alcoholic wines… Our style of wine is lean and light, and we had no problem getting exactly what we wanted out of the vineyard in our first vintage."
The 2012 Bedrock Wine Co. Kirschenmann Zinfandel, in the style of winemaker/owner Morgon Twain-Peterson, was the darkest, most sinewy, tannin driven wine among the five Kirschenmanns presented, while still retaining the moderate weight typifying the growth. Twain-Peterson talked about "ephemeral, spicy, beautiful qualities we were able to get from the incredibly thick skins in the fruit." Scott Klann, who made almost as tightly wound and richly spiced a wine out of his 2012 Newsome Harlow Kirschenmann Zinfandel, noted the "finesse in weight" of his bottling – "a much softer wine than what we typically make in the Sierra Foothills."
Whereas Arnot-Roberts, Bedrock, Newsome Harlow and Carlisle all made less than 100 cases of Kirschenmann Zinfandel in 2012, Turley Wine Cellars produced over 800 cases. So it was no surprise that the 2012 Turley Kirschenmann Zinfandel seemed like the most complete wine of the bunch: with strong sense of lightness and femininity despite the wine's 15.3% alcohol; and compellingly bright, flowery red berry fruit layered and laced with fine, penetrating touches of licorice and white pepper.
Passalacqua explained: "For the Turley, we picked two different times, on the north and south side of the vineyard, destemmed the fruit, the berries going into closed-top fermentors (Turley utilizes 10 and 12-ton stainless steel tanks) without being crushed… pumped over twice a day, and then going to barrel – just 20% new oak… 20% of that French, and the rest American."
Also par for the Turley style, the Kirschenmann was native yeast fermented, with no acidulation, no watering, absolutely "nothing" added or removed through fining or filtering – hence, the purest expression of a vineyard possible. When recently asked about why he has stuck to the straightforward, minimalist protocols (while also eschewing usage of the latest in high-tech winery equipment) that have burnished Turley's reputation as a Zinfandel iconoclast over the past 20 years, owner Larry Turley replied, "If it ain't broke, why fix it?"
Says Passalacqua, "When I first bought the vineyard from the Kirschenmann family, I was like a new parent, showing it off to everyone I could, nervous about everything going on in there. I manage a lot of vineyards (Turley sources not only from Napa Valley and Lodi, but also from Sonoma, Contra Costa, Amador and Paso Robles), but Kirschenmann is the one that gets the 3 AM feeding and burping. That's why I wanted to see what other winemakers could do with it. In 2012 we were all making wine from it for the first time.
"Recently, when digging a well on the property, I discovered a 4-inch ribbon of limestone-like chalk, just 4 feet below the surface. It isn't just the Tokay fine sandy loam like we originally thought. This could explain, to some extent, why this little oxbow bend along the Mokelumne River produces Zinfandels with so much emphasis on balance." Half facetiously – and also very seriously – Passalacqua makes the qualification, "A lot of this also has to do with the 'cool climate' of Lodi." Something definitely driven home last week, during this memorable tasting in San Francisco!