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.
Rare hat trick: Lodi garners awards for Vineyard, Grower & Winery of the Year
Lodi hat trick
Over the past year the Lodi Viticultural Area has achieved something of a hat trick; garnering no less than three prestigious California wine industry awards for
• 2014 Vineyard of the Year – Bestowed by the California State Fair, an award going to the little Bechthold Vineyard, located on the west side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA.
• 2014 Grower of the Year – Awarded to Lodi's Vino Farms by the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) at this group's Annual Meeting and Awards of Excellence Program, held last July in Carmel Valley.
• 2014 Winery of the Year – Presented to Delicato Family Vineyards by the respected consulting firm of Gomberg, Fredrickson & Associates at the most recent Unified Wine & Grape Symposium this past January 2015.
Says Camron King, the Executive Director of Lodi Winegrape Commission, "This may be the only time when all three awards have gone to a single region within the space of 12 months."
These three awards have come very much as a result of the dramatic success of each honoree, both commercial and critical, in the raising of appreciation for Lodi grown wines, each in their own way. Wines with Lodi on the label are now recognized for their dependable quality in every state of the union and around the world.
These recognitions also, to some extent, represent a realization of the goals first set out 24 years ago, when Lodi's growers and wineries came together to form the Lodi Winegrape Commission with a mandate to expand awareness of Lodi grown grapes and wines – particularly through programs implemented to increase quality and environmental responsibility.
Through ups and downs, the Lodi grape and wine industry has sustained, and sustained itself well – each of our three award winners playing their own significant role.
Bechthold Vineyard – long deserving survivor
The story of Bechthold Vineyard, for starters, is a heroic one: a 25-acre vineyard planted 129 years ago (in 1886) to just one grape that almost no one in the industry recognized or wanted. Yet it was there, lovingly sustained by the heirs of its original owner, Joseph Spenker, through thick and thin, good vintages and bad; its grapes often selling, during much of the past 40 years, for less than the cost to farm those grapes. In a sense, a microcosm of the rest of the Lodi wine grape industry.
The Bechthold Vineyard's story is compelling, however, mostly because of its unusualness. Up until 2003 its grapes were sold by the name given to Spenker by the nursery belonging to the Stockton-based El Pinal Winery (which closed during Prohibition). The grape suppliers called it Black Malvoisie. Modern day commercial wineries had little use for something called Black Malvoisie; and so as recently as the 1990s the harvest was packed in little boxes and shipped back East to home winemakers and wineries looking for inexpensive black skinned grapes to work with. Some years, much of the crop went unpicked – just not worth the trouble.
Long story short: in 2004, when the vineyard was finally on the brink of being torn out, the grapes named Black Malvoisie were identified by U.C. Davis as being one and the same as Cinsaut – a French grape in much greater demand among top California wine producers. And so today, about a dozen of the state's most prestigious artisanal wineries stand in line each year to pick their allocated portion of Bechthold Vineyards Cinsaut; eagerly paying more than 12 times more than what the fruit fetched in the late 1990s.
While the family's last vineyard custodian, Al Bechthold, passed away in early 2014, the vineyard is still owned by Wanda Woock Bechthold. She now leases the family heirloom to a longtime neighbor – sixth generation Lodi grower Phillips Farms, the viticultural arm of Michael David Winery. The gnarled, twisted centurian vines are lovingly farmed by hand, organically; each "dead spot" replanted with cuttings from the original vines.
In tip-top shape, there is no reason to believe that these ancient vines can't go another 129 years – especially since bottlings of Bechthold Vineyard Cinsaut are universally praised for being what they are: genuine articles, provocatively delicious as wines of great delicacy, coming off vines that have withstood the most rigorous tests of time.
If any California vineyard deserved an award for "Vineyard of the Year," Bechthold did, and it has made Lodi proud.
Vino Farms – epitome of sustainability
When honoring the Ledbetter family, who have been managing over 15,000 acres of wine grapes in California – including about 5,000 acres within the Lodi AVA – for over 30 years, CAWG Vice-Chair Aaron Lange commented, "This family operation has never lost sight of their commitment to the winegrape industry and to the communities where they grow and manage their vineyards."
Every one of Vino Farms' Lodi vineyards are, in fact, grown under the highly detailed, stringent third party certified guidelines of Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing. For Vino Farms, this means more than living up to environmental responsibilities. This also means providing a safe, healthful, equitable work environment to employees and their families, forging a lasting relationship with a company that considers the goal of sustaining itself economically to be one and the same as leaving vineyard properties – including the flora and fauna of adjoining lands – to future generations in better shape than before.
"Vino Farms leads by example," says Rodney Schatz, a past Chair of the CAWG Board of Directors.
Based in Lodi, Vino Farms cultivates more than a dozen different grape varieties for over 150 California wineries; while employing 150 full-time employees and 450 seasonal employees. They are multi-generational family operation, led by John Ledbetter, Jim Ledbetter, Kim Ledbetter-Bronson, Craig Ledbetter, Marissa Ledbetter, and Megan Ledbetter.
The Ledbetters have also been aggressive in their participation with programs and events in coordination with numerous agricultural organizations; from Ag in the Classroom to Winegrape Growers of America. Their ongoing community activities have been supportive of groups like Hospice of San Joaquin, Kiwanis of Greater Lodi, Boys & Girls Club of Lodi, Lodi Chamber of Commerce, Lodi Community Foundation, Lodi House, LOEL Center & Gardens, Hutchins Street Square Foundation, Relay for Life, and United Way.
Sustainability is a challenge accepted and met on a daily basis, not a destination in itself – and Vino Farms has been walking the walk, not just talking it.
Delicato Family Vineyards – success from ground up
While based in nearby Manteca and managing their amazingly expansive, vineyard driven operation in San Joaquin Valley as well as Monterey County and Napa Valley, the Indelicato family's pioneering commitment to the Lodi AVA goes back to their company's founding in 1924.
They were among the first, for instance, to recognize the enormous potential of the rocky clay, granitic hillside soils of Lodi's Borden Ranch AVA; cultivating over 1,300 acres of ultra-premium wine grapes there since the 1990s, all farmed in accordance to Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing.
When accepting the award for "Winery of the Year" at last January's Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in front of his industry peers, Chris Indelicato, Delicato Family Vineyards' President/CEO, said, "We are honored to receive this prestigious distinction and we believe this is a direct reflection of our people and their collective passion to continually improve, evolve and innovate."
Gomberg, Fredrickson & Associates' Jon Fredrikson noted that the award was given in recognition of "the company’s longevity as a family-owned California winery and outstanding annual growth of more than 800,000 cases, up 12.4 percent versus the prior year."
Although much of this growth has been in the area of 3-liter packages such as Bota Box, Delicato Family Vineyards has also been hugely instrumental in the expansion of consumer appreciation of wines with Lodi on the label around the world; through the runaway success of wines like Gnarly Head Zinfandel, Brazin Zinfandel, and Noble Vines (special clonal-selection bottlings of Lodi grown Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot).
Congratulations and thanks to all three of these key contributors to the ongoing success story of Lodi, and for your contributions to the entire California wine industry!