Zin, Langes, gumbo & Elvis sightings
A slice of Lodi’s Zinfandel past…
Elvis was always a dutiful child, and here everybody was thinking he’s wild…
– Jesse Winchester (Just Like New)
Before joining the LangeTwins Winery & Vineyards team in 2005, David Akiyoshi was a second generation winemaker in charge of production at Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi. It’s the 25 years spent in the previous capacity that has given Akiyoshi as broad a perspective on Lodi winegrowing as anyone in the business.
Save, perhaps, that of the Langes themselves; who, like a number of other families in Lodi, have sustained a powerful presence in the Delta community for over 100 years. The LangeTwins winery co-founders — identical twins, Randy and Brad Lange — together with their grown kids, represent the fourth and fifth generations of Langes who have been farming hundreds of acres in Lodi’s Mokelumne River and Clements Hills AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), as well as in the Delta’s Clarksburg AVA for most of the last century.
We recently sat down with Mr. Akiyoshi, who shared his learned insights on Lodi grown Zinfandel. “Long before there were AVAs,” he began, “and 100 point scores, and gold medals or silver medals, European immigrants were settling in Lodi and planting Zinfandel because the grape, and the land, reminded them of what they left behind in Europe – even though Zinfandel was never an important grape in Europe. Over 100 years later, Lodi is finally finding national, and international, acclaim for its Zinfandel. What’s amazing to see is how much those European immigrants really knew: that Lodi was made for Zinfandel, and Zinfandel was made for Lodi.
“Lodi’s reputation for great Zinfandel took a long time to develop, probably because Zinfandel has always been so promiscuous here; and so for the longest time Lodi was known as a farming community first, rather than a winemaking region. Because of the benefits of growing in Lodi – in a climate defined by warm summers and cool nights, and rich sandy loams that are so good for deeply rooted vines, yet with only moderate water retention – Lodi became known as an extremely productive, and versatile, grape growing region. We not only grow 40% of California’s Zinfandel, we also farm more Cabernet Sauvignon, more Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and all of the major wine grapes, and more, than any other wine region in California.
“This generous reputation, however, was not always associated with higher quality grapes. Yet when you look at Lodi itself, you can see that we are not the hot, Central Valley growing region that many people, including North Coast winemakers who should know better, still think. The Sunset Western Garden Book, for example, classifies Lodi as an inland area with a marine influence – similar to the marine influences characterizing Napa and Sonoma. The windmills that you see in Rio Vista as you drive through the Delta on the way to Lodi from the coast demonstrate the constant cooling breezes that effect Lodi’s climate. Even in the peak of summer, the diurnal shift is so drastic that we drop down to temperatures within a couple of degrees of what you find in San Francisco.
“Premium wine grapes love Lodi, just like they do Napa Valley. That’s why Mondavi established Woodbridge in the Lodi region, and it’s wineries like Woodbridge that helped lay the groundwork for Lodi as a premium grape growing region in the eighties and nineties, before wineries like Lucas and Michael-David came along to dramatically change things.
“The history of Zinfandel in Lodi, on the other hand, was tied for many years to the Tokay grape, growing right alongside it. Up until the late eighties, when the market for Tokay collapsed after the introduction of seedless grapes, the same people who grew Tokay also grew Zinfandel because they knew that wherever they could ripen Tokay to optimal depth of color and ripeness of flavor, they could also grow the best Zinfandel. When Brad Alderson and others began to map out the Lodi AVAs in the eighties, they used Tokay as a guideline to define the Mokelumne River region. It was knowing that both Tokay and Zinfandel really do best in the cooler spots of Lodi that are closer to water, at the lower elevations – since cool air, like water, flows down to the lowest points – that helped define the other six sub-regions of Lodi. It helped us understand that in the regions in Lodi where Tokay and Zinfandel historically did not do quite so well, especially going towards the Foothills, we could still successfully grow other grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
“At Woodbridge, we started out by making generic red, white and pink wines – varietal wines were not a consideration in the early eighties. For years Julio Gallo prized his Lodi grown Zinfandel, but he put most of it into Hearty Burgundy. We put Zinfandel into Mondavi’s Table Red; and if not for the White Zinfandel craze in the nineties, we would not have used Zinfandel at all; and Zinfandel might have disappeared in Lodi along with most of the Tokay.
“But quality always finds a home, and old vine Lodi Zinfandel managed to survive for the same reasons why it was planted over 100 years ago: it’s a perfect wine grape for the region. When I was at Woodbridge I bought a lot of grapes from the Lange family because, of all the growers, they always seem to be ones who were asking, ‘what can we do to improve our quality?’ For instance, 100% of the Langes’ vineyards are also certified by Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing. The family has been prioritizing grape quality together with environmental responsibility, and making those goals one and the same, for most of the past 20 years.
“One of our best Zinfandels comes from a vineyard planted by the Langes about 50 years ago on Ray Rd., on the north side of Peltier, closer to the Delta where those cool breezes blow in unimpeded. Like other classic Lodi plantings, these vines are head trained, with spurs and leafing canes pointing out on all sides, exposing the fruiting zones to the most consistent amount of sunlight possible throughout the day.
“Like most old vine zins, our Ray Rd. estate vineyard is pretty much self-regulating – the vines produce quantities they feel comfortable producing, with little or no irrigation – although you could crop it on a large or small side. But this is where human input comes into play: by applying Lodi Rules, and through precision green and cluster thinning, the Langes pull out all the stops to get the perfect amount of ripeness in their Zinfandel, making sure flavor maturity comes in perfect synch with a sugar maturity that is never too high. The result is a style of Zinfandel we like to produce: a wine that is dark, rich, and concentrated, like a brambly berry compote, yet at the same time without an excess of alcohol – a Zinfandel that epitomizes Zinfandel, yet is balanced enough to go with foods.
“In terms of winemaking, you’ll never taste a lot of manipulation in a LangeTwins Zinfandel – we don’t use additives, like mega-red or mega-purple to deepen color, or oak saw dust to enhance tannin. If we ‘add’ quality, we feel like we’ve lost our way – LangeTwins is about growing for a more natural quality, not by adding anything artificial through winemaking tricks or processing!”
Matching the 2008 LangeTwins Estate Grown Zinfandel with food and Elvis
Mr. Akiyoshi is as much a foodie as a winemaker by trade: since 2003, he and his wife Trisha, along with Trisha’s son Will, have been operating one of Downtown Lodi’s finest, and most beloved, restaurants: the School Street Bistro.
In our most recent tasting, the 2008 LangeTwins Estate Grown Zinfandel ($12), sourced primarily from Ray Rd., was showing a wild blackberry concentration, veering towards a decadent blueberry coulis, with dashes of cocoa powder and sweetly scented Vietnamese cinnamon. The wine’s feel on the palate is full and round without being heavy. Akiyoshi also like to point out the fermented black tea characteristics in the estate zin — something he has always found common to Mokelumne River grown Zinfandel — and in the ’08 bottling, those dark tea sensations combine with dense, velvety textured qualities to underline the bright berry varietal qualities, the way the Jordanaires used to add those deep, rich backdrop voices in contrast with the voice of a young Elvis.
When asked about an ideal dish for this sultry style of Zinfandel, Mr. Akiyoshi suggested grilled lamb; especially when prepared with the smokiness of grilling, with spice rubs to echo the Zinfandel spice and, even more ideally, a natural sauce reduced with morello or dried cherries to mingle with the wild berry taste of the grape.
But an even better match for the cinnamon spice and fermented black tea components of this classic Lodi grown zin? For Akiyoshi, that would be the multiple spiced and richly textured taste of his School Street Bistro style of Chicken and Andouille Gumbo; a recipe for which he has generously shared with us.
All you protest kids: think of the gumbo’s roux as the Jordanaires, and the gumbo spices as the zin-friendly Elvis:
School Street Bistro Chicken & Andouille Gumbo
¾ cup flour
½ cup oil (more or less
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried oregano
5-1/2 cups chicken stock
1/3 #10 can puréed tomatoes with sauce (see note at end of this recipe)
6 chicken breasts, cooked and diced
1 cup green bell peppers, chopped
1 cup red bell peppers, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
2 cups large yellow onions, chopped
2 lbs. frozen okra
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
½ lbs. andouille sausage links, sliced and quartered
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
Filé powder, to taste
Combine onions, peppers and celery in bowl and set aside. Combine spices in another bowl and set aside.
Start roux by heating oil in large heavy skillet over high heat. Gradually add flour, whisking constantly; continue to cook until roux is a dark reddish brown.
Add half the vegetables to the skillet, stir well and cook one minute; then add the rest of vegetables and cook two minutes. Add spices, stir and add garlic, and remove from heat.
Bring chicken stock to a boil and add roux mixture by spoonfuls to the boiling stock, stirring until each spoonful is dissolved. Simmer about 15 minutes.
Add sausage, and cook about 5 minutes. Then add tomatoes, one cup at a time, and taste for balance after each addition. Cook 5 minutes more. Finally, add chicken and okra, and bring back to simmer for 10 minutes; thicken with filé powder and additional salt to taste. Allow to simmer another 15-20 minutes. Serve with long grain white rice and chopped green onions for garnish.