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.
Photographic report on start of Lodi’s 2012 harvest
This past Tuesday, August 14, we spent a day checking out the progress of Lodi‘s 2012 crop; which, in fact, was already underway — at least in the Vista Luna Vineyard in Lodi’s Jahant AVA, where we found Markus and Liz Bokisch hand picking Verdelho for their Bokisch Vineyards brand, a select group of their small batch artisanal winemaker/clients (Odisea, Forlorn Hope, Kongsgaard, and The Scholium Project), as well as machine picking Verdelho for one of their bigger clients (Constellation Brands).
According to Mr. Bokisch, the past week’s most recent heat wave (just topping 100° F.) shot up the sugar readings of their Verdelho to 24° Brix — perhaps a smidgen high, but which will still make the type of lemon/lime-zesty, lithe, lissome and perfumed style of dry whites for which the Verdelho grape is known.
Our day actually started earlier that morning at Bechthold Vineyard on the west side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA. Bechthold is Lodi’s oldest continuously farmed vineyard (planted by Joseph Spenker in 1886!), and these wise, wizened old soldiers — planted completely to Cinsaut (a classic grape of Southern France and the Rhône Valley) — were in magnificent shape: the fruit clusters looking plump and plentiful. Not surprising, since so far Mother Nature has kept a steady hand on the weather; and Kevin Phillips (of Michael David) has been lavishing extraordinary care on this venerated vineyard (when we were there, some of the men on the Phillips Farms team were hand hoeing and watering the younger replants, with the same meticulous care we put into our little backyard gardens).
According to Jillian Johnson, who produces Bechthold Vineyard Cinsaut under the Phoenix label (for the unreleased 2011 vintage, transitioning to her new Onesta label), these grapes will probably be ready to pick by Labor Day (September 3) or soon after. In fact, Bechthold’s Cinsaut has always been one of the first red wine vineyards picked. That’s also when some of California’s most celebrated vintners (like Larry Turley and Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars, and Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon) are seen in Lodi wine country, sipping on espresso at the local Starbucks, before heading out into the field at dawn’s early light to harvest their precious allocation of Bechthold Cinsaut.
Following our visit with the Bokischs — including a stop at their Terra Alta Vineyard in Lodi’s Clements Hills AVA, where the crew was doing a first pick of Albariño, headed into a Scholium Project co-ferment with Vista Luna Verdelho — we circled back to Lodi’s west side to see m2 winemaker/owner Layne Montgomery confer with Kevin Soucie of Soucie Vineyard. Montgomery sources from the original block of head trained, own-rooted Zinfandel planted in 1916 by Mr. Soucie’s grandfather. Par for Soucie, the Zinfandel crop was generous — you will find few 90+ year old zin vineyards in California as pristinely farmed and healthy as Soucie — and the clusters looked immaculate: skins thick, deep colored and uniformly intact, cluster sizes medium to full, with even fewer varying hens-and-chicks sized berries than usual.
Although their grapes looked fairly dark and advanced, both Soucie and Montgomery do not anticipate picking until after September 20, since the vineyard — lying on the slightly cooler side of the historic Mokelumne River AVA — tends to slow down its ripening pattern during the month of September. Like a healthy old bull who knows how to pace himself, as he strides down the hill to see his herd of cows. A lot of this involves the Soucie family’s time honored trust in the ancient vines: relying on the fact that each of these plants have seen just about everything over the past 96 years, and that they know exactly how much fruit that they can set and ripen.
Then we were off to the east side of the Mokelumne River AVA, where we stopped to check out the Lizzy James Vineyard — an interplanting of old vine Zinfandel, dominated by thick trunked 108 year old vines, sitting smack dab in the center of a deep (over 30 feet), gently rolling, loamy sand dune, lain down over several million years by the waters flowing down from the Sierras and into the Delta — owned by the Mettler family of Harney Lane Winery. Harney Lane’s Kyle Lerner is also gearing up for a mid- to late-September pick of their Zinfandel.
Unlike Soucie, the clusters and berries in Lizzy James tend to be less even sized, trending towards tiny — a reflection of almost pure sand soil, and probably a clonal variation — although Lizzy James Zinfandels are by no means oversized or overly extracted wines. Again, as ancient vines are apt to do, they set their own agenda; and in vintage after vintage, Lizzy James yields a moderately weighted, balanced, elegantly structured style of Zinfandel, sometimes reticent in the nose, but always sumptuously rich, long and regal in the mouth.
Around the Harney Lane Winery, we stopped to look at the trellised Primitivo, which goes into nearly half of Harney Lane’s yearly blend of “regular” Lodi Zinfandel. Primitivo, which is another clonal variant of Zinfandel, almost always gives uniformly sized berries in its clusters; and grown in the sandy loam of Mokelumne River’s east side, it contributes to much of the lush, round qualities that have made Harney Lane one of the leaders in Lodi’s recent quality push. As it were, Harney Lane’s 2012 Primitivo is specked with some tiny, green “shot” berries; but overall, the bunches look healthy, loose, and moderately weighted. It should be a very good year.
Our final stop was up further north, east of Hwy. 99 near Galt, at the renowned Silvaspoons Vineyard in Lodi’s Alta Mesa AVA. In recent years, no other vineyard in Lodi has produced as many gold medal winning wines as Silvaspoons, owned by Ron and Kathy Silva. Mr. Silva has also been dubbed Lodi’s “Portuguese grape king,” since prestige winemakers from all over the state come to him for grapes of Portuguese (or Iberian) origin: varieties such as Verdelho, Torrontés, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca (a.k.a. Francesa), Tinta Roriz (a.k.a. Tempranillo), Souzão, and extreme rarities like Alvarelhão and Trincadeira (a.k.a. Tinta Amarela).
At Silvaspoons, we could not help sneaking in more than a few bites of Torrontés berries — a variety that has a super spicy, musk toned, luscious tropical varietal fruit character — which were already beginning to taste delicious, despite carrying sugar readings of only about 16° Brix. No wonder the 2011 Kenneth Volk Torrontés, grown by Mr. Silva, won “Best of Show White” (out of 973 other white wines) at the last California State Fair — what a beautiful grape! Silva will probably pick his Torrontés when it gets closer to 22° Brix, most likely in early September.
Meanwhile, like Vista Luna’s, the tinier berries of Silvaspoons Vineyard Verdelho are already approaching 24° Brix, and so Silva expects to pick them before the end of the month (he is waiting to see the effect of the expected cooler temperatures before deciding). Also, like that of Bokisch’s Vista Luna and Terra Alta plantings, Silva’s Albariño is about a couple weeks away from being ready.
We ended our day in perfect Lodi fashion: sitting on Mr. Silva’s winery porch with a golden sun sinking down into the Delta, sharing a bottle of his 2008 Alta Mesa Lodi Tempranillo with friends, old and new. It was a silky smooth red wine, spiked with extremely spicy and perfumed, tea and roasted meat aromas, mingling with flavors of black cherry and cranberry in the mouth. Here’s to another great Lodi harvest in 2012!
… and more photos, commemorating our day in Lodi wine country: