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
May 9, 2013 | Randy Caparoso

Abba Vineyards grows Grenache comparable to “Pinot Noir”

Michael McCay, the owner/winemaker of McCay Cellars, believes that Lodi might have discovered “its own Pinot Noir.”  He’s thinking, however, that it may be red wines made from the Grenache grape.

“There is a lot of potential for Grenache in Lodi,” says McCay.  “It may become one of the great grapes of Lodi, right up there with Zinfandel.  It’s the perfect fit for our Mediterranean climate.

Wherefore the Pinot Noir analogy?  Explains McCay, “We can make can make an incredibly elegant style of wine in Lodi because of our consistent, predictable growing season.  The sun comes up over the Sierras and sets over Mount Diablo, giving the Delta the hot days that Mediterranean grapes love, and cool evenings with temperatures dipping down into the 50°s at night.  That’s a home run for Zinfandel if you pick early enough, and you’re going for a more restrained, floral, layered, delicate style.  For Grenache, you get absolutely beautiful wines, with the prettiness that kind of reminds you of Pinot Noir grown in colder climate regions – with its own spice and bright fruit qualities, of course.”

McCay is not the only vigneron beginning to suspect as much.  In recent years, for instance, Odisea Wine Company – a Napa based winery sourcing primarily from Lodi – has been producing intensely raspberry liqueur-like, cardamom/peppercorn spiced red wines bottled as “Two Rows Garnacha.”  And out of Bokisch Vineyards’ most recent releases, their strawberry-bright, rose petal nuanced 2010 Terra Alta Vineyard Garnacha was probably their finest (only drawback:  their 244-case production sold out within weeks!).

McCay bases his assessment on his just-released 2011 McCay Lodi Grenache ($28):  an irrepressibly bright, bouncy, fresh strawberryish medium-full bodied red, perked up by peppery spice, zesty acidity and garrigue-like, scrubby notes (like sagebrush and bruised wild thyme) – with a purity of taste enhanced by strictly neutral French cooperage and native yeast fermentation (McCay signatures).  Mr. McCay sourced his Grenache grapes from vines grown by his east-side Lodi neighbors, Louis and Phil Abba.

McCay describes the Abbas as “fantastic, meticulous farmers – very conscious of growing for quality, not quantity.  They thin to one cluster per shoot, pull back on watering, control growth through cover cropping, and work with the winemaker on every aspect.  Quite honestly, I didn’t do a thing to the 2011 Grenache.  All I did was babysit – fermented on native yeast, aged in neutral oak, nothing to take away from the natural brightness of the fruit, which still ended up with a beautiful spice complexity.”

Louis Abba began growing grapes in the 1940s at the early-ripened age of 8, after Louis Abba Sr. first brought his family to Lodi.  Says Louis Jr., now 79 years old, “In early days it was all Tokay, Zinfandel and Carignane, and then later French Colombard and Chenin Blanc, which my dad used to call ‘shitty blanc’ because it was hard to grow, and always susceptible to rot and mildew.  We used to pick those grapes in 50-lb. lug boxes, and that’s how we carried them over to the wineries – we didn’t have gondolas back then.”

Somehow the Abbas adjusted and survived through the precipitous ups and downs of the business, including grape price crashes in the 1980s (when seedless table grapes displaced Tokay, and Lodi growers transitioned from white wine grapes needed for jug “Chablis” to Zinfandel going into pinkish White Zinfandel) and as recently as 2000.  Says Louis, “Not too long ago we were barely getting $200/ton – hardly worth the trouble to pick.  There were years when you sold grapes and you didn’t even know if you were going to get paid – wineries were known to go bankrupt before getting around to it.”

Today Louis Jr. farms 60 acres of primarily Syrah and Grenache (24 acres of “dead-arm” diseased Cabernet Sauvignon were recently pulled out, awaiting replanting to Zinfandel, now back in demand as a premium red wine varietal).  His son, Phil Abba – who recently retired after 31 years with the Sacramento Metro Fire Department (Louis himself did 52 years as a volunteer fireman for Liberty Fire Department in Acampo) – has taken over management of Abba Vineyards, while farming an additional 8 acres of his own.

In recent years the Abbas have become well known for their Syrah, originally planted in 1996 (“when it was still a new and up-and-coming grape,” says Phil Abba).  Vineyard-designate Syrahs have been produced and bottled by Rosenblum Cellars (purchased in 2008 by Diageo) for going on 10 vintages.  The winery describes its Abba Vineyard Syrah as a “winemaker’s wine,” and lauds Phil Abba’s work with his “Smart-Dyson ballerina trellis system… a divided canopy that essentially combines vertical shoot positioning with California sprawl, creating a dancing figure with ‘arms’ shooting high into the air and ‘feet’ delicately prancing below. The fruit sits in the middle, exposed to ambient light and good air flow for even development of grapes with deep, complex flavors.”

Phil Abba tells us, “Although we would love to sell to more boutique wine producers like Mike McCay, we proudly work with larger companies like Diageo and Gallo because they are the ones who can offer long term contracts, big enough to sustain us – something smaller boutique wineries can’t do with any consistency.  Most of our 9 acres of Grenache will go to Diageo, but we’ll continue to work with Mike because he shares our commitment to quality.”

Says Mr. McCay, “the first year (2011) we did just 5 barrels of Grenache, but in 2012 Phil got us up to 10 barrels.  I’m excited because the 2012 is just as special as the 2011, and the Abbas are ideal to work with.  They truly ‘get it’ as farmers… it all bodes well for the future of Grenache in Lodi!”



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