Credit: Lodi Winegrape Commission
What the hell is going on in Lodi?
This historic region, which stretches between Sacramento and Stockton, is home to more and more thrilling wines, year after year. They keep shocking me with their quality and value. It’s getting a bit absurd.
While vineyards were first planted here in the mid-19th Century, the 20th Century saw Lodi develop a reputation as a fruit basket for bulk wines. And, yes, tons of Lodi Zinfandel (and other grapes) were blended into tons of crappy wine. But to dismiss, or simply ignore, the wines of Lodi is to miss out on a whole lot. Today, Lodi is California wine’s big tent freak show of awesomeness.
Adventurous consumers and beverage buyers have so much to explore: small producers, incredibly varied grape varieties, old vines, funky blends, organic or “natural” stuff. And, due to a variety of factors (like cheaper vineyard land and decades of indifference from large media outlets), the price to deliciousness ratio is excellent.
Lodi wines are getting credit like never before, but this is no accident. The Lodi Winegrape Commission, the region’s trade group, has been preaching the gospel of Lodi wine for about a quarter century, but they’ve really stepped it up in recent years. With their $1.8 million budget, they put together tastings and trade events to showcase the 750 growers they represent. And small producers like St. Amant, Fields Family, m2, Macchia, McCay Cellars and Borra have turned this region’s rich history and diverse grape varieties into a compelling case that Lodi wines can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the big boys.
Take Lodi Native, for example, a cooperative project that brings together a half dozen of the region’s best producers to harness the real treasure of this region — gnarly ancient vine Zinfandel. The wines are made with native yeasts and no new oak, so the unique terroir of these old vineyards (some are a century old) shines through gloriously. I’ve been floored by both the 2012 and 2013 iterations of Lodi Native, and I can’t wait to see what they bring in future vintages.
A lot of the most interesting wines (like the Lodi Natives) hail from the Mokelumne River sub-appellation. This area is home to so many unique and old-school vineyards. Bob Koth planted his Mokelumne Glen Vineyard to a dizzying array of German and Austrian grape varieties in the 1990s, after being blown away by some Riesling on a trip to Germany. He now farms what is surely one of the largest and most diverse collections of Northern European grape varieties in the New World. We’re talking about grapes like Kerner, Bacchus, Dornfelder, Zweigelt, and a bunch of others we native English speakers have trouble pronouncing. The Mokelumne Glen Vineyard produced its own estate wines from 1998 until 2009, but now the fruit is sold to producers like m2, Borra, Ramey and Forlorn Hope.
But Lodi is a very hot place, so the choice to plant cold climate varieties struck me as odd. During a recent online tasting and video chat, I asked Markus Niggli (winemaker at Borra Vineyards and Markus Wine Co.) how these grapes do in Lodi’s climate.
Markus, originally from Switzerland, had worked with a lot of these grapes in his home country, and he said the two climates are obviously and drastically different. But, he added, the reason these grapes work in Mokelumne River is the large diurnal temperature swing, which is especially noticeable in this riverside vineyard. When the temperate drops some 40 degrees overnight, it allows the grapes to cool down, resulting in wines that boast high ripeness while maintaining some refreshing acidity.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve tasted through a bunch of wines from Lodi, including the Mokelumne River Vineyard wines, a few from Ryan Sherman’s awesome project Fields Family, and a trio of reds from Mettler Vineyards.
These wines were all received as trade samples and tasted sighted (except for the Fields wines, which were tasted single-blind along with a bunch of other California reds). Read the rest of this entry »