Lodi, Looking Forward

The mere mention of Lodi may conjure up images of massive wine factories, Woodbridge, Delicato, and 7 Deadly Zins, but there’s a hidden world of viticultural history and old-vine treasure chests out there—and winemakers throughout California have been sniffing around. Turley was one of the first premium “outsider” wineries to bottle a Lodi AVA wine (1996 Spenker Zinfandel), but in recent years others have followed, attracted to the region’s wealth of old-vine Zinfandel, “mixed blacks” vineyards (which usually contain a white grape or two, like Palomino), and even more adventurous stuff: Albariño, Mataro, Verdelho, Cinsault, and Alvarelhão. Is the last, now suspected to be synonymous with plain ‘ol Touriga Nacional in Lodi, rendered somehow more familiar by this fact? Does Mokelumne River AVA’s Bechtold Vineyard, source of dry-farmed and own-rooted Cinsault vines born in 1886, house the world’s eldest living specimens of the variety? Will the Lodi-by-way-of-Algeria grape Flame Tokay ever rise again? Peering between the cracks of industrial-scale vineyards—which are generally farmed competently, and often with pride by multi-generational agricultural families—one discovers all sorts of interesting things happening, or about to happen, in Lodi.

The Highway 12 Wine Route (and a Contra Costa detour)

Although the town of Lodi is less than a two-hour drive east of Napa, it might as well be on the other side of the moon for many local wine professionals. Curious winemakers—especially those without really deep pockets—might be scanning the area for fruit sources, but many Bay Area sommeliers haven’t made the trip, myself included. And why? Premium winemaking is still an emergent discipline in this farming community, and many of the best wines—or at least the most talked-about bottles amongst our profession—are produced by outsiders: Turley, Bedrock, Carlisle, Arnot-Roberts, Forlorn Hope, Scholium Project, Ferdinand, Odisea/Cochon and others. Many of the above source fruit from a historic, 20-acre vineyard called Kirschenmann on the east side of the Mokelumne (muh-CALL-uh-me) River AVA, owned by Turley/Sandlands winemaker Tegan Passalacqua and wife Olivia. As one of the state’s most passionate advocates for the preservation and expression of historic vineyards—whether up and down the coast, or further inland—Tegan’s covered a lot of ground in his decade-plus career as a vineyard manager and winemaker in California. We would cover a little more together: I hopped in his car to explore the current interest in—and future potential of—Lodi.

When one imagines the Highway 12 wine route, images of Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley, and Carneros materialize; yet the highway traverses the Sacramento River and California Delta as it leads eastward toward the Sierra Foothills, running right through Lodi. We followed the 12 eastward, detouring through a grape-growing sector of Contra Costa County in and around Antioch. In the shadow of Mt. Diablo, Antioch—which earned the ignoble distinction of having one of the nation’s highest foreclosure rates in 2008—is a curious mixture of run-down and ramped-up: vineyards lie scattered among abandoned almond orchards, broken-down motor homes, tightly spaced McMansions, jalopies (El Camino is the favorite brand), and ancient, towering olive trees. All framed against a backdrop of migrant labor, meth addiction, and hard-core religion. “The wind here drives people crazy,” Tegan interprets, as we pull up to Evangelho Vineyard, a 40-acre site originally planted in 1889 and a component site for Turley’s “Duarte” Zinfandel. The vineyard, planted on deep wind-deposited, 40-foot-deep Delhi sands, is an example of mixed blacks—a blend of head-trained varieties in the vineyard, led by Zinfandel and supported with a mixture of other red Spanish and Rhône grapes, teinturiers, and the occasional white variety. Evangelho, for instance, is roughly 60% Zinfandel, with Mataro (Mourvèdre), Carignan, Alicante Bouchet, Palomino and perhaps another odd variety or two. Rarely is the identity of every single individual vine known beyond a shadow of a doubt in historic mixed blacks vineyards. And as one might suspect, in such sandy soils phylloxera is not an issue; in fact, Tegan speculates that Contra Costa County might hold one of the largest concentrations of own-rooted vineyards in California. Another champion of CA’s historic vineyards, Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wines, is sourcing from this site, and Neyers makes an Evangelho-designate Mourvèdre. All of Antioch’s vineyards lie outside the boundaries of any specific AVA, amid its artifice of minimum-wage dreams and vacant potential. Evangelho, Salvador, Pato, Del Barba...the historic sites are only a mile or two removed from the delta, where winds and water moderate temperatures and relieve any worry of frost pressure. Organic farming in this sunny, windswept region is a fairly easy proposition—if the grower is on board—and most of the old-vine vineyards here are dry-farmed. Contra Costa County’s potential may as yet be untapped, and its (future) signature grape may surprise: “In Bandol they say head in the sun, feet in the water for good Mourvèdre. Contra Costa may prove to be the best area in California for the grape—once the farming improves.” With that, we’re back on track to Highway 12, and Lodi.

Tegan Passalacqua, Turley and Sandlands winemaker, amongst his own Zinfandel old vines in Kirschenmann Vineyard. 


Zinfandel Country (Yes, but…)

Clearly, the grape most associated with Lodi today is Zinfandel. The region accounts for between one-quarter and one-third of California’s total Zinfandel harvest in any given year, and houses an estimated 2,000 acres of own-rooted, pre-Prohibition Zinfandel vines. In 2013, 177,738 tons of Zinfandel grapes were crushed in Lodi. The variety remains the most planted—and most loved—grape in the region, but Cabernet Sauvignon is catching up fast. Merlot is the third-most planted grape in the AVA, with Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Pinot Noir filing in behind it. Overall, red varieties comprise about two-thirds of Lodi’s 100,000* acres of wine grapes. Chardonnay is still incredibly important—it was second only to Zinfandel in 2013 tonnage—followed distantly by Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier. Part of Lodi’s appeal, however, is in its growers’ willingness to experiment and explore untested varieties. More than 75 grapes are in commercial production today. Markus Bokisch, one of the region’s most respected grape-growers (as well as a former viticulturist for Joseph Phelps), has established a number of Iberian varieties in his 2,000+ acres of vineyards, including Albariño, Tempranillo, Graciano, Monastrell, and Rioja and Priorat clones of Garnacha. Others cultivate Portuguese varieties, Carignan, or Cinsault. Old-vine Zinfandel may be the premium icon of Lodi, but there is continuing potential for small production runs of interesting, unexpected varieties.   

*California’s 2012 Acreage Report lists 71,351 acres of wine grapes in Lodi, but reporting is voluntary. The Lodi Winegrape Commission estimates approximately 100,000 acres.


Lodi: AVAs, Climate, and Vineyards Large and Small

Lodi AVA spreads out over 500,000 acres southeast of Sacramento, with its total acreage split between Sacramento and San Joaquin counties. The region achieved AVA status in 1986, yet writer Gerald Asher (The Pleasures of Wine) reports that Lodi received commendation from the US Government as a wine-growing “district of origin” as early as 1956, when Lodi’s then-current nickname—“America’s Sherryland”—emphasized the prevalence of sweet fortified wines among the region’s output. But that era passed, and with Robert Mondavi’s return to Lodi in 1979 to open the Woodbridge facility, Lodi has been increasingly identified as a reputable source of value-priced, varietal table wines. Industry titans like Woodbridge (now owned by Constellation), the newly expanded Sutter Home (Trinchero Wine Group), Delicato, and Gallo continue to buy the lion’s share of Lodi fruit, and by 2000 there were still only 12 wineries—the big guns included—operating in Lodi. Today, however, over 70 boutique producers and 750 individual growers—many of whom represent the fourth and fifth generations of local farming families—are based in Lodi. In 2006, as new projects continued to highlight the area’s diversity, the TTB approved seven nested AVAs within the Lodi AVA: Mokelumne River, Cosumnes River, Alta Mesa, Jahant, Clements Hills, Borden Ranch, and Sloughhouse.  

Lodi AVA experiences a warm Mediterranean climate, with winter-dominant rainfall (average 19 inches, annually) and diurnal temperature fluctuations of up to 30° (F) or more. Located on the 38th parallel, Lodi is directly east of the Sacramento River Delta system, which feeds into the Suisun and San Pablo Bays. Although the town is 100 miles from the coast, it is aligned with the largest gap in California’s coastal range (the Golden Gate) and its warm growing season temperatures are moderated by cool sea breezes blowing inland. The wind helps to keep humidity low, and frost is rarely a problem in Lodi. The eastern side of Lodi is less impacted by the delta breezes, and therefore slightly warmer, despite a rise in elevation as one approaches the Amador and El Dorado county lines. The entire region is classified as Region III according to the Winkler Scale, yet overall it is much more moderate in temperature than the hot, bulk wine vineyards further south in the San Joaquin Valley. Western Mokelumne River AVA can actually experience a cooler climate than the northern Napa Valley floor.    

Historic vineyard fans may find the most interesting dirt (or sand, as it were) in Mokelumne River, the largest, coolest, and oldest of the growing regions within Lodi. The town of Lodi itself sits within the Mokelumne River AVA, just a few meters above sea level, and neatly divides the appellation into eastern and western sectors. The entire appellation is phylloxera-free—a gift from the AVA’s sandy soils, known as Tokay fine sandy loam. On the eastern side, where the water table is lower, the sands are deeper, drier, and lighter in color. (“Water-logged soils are always darker in color; well-drained soils are lighter in color,” Tegan reminds me.) The largest concentration of historic Zinfandel vineyards in Lodi lies east of Highway 99 in Mokelumne River, where own-rooted Zinfandel vines in sand tend to retain acidity in the face of ripeness, and can express high-toned, white wine aromatics, like stone fruits (peach, nectarine) and heightened floral character—despite a slightly warmer overall climate than that of the western end of the appellation. In general, the east-side Zinfandel vineyards tend to show more spice and more structure—but lighter color—than west-side grapes, which produce rounder, darker, softer wines. Stuart Spencer of St. Amant Winery suggests that some west-side sites create a “more herbaceous, almost tea leaf character that can be more pronounced on sites with St. George rootstock.” (Is that green character driven more by rootstock than site? Tegan argues that Zinfandel’s famous problem/blessing of differential ripening is aggravated when the vines are grafted to St. George.) Tegan’s own-rooted, dry-farmed Kirschenmann Vineyard abuts a river oxbow on the eastern side, home to 15 acres of Zinfandel vines planted in 1915—intermixed with the occasional Carignan or Mondeuse vine—and an additional four acres of younger plantings, including recently grafted-over Chenin Blanc and other weirdness (Green Hungarian, Barbarossa, Lignan Blanc). With innate resistance to eutypa, Zinfandel survives longer than most, but it’s not the only game in town: respected grower (and VP of Michael David Winery) Kevin Phillips tends the 1886 Cinsault vines at nearby Bechtold. Is it the oldest such vineyard in the world? Certainly nothing in North or South America compares, and it’s unlikely that anything in Southern France is that old either. Turley makes a vibrant, 100% whole-cluster, neutral oak-aged red from the vineyard that immediately turns any longstanding assumption about the winery’s style on its head. Abe Schoener produces Scholium Project’s “Rhododactylos” from the site, and Randall Graham has taken Bechtold fruit for Bonny Doon in the past. Some interesting younger plantings are in play too: Markus Bokisch’s CCOF-certified “home” vineyard is located on the east side—where its densely planted, low-trained vines (Albariño, Graciano, Garnacha) look like something out of Burgundy, an alien approach amidst surrounding 10x10 ft. head-trained Zinfandel vineyards, old “Lodi ladder” vertical cordons, and high-trained trellis systems.  

Clements Hills AVA, contiguous to the eastern border of Mokelumne Valley, is generally warmer, rainier, and slightly higher in elevation (90-400 ft.), as one leaves the broad, flat valley floor for the undulating, hilly landscape in the shadow of the Sierras. The volcanic-derived soils are much redder in Clements Hills, with higher iron and clay content. Cabernet Sauvignon destined for large-scale production performs especially well; it tends to quickly ripen out green elements, yet retain fairly moderate alcohol levels. While trellised, younger vines are more common in Clements Hills, there are a few prize parcels around, like Dogtown Vineyard, a 1944 Zinfandel plot farmed by Turley since 1997.

North of Clements Hills, Borden Ranch AVA is as much cattle pasture as it is vineyard land. Like Clements Hills, Borden Ranch is hilly and higher in elevation (75-520 ft.) than the western areas of Lodi, but the soil is stonier—amidst the red earth are myriad large granite rocks and small boulders, runoff from the rise of the Sierras in the east. The soil series here is called Tuscan stony loam. In Borden Ranch the average holding is much larger than in Mokelumne River, as the original ranch property was carved up and sold in 160-acre parcels. Markus Bokisch has two large-scale vineyards here, including Vista Luna, the source of Ferdinand Albariño, a Neyers Zinfandel, and Verdelho experiments from Scholium Project and Forlorn Hope. Most vineyards here, however, go to the big players: Gallo, Woodbridge, Delicato, Sutter Home. The Indelicato family (Delicato) owns Clay Station Vineyard on the AVA’s western side, a 1,250-acre vineyard that forms part of the company’s core holdings.

Sloughhouse AVA, along Borden Ranch’s northern border, is the highest of Lodi’s appellations, reaching nearly 600 ft. in elevation as it nears the Sierra Foothills. It also experiences Lodi’s warmest growing season. According to the original AVA petition, its name refers to an 1850s-era stagecoach stop—the Sloughhouse Inn—and the AVA, like Borden Ranch and Alta Mesa to its west, is cattle-grazing country today, with about 7,000 acres of vineyards interspersed throughout pasture land. John Kautz of Sierra Foothills winery Ironstone controls about half the AVA’s acreage, and perhaps the little-known, red wine-producing regions shares a common boldness of style with neighboring Amador County. But any real sense of regional distinction here may be a long way off, and not a single winery is actually located in Sloughhouse. Alta Mesa AVA (“high table”) is even less developed.

Moving away from the Sierras and toward the Delta, the cobbles grow finer in Alta Mesa and the clay becomes heavier—this is San Joaquin loam, one of the oldest soil types in Lodi and particularly well-suited to dry-farming due to its high water retention. Alta Mesa is the region’s second-warmest AVA, and is fittingly planted mostly to red varieties. Ron Silva owns 300 acres of grapevines in the AVA, and is responsible for introducing several Portuguese varieties into the region, including Verdelho and a full complement of red Douro grapes (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Tinta Cão). Most of his acreage, however, is devoted to bigger sellers, like Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.

The final two Lodi AVAs, Jahant and Cosumnes River, are both—like Mokelumne River—windier, cooler, and lower in elevation (10-100 ft.) than those AVAs further east. Peter Jahant, a 19th-century French immigrant who came to Lodi in search of gold, lends his surname to the Jahant AVA—Lodi’s smallest in terms of geographic size—and its signature soil type, pink Rocklin-Jahant sandy loam. The appellation draws to a point at its western end, near the confluence of the Mokelumne and Cosumnes Rivers, which meet and feed into the Delta. Cosumnes River AVA, Lodi’s northwestern-most region, is only 20 miles south of Sacramento. Unlike its neighbors, white varieties are more important here than red grapes. The river’s name, like Mokelumne, provides a reminder of the original inhabitants’ occupations: Cosumnes means “salmon people” in a local Native American tongue, while Mokelumne translates to “fish netting.”


Lodi Rules

The Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing, a third-party certified sustainability program launched in 2005, is at once a stimulus for and a reminder of the fact that, according to Tegan, “Lodi grape-growers are among the most progressive in the state.” The system (adapted from the earlier Lodi Winegrower’s Workbook, developed in part by Steve Matthiasson) ranks vineyards in a number of areas, from soil health and air quality to water management and worker safety. Growers earn points according to their performance in different areas; Protected Harvest, a non-profit sustainability organization, inspects vineyards and awards the certification. In order to be “certified green,” growers must receive passing marks in both the Lodi Rules standards of practice and a linked Pesticide Environmental Assessment System (PEAS), which measures the annual impacts of pesticides—and sulfur applications—on environment and worker health.


Flame Tokay

Despite the fact that Flame Tokay barely gets a footnote in Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes (a passing reference on page 186), signs of this grape’s former glory in Lodi abound: at one corner, a truck marked “Tokay Heating & Air” idles, and a cursory check through the yellow pages reveals another two-dozen businesses named after the once-prized variety. Lodi’s two high schools, Tokay High and Lodi High, honor the grape’s memory—the latter, Robert Mondavi’s alma mater, fields its sports teams under the moniker of the Flames. The grape still wins prizes for “best” and “largest” bunches at the Lodi Grape and Harvest Festival, an annual event once billed as the Tokay Carnival. Yet forty-plus years of declining plantings have erased any real commercial significance for the variety today.

V. vinifera Flame Tokay arrived in Lodi in 1864, just four years after its introduction to the US, and became California’s number-one table grape by the last decade of the 19th century. Although Flame Tokay gained prominence as an eating grape, its sturdiness allowed Lodi’s growers to ship the grape across the country for the (un)stated purpose of home winemaking—alongside Zinfandel, Flame Tokay’s dependable durability in transit greatly reduced Prohibition’s impact on Lodi’s grape industry. With the passage of the 21st Amendment winemakers turned to the grape as raw material for sparkling wines, brandy, and fortified wines in the region. By the 1970s approximately 95% of the state’s Flame Tokay was grown in and around Lodi. As late as 1977, the Lodi News-Sentinel pronounced: “no other words in the language of agriculture are more associated with Lodi than ‘Flame Tokay.’” But fortified wines fell out of fashion, and tastes changed—Thompson Seedless surged to become America’s most-wanted table grape over the mid-century, while Flame Seedless, a 1961 crossing developed at Fresno, increasingly displaced Tokay after its commercial introduction in 1973.  Today, only a handful of the Tokays (local slang for the vines) remain, and Lodi risks losing a symbolic and defining piece of its viticultural heritage and its culture forever.

Ampelographers suspect that Flame Tokay is identical to the black-skinned Algerian variety Ahmeur Bou Ahmeur, but in no other corner of the world—including vineyards just thirty or forty miles distant, near Sacramento—does it achieve the same brilliant, lantern-red namesake color that it gains in Lodi, where delta breezes keep the region’s heat from cooking its signature pigmentation out. The own-rooted vines are majestic; size and impressive trunk girth make the old Tokays appear almost as squat trees rather than grapevines. As a sign of its past importance, the grape lent its name to Mokelumne River’s defining, granite-based soils (Tokay fine sandy loam). A few stands of old-vine Tokays remain in Mokelumne River, and occasionally one finds a Tokay or two amidst a mixed blacks vineyard—where they were planted, much like the occasional Muscat vine in Beaujolais, to allow the workers a quick snack. The 2013 California Grape Crush Report noted a harvest of only 848 tons (all in Lodi, and a 50% decrease from 2012), and no one is making any serious quantity of wine from Flame Tokay. Jessie’s Grove has produced a sweet, white fortified wine from Flame Tokay since 2009, and Tegan Passalacqua indulges consideration of something similar in the future. But the door is closing: most Flame Tokay fruit goes to Gallo for brandy production, and many of the remaining Tokays are on land destined for development.


Natives, Now and Future

Lodi Native” is a new, branded and collaborative project that debuted with the 2012 vintage. Six Lodi winemakers—Mike McCay, Stuart Spencer (St. Amant), Tim Holdener (Macchia Wines), Layne Montgomery (m2), Ryan Sherman (Fields Family), and Chad Joseph (Maley Brothers)—each produced a single-vineyard Zinfandel, fermented with “native” yeasts (and without enzyme or nutrient additions) and aged in used oak barriques. All six hail from Mokelumne River AVA, and attempt to provide a clearer picture of east/west character, absent winemaking sheen. The “Native” branding is a bit precious—Mike McCay interjected when a fellow winemaker referred to native-yeast fermentation as “natural” fermentation (“The word is native, not natural,” he exclaimed, driving the theme home). And in regard to the process, one has to take each winemaker at his word, as the project provides no policing of winery practices, but overall it provides an interesting look into the character and concentration of old-vine Zinfandel. The bottles sport one of Lodi’s best-looking labels, and the six producers involved are among the top homegrown names to watch in Lodi, a region whose best wines are produced by outsiders.

Lodi’s local talent has a number of challenges to surmount, including label design, winemaking technique, and consumer expectations. Frankly, many of the labels are just terrible—victims of really bad, outdated design. There remains a significant amount of local red wines produced with noticeable residual sugar—employing the 7 Deadly Zins recipe—and new oak usage can be clumsy rather than sophisticated. But remember: despite its lengthy history of grape-growing, this is still a very young winemaking region. As the growers continue to move from growing grapes—which they do remarkably well—to winegrowing, expect rapid improvements. Finally, local consumers tend to look for depth of color, body, and sweetness of fruit in red wines, and Lodi’s wines satisfy that appetite in spades. Both winegrower and wine consumer need to mature in order for Lodi’s producers to really take advantage of the viticultural treasures they have. The Lodi Native project is a good start.  

“The Century Block” – Fields Family Wines 2012 (14%)
-Bright, east-side white-fruit aromatics (peach, nectarine) and floral tones, vineyard planted in 1905, soft uplifted, high-toned palate and good grip. Delicious and drinkable.

“Marian’s Vineyard” – St. Amant 2012 (14.5%)
-Braised fruits, boysenberry, sweeter fruits, pepper, lushness on the front palate, rounder tannins, 8.3-acre, own-rooted parcel of the Mohr-Fry Ranch, originally planted in 1901.

“Wegat Vineyard” – Maley Brothers 2012 (14.9%)

“TruLux Vineyard” – McCay Cellars ( 14.6%)
-Earthier and mushroom-scented, but still rich, much softer/less grip and tannin. Really sweet blue fruit but still balanced. The vineyard is younger than the others in the flight, especially as its density of plantings was increased—the original 10x10” spacing was doubled to 10x5”, so half of the vineyard's vines are of a much younger age.

“Soucie Vineyard” – m2 Wines (14.5%)
-Reductive, but with umami/hoisin character, and a little residual sugar. 4-5 grams? But there is acid to back it up. West-side fruit, from a vineyard originally planted in 1916. Very much Zinfandel.

“Noma Ranch” – Macchia Wines (15.8%)
-Overripe. Huge. Really dark flavors. Stressed fruit? East-side fruit and structure, but pushed. Big. Hot. 

Head-trained Zinfandel old vines; the "Lodi ladder" vertical cordon training