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.
The amazin’ codgerly !ZaZin
He’s a poet, he’s a picker, sings Kris Kristofferson in Pilgrim. A walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction…
Since 1992, winemaker Patrick Campbell has been pickin’ grapes outside of his home vineyard/estate atop Sonoma Mountain, working with old time Lodi family growers to produce a wine he calls REDS: a red wine, of course, and one that has set a quality standard for $10-$12 retail priced wine with its remarkably consistent balance of qualities associated with Zinfandel, Carignane and Petite Sirah culled from Lodi’s old vine, heritage plantings. Hence, the wine’s original mottos, “REDS – a wine for the people,” and the quote from J. Edgar Hoover, “Find REDS and expose it.”
But from the beginning, according to Campbell, there was always one batch of Zinfandel picked for REDS, sourced from a now 104 year old stand of gnarled, split trunked vines along Harney Lane – on the east side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA where the fabled Tokay Sandy Loam is especially deep, porous and beach-like – that has “always stood out… full of a rich, composed character that you can only get in an old vineyard that knows itself, and controls its own growth.” Therefore, commencing with a 2002 vintage, Campbell’s famed !ZaZin was introduced to thirsty legions of true-blue wine lovers around the world.
We sat down at the end of this past March with Campbell, who shared his current releases:
2009 REDS, Lodi – Deep purplish ruby color and intensely fresh (not tutti-fruity) fruit centered nose of black cherry, red licorice, touches of raspberry, peppery spice and crackling autumn leaves; these flavors couched in a smoothly textured medium body, bright, zesty and bouncy on the palate. 60% Zinfandel; 30% Carignane; 10% Petite Sirah.
2009 !ZaZin, Laurel Glen Vineyard, Lodi – Black/purplish ruby, dark as night, and beautifully rich cassis/blackberry/black cherry nose tinged with nuances of Chinese black tea, Asian spices (like cardomom and star anise) and cigarbox; full, fleshy, viscous, and chubby on the palate without being hard or flabby; velvet textured flavors going long into the night.
The !ZaZin is, quite possibly, the finest $15/$16 Zinfandel produced in California, period: a quietly intense wine that carries a huge stick, very much a reflection of Patrick Campbell himself, who was the recipient (back in 1998) of the Lodi Winegrape Commission’s first Wine Industry Integrity Award. At that time, Mark Chandler, LWC’s longtime Executive Director, described the character of Campbell and subsequent award winners as being that of individuals who lead the entire California wine industry through “soft words and strong actions… quietly and consistently setting the standard measure for hard work, honesty and integrity.”
Campbell, as it were, first established his reputation in the industry as the winemaker/proprietor of Laurel Glen Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain, which has been considered one of California’s finest single vineyard bottled Cabernet Sauvignon since 1977, Campbell’s first vintage. What’s always been amazing is how Campbell has consistently transplanted the seamless, elegant, quiet (i.e. never overblown) intensities associated with Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon into his wines grown in Lodi, as well as similarly crafted wines sourced from Argentina (Malbec based reds) and Chile (modestly priced Cabernet Sauvignons).
But in his usual way – frank, modestly, without fanfare – early last month Campbell sent out a personal message to close and old friends, saying: “I have sold Laurel Glen Vineyard… (after) thirty-five years of farming Laurel Glen under my belt, I had simply gotten about as much intellectual interest and satisfaction out of the vineyard and winery as I was ever going to get.”
“Furthermore,” Campbell wrote, “during the past twenty years, my heart has been increasingly taken with the projects I had been developing in Lodi and Argentina, and it became ever more obvious that it was time to move on.”
So thank goodness, Campbell will continue to produce his REDS and !ZaZin – contributing further to the growing stature of Lodi grown wines around the world – along with Terra Rosa, Tierra Divina, Vale la Pena, and Chévere wines from South America, all under his new company name, Tierra Divina Vineyards.
Talking more about his decision to forsake Sonoma Mountain to devote more time in Lodi and South America, Campbell spoke about the qualities of old vines he has long admired in those regions: “I have found that old vines are like the generations of people who have been farming them. They know what they’re doing because they’ve been around. It can be annoying because you can’t do a lot to influence these stubborn, old codgers, and you end up learning from them, not the other way around. At the end of the day they will always do what they’ve been doing for a long time, which is grow great wine….
“The old vines that produce !ZaZin tend to set their own crop, which is precious little, so there’s not a lot of cluster or shoot thinning to be done. It always wants to produce an intense wine that hits that perfect middle ground between light or weak and fat or overripe. This is good for me because I come from a mountain cabernet background, and I prefer my wines dry, with no residual sugar, and well balanced rather than raisiny or jammy to the point of being tiring…
“Like all good, old Zinfandel plantings, the vineyard along Harney Lane doesn’t ripen monolithically – you’re going to get some green berries among the ultra-ripe berries in many of the clusters – but the beauty of it is that it produces a pure, natural fruit, which we do our best not to mess with by aging only in neutral barrels that don’t cost a lot, allowing us to sell the !ZaZin for a great price.”
The wines do indeed speak for themselves, although others have spoken for Mr. Campbell. His 35 year old daughter Arya, for instance, who has been working with the Laurel Glen brand the past five, six years, has said that her father has “amazing strength…. he doesn’t seem to experience fear and plows through every challenge head-on and with the confidence to succeed … we learned from him that we can achieve whatever we set out to do.”
Well known fact in the industry: Mr. Campbell, now age 64, has always stood and walked with crutches, since being afflicted by polio at the age of 5. All the more amazing to anyone who has ever tried keeping up with him while walking his steep, meticulously (and organically) cultivated mountain vineyard in Sonoma.
The grape, however, has enslaved Campbell, ever since he came to the wine country, originally to join the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center in 1974, after Campbell earned his graduate degree in religion from Harvard. His longtime co-winemaker, Ray Kaufman (who will remain with Campbell’s Terra Divina), has said that Campbell has always struck him as “an intellectual in farmer’s coveralls… simple and complicated at the same time. He is also a true renaissance person – he can fix a tractor, and he was a musician (playing viola) for the Santa Rosa Symphony.”
… all the reasons why Lodi’s greatest wines are coming from amazin’, stubborn ol’ codgers!