Zinfandel may reign supreme in the eyes of many, but Lodi wines have an astonishing diversity and a treasure of ancient vines. Find out how this California wine region is pushing the envelope while trying to preserve the past. With Contributing Editor Jim Gordon.
The wines discussed in this episode are:
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Read the full transcript of “Embracing Lodi Wines, Unique Grapes and Ancient Vines”:
Jameson Fink: Welcome to Wine Enthusiast’s What We’re Tasting podcast. I’m your host, Jameson Fink. Join me as we discuss three fantastic wines and why each one belongs in your glass. This episode, we’re looking at the wines of Lodi, with wine enthusiast contributing editor, Jim Gordon, who covers and reviews wines from the region.
What We’re Tasting is sponsored by Vivino. With the largest online inventory, Vivino finds the right wine every time, including lots from Lodi. Download Vivino to discover and buy your favorites, and stock up at Vivino.com/wineenthusiast.
So while I was doing some reading on Lodi, doing a little reading up, a little research, a little due diligence, I came across this phrase, and this is the phrase: Something subversive is afoot in the vineyards of Lodi, California.
When I read that, the first thing I thought about was actually Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the part where they say, “Something strange is afoot at the Circle K.” But this is not about Bill and Ted. We’re here to talk about wine in Lodi, and actually, my guest Jim wrote that line, not about Bill and Ted, but about Lodi, and I think it was really great because a lot of people still consider Lodi … they look through the lens of bulk wines, mass produced wines, nothing but jammy Zinfandels, etc. etc. But that’s really … I mean, it’s part of the story, of course, but what’s really exciting about Lodi is what’s going on there with what we might call underdog grapes, and people doing really interesting and exciting things.
So, I’m excited to have Jim here to talk about Lodi and get to know it a little better, and sort of that hidden, subversive, underdog Lodi that’s happening right now. So Jim, welcome to the show.
Jim Gordon: Thank you, Jameson. Happy to be here.
JF: And you know, when I was … I was in Lodi two years ago, and that was my first time there, and I was at a wine reception for the wine blogger’s conference. It was 100 degrees there, not surprising, it’s pretty hot there, and I was seeking out well-chilled white wines. And I was really impressed with … I had a Grenache Blanc and a Vermentino there, and I didn’t expect to have either of those wines. Maybe I was naïve and I had a lot to learn, that wouldn’t be surprising, but I thought it was a really exciting tasting that I discovered all these interesting new white wines.
Can you kind of just talk about the breadth and depth of grapes that are being grown there besides the usual suspects? Just give me a few. Start me off with a few to tantalize me.
JG: Yeah, sure. You know, the region has been known for almost commodity level Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc. But, there’s Albariño, there’s Vermentino as you said, there’s Kerner, there’s Teroldego, there’s Cinsault from 120 year old vines, Carignan. Some of those have been there forever, you know, decades if not a century, but many others have been planted in the last several years to make Lodi a lot more interesting place.
JF: And why do you think winemakers are attracted to these grapes in Lodi versus Cabernet or Merlot or Chardonnay? What’s the appeal in your mind?
JG: I kind of think they’re trying to go 180 degrees from what people think of Lodi. People think of it producing sort of fat, lazy Zinfandels or big Chardonnays that are kind of soft and buttery. I think a lot of them are trying to do something the opposite of that, like crisp or tannic or biting or more vivid, not just a big softy like the mass market ones, but something more artisanal, more interesting, more intellectual in a way.
JF: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I guess I want to back up. I don’t know if a lot of people even know where Lodi is. It’s not far from Sacramento, correct?
JG: True, it’s south of Sacramento, and almost due east of Napa. I live in Napa, and it’s an hour and a half drive roughly to Lodi. It’s an interesting place. It’s in the northern … basically the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley. It’s just on the edge of the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta, where it’s kind of a bayou area of California, where it’s basically at sea level.
So, even though it’s inland and it does get hot, but it has the water. When you have water and hot land, you have breezes, so it’s not as hot as you would think. It’s nothing like the southern San Joaquin Valley, more like around Madera or Fresno. This is quite different than the northern part.
JF: So you mentioned earlier Albariño, and the first wine I wanted to talk about was the Klinker Brick 2017 Albariño, which you gave 89 points to. Can you talk about … I mean, I know Albariño from Spain mostly. Is the grape similar there in Lodi? Is it producing a similar style of wine, something different, or is it a little bit of both?
JG: This one is more similar to what you would find in Spain or Portugal I think, than most would be, which is why I liked it. It’s refreshing, it’s crisp, there’s low alcohol, relatively, 12.8%, and that’s why I liked it. I think I described it a lot like one would describe some Albariños from the Iberian Peninsula.
So I think they purposefully picked the grapes early enough so it didn’t get too high in alcohol, too full in body, and they got something that’s really refreshing, mouthwatering.
JF: Yeah, you said it’s a great antidote to rich and oaky wines.
Jim Gordon: Yeah, perfect.
JF: Although, I do like rich and oaky wines. I have a soft spot for those. But I am a liberal. I like light, crisp, fresh, rich and oaky, everything in between.
JG: Yeah, me too. I like some of each. I want crisp and fresh on a hot summer day, and depending on the weather or the food, I like fat and buttery as well.
JF: Yeah, I’m gonna make this a podcast feature where I complain about the heat, because it’s like 85 degrees here today, so that wine sounds really, really good today. I think that’s also interesting about the lower alcohol levels. Like you said, it’s under 13%, which maybe you probably wouldn’t associate with Lodi. I mean, I might think, oh everything’s gonna be 15% or 16% or something crazy outrageous, but is there a movement … I mean, just in general in Lodi or beyond, are you seeing people sort of … wine drinkers saying, “Hey, I want something lower in alcohol.” Or winemakers are saying, “You know what? I’m gonna pick a little earlier and make a wine that’s less alcoholic.”
JG: Yes. I think people are demanding it, some people are, and I think winemakers in general in California, which is where I live and where I cover wine for Wine Enthusiast, have backed off on the high alcohol that they were doing five to 10 years ago. Not radically … so, let’s say a typical vintage now is a few tenths of a point lower in alcohol than it used to be, plus, wineries, many of them, like this Albariño there, are producing new wines that are more crisp and lower in body.
So, it’s partly what they’ve done to the line of wines, say, well, we’ve already been making, but also coming up with new varietals or new styles.
JF: Yeah, absolutely. So, Albariño is definitely a grape … I mean, we’re looking at Lodi, there’s a wine region I think in the Columbia Gorge, bordering Washington and Oregon always says we have everything from Albariño to Zinfandel. And I want to talk about another grape that maybe is a little unusual to see in Lodi or really in the United States as much as say like, Italy, and that’s Sangiovese. And I thought it was really interesting to see a Rosé made from that.
The second wine that I wanted you to talk about was the Scotto Family Cellars’ 2017 dry Sangiovese Rosé, which you gave 88 points to.
JG: It was a really interesting, dry Sangiovese in the Rosé mode. It was relatively low in alcohol for California, 13%, but I liked it because of the sort of grip that Sangiovese gives you. I mean, in the Chianti or super Tuscan blends that have Sangiovese as a red wine, it’s known for tannin and acid and kind of a really grippy feel on your palette. And a little touch of that comes along with the Rosé, which I appreciate the … Rosé is so popular now, and in California, practically every winery is making a Rosé or two, but it hasn’t really settled into a style for this valley or that valley. Everybody’s using different varieties. Some are darker reds, some are light reds, some are crisp, some are fat like barrel fermented even Rosés.
This one I liked because it’s crisp, it has a sort of tangy, slightly tannic mouth feel, and to me that’s palette cleansing and refreshing.
JF: Yeah, you talk about a Rosé, I mean, it’s just such a … the category has just exploded and it’s still growing. How prevalent is Rosé in Lodi, and is it something that’s just happened over the last few years? Or have they been making Rosé in Lodi and we just didn’t know about it?
JG: It’s relatively new in terms of today’s type of Rosé. I’ll bet you in the 70s they were making Rosé in Lodi, but it would have been something quite different.
JF: Yeah, like a white Zinfandel … sweet.
JG: Yeah, exactly. That was the commercial mainstay of Lodi for some years, providing grapes for white Zinfandel. You know, they’ve had a revolution there in wine making since that period, and I guess this Rosé is just one example of the stuff they’re doing now.
JF: One of the things that you talked about briefly was the abundance of old vines in Lodi, and I think when I visited, that was the thing that blew me away is to see these vines from the 19th century, these grizzled, gnarled … they’re almost like supernatural looking, like hobbit forest or something … Well, hobbit forest would be friendly, these are a little more mysterious and sinister looking.
I think one of the best vineyard visits I’ve ever had is we went to the Bechthold Vineyard, and to see these old Cinsault vines, really amazing. Can you talk about the old vine heritage in Lodi? Is that in danger? Because I keep hearing that wineries are having to pull out these old vines to plant things that are more profitable. Is there a drive to save these old vines?
JG: Yeah, it’s an interesting issue right now. Lodi does have lots of old vines, you know, hundreds of acres I would say, if not a thousand or more of vines probably older than 50 years. I don’t know the numbers offhand, but intermixed with much more recently planted vineyards that are more commercially profitable and make sense for the people.
One thing to mention here is that so many of the grape growers in Lodi are family farms, and they’re like in their fourth, fifth, or sixth generation. So, their ancestors came in the 1860s or 70s, maybe they tried panning for gold in the Sierra hills and mountains, and then they came back down to Lodi and became farmers. So they’re there. They own the same properties in many cases that their families have been farming for generations.
So, they have old vines, they’ve kept some of them, and they’ve kept them on the places where those vines grew well and produce a good crop and make high quality wine. So, the old vines in many cases have been preserved because they were special. The ones that made so-so wine have probably been ripped up or replanted with other varieties.
I know what you’re saying too about just the presence of being in the old gnarled vines, and many of the vineyards in Lodi, they train … the older vines were trained up higher than you would see in most of California or Europe, so they’re almost … they’re the size of a person with all these arms hanging out, and they’re a little bit scary, but they’re a little bit comforting, like the Ent who saved the Hobbit. They’re more like that, I think.
JF: Yeah, well I guess I was on the right path when I said … when I brought Lord of the Rings and Hobbits into them. It’s more of an Ent thing.
JG: Right, right.
JF: That’s true, they are taller. They’re not like those … I mean, you look at vines [inaudible 00:12:54], and they’re really low to the ground. I guess that’s also because of the windy conditions there too that they would just sort of … it’s more protected the closer to the ground it is.
JG: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And it is basically pretty fertile soil in most of the Lodi area. They could grow other crops there, and they have over the years, but now the emphasis has really been on wine grapes for a couple, two or three decades.
But regarding the … maybe a threat to the old vines, there is an economic threat because these families who run the farms need to make enough money to pay the bills and have a decent life, and when you’re harvesting old vines, the yields are very low. So on an acre, maybe you get a ton or two tons of grapes, but on the vineyard next to it that’s being farmed … it could be organic or sustainably even, but they can get much higher yields with newer vines and new training methods for the trellis and all that.
So you know, they could get eight tons next door, and wineries don’t really pay a lot more for the old vine fruit. It’s kind of a bargain. That’s why I think a lot of smaller, as I said before, artisanal wineries are seeking out these small blocks of old vines from Lodi to make something interesting with.
JF: Yeah, that’s why for the third wine I chose the Jessie’s Grove 2015 Ancient Vine Carignane, 90 points, that … you know, just to focus on one of these wines that the old vine stock that they have.
Can you talk about this wine and as far as your feelings on these really old vines, what kinds of wines do they make? Is it just romantic, or do they really give something special in the glass?
JG: They do, they often do. You can’t always taste it, but sometimes you can. I just think it’s a purity of fruit. I think smart winemakers doing old vines don’t put much new oak on the wine to mess with it. Just let the quality of the fruit come through.
What the growers say is just that the old vines are very stable. They have deep roots, they’ve been growing for years, if there’s funny conditions in the weather one year, it doesn’t affect them as much as it would a new vine that’s shallow rooted, etc. So, they’re just steady producers. I just find a purity, a fruit, a focus, kind of a seamlessness in the flavors and the texture, to make a very broad generalization.
JF: And I know out there there’s certainly a lot of old vine Zinfandel there, and I feel like maybe I’ve painted it with too broad a stroke, but can you talk about … is Zinfandel changing in Lodi? Is there a diversity of styles and flavors now or do I just have a bad stereotype of monolithic Zinfandel?
JG: Well, it is changing. I mean, on the one hand, you have Michael David Winery making these fabulous, showy wines out of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, like the Earthquake Zin and the Seven Deadly Zins, and those have been great. They’re dramatic, they use a lot of new oak, but they’re really well done. And they’ve sort of created a category of high quality Lodi Zinfandel, which is helping a lot of growers because they buy from a lot of growers to make Michael David Wines. So, that’s really been a good engine for Lodi in terms of making a good livelihood for the growers.
But on the other hand, you have the Lodi native Zinfandel project, which is a handful of mostly small production wineries making these really pure, straightforward, no new oak, wild yeast, no water addition, no acid addition really elegant, cool wines. They label them as Lodi native, and they all have a similar label. That’s real exciting. And those wines are terrific without being super showy.
So, you’ve got real showy on one end, you’ve got more elegant and native on the other.
JF: Yeah, I got to try the native wines when I was out there, the Zinfandels, and yeah, they were definitely an eye opener. I think also the interesting thing was all the winemakers were there and they were talking about when they were being approached for this project and sort of the way they had to work was a way that they weren’t used to working, or some of them were kind of candid like, you know, I didn’t think this would work, or I think I would need to use this or pick then or use this oak or X, Y, and Z. So, I really appreciated hearing their stories and kind of the candor they had about, hey, this idea … like everyone wasn’t just like, “This sounds great. Let’s change the way we’re making Zinfandel.”
So, I thought that was a really interesting bellwether for the region.
JG: Yeah, I sat with a group of them when I wrote an article for the Enthusiast a couple of years ago about the Lodi native wines, and they were telling the stories. Some of them were not confident they could make a really good wine without intervening more, and they had to pick it earlier than they had ever perhaps, so the alcohol wouldn’t be too high, and it was a learning experience for them, kind of learning by doing, and they more or less proved to themselves that they could do it.
JF: Yeah, and that article about Lodi native Zin and also the underdog grapes of Lodi, those are both at winemag.com too, and they’re both well worth reading because they’re both a story of Zinfandel and of Lodi and grapes in general that I think people haven’t heard of from the region.
And I had sort of a … you know, when I was back in New York, I had sort of a Lodi eye opening moment too. This might come as a shock to you, I was at kind of a hipster, natural wine bar, and-
JG: No way!
JF: … I know, I know. It’s crazy … with a couple friends, and the Turley Cinsault was on the list. I had had it before in Lodi, and it was served chilled … well, first of all ’cause it was 100 degrees, so it was a really smart move anyway, because I wanted nothing to do with any red wine at all.
So it was served cold, pretty cold actually, and I was like, wow, this is really lightweight and kind of almost see through, and really delicious. I was with two of my friends who love drinking lighter style wines, natural wines, you know, and I said, “Hey, let’s get a bottle of the Turley Cinsault,” and they looked at me like, “What?” ‘Cause I think they figured it would be … whatever, 16% alcohol Zinfandel or something like that. And I said, “Hey, and also bring an ice bucket.” We had it chilled, and they were just blown away by it, and that was another thing too, where you think a region is monolithic and it’s only about one thing, but when you look a little harder, there’s lots of little pockets of people doing really interesting things.
JG: Yeah, I’ve had the same experience, similar experience, with the Cinsault. Are you speaking about from the Bechthold Vineyard?
JG: Yeah. And a few different wineries use that fruit and make their own Cinsaults, and several of them, they’re almost like Pinot Noir. They’re elegant, they’re kind of ethereal, they’re not very dark colored … even though it’s a Roan grape variety. They made something kind of beautiful out of it.
JF: What do you think about Lodi as far as visiting? You know, you’re in Napa. What’s the Lodi experience like when you visit? It must be a lot different than obviously what Napa’s like.
JG: It is. There are a lot of visitors now. There are … I’m making it up … 35 wineries you can visit, tasting rooms, something like that, and the town of Lodi itself has a cool district with cafés and bars and restaurants. It’s big open farmland, these great old farm houses sitting on 400 acres down a long lane surrounded by trees to keep cool in the houses.
So, it’s a bucolic americana landscape, kind of different from lots of Napa and Sonoma that are very gentrified. It’s just a little slower paced and relaxed.
JF: Yeah, that reminds me, I forgot, sort of my biggest wow wine when I was at the wine blogger’s conference there a couple years ago was a Lucas Winery Chardonnay from 2001, and you know, we were at lunch and all these wines were going around. I was like, wow, the 2001 Chardonnay from Lodi, I just thought that was like audacious and bold to pour. But it was great. I just couldn’t believe how good it was. To me, that was … and also, you know, I’m kind of whatever, chasing weird grapes like … well, not weird, but a little more unusual like Grenache Blanc, and so like Chardonnay … and it was really good.
I mean, it just shows that you kind of … That’s a great reason to visit a wine region is that you kind of have an idea in your head of what it’s about or what’s available around you, and then you go there and you try things that aren’t maybe commercially available, certainly an old vintage like that, or you discover wineries like Fields Family Wines or Uvaggio making all these really interesting things, and all of a sudden you’re like, wow, my Lodi view has changed.
JG: Uvaggio is a great example. They make this really spectacular Passito, dessert wine, and I think it was from Vermentino, which was fabulous. On the other hand, they make a dry Muscat, and you expect Muscat to be sweet, Vermentino to be dry. They turned it around and really two interesting wines from whit grapes.
JF: The Vermentino and the Muscat are great.
So Jim, thanks for joining me and talking about Lodi, the diversity of grapes there, and also the fact that, hey, there’s Zinfandel there too, and it’s also worth paying attention to even though they make a lot of it. There’s people doing really interesting and exciting things, and my only regret is when I visited that you weren’t around in town and we couldn’t hang out for a little bit. I was disappointed by that, Jim.
JG: Well, we did get together afterward.
JF: We did, we did. Thanks again for joining me today, Jim.
JG: My pleasure.
JF: And thank you for listening to the What We’re Tasting podcast, sponsored by Vivino, wine made easy.
The three wines we talked about today are: The Klinker Brick 2017 Albariño, Scotto Family Cellars’ 2017 dry Sangiovese Rosé, and Jessie’s Grove 2015 Ancient Vine Carignane. Find What We’re Tasting on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you find podcasts. And if you liked today’s episode, please give us a five star rating on iTunes, leave a comment, and tell your friends.
What We’re Tasting is a Wine Enthusiast podcast. Check out Wine Enthusiast online at WineMag.com