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 28, 2012 | Randy Caparoso

Lodi’s 2012 harvest thus far: ideal pace & patience


Chad Joseph points out lighter colored water ripened bunch (not be as flavorful as darker bunches) in incoming bin of Mohr-Fry Ranches Zinfandel (for Valhalla Cellars)

Although the Lodi vintners began picking white wine grapes like Sauvignon Blanc and Verdelho in August, and Zinfandel as early as the first week of September, so far the 2012 harvest has been a little more mañana and a little less of the usual frenzied poco loco.  There was a slight spike in activity in Lodi vineyards and wineries this past week (September 23-28), but so far vintage 2012 in Lodi Wine Country has been a surprisingly calm, methodical affair.


Haleigh Grace treading Merlot at Harney Lane's Grape STOMP!

But like all vintages, there have been anomalies.  Perhaps most unusual, much of the American Viticultural Area’s Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon — two grapes usually among the last to be picked — started coming in last week, whereas most of the Zinfandel is still on the vine.  “Things have been coming in looking very good,” says Borra Vineyards winemaker Markus Niggli, “but not necessarily in the usual order.”  Consequently, Harney Lane Winery, which held its second annual benefit Cancer Grape STOMP! this past Sunday (September 23), brought out Merlot rather than Zinfandel for folks to smash with their bare feet.

Meanwhile Michael David Winery quietly held a pause that refreshes:  a very civilized Clam Bake on the winery grounds – sans beach sand and ocean spray (maybe next year – just a suggestion! – at least they’ll put down a beach volleyball pit), but with lots of shucked and steamed bivalves to go with a bevy of pure, fruit focused Lodi grown wines, crafted in the intense yet immensely approachable Michael David style (see photos below).

Macchia Wines winemaker/owner Tim Holdener described the sedate air around his winery along Peltier Rd. with this explanation:  “2012 has been a very relaxing year for us because so far we’ve had no rot, no inclement weather, no major issues.  The temperatures have been very moderate, with only one real hot spell, and most importantly, Zinfandels have been coming in with good cluster sizes and riper flavors than what we saw in the two previous vintages (2010 and 2011).  Yet the acids have been very good, pHs moderately low, and sugar levels also reasonably low – comparable to the 2010 harvest, but for different reasons… we had much cooler weather in 2010.”

What’s been picked so far, according Holdener, has been “mainly dry farmed stuff with lighter crop loads, which have a tendency to ripen sooner.”  Two weeks ago Holdener took his first load of Zinfandel grapes from the outer edges of Leland Noma’s Cemetery Vineyard (next to Lodi Cemetery on Victor Rd. – a vineyard Holdener also calls Noma Vineyard); and a second load, from slightly larger vines in the center of the vineyard, just yesterday (September 27).  “Our vineyards with larger crop loads have been ripening at a slower pace,” says Holdener; adding, “by and large, Zinfandel vineyards east of Hwy. 99, have ripening faster than vineyards on the west side of town” – but not atypically, since the deeper, slightly sandier, more porous soils on Lodi’s east side tends to accelerate ripening every year.


Mohr-Fry's Marian's block zin harvest

According to Chad Joseph – who crafts Zinfandel for Harney Lane as well as Maley Brothers, Valhalla Cellars and Harmony Wynelands – so far 2012 has been marked by “ideal ripening weather.”  Crop sizes, says Joseph, are “larger than the previous two years, and Mother Nature has been allowing us to get things ripe under fairly ideal conditions – shoot lengths were shorter and canopies not as vigorous as two previous years, and so vines were stressed a little earlier on, and given the signal to get grapes ripened a little sooner.”

As far as style, according to Mr. Joseph, the 2012 Lodi Zinfandels will be “back to the ripe luscious flavors, with some jamminess and spiciness, that Lodi has always been known for.  They won’t be as lean as the past two years… more towards the opulent, fat, rich styles of the past.”

That said, yesterday (September 27) Joseph took his first two tons of Zinfandel from Todd Maley’s vineyard on N. Ray Rd., in the heart of Lodi’s west-side where wines Holdener describes as “voluptuous” are grown.  Comparing the slightly smaller, darker berries from Maley’s 54 year old Zinfandel vines to the larger berried bunches coming off younger vines in Mohr-Fry Ranches, which also came in yesterday, Joseph told us, “although Maley is on the west side, there is probably a clonal difference accounting for the difference is cluster size… but then again, Maley has always been a special vineyard, giving us a particularly deep colored, rich, earthy and spicy style of Zinfandel.”

Also yesterday, Sorelle Winery’s estate grown Sangiovese was picked, which owner Mike Scott describes as “our best ever.”  Sorelle is still a new kid on the block (their first leaf was 2009), but their wines have already won numerous awards (including a gold for their very first vintage of Sangiovese at the 2011 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition).  Says Mr. Scott, “even though we dropped a lot of fruit, we got the most intense flavors ever – small berries, great pH/acid balance, and sugars at about 25.5° Brix.”


Sorelle's Mike Scott (left) destemming his Sangiovese

Scott attributes Sorelle’s big quality push in 2012 to more aggressive vineyard practices.  “This year we held back water early, and it made all the difference in the world – the grapes began their maturation process sooner, and as a result we’re getting more intense flavors and even better balance, even at over 5 tons per acre.”

Although the Barbera vines between Sorelle’s historic Dodge House (originally built in 1866) and the Calaveras River are also up to 25° Brix in sugar, Scott is going to give these grapes at least another week to hang – waiting for the pH to come down on these notoriously high-acid grapes.

And that’s been the story of the 2012 harvest so far:  a diligent, and exacting, forbearance.  As Holdener tells us, “this year Mother Nature has not only been kind, she has also been teaching us the meaning of patience – if anything, our biggest challenge so far has been just waiting… you wanna run out and get everything picked, but what’s the rush?  So far I’ve been very impressed by 2012, but we’ll see how things go in October!”

Some scenes from Lodi Wine Country this past week:


Old vine Zinfandel coming through in Maley Vineyards


Hand picking in Maley Vineyards


Todd Maley removing leaves from his Zinfandel, just picked from his oldest block (planted 1958), destined for his own Maley Brothers label


Early morning picking (6:30 AM) in Maley Vineyards


Maley Vineyards picker showing skills with her curved, razor sharp grape picking knife

Maley zin picker in typical harvest gear: hoodie and hat to ward off morning chill and to protect from the sun when day temperatures rise


In Maley Vineyards: rare moment to smile in middle of strenuous work, demanding 100 MPH energy


Small cluster perfection of Maley Zinfandel


At winery around 12 noon, Chad Joseph eyes just-arrived Zinfandel from Mohr-Fry Ranches


Chad Joseph demonstrates slight clonal and vine age differences between Mohr-Fry and Maley clusters: the smaller, darker berries from Maley (on right) will make a more concentrated, ultra-premium style Zinfandel


At Lodi's McCormack Williamson Winery (where Joseph produces Maley's Zinfandel), whole, golden clusters of Loureiro grapes are conveyed into bladder press


Joseph removes just-destemed Mohr-Fry Zinfandel grapes in half-ton bin, which will double as an open-top fermentor


This 111 year old, gnarly, giant sized Zinfandel vine in Marian's block of Mohr-Fry Ranches goes into a super-premium bottling by St. Amant Winery


Mohr-Fry's Marian's block Zinfandel was picked this past Thursday, September 27


In Mohr-Fry's Marian's block, the picking of 111 year old vines is also back breaking work


In the most efficient picking crews (like Mohr-Fry's, pictured here), women do much of the picking, but men usually do the heavy lifting of filled tubs (weighing as much as 50 lbs. each)


At Mohr-Fry Ranches: tubs dropped into half-ton bins


These Mohr-Fry Ranches Zinfandel clusters go into one of Lodi's most celebrated wines: St. Amant's Marian's Zinfandel


Picking Mohr-Fry's Marian's block Zinfandel


While beautiful, this Mohr-Fry grown Zinfandel hangs from a vine afflicted by a leafroll virus (causing leaves to prematurely turn color)


Also picked this week: Leland Noma's 100+ year old Cemetery Vineyard Zinfandel (going to Macchia Wines), made up of smaller, low-vigor vines because of dry farming and extremely porous sandy soil


Leland Noma showing the type of tiny berried cluster that produces one of Lodi's most powerful Zinfandels


Ever the perfectionist, Noma puts two people at each bin to remove absolutely all MOG ("material other than grapes")


Picking tiny vines in Noma Vineyard


Tiny zin berries and cluster grown by Leland Noma, against a backdrop of nearly pure sand soil


Many of Noma's zin vines are picked from the knees


MOG sifter in Leland Noma's picking crew


Healthier Zinfandel clusters in Borra Vineyard's trellised, 44 year old Gill Creek Ranch (in Lodi's Clements Hills AVA)


Picking of Borra's Gill Creek Ranch Zinfandel


Two tons of Borra's Gill Creek Zinfandel (out of 130 tons picked this past September 27) on the way to truck


At Borra winery, winemaker Markus Niggli samples Gill Creek Zinfandel (most of which will be packed and trucked back east to wineries and home winemakers)


Lake Gill Wildlife Reserve, in Borra's Gill Creek Ranch


Lake Gill Wildlife Reserve, in Borra's Gill Creek Ranch


Sorelle's Sangiovese harvest


Sorelle's 2012 Sangiovese, described as their "best ever"


Sorelle owner Mike Scott manning destemmer


Sorelle's Barbera looking great, but will hang at least another week


Sorelle estate's dropped Barbera, drying on the ground


Harney Lane owner Kyle Lerner brings in the Merlot for their benefit Cancer Grape STOMP! this past weekend (September 23)


Harney Lane grape stomper, sampling the wares


Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players at Harney Lane's Cancer Grape STOMP!


Harney Lane Cancer Grape STOMP! revelers


In Harney Lane's estate vineyard, beautiful Primitivo (an even sized berried clonal variant of Zinfandel) still hangingn


At Michael David Winery's Phillips Farms this past Saturday (September 22)...


A clam bake and wine tasting on Michael David's lush lawn


Oyster shucking crew


Putting on the hot sauce


Taking it easy at Michael David's clam bake


Lodi style clam bake at Michael David Winery


Pouring it on at Michael David's clam bake


Michael David CEO/co-owner Michael Phillips (second from left) greeting clam bake guests


Clam bake on Michael David's lush lawn


Sweet nothings at Michael David's clam bake



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