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by Andrew Chalk

The California wine region of Lodi is one of the most energetic in promoting its wines. That is little surprise in that they seemingly have something new and substantial to report every year. At a tasting in Dallas this week the Lodi Winegrape Commision (the trade body to promote Lodi wine) demonstrated three things to me.

1) The wines of Lodi are better than ever.

2) The days when Lodi meant only Zinfandel are over. Zinfandel will be a signature grape for the foreseeable future, but Lodi is making confident, stylish wines from many other grapes. At this tasting we had impressive white wines made from Picpoul Blanc, a complex blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, and Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc. And reds from Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

3) Tragically (and, unfortunately, a silent tragedy) old vine Zinfandel is being pulled out of the ground in favor of new plantings. The old vines produce some of the best Zinfandel in the state, but not as much volume as young vines. With growers unable to get the premium on prices that the lower yields require, the vines are not economically viable. If you are a dotcom millionaire, please buy one of these small plots and protect it by making wines from the old vines that you promote to your tech. friends. They will thank you.

I see a parallel here with the wholesale uprooting of old ‘inefficient’ Shiraz in South Australia in the 1980s. In the next decade the singular, complex, style of old Shiraz became Australia’s calling card in the markets of the occident -- and they had pulled most of the vineyards.

The Dallas tasting coincided with the visit to Dallas of six family-owned wineries. This is where the thrust for quality is being led. There are behemoths using Lodi as a low-price source of California grapes to produce me-too wines, but leave them on the shelf. The producers below are representative of where the small wineries in Lodi are going. In alphabetical order…

Acquiesce Winery and Vineyards: Owner winemaker Susan Tipton runs Acquiesce as a small, selective venture. Her 2018 Picpoul Blanc, Lodi Mokelumne River ($28) is harvested from 1.3 acres and immediately whole-cluster pressed before a cold fermentation in order to preserve fruitiness. Delicious light lemon flavors and crisp minerality made this wine a welcome partner with an appetizer of burrata, rapini pesto, Demases Farm carrots two ways (steamed and puréed) served by Gemma. However, always consider its traditional pairing with shellfish as is done in the southern French home of this grape variety. Only a miniscule 223 cases produced. The web site places the bottling date as January 2018, making for a remarkable enological achievement: bottling a wine nine months before the grapes were harvested!

Acquiesce Winery and Vineyards: 2017 Belle Blanc Blend, Lodi Mokelumne River ($32). A complex and memorable wine blended from Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, and Viognier. Tipton describes this as her homage to Châteauneuf du Pape. A fitting title indeed. No wonder it won ‘Best of Class’ in the 2019 American Fine Wine Competition. Pear and green apples in the nose and exquisite fruit-acid balance in the mouth make this wine a real pleasure to just quaff, but it is also compatible with a wide range of food. A case in point was Gemma’s Fried Castelvetrano Olives and Texas Pecans.

Klinker Brick Winery: 2018 Bricks and Roses, Lodi Mokelumne River ($15). This wine, with just a scintilla of a pink flush in its color, is made from 41% Grenache, 12% Syrah, 12% Mourvèdre and 35% Carignane, a blend very much in the Provencal tradition, harvested at only 18.5% brix. It is made by the maceration method. The result is a fresh, vibrant wine with melon notes in the nose and a minerally crispness in the mouth. Good value.

Klinker Brick Winery: 2015 Old Ghost Zinfandel, Lodi Mokelumne River ($40). This is Klinker Brick’s magnum opus. Three thousand cases of 100+ year old vine Zinfandel picked at an accountant-murdering 1 ton per acre and aged 18 months in 40% French oak and 60% American oak Radoux barrels. The monopole sourcing from the 1916 Burney Mettler Vineyard, planted on its own rootstock, head-trained, and in most years dry-farmed produces massive, concentrated fruit of black cherries, boysenberry, and wood notes. The tannins are softened in the winemaking process meaning that this wine is a delight to savor now, although it will keep if desired. So massive is the composition of this wine that it carries its formidable 15.9% alcohol level without a giveaway sign. This is an example of a poster child for the old vines Zinfandel I mentioned above. Taste this and you will want to preserve those vineyards.

Lange Twin Family Winery and Vineyard: 2018 Sangiovese Rosé, Estate Grown, Lodi ($15). The color of this wine is an interesting contrast with the Klinker Brick rosé. Far from a hint of color it is a bright pink, like the flesh on the Skuna Bay Salmon served by Gemma. The flavors are forward and juicy melon and strawberry. Good Value.

Lange Twins Family Winery and Vineyard: 2015 Centennial Zinfandel, Lodi ($60). Lange Twins top-of-the-line Zinfandel comes from the Lewis Vineyard planted in 1903. This old vine Zinfandel packs a massive fruit punch with blackberry and raspberry aromas and flavors on the palate. These are combined with vanilla, coconut and green tea notes from 24 months in American oak barrels. Enjoyable now for its power, but will keep to likely produce a more resolved wine over several years. We paired it very successfully with Prime Brandt Farms Flat Iron steak.

Michael David Winery: 2017 Freakshow Zinfandel, Lodi ($20): Do check out the landing page of this esoteric winery. Freakshow appears to be not just a wine, but also an M.O. - complete with App! As the web site explains “ Typically known as a bold varietal, the Fire Mistress shows the softer, sexier side of Lodi Zin, focusing on the distinctive bright fruit and spice charateristics (sic) for which our heritage varietal is known.” Strangely (Freakily?) I really liked this budget-priced wine. Not as complex as some of the other Zinfandels it has a freshness and fruitiness that was attractive. Very good value.

Michael David Winery: 2016 ‘Inkblot’ Cabernet Franc, Lodi ($35). It is rare to see a domestic Cabernet franc and even rarer to see one from Lodi, but it is a welcome site, nonetheless. Cabernet Franc, when carefully produced and adequately ripe, can produce a pleasant herbaceous edge that enhances the dark fruit in the grape. This is Michael David’s first vintage of Cabernet Franc but you would be hard put to guess that, so well produced is it. The cépage actually includes supporting quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon (8%), and Petite Sirah (7%). Ageing was engineered as well: 65% of the wine got 16 months in neutral (over five years old) oak and the remainder got the same time in French oak (presumably new).

Oak Farm Vineyards: 2017 Sauvignon Blanc, Mohr-Fry Ranches, Lodi Mokelumne River ($19). This wine scored 99 points and Double Gold at the 2018 California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition and a string of awards elsewhere. Made from the same clone (clone 1) that made New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc famous. This wine is not as herbaceous as those examples but does have lively lemon notes in the nose and on the palate. Medium plus acidity and an absence of oak let the liveliness shine through. The acid helped it pair well with the Campanelle, duck ragu, porcini mushrooms, and crispy duck prosciutto supplied by Gemma.

Oak Farm Vineyards: 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Lodi ($25). From three vineyards, all in Lodi. Dark fruit nose, raspberry and blackberry confirmed, and with dark chocolate, in the mouth. Long finish. The wine was aged in a mixture of American and French oak barrels, 29% new. Trace amounts of Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot blended in. A very enjoyable wine at a reasonable price The soft tannins allow drinking now. The structure suggests a decade of ageing ahead.

Peltier Winery & Vineyards: 2017 Sauvignon Blanc, Estate Grown, Lodi ($18). Citrus, herbaceousness, melon and a touch of tropical fruit constitute the nose of this wine. On the palate as well as those fruits a crispness comes through from the good acid level. Serve with seafood, pork or, as we did, with Windy Meadows Chicken ‘Porchetta’, ricotta dumplings, spigarello, and fines herbes.

Peltier Winery and Vineyards: 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Grown, Lodi ($25). Dark fruit notes of blackberry, blackcurrant, and black cherry. Confirmed in the mouth. Intense forward fruit. Long finish. Can be drunk now with e.g. steak, prime rib. Or aged for several years.

In conclusion, a set of sustainability practices called ‘Lodi Rules’ are being adopted by more and more wineries. To see if your chosen Lodi winery follows these, look for the logo on their web site.

Also, it was a pleasure to find that there were no bad wines in the tasting nor weak wineries. Each one seemed to bring its own character and strengths to the game. Lodi wine is now better than ever, but still a bargain in the California wine universe.



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