Something subversive is afoot in the vineyards of Lodi, California, the home to value-priced, mass-produced wine brands like Woodbridge and Sutter Home. Traditionally, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel grapes dominate the acreage here, and they provide a livelihood for scores of farm families.
But unlikely vines have sprung up, such as varieties like Albariño, Graciano, Kerner, Nero d’Avola, Picpoul, Tannat and Teroldego. These recent arrivals are getting bolder and challenging the status quo in Lodi, providing an injection of diversity to the region’s commodity-driven wine culture.
Winemakers are crafting excellent whites with lesser-known grapes, like suave Roussanne from Covenant and floral Torrontes from Wise Villa, as well as reds, like lip-smacking Sangiovese from Masthead or dark-fruited Dolcetto from Klinker Brick.
“Ironically, while these varieties can be rare, they’re usually less expensive. There’s less of a market for them, and winemakers aren’t typically looking to spend a lot for blended reds.” —Melissa Stroud, Michael David Winery
The trend breaks down into at least four groups: Spanish-Portuguese, southern French, Italian and German. But there are some broad similarities in the wines. Very few have heavy oak flavors, most emphasize brisk acidity over alcohol levels, and all seem to express vibrant, varietal-specific fruit characteristics.
These wines have not penetrated far onto wine lists and retail shelves, but where they have, buyers are seeming to appreciate their unique attributes.
“Considering our menu, we tend not to work with too many traditional California wines that have all the oak and the extraction,” she says. “Our food is kind of restrained, the ingredients are really the focus. Since these wines are more restrained, they typically work well with our food,” Wright says.
Also, very few of these wines retail for more than $30. While Lodi is arguably the highest-quality growing area in the vast, inland San Joaquin Valley, winemakers generally pay less for grapes than those from coastal counties. Consequently, the wines are less expensive to make, particularly when produced with some of these unorthodox varieties.
“Ironically, while these varieties can be rare, they’re usually less expensive,” says Melissa Stroud, who heads sales at her family’s winery, Michael David. “There’s less of a market for them, and winemakers aren’t typically looking to spend a lot for blended reds.” That’s where many of the lesser-known varieties would otherwise go.
What’s driving winemakers to venture outside popular varietal grapes? Wouldn’t Chard and Cab sell easier?
“Sure, and we make much larger quantities of those under our primary brand,” says veteran winemaker David Ramey, of Sonoma County-based Ramey Wine Cellars.
Ramey makes a crisp, graceful white Kerner for his new brand, Sidebar, with grapes from Lodi’s Mokelumne Glen Vineyard, thought to be the variety’s lone planting in California. The Kerner grape variety was born when a German researcher crossed Trollinger, a red-wine grape, with Riesling.
“Everything grows well in Lodi. We have a Mediterranean climate almost identical to the south of France, so my grapes love the weather. However, we usually don’t have their issues with rain during our growing season, so we can take these beautiful grapes to ripeness.” —Susan Tipton, Acquiesce Winery
“It allows us to have fun with other varieties,” says Ramey. “I’ve loved Kerner ever since sommelier Paul Grieco gave me a glass blind in his then Manhattan restaurant. It has Riesling’s aromatics with a bit of Gewurztraminer’s body and texture.
“Plus, who wants to live in a world where the only ice cream flavors are chocolate and vanilla?”
A champion of grapes from Germany and Alsace in Lodi is Swiss-born Markus Niggli, who makes wine for Borra Vineyards. He’s created his own intellectually ambitious brand, Markus Wine Co., to produce German varietal wines and blends bottled with artistic labels and individual proprietary names.
His 2016 white blend Nimmo combines 64% Kerner with Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Bacchus, a grape not often seen in California. It possesses a surprisingly rich mouthfeel and wonderful peach flavors. A pure Gewürztraminer, Nuvola, is wonderfully aromatic, while steely and appetizing on the palate.
Lodi winemaker Susan Tipton based her business plan on Rhône varieties when she bought property here in 2000, and later founded Acquiesce Winery. She planted Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc and Grenache (for rosé).
More recently, she added Clairette, a rarity in the U.S., and Bourboulenc, perhaps the first American version ever, with a planned release in spring 2018.
Tipton says the region was ideal for her estate winery, because “everything grows well in Lodi. We have a Mediterranean climate almost identical to the south of France, so my grapes love the weather. However, we usually don’t have their issues with rain during our growing season, so we can take these beautiful grapes to ripeness. This is one reason why my whites are more fruit forward than their French counterparts.”
“Who wants to live in a world where the only ice cream flavors are chocolate and vanilla?” —David Ramey, Ramey Wine Cellars
The Acquiesce 2016 Grenache Blanc combines floral and peachy flavors with an appetizing balance, while the 2016 Picpoul is lean, apple-y and light-bodied.
Not all of the underdog grapes come from new vines, however. In the Bechthold Vineyard, a planting of the Rhône red variety Cinsault that is more than 100 years old has become legendary, thanks to its use in elegant wines like the Fields Family 2015 Cinsault and those from Turley, Onesta and McCay. Michael David’s 2015 Ancient Vine Cinsault is another standout.
The most important name to know for Italian-style wines from Lodi grapes is a mouthful: L’Uvaggio di Giacomo, or more simply, Uvaggio. The name literally means “grape blends of James,” and the James in question is winemaker Jim Moore. He worked 19 years for Robert Mondavi before he went solo with Uvaggio and also consults with other producers.
Moore seeks the unexpected, so he created a gorgeous, sweet, layered nonvintage version of the normally dry Vermentino grape that’s labeled as “passito” for the dried grapes used in it. Reversing direction, he also makes one of the best dry Muscats in California. The Uvaggio 2015 Secco Moscato is floral and opulent but bone-dry, instead of the sweet, fizzy norm.
In Italian-styled reds, Peltier winery made an impressive and concentrated 2010 Teroldego Reserve that’s still available. This rare grape variety from northern Italy is a close genetic relative of Syrah, and it gives the wine an inky-dark color, loads of fine-grained tannin and beefy, black-peppery flavors.
From Sicily, Nero d’Avola vines in Lodi’s Red Tail Vineyard made a complex, mineral and sage-scented wine in 2014 for LangeTwins.
Grapevines from Spain and Portugal have also adapted well to Lodi, which includes an old plot of Carignan used by Klinker Brick for a spicy, jammy 2014 vintage. Owner Steve Felten sought red grapes to blend into the Klinker Brick rosé when he found Jean Rauser’s unkempt eight acres of vines more than 100 years old.
“We knew [the land] was in terrible shape, but we went for it and took over managing the vineyard,” he says. At first Felten used the Carignan solely for rosé but later decided to bottle it alone as a red wine.
Markus & Liz Bokisch are the godparents of Iberian grape varieties in Lodi. They worked in the Spanish wine industry in the 1990s before they bought Terra Alta Vineyards in the Clements Hills district of Lodi.
They began to plant Albariño, Tempranillo and Graciano in 1999, and they’ve done much to popularize these and other underdog varieties. A couple of examples are the Bokisch 2016 Albariño, light-bodied and absolutely fresh, and the outstanding 2014 Tempranillo, layered and firmly tannic.
Wherever these grape varieties hail, the iconoclastic wines that result are redefining opinions.
“Our customers are definitely attracted to unusual and different varieties,” says Debbie Zachareas, partner in Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in San Francisco, and Napa’s Oxbow Cheese and Wine Merchant. “Lodi, in the past, we associated with old-vine Zinfandel, but now it has these Italian and Spanish varieties, too. The people making them are doing a phenomenal job, and people are migrating there to do this. It’s going to change the way people think about Lodi.”
Ryan Sherman of Fields Family Wines is one of several winemakers that say that the success has not only helped sell wine, but also brought better stewardship of older vines and more diversity for the region.
“I think it’s a great thing,” he says. “It helps elevate the region, it helps to elevate our winemaking. More importantly, with the rising grape prices that these wines have encouraged, it helps with the sustainability for our growers to continue farming these amazing sites.”