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
April 19, 2013 | Randy Caparoso

Watts ups the ante with pure Chardonnays, a classic Zinfandel & adventurous Montepulciano

Quietly, pretty much under the radar, Watts Winery & Vineyards has been growing before our eyes.  From 1999 to 2011, Watts was one of many winemaking tenets in Vino Piazza, near the little Lodi CDP of Lockeford.  At the Watts family’s “new” tasting room/winery on Locust Tree Rd., just south of Victor/Hwy. 12, Watts’ French-born and schooled winemaker, Franck Lambert, proudly showed off his new baby, sure to attract the oohs and ahs:  the 2012 Watts Upstream Lodi Chardonnay ($18).

What’s so special about Watts’ Upstream Chardonnay?  Lots.  It is, to begin with, a more floral scented, sleek and moderately weighted style of Chardonnay – if you’re looking for a ponderous, buttery popcorn/candied apple/pineapple-fruit bomb style of Chardonnay, don’t expect to find it here.  Instead, the Upstream delivers a white flower/violet-like fragrance, nuances of citrus, lemon and minerals, enhanced in the nose and texture by smidgens of fresh cream derived from just partial barrel fermentation.  But the overall feel is on a crisp, clean purity, enhanced by mostly stainless steel fermentation.

For purists of the grape, there is also a 2012 Watts Yellow Swallowtail Lodi Chardonnay ($16), which is a bone dry, 100% stainless steel fermented style, and showing even more of a tropical flower fragrance, laced with lavender and mineral sensations, finishing medium bodied and mildly zesty in the mouth.  The Yellow Swallowtail butterfly label was established by the family to funnel profits directly to pediatric cancer research at programs such at U.C. Davis, Stanford University, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society®, and Sutter Memorial Hospital.

Says owner/grower Craig Watts, “Franck did an outstanding job capturing the essence of the vineyard and grapes.  We created the ‘Upstream’ sub-label to express the purer, upbeat, healthy, clean lifestyle we’re always looking for, and we put a lot of effort into our butterfly labels because they represent a cause near and dear to our hearts.  The vineyard itself, which we call Casa Azul – because of a little, blue, 1930s house sitting right next to it – is located on the far side of the Lodi AVA’s Mokelumne River appellation, 60 miles from the Pacific Ocean as the crow flies.  So it’s more like a coastal style of Chardonnay, rather than a simple, fruitier one that most people expect out of Lodi.”

In respect to the grapes expressed in the Upstream and Yellow Swallowtail Chardonnays, Mr. Watts brings his coastal experience – several years of managing vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties – to the table.  Explains Watts, “When we planned out the Casa Azul Vineyard in 1999, we decided to go mostly with higher quality selections of Chardonnay.  The Upstream, for instance, is made mostly from Clone 17, also known as the Robert Young Clone.  There are at least five other clones in the Chardonnays, including some of the newer Dijon clones from France.

The significance of Watts’s clonal selection is that the vast majority of Chardonnay planted in Lodi is either Clone 4 or Clone 5, first introduced to the industry by U.C. Davis in the 1960s as higher yielding, heavy cluster-weight varieties.  Selections like Robert Young, and ENTAV “Dijon” clones from France, are considerably smaller cluster-types – as little as half the weight of the big production clones – with grapes having higher skin to juice ratios, which results in richer flavors.  Says Watts, “I never liked Clone 4 or 5 for Chardonnay.  Climatically, our Casa Azul Vineyard, which sits right along the Mokelumne River in the Delta area, has more of a cool coastal climate, not much different from the Carneros region of Napa and Sonoma.  That’s why we thought it was more appropriate to plant with the higher quality clones.”

This brings up an interesting factoid few non-industry people are aware of:  that Lodi is California’s largest producer of Chardonnay.  How large?  According to the California Department of Food & Agriculture annual Grape Crush Report, in 2012 Lodi crushed over 155,503 tons of Chardonnay, which was over 21.1% of the state’s total.  Sonoma County, in comparison, crushed 81,581 tons of Chardonnay in 2012; Napa County, 31,931 tons.  Simply put, Lodi grows a lot more Chardonnay than you may think – which makes the Watts family’s “upstream” commitment to higher quality Chardonnay selections all the more laudable.

Like many of Lodi’s longtime farming families, the Watts are even better known for their Zinfandel; and the 2010 Watts Pescador Vineyard Lodi Zinfandel ($25) is second to none:  super-bright, high toned raspberry jam-like fruit imbued with subtle yet distinct loamy, earthy, raw tobacco-like complexity; filling out a firm, muscular, well rounded medium-full body.  Says Watts, “these are wines made to go 20 years, even if they drink well when young.  The most important factor is that they come from our Pescador Vineyard, located just south of Kettleman Ln. on the west side of the Mokelumne River appellation.”

Lambert tells us, “The fruit from Pescador Vineyard always consists of small, loose clusters, with very small grapes – more like Cabernet Sauvignon than the Zinfandel you usually see around here in Lodi.  This gives the wine its intensity.  We ferment the Zinfandel in larger, open-top steel fermentors with pump-overs, before aging in a combination of French and American oak.”

Watts adds, “I think the natural yeasts in this vineyard add a flavor of its own, totally unlike any other Zinfandel in our fields.  We inoculate for fermentation, but the yeast indigenous to the vineyard is so strong, it always manages to add its voice – strong, earthy characteristics.  The vineyard is made up of head trained vines, mostly planted in 1937.  We named it for Martin Pescador, a Filipino field boss who was my grandfather’s right-hand man for many years.  He taught me all the basics of grape growing, like how to prune as fast and efficiently so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed by the vineyard crew.  The Pescador was always Martin’s favorite vineyard.  His family is still lives in the Lodi area, but they’re all working in the medical field these days.”

Now for something completely different, epitomizing the daring, cutting-edge of Lodi:  the 2010 Watts Los Robles Vineyard Lodi Montepulciano ($25) is a truly compelling red wine, loaded with blackberryish fruit tinged with notes of cracked green and red peppercorns, black olive and cardamom spiced cherry juice; busting out of a zesty, medium-full body, anchored by moderate tannin.

Montepulciano, is a black skinned grape native to the Abruzzo DOCG region of Central Italy.  The Montepulciano grape is not to be confused with Sangiovese, which is the grape that goes into the red wines from around the town of Montepulciano (another DOCG) in Tuscany.  Says Watts, “not only is Montepulciano a completely different grape from Sangiovese, it makes a bolder, earthier wine, which is why we love it.  You can’t compare to many other wines, especially since there aren’t too many California wineries that even make it.

Like many of Lodi’s longtime farming families, Watts Winery & Vineyards has been steadily making the transition from being grape growers to winegrowers since their first vintage in 1999.  It hasn’t been the smoothest of transitions, but Watts believes they have turned a corner.

Up until 2012, most of the family’s holdings were owned by Craig’s mother, Janet Watts, and were managed by both Craig and his brother Keith Watts, who runs K & S Watts Vineyards.  With Janet Watts’ passing last year, the brothers decided to split the properties.  Since Craig, with his wife Sheri and three kids, have been focusing much of their energy on the growth of Watts Winery all along, a division of properties was worked out, according to Craig, “to allow us to retain control of the grapes going into Watts wines.  We will be able to concentrate even more on doing the things in the vineyards that are necessary for higher quality wines.  We were more like farmers before, but farming to produce wines is a different thing from farming to sell grapes, and that’s where we’re heading.”

Watts Winery, which is currently producing just over 6,000 cases, will soon be expanding in other ways.  Says Watts, “We’re building a new tasting room – at our same location on Locust Tree Rd., but in the house we grew up in next to the old tasting room.  We now have complete control of Iris Vineyard (planted completely to Zinfandel, on trellis) around the winery on Locust Tree Rd., as well as our gold medal winning Pescador Vineyard (part of which has supplied the acclaimed McCay Truluck’s Zinfandel in recent years).

“We’ll continue to control Casa Azul Vineyard on the west side of the Mokelumne River, as well as Los Robles Vineyard.  We planted Los Robles in 1998 – 80 acres of vines on very expensive 46-inch quads (i.e. split-canopy trellising) – in the red volcanic soils of Clements Hills.  This is where we have our more unusual grapes, like Montepulciano, Dolcetto, Barbera, Malbec – for a while, we were the only ones  in Lodi growing Malbec – and five of the grapes that go into Portuguese style Ports – Touriga Nacional, Souzão, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz, and Trousseau (a.k.a. Bastardo).

“We surprised a lot of people a few years ago, when our 2002 Dos Amores was the only wine from Lodi to ever win a ‘Best of California’ at the California State Fair (in 2005) for Bordeaux style blends.  Our Zinfandels have been regularly winning gold medals at competitions like San Francisco Chronicle – just last January, our 2010 Watts Pescador Vineyard Zinfandel took a gold at the 2013 competiton.

I think we’re going to continue to surprise people even more.  Things are really looking up for us – you can say, we truly are taking it Upstream!”





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