5 Artisanal Wine Producers
Long the punchline of a famed Creedence Clearwater Revival song, Lodi, situated in the northern portion of California’s Central Valley, is in the midst of a renaissance.
A burgeoning group of small-lot winemakers is changing the region’s reputation for macro farming and are focusing on quality, resulting in a new wave of elegant and distinctive wines. Crisp, delicious whites and nuanced Rhône-, Iberian- and Italian-inspired reds are being added to a high-quality category already occupied by lauded old-vine Zinfandel, Lodi’s hallmark.
An increased number of outsiders are planting vineyards and vinifying those grapes, exposing a broader audience to the area’s potential.
These four producers are rooted in the region. They’re intimately familiar with the special plots where the magic vines are planted. They’re making handshake deals with growers like Markus Bokisch, who was instrumental in planting and farming this new guard of varieties. And with their vision and passion, these trailblazers are putting Lodi on a new path.
Photos by Alex Farnum
A native of Switzerland, Niggli has been in Lodi eight years. As the winemaking partner of longtime grape grower Steve Borra, he’s an avowed devotee of unusual red and white blends.
“Wine drinkers are starting to open up,” Niggli says. “I say, ‘You don’t have to like it, but try it, and if you don’t like it, fine. But at least I gave you the experience to try a variety you’ve never tasted before.’”
Niggli has ferreted out obscurities like Kerner and Bacchus planted in Lodi dirt, two white varieties he knew growing up in Switzerland, but hard to find in California. He also sources local Riesling and Gewürztraminer.
“The wines are not made up of acids, they are coming from the vineyard that way, so after fermentation, there is no acid added,” he says. “I aim for freshness and acidity over aromatics. It’s something different, and it’s something new.”
People open to experimenting with white wines often try his red field blends as well, Niggli says. These include varying combinations of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Barbera, Carignane, Mourvèdre and Alicante Bouschet.
“Five to six years ago, Lodi was probably not ready for this new wave,” he says. “As Lodi’s changing, more people are paying attention to it. Before, somebody could yell that they had the greatest wine, but nobody was listening.”
A youthful generation of Lodi winemakers is committed to changing the old ways, and collaboration on vineyard sources and winemaking philosophies is the norm, Niggli says. He also finds interacting with customers through Borra’s active wine club and tasting room to be invaluable.
“Everything has a personal touch—I have a connection to these wines,” he says. “I want to make sure they’re in the right place, and the story is told correctly.”
Born and raised in Lodi, Mikami’s grandfather came to Lodi from Japan in 1895. He worked as a laborer, a job his father also toiled in, raising his family in a tiny Westside Lodi house with a small 15-acre vineyard.
Two-thirds of the vineyard were originally planted to Tokay—a seeded table grape once the dominant crop here which fetched $100–150 a ton—but there were also four acres of old Zinfandel.
In 2005, Mikami’s father died, passing the baton to Jason, who earned a degree in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley, later adding an MBA from UC Davis.
Mikami replanted the vineyard to Zinfandel exclusively, and before long, produced some wine, about 100 to 150 cases a year.
“When I was growing up, there were a ton of Japanese-American families farming grapes in Lodi, none of them ever did wine,” Mikami says. “It was something I wanted to do for my father and my family. Most of my generation went to college and left. I think I’m one of the few to come back and try to do something here in Lodi.”
He works with winemaker Kian Tavakoli, formerly of Opus One and Clos du Val. They use a small portion of the estate-grown Zinfandel, aiming for lower yields in those blocks than in the rest of the vineyard, which supplies grapes to Gallo.
“I didn’t want to create the bomb, I wanted a little more balance,” Mikami says. “We try not to overwhelm with alcohol.”
Plans are to grow to 2,500 cases over the next five years and perhaps turn his childhood home into a tasting room, where visitors might also wander through the family’s historic vineyard.
“A lot of people into wine think of Lodi as the Napa of say, two decades ago,” Mikami says. “The people who come out for Lodi events like the small, startup aspect of it—it’s not so commercialized. There are a lot of boutique wineries, and people are finding the quality is definitely improving.”
Mike McCay refers to himself as “the native guy,” because he’s all about native fermentation.
“My whole belief is old school,” he says. “All the battles going on that first five brix of fermentation, you have all that competition, that struggle, and I think a lot of the complex layers come from that competition.”
His line of vineyard-specific Zinfandels testify to this philosophy, offering a range of complex, nuanced flavors, from bright red fruit to dusty black fruit.
McCay started making wine in 1994, experimenting with small lots from various sites around Lodi, including an estate vineyard encircling his house. He launched his own commercial label in 2007.
“My palate is old world…a lot of guys were going in a different direction at that time and I figured, hey, if it didn’t work out, we’d have a lot of wine to drink and a lot to give as Christmas gifts,” McCay says. “We sold out in three months.”
In addition to his line of Zinfandels—Trulux, Equity, Jupiter, Contention and Faith—McCay is adding some Rhône-style wines. The first is a Carignane named Lot 13 (its name on a 1906 plot map) from a vineyard site he recently took over in the Mokelumne River subappellation.
“Lodi, hands down, is the most exciting place in California,” McCay says. “There’s still winemakers, wineries and growers trying to figure out what their style really is, and because of the climate and soil profiles, you’ve got to argue Lodi’s one of the top places for Zinfandel.”
Since launching, McCay’s been all about the dirt, finding the tucked-away spots others either didn’t discover or shunned in the pursuit of quantity.
“There’s still a battle about that going on in Lodi,” he says. “You’re seeing more and more growers who want to see their name on the back of a label or be talked about a little bit, they like that idea. It’s a small group, but it’s coming.”
Fields Family is a partnership between winemaker Ryan Sherman, who sells real estate by day and grew up in Lodi, and Russ Fields, a busy attorney originally from Stockton.
They started out making wines they would want to drink—crossing fingers that their palates would be commercially viable. Sure enough, plenty of others enjoyed their elegant, small-lot Syrah, Tempranillo and Zinfandel, in addition to a few other wines.
“We’ve been long-term generations of growers in Lodi , but we’re relatively young in the winemaking world,” says Sherman. “It’s great to see this grassroots movement of making something different.
“We approach our wines as these are the types of wines we’ve enjoyed from California or the world. Is it possible to do something like that here in Lodi?”
Sherman is a fan of native fermentation. He prefers to use little oak for aging his wines and leaves them unfined and unfiltered.
“We can say, taste these wines, year after year. There’s a commonality from that vineyard we think is pretty special, and I enjoy and embrace vintage variation.”
Fields’s first release was the 2008 vintage, which totaled 300 cases. Production has grown to 1,600 cases with the 2013 vintage, the most wine Sherman has ever made.
“Lodi’s not pretentious, we share information,” Sherman says. “I always say to winemakers who come by asking questions, ‘My competitor’s Budweiser, it’s not you. Go make good wine. I’m happy to help you out.’ ”
Sherman sources Tempranillo from McCay’s Lot 13 vineyard, some of the oldest planted in Lodi, he suspects, outside of Bokisch.
The partners also make an estate Syrah from vines they believe were planted more than 20 years ago and constitute one of Lodi’s first certified organic Syrah vineyards.
“Everything’s pretty much 100%,” he says of the wines. “Vineyard, vineyard, vineyard all the way through.”
- 2Markus Niggli
- 3Jason Mikami, owner + Kian Tavakoli, winemaker
- 4Michael McCay
- 5Ryan Sherman