East side, west side, Lodi Zinfandels getting around the block

Beach blanket Zinfandel: November in the dry farmed Noma Ranch; on the east side of Lodi where the soils are the sandiest and deepest

“Beach blanket” Zinfandel:  squat, stumpy caned vines typical of the dry farmed Noma Ranch on the east side of Lodi where the soils are the sandiest and deepest; yielding minuscule clusters with berries of unusually high skin/juice ratios and acidity

By Randy Caparoso, LoCA (randycaparoso@earthlink.net)

In 1991, some 700 of Lodi’s grape growers came together to form the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission (since shortened to Lodi Winegrape Commission).  At that point in time, according to the Commission’s former executive director, Mark Chandler, “the trade and consumers viewed Lodi as a jug wine region, despite the fact that even then we were the largest producer of premium quality wine grapes in the state, which we still are.”

Zinfandel in Lizzy James Vineyard (planted 1904)

Zinfandel in Lizzy James Vineyard (planted 1904)

Today wine bottles bearing the Lodi appellation are seen on retail shelves and fine dining restaurant wine lists across the nation and beyond, and it is no longer a surprise when Lodi wines win double-golds and even “Best of Show” accolades in tasting competitions involving thousands of wines from other American wine regions.

A lot of this newfound respect has been associated with one of California’s heritage wines:  Zinfandel.  In fact, over 40% of California’s Zinfandels are crushed in Lodi; almost all of  it grown  in the region’s historic heart and soul:  the Mokelumne River American Viticultural Area – one of seven Lodi sub-AVAs officially established in 2006.

Quantity, of course, never equals quality.  Yet much of the recent surge of Lodi consciousness among connoisseurs has been driven by the intrinsic quality of the region’s grapes; and from within the region itself, a mini-explosion of growers-turned-winemakers, diverting increasing amounts of their crop from the old jug wine pipelines and into ultra-premium bottlings.

When it comes to the finest wines in the world, top quality always comes down to the concept of terroir, or growing conditions.  Here are the reasons why the cream of Lodi’s Mokelumne River Zinfandel crop has made such an impact since the turn of the twenty-first century:

Moderate Climate

The intrinsically gentle yet generous intensity of Lodi’s Mokelumne River wines are very much a reflection of the AVA’s low elevation (50 to 100 feet) terroir – defined by its Mediterranean climate, which is strongly influenced by direct proximity to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, channeling cool air from San Francisco Bay even during the dog days of summer.  Mokelumne River is the coolest of Lodi’s AVAs.  Recent readings put its U.C. Davis climate classification, or Winkler scale (a measurement of average temperatures over 50° F. during the growing season), towards the lower end of Region III:  on the par with the Napa Valley floor between St. Helena and Calistoga in average total heat summation, although sometimes in line with Oakville and Rutherford averages.

Soucie Vineyard Zinfandel

Zinfandel perfection & talcum powder-like sandy loam in Soucie Vineyard

Stuart Spencer, owner/winemaker of St. Amant (as well as Program Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission), tells us, “Personally, I don’t like making regional comparisons, but there are things that make Lodi distinct.  Lodi may be slightly warmer than much of Napa Valley in terms of total heat accumulation throughout the growing season, but these measurements don’t tell you how heat accumulation affects fruit/wine character.  Regions like Napa Valley, Sonoma, Paso Robles and the Sierra Foothills tend to get higher daytime highs, and lower lows at night.  Lodi’s climate tends towards more moderation – with cooler afternoons, but warmer evenings.  Lodi will drop down into the mid- to upper 50s on a normal night, whereas some of those other regions might drop down to the lower 50s or upper 40s.  In very general terms, you will see more structure (tannins/acidity) in wines from those regions, whereas Lodi will have a plusher, more approachable fruit forward character.”

Spencer elaborates on the complexities, in more specific terms:  “I started picking my Marian’s Vineyard Zinfandel last year (2013) on September 20.  The interesting thing is that our harvest start-dates for 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 all fell basically within a week of each other.  However, the degree days, according to the Lodi weather station, have varied from 2,592 in 2010 (lower “Region  II”) to 3,088 (lower “Region III”) in 2013.  What’s also interesting is that in 2010 and 2011 we had much higher alcohols than 2012 and 2013.  Also, in 2010 and 2011 we saw very low yields, especially compared to 2012 and 2013.  For example, our Marian’s Vineyard was about 1.75 tons/acre in 2010, 3.75 tons/acre in 2013, and just shy of 4 tons/acre in 2012.”

In other words, cooler vintages do not automatically equate to lower alcohols. Yields — often determined by fruit set and cluster weights — have a major impact, although it is easier to achieve ideal pH and total acidity in the colder years. While the vagaries of vintages do not make for pat comparisons, the bottom line is this:  Lodi’s mild version of the classic Mediterranean climate produces white wines with much more fragrance and crisper natural acidity than what is generally assumed, and comparatively gentle, delicate, even feminine styles of reds – especially in respect to Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon (little known fact:  Lodi grows nearly as much Cabernet Sauvignon as Napa Valley).

2012 Marian's Vineyard harvest

2012 Marian’s Vineyard harvest

Ideal Soil and Matching Grape Sites

Unlike Napa Valley, of course, Mokelumne River is less about Cabernet Sauvignon (although Lodi’s soft, fruit focused style of Cabernet Sauvignon certainly has its charms) than Zinfandel, which thrives in the region’s deep (8-30 feet), fertile yet extremely well drained, sandy alluvial soil, classified as Tokay Sandy Loam.  Prior to the advent of modern day irrigation systems, higher water tables, ample rain and soil moisture retention allowed for successful dry farming (amended by traditional furrow irrigation) in the Mokelumne River area; sustaining thousands of acres of old vines, thriving in a balanced, natural ecosystem, throughout most of the past 150 years.  Healthy, well drained soil has meant the survival of thousands of acres of healthy, productive Zinfandel vineyards planted prior to 1960, which remain a dominant source for Lodi Zinfandel bottlings in, incredibly, all of today’s price ranges — from $10-$18 “value” buys, to $28 to $60 ultra-premium labels.

Age Before Beauty

The Mokelumne River’s most significant Zinfandel sites date back as far as the 1880s (such as those in Jesse’s Grove’s estate), the 1890s (Peirano), 1901 (Mohr-Fry Ranch’s Marian’s block), 1916 (Soucie Vineyard), plus numerous other vineyards planted between the 1920s and 1950s.  These are, of course, largely gnarly, free standing, head-trained Zinfandel vines; generally yielding less than 4 tons (some as little as 1 or 2 tons) per acre; and everyone knows what lower yielding, deep rooted old vines can produce:  the types of red wines many zin lovers love most – vivid purplish colors, nostril tingling aromas, and ultra-rich yet finely balanced flavors, even at higher alcohol (14% to 16%) levels.

Todd Maley's 2012 Wegat Vineyard harvest

Todd Maley’s 2012 Wegat Vineyard harvest

Ungrafted Vines

When they say old vine in Mokelumne River, they do not mean any ol’ old vines.  Most connoisseurs outside the region are unaware of the fact that these porous, sandy soils have always been inhospitable to the infamous phylloxera blight that wreaked havoc elsewhere around the world at the end of the nineteenth century.  This explains why over 5,000 of Mokelumne River’s 42,000 planted acres still sit on their own rootstocks – one of the largest collections of ungrafted Vitis vinifera remaining in the world.

East vs. West Side Zinfandels

During the past twelve years, the increasing number of single vineyard bottlings has begun to reveal subtle yet significant difference between Mokelumne River Zinfandels grown east of Hwy. 99, and Mokelumne River Zinfandels grown west of the town of Lodi (between Lower Sacramento Rd. and Interstate 5).

Although the Tokay sandy loam and Delta climate are pretty much the same throughout the Mokelumne River area, old-timers as well as the latest generation of winegrowers generally agree that soils on the east side tend to be a tad sandier – often beach-like in porosity – and are usually deeper.  With water tables buried closer to 30 feet below surface, deeper rooted Zinfandel plants on Mokelumne River’s east side tend to yield smaller clusters and berries; resulting in wines with slightly higher acids and skin phenolics (that is, stronger tannins and flavor producing compounds).  Seven classic examples of east side Lodi Zinfandel include Macchia’s Oblivious and Outrageous from Noma Ranch, Harney Lane’s Lizzy James, Klinker Brick’s Old Ghost and Marisa, and most recently, Turley Wine Cellars’ Kirschenmann and Schmiedt bottlings.

Bechthold soil

Temporary trench dug in Bechthold Vineyard — in the heart of the Mokelumne River AVA’s west side — showing consistently deep sandy loam soil, with a water line at approximately 15 ft. below

While tending towards rounder textures, the voluptuous fruit qualities of Lodi’s west side Zinfandels are no less attractive.  Seven classic west side Lodi Zinfandels include those of Maley Brothers’ Wegat Vineyard (also going into Macchia’s Voluptuous), m2’s Soucie, McCay’s Trulux, The Lucas’ ZinStar, and the newly emerging Stellina and Mikami estate bottlings.  Although winemaking styles often blur distinctions, in the coming years consumer awareness of east vs. west side Lodi Zinfandels is bound to grow – and with that, increased appreciation of individual Lodi terroirs, drilled down to single vineyards, and special blocks within single vineyards.

Fruits of Their Labors

Typical split trunk in +100-year old Zinfandel (Rous Vineyard)

Typical split trunk in +100-year old Zinfandel (Rous Vineyard)

A good majority of Lodi’s 750 or so independent growers come from third, fourth, fifth and (increasingly) sixth generation families who have been living and working together – and of course, socializing and inter-marrying – since 1858, when the first Lodi winery (called El Pinal) and vineyards were established.  By the 1980s there were still fewer than twenty-five wineries in Lodi.

Today, there are over eighty Lodi based wineries – most them owned by the same families who have been farming here all along.

The bulk of the region’s grapes still go directly to giants like E. & J. Gallo and Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi (the late Robert Mondavi, incidentally, was a Lodi native), and a surprising amount of grapes are still packed up and sent to home winemakers and wineries on the other side of the country.  But it is the growing number of small to medium sized specialty wineries – the “Lodi natives,” if you will – who are doing the most to expand the Lodi rep.

For instance, the Phillips family behind Michael David Winery has been growing grapes as well as fruits and vegetables in the region since the 1860s.  In the late nineties the Phillips brothers, Michael and David, were still crushing only about a thousand cases a year.  Today, their yearly production exceeds 300,000 cases; and they sell out everything – from their $16 7 Deadly Zins to their $59 Lust Zinfandel – within a few months following release.

Even at $30 to $60 price points, says Michael David president/co-owner David Phillips, “I think Lodi wines over-deliver on quality per price, and consumers know it.”  While racking up sweepstakes awards and accolades like nobody’s business, Michael David has also established footholds in Canada, China, Southeast Asia, and throughout Europe.  “We’re really big in Sweden,” quips Phillips… “I guess because the Swedes like to barbecue, and they love a good ol’ American Zinfandel with their barbecue as much as anyone!”

2013 harvest in Kirschenmann Vineyard (Mokelumne River's east side): a year of excess "water berry" (hence, heavy field sorting)

2013 Kirschenmann Vineyard harvest (east side Lodi):  a year of excess “water berry” despite dry farming regime (hence aggressive field sorting)

VEloNAtiEast side, west side, Lodi Zinfandels getting around the block