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.
Woodbridge, we hardly knew ye…
Have you heard about one of Lodi’s newer “boutique” wineries: Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi?
We kid you not, since April Fool’s is in April, not November. If you’re planning to cover the Lodi winefront during THE FIRST SIP weekend this coming November 13-14, it might be a good idea to set aside a few minutes to visit the giant Woodbridge winery (yes, it’s built to process a quarter of what Lodi grows, and over 8 million cases of wine each year) and taste their lineup of boutique style wines (no more than 200 cases of each) made from decidedly cutting-edge grapes like Vermentino, Verdelho, Malvasia and Marsanne.
You may not have heard of he small, innovative side of Woodbridge, but make no mistake: these wines are go-o-od.
After all, we are reminded by Todd Zieman, Woodbridge’s Director of Winemaking, “Robert Mondavi was an innovator, and a visionary. He not only wanted to produce the best wines in the world, he also wanted to produce the best affordable wines in the world.” Hence, the Woodbridge winery, established in the bountiful region surrounding Mondavi’s hometown of Lodi (contrary to popular opinion, Napa Valley’s most famous figure was not born and raised north of the Bay, but rather east of the Delta!).
To achieve the first part of Mr. Mondavi’s vision, Zieman (also born and raised in Lodi) and his crack team of winemakers craft small batches of finer specialty wines loosely classified as Section 29; not in reference to wines made from secret recipes handed down from aliens; but rather, to an actual section of federal law on the books since Prohibition that has always allowed families to legally produce up to 200 gallons of wine for themselves, without having to apply for a permit.
Unlike traditional Section 29 wines, however, Woodbridge’s are also sold to the public (not that rules actually prevented grapegrowing families from “sharing” their vinous wealth in exchange for a little transaction), but only at the Woodbridge tasting room at 5950 E. Woodbridge Rd.
For Zieman’s team, Section 29 has provided the opportunity to experiment with non-mainstream grapes as well as winemaking techniques (like barrel fermentation and multi-grape blending) that do not quite fit into the established profile of their big production Woodbridge wines. Woodbridge’s marketing team, of course, has also kept a keen eye on how these experimental wines fare. The Woodbridge Moscato, for instance, started off as a Section 29 product.
“Five years ago,” Zieman tells us, “we were still tooling around with small batches of light, sweet combinations of musk varieties, like Muscat Canelli, Orange Muscat and Gewürztraminer, and testing it for consumer response in the tasting room. Then, we were calling it Moscato Bianca. In 2007 we brought it up to 7,000 cases, and marketing studied the response in a test market. Results were so successful that we produced 150,000 cases of a 2009 Moscato (the name shortened by the marketing department), which is now in the process of being folded in as a regular line item Woodbridge wine across the country.”
“Larry has a lot to do with our Section 29 program,” says Zieman, referring to Larry Pilmaier, Woodbridge’s personable Visitors Center Manager. “Our tasting room is a laboratory, and we depend upon Larry to tell us what people think of our trial blends, and also to tell us what type of wines they might be interested in.”
Examples? “I’m very excited about the Vermentino grape,” Zieman enthusiastically states, “which we get from a beautiful vineyard here in Lodi farmed by Kevin Delu, a fellow I’ve known for a long time. I think this grape has the potential to catch on like Pinot Grigio. We also have high hopes for Verdelho, which produces another style of light, zesty white wine like Vermentino, with even more unique fruit qualities, like lime, citrus, and juniper spices. By itself, though, Verdelho might be a little too exotic for most consumers, but we have actually been planting more of it in Lodi because it blends so beautifully with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.”
During THE FIRST SIP weekend, Zieman and Pilmaier are not planning to show any of their 2010s, but they hope to see new faces come out to try their latest 2009 and 2008 releases, which they plan to show with foods prepared along the theme of Childrens’ Comfort Foods. That is to say, something appealing to the inner child in every one of us, as Pilmaier will be demonstrating these fun matches:
Mac ‘n Cheese: 2009 Section 29, Lodi Chardonnay (creamy oaked, fleshy, yet zesty, freshly aromatic style of this grape)
Lime Jello: 2009 Section 29, Lodi Vermentino (exotically spiced, lightly tart dry white, pungent with melon/citrus fruit qualities)
Pigs In a Blanket: 2008 Section 29, Lodi Zinfandel (old-vine style — peppery spiced, dense, “gnarly”)
Spicy Meatballs: 2008 Woodbridge, Lodi Petite Sirah (chunky, replete with grape and wood spices)
While you’re there, also look for tastes of these other wines (like the aforementioned, all incredibly well priced at between $12 and $18):
2009 Cherokee Station, White (honeydew/appley fresh, silken smooth blend of mostly Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Viognier)\
2009 Woodbridge, California Winemaker’s Selection Malvasia (light and easy medium sweet white with flowery, musk, citrus rind and ginger spiced fragrances)
2008 Woodbridge, Barbera (red wine with zesty edged, black cherryish fruit with rich, almost maple-like, mildly wood charred qualities)
2008 Section 29, Lodi Syrah (medium-full, broad, almost fat with sweet berry, leather, maple smoked bacon aromas)
2008, Section 29, Red (aromas of smoky cigar, dusty earth and sweet, juicy blackcurrants in this smooth, finesseful blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah)\
2007 Cherokee Station, Red (super peppery spiced, full, round smoky blend of mostly Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Syrah)