Some of the best ideas happen when kindred spirits gather together to enjoy wine.
Lodi Native™ is one of them. The project was born two and a half years ago when Randy Caparoso, sommelier and blogger for the Lodi Winegrape Commission (LoCA), brought together several Lodi winemakers for a tasting of their wines with a visiting sommelier. A discussion ensued about how Lodi might best increase awareness of its magnificent old Zinfandel vines.
People in Lodi have been growing wine grapes since 1850, but for all this time Lodi grapes have made their way primarily into large California-appellation wines. Today Lodi grows 40% of California’s Zinfandel, and in the last 20 years, an artisan winemaking movement has mushroomed. The great old Lodi vineyards are being rediscovered and renewed, and are brilliantly displaying the quality of what they can produce. Many of them date back into the 1870s, and many of them are still on their own roots (vs. grafted) and thriving today.
The Lodi Native™ plan started with the notion of showcasing single old-vine vineyards. Remove the winemaker and the style from the practices; highlight the terroir and the site specificity. The idea was to allow the terroir-driven fruit to speak for itself, with different voices depending on its vineyard of origin, similar to other great wine regions of the world.
The winemakers met regularly during the next six months and discussed the protocol of what they would and wouldn’t do. Ultimately, six winegrowers living and working in Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA stuck together and agreed on minimalist winemaking with the following rules:
- Old vine Zinfandel only (at least 50 years old)
- Native yeast fermentation, no malolactic
- No additives (no acid, water, enzymes)
- No new barrels; aged in neutral oak barrels only
- Minimal S02
Via an online tasting, we enjoyed six impressive Zinfandels, progressing from westernmost to easternmost in the AVA.
1. 2012 Maley Brothers, Wegat Vineyard.
It started out green and brambly but opened into a very smooth, pleasant wine that was almost as good as the Trulux (below), but softer.
Todd Maley (pictured, right) said the vineyard was planted in 1958 on St. George root stock, and is sustainably farmed to produce “nice sweet, ripe fruit.” Chad Joseph, winemaker, said it yields three tons/acre. The winery grows 320 acres in Lodi, mainly Zin. Chad was aiming to bring out a textural, tactile mouthfeel, among elegant features of the vineyards that are expressed via native fermentations. They harvested at a lower brix for higher acidity and more delicacy, rather than the in-your-face fruit-jam-bombs that Zinfandels can be.
Wegat is on the west side of Lodi, where there is more clay in the soil; it isn’t as sandy as the eastern side. It has alluvial deposits from the Mokelumne River. Todd likes the “herbal notes on the wine and the bright cherry flavor. A little carbonic maceration, uninoculated wine, but in a portion of the wine we put whole clusters in there, so you’ll pick up a little bit of herbal, minty taste. Destemmed, no crushing, we try to keep as much whole berry as possible, 14 days, bin fermentation.” Then it was pressed and put into barrels, racked one time, with sulfate added for aging. The wine spent nine months in the oak. Both barrels were neutral—in fact they were more than six years old); one was French, another a European barrel. Decisions on oak aging times were left to each individual winemaker. Todd “really wanted to leave the oak out of the equation and just have it be a vessel.”
The Wegat Vineyard is a 21-acre planting of head trained vines, field budded on St. George rootstock by the Maley family in 1958. It is a quintessential “west side” Lodi vineyard: planted in fine sandy loam, yielding less than 3 tons/acre, from a unique clonal selection characterized by consistently loose clusters—all contributing to the round, lush, boysenberry/blueberry qualities long associated with Wegat.
2. 2012 m2, Soucie Vineyard
New home construction, blueberry sauce.
Layne Montgomery (left), winemaker/owner, told us that Kevin Soucie is the grower at this vineyard that was planted in 1916 by his grandfather. Original 6-acre block. Self-rooted, head trained, sandy loam, westmost vineyard in the project. A lot of earth, loam. Has been making wine from this vineyard for 12 years. Consistent, yet different. 22 brix, he wanted the acidity; 750 pounds, no acid addition. Another 1,500-1,700 pounds at 24-25 brix, blended together. No malolactic, no new oak. Amazing how long it took to take off on fermentation on its own: more than two weeks before they pressed. Zins shine at 27-28 brix, but it’s a lot harder to make a balanced wine. He’s liking the more subtle style from the project. “Zin is kind of a blank canvas; it’s so broad; you can do a lot with it. Zin is America’s grape; there’s no Old World to compare it to.” He makes another wine from this vineyard called Velvet Elvis.
m2′s Lodi Native Zinfandel is sourced from the oldest block of Soucie Vineyard; planted in 1916 and farmed by fifth generation Lodi native Kevin Soucie. The vines are own-rooted and head trained, and the soil—an extremely fine silt with the consistency of talcum powder—is a variation of the series found in Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA’s far western edge, identified as Devries sandy loam. The site is also the closest to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta’s cooling breezes in Lodi, resulting in distinctively lush, pungently earthy, terroir driven styles of Zinfandel.
3. 2012 McCay Cellars, Trulux Vineyard
Complex, with many aspects of what you would expect from a Bordeaux. Beautiful fruit. Tannins, yet mouth-watering. Good finish. Licorice, pipe tobacco. Very well balanced. Raw organic cherry pie, a pure expression of the fruit and soaringly beautiful flavors. A little amber in the color. I loved this wine. To me, this was the most complex and sophisticated of the six.
Mike McCay (pictured, above right): Vines taller than 6 feet, head trained, beautiful ladder effect, produce a cluster of grapes that’s very elongated, deep dark style of fruit, blackberry, black cherry, a little bit of tobacco, black pepper, very unusual style of Zin. Really loves the native style; stumbled onto it years ago by accident in 1994. Last to bottle (in November) and he can see this as evolving. Blown away at how it keeps changing, showing more layers, new nuances—fascinating. About 85% of his production every year is native, so this wasn’t all that new to him; it wasn’t out of the box for him.
TruLux is a west side Lodi—Mokelumne River AVA vineyard, originally planted in the 1940s on St. George rootstock. It is distinguished by unusually tall head trained vines (topping 6 feet) and a clonal selection producing atypically loose, elongated clusters. This, and loamy sand, yields dark, meaty fruit qualities with a perceptible earthy, loamy complexity. McCay Cellars currently produces seven different single-vineyard Zinfandels; plus a delicate, refined Grenache (which McCay believes could be Lodi’s “Pinot Noir”); a meaty, scrubby yet plush Carignan (from a vineyard originally planted in 1909); a dry, zingy, contemporary style white wine blend; and the freshest dry rosé this side of Provence.
4. 2012 St. Amant, Marian’s Vineyard
Mouth-drying tannins, yet soft. Interesting! Blackberry, white pepper.
Stuart Spencer’s wine. Family has been making wine since 1980; he took over in 2006 when his Dad died. This is an 8.3-acre block, own-rooted Zin planted in 1901. Underground drip irrigation put in 20 years ago, rejuvenated the vineyards. Own-rooted, sandy soils; nematodes can be a challenge, but so far so good. 4 tons/acre on 111-year-old vines, so that just shows you they still have a ways to go. Picked at 24.5 brix.
Marian’s Vineyard is a revered 8.3-acre own-rooted Mokelumne River AVA growth, located south of the town of Lodi. It was originally planted in 1901 by a branch of the Mettler family on present-day Mohr-Fry Ranch; and today it is farmed by father-and-son Jerry and Bruce Fry. It is named for Marian Mohr Fry Zimmerman, the Fry family matriarch who passed away in 2007 at the age of 94. Marian’s deep sandy loam is extremely well drained (in many years, yielding less than 2 tons/acre); but in 2012 the vineyard produced over 30 tons of bold, concentrated fruit–a testament to how well it is farmed today, in accordance with Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing. The entirety of Marian’s goes to St. Amant Winery, founded by the late Tim Spencer (a Lodi icon).
5. 2012 Fields Family, Century Block Vineyard
Green, brambly, a little funky. Tannins.
Ryan Sherman (right): 3 acres, own-rooted, planted in 1905. Tokay, Garnache vines scattered throughout. Short squatty vines, and bigger more robust vines, and took a couple of years working with the farmer to rein it in. Fun vineyard. 9-10 tons from the patch. 85-95% of the wines he produces are along the lines of this native project anyway; also, he uses neutral barrels normally anyway, native fermentation, etc.; all unfiltered except for the whites and the rosé. Bottled Nov. 27.
The Century Block Vineyard is a 3-acre patch of own-rooted Zinfandel (typical of old vines in Lodi) planted in 1905; standing defiantly in a sea of more recently planted trellised vineyards, on the east side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA. The 2012 is the first vineyard designate on record for this growth, and shows what maximum attention in the field and minimal intervention in the cellar can do.
6. 2012 Macchia, Noma Vineyard
More clear than the others, with violet. Cherry. Grape Bubble Yum! This one dances with fleeting whiffs and tastes of delightful things. Brown sugar. But NOT big in your face jam at all. This wine was the most fun of the six. Opening up into new home construction but less so than the other one.
Tim Holdener: Background as a brewer, and has lots of experience with different yeasts being the only thing to change in the brewing, and having the beer turn out completely different. What does own-rooted mean? Most vines in California were grafted onto root stock to protect them from phyloxera and nematodes and other root pests. Centuries ago this wasn’t done, they would just stick a vine in the ground. It’s grown on its own roots. You get a different character coming through on own-rooted vs. grafted on. You do take a chance, but some of the benefits, sandy loamy soil helps the Noma vines survive as long as they have. Special places. Noma is on the east side, close to the river, so it’s in deep, sandy loam soil. It is encroached by a lot of buildings on all four sides, though. It’s dry farmed; one ton/acre, it’s intense and concentrated, but the farmer isn’t making a lot of money on it. This vineyard produces beautiful, higher-acid fruit. 25 brix.
Noma Ranch, farmed by second generation Lodi grower Leland Noma, is a 15-acre vineyard of small, stunted, own-rooted, head trained vines dating back to the early 1900s, located on the east side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA. It is 100% dry farmed; typically yielding close to 1 ton per acre. These tiny clusters of high skin to juice ratio grapes produces a unique Zinfandel: of all of Lodi’s heritage plantings, Noma is consistently among the most concentrated and highest in natural acidity.
Each winemaker made about 50 cases (a couple of barrels) of these wines. The smallest “patch” was 3 acres, and the largest single vineyard was 30 acres. The wines cost $35/bottle, or they are available in a six-bottle set, packaged in a commemorative wooden case. This six-bottle case is available for purchase from the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center; call 209-365-0621 or fill out an order form and fax back to 209-367-0737.
They did it again in 2013, and I’m looking forward to trying this again next year; the 2013 Zins are in the barrels. All the winemakers were more comfortable with it the second year, and in fact all of them extended the method into some of their other blocks and varietals. They enjoyed it. It’s a work in progress. Every time they have a meeting, they talk about other things. Zinfandel was easy to start with, because they’re all growing it. I thought of Grenache while writing this article, and so did one of the winemakers. We’ll see.
WEB: http://www.lodiwine.com and http://www.lodinative.com/. If you want to watch the online tasting video, visit http://cca.yourbrandlive.com/c/lodinative.
Samples sent for review.