Lodi Wines: Past, Present, Future

A Wine Travel Log


There’s nothing quite like having wine friends. After all, our mutual topic of interest is a social lubricant. But there’s so much more to it, as Snooth’s recent blogger trip will attest. Earlier this month we had the opportunity to explore one of the country’s oldest and up-and-coming wine regions: Lodi, California. It still amazes me that a single wine region can occupy both of these roles. Wine writers Amy, Gabe, Frank, Jeff, and Julia joined us for a journey that uncovered answers to the salient question at hand: What is going on in Lodi wine country? The short answer is, more than you even know.
Related Imagery

Markus Bokisch shows the group how to pick out a varietal based on its leaf characteristics.

Swiss winemaker Markus Niggli telling us what it's like to work with undersung German white grape varietals at Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Notably engaging M2 winemaker Layne Montgomery amidst the 99 year-old vines at Soucie Vineyards.

Our last supper together at Oak Farm Vineyards' inordinately gorgeous property. Oak trees, a lake, and grasslands buoyed the experience of the vines. The modern tasting room opened in 2014. It is perfectly juxtaposed with the circa 1864 colonial home of the original owner, William DeVries. 

The process of learning about Lodi was enhanced by the happy band of characters with whom we traveled. Herein lies rule number one about planning your trip to Lodi wine country: You’re going to have a great time, so please go with people that you like. And if you end up visiting with people that you don’t like, there’s a good chance that you’ll leave as great friends. The familial atmosphere that permeates Lodi’s wine industry is contagious. It dates back to the late 19th century when families began planting in Lodi’s vine-friendly soils. So many of these family farmers have passed down the knowledge of their land to their children, grandchildren, etc. And so many of these families have become friends with one another. In Lodi, you’ll find families who have overseen single parcels of land for several generations. That kind of history breeds a very special kind of wine grape -- one that grows close to the heart. Suffice it to say, to the people of Lodi, these vines are like family, too. Furthermore, grape growers and winemakers don’t just work together in Lodi; they partner. And in many cases, they are life-long friends. Witnessing these wine friends interact with each other was equally amazing and inspiring.  In particular, I’m thinking of Zinfandel extraordinaire Layne Montgomery of M2 wines and Kevin Soucie of Soucie Vineyards. Layne sources Zinfandel grapes from Kevin’s plot, which was planted in 1916 (that’s 99 years ago!) in soils of decomposed granite and quartz. This is the kind of soil that is immune to Phylloxera, which is why Lodi has so many truly old vines. Kevin’s family has been farming the land upon which these grapes grow for five generations. This history most certainly shows in both the Zinfandel vines and Layne’s wines. And perhaps their friendship helps, too.

Now, back to my wine friends; that happy band of characters who joined us in Lodi for several days of exploration throughout the region. Each one arrived with preconceived notions about Lodi. What do they have to say about it now? Their collective take on the trip is below, as related through a series of questions suggested by wine writer Jeff Kralik:

Best Wines of the Week:

Amy Corron Power, Another Wine Blog
There were so many good ones, it's difficult to choose only one of two.  I really enjoyed the Acquiesce Belle Blanc* and the Bokisch 2012 Tempranillo Liberty Oaks & Las Cerezas Vineyards.

*Editor’s note: Acquiesce Winery is the only all-white wine winery in Lodi. The proprietor and winemaker, Susan Tipton, takes great care to craft creative food pairings for each one of her wines. Her pairings truly demonstrate how much wine can enhance the food we eat. Be sure to visit her and experience these expertly paired small bites. She paired Amy’s favorite, the Belle Blanc (an homage to Chateauneuf du Pape white blend with Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Viognier), with Dubliner Irish Cheddar Cheese and Violet Flower Jam.

Frank Morgan, Drink What You Like
Difficult to pick just one white and one red wine of the week. However, if pressed, my favorite red: 2013 Stampede Vineyard Zinfandel from Fields Family Wines tasted as part of the Lodi Native tasting*. The highwater mark of how Zin can express a site. My favorite white wine of the Lodi trip: 2013 Bokisch Terra Alta Vineyard Albarino.  

*Editors Note: The Lodi Native tasting that Frank references was one of the trip's highlights, to be sure. The Lodi Natives Project is all about a group of winemakers who came together and made a pact: Each winemaker selects a vineyard of old vine Zinfandel and pledges to to make a laissez-faire Zinfandel wine from its grapes. This means that all winemaking interventions (cultivated yeasts, water, acid, new oak, and additives) with the exception of sulfur are verboten. The goal is to showcase the true terroir of each old vine. Read more about the Lodi Natives here.

Gabe Sasso, Gabe’s View
White: Markus Wine Company 2014 Nimmo -- A hint of peat leads the nose here. The body has some weight and heft to it with lychee, pineapple and lemon curd all in play. There is a viscosity and mineral driven nature to the mouthfeel which dances alongside a core of tart green apple notes and spice. The finish is crisp, long and refreshing. All of these elements come together to make this a remarkably appealing wine.  Red: Harney Lane 2012 Tempranillo* -- I’m a huge fan of Tempranillo and this example brought to mind offerings from Rioja. Leather, violets and a hint of tar fill the nose. The palate which is layered, firm and precise was marked by wave after wave of red and black cherry, accompanied by a firm spice component. Bits of savory herbs such as thyme and sage reverberate on the finish which has excellent length and depth. This is a terrific example of what can be achieved in California with Tempranillo when it’s planted appropriately and tended carefully. It’s also an excellent value for $25.

*Editor's Note: Harney Lane's Owner and Vineyard Manager, Kyle Lerner, was part of the virtual tasting that took place during the trip. Watch the virtual tasting clip show to learn more about Kyle and Harney Lane. And be sure to listen for the story about his daughter and her intuitive palate. (It's more proof that terroir is a very real part of wine!)

Jeff Kralik, The Drunken Cyclist
Top White: 2013 Markus Wine Company Nimmo: Retail $22. 69% Kerner, 11% Gewürztraminer, 10% Riesling, 10% Bacchus. If you like playing tricks on your wine geek friends, serve this to them blind and have them guess. I will bet you a bottle (or even a case) that they won't come anywhere close to naming either the predominant variety or the region. Kerner is one of the over 100 varieties being grown in Lodi not named "Zinfandel." The wine was barrel fermented and has one of the most interesting noses I have ever experienced. Is it melon? A touch of caramel? Smoke? I honestly could not place it. On the palate, it is even a greater joy. Whoa. Fruit, acidity, balance, verve, it has it all. And then some. 92-94 Points.
Top Red: 2013 St. Amant Marian's Vineyard Lodi Native Zinfandel: Retail $35 (?). While I thought all of the Lodi Native wines were outstanding, the Marian's Vineyard from St. Amant really stood out for me. Winemaker Stuart Spencer said he spent more time thinking about this ton of grapes than he did for the other 100 tons of fruit that the winery crushed combined. This did not have as much earthiness as some of the West Side wines, nor was it quite as floral as those from the East Side of Lodi, but it seems to have taken the most positive aspects of both and weaved them into perhaps the best Zinfandel I have ever had. Fruit, earth, florality all meld together seamlessly with balanced acidity and a hint of tannin. I would love to see this in a decade, but there is no way I could wait that long. 93-95 Points.
Bonus Top Rosé: 2014 Acquiesce Grenache Rosé Lodi Mokelumne River: Retail $22. There are few phrases in the wine world that can get me excited before I even set lips to glass. A couple of them are perhaps obvious: "Krug," "Aged Sauternes," and "Pick anything you want, it's on me." The other, slightly out of the mainstream is "Dedicated rosé." A dedicated or pressed rosé is one in which the fruit was grown with the expressed desire to make a pink wine. Why is that important? For one, the fruit is picked at a point that will ensure a racy, vibrant product. And that is precisely what owner/winemaker Sue Tipton did here. The wine is bright and gorgeous with plenty of red berries, a bit of flint, and a lasting finish. But above all, this proves that rosé can be a serious wine. 92-94 Points.

Julia Crowley, The Real Wine Julia
White wine of the week: Bokisch Terra Alta Vineyards Albariño 2014 - This beauty of an Albariño is easily described as liquid sunshine. From its lucid color and alluring vibrant aromas to its crisp texture and fresh acidity, Bokisch's Terra Alta Albariño showcased tropical aromas of Key Limes, orange blossom and pineapple with subtle hints of spices. The citrus notes were carried through to the palate, and the silky, yet refreshingly crisp texture was truly memorable; along with, its undeniable perpetual balance and solid acidic backbone. The bright and crisp acidity created a wine that was pure, focused and truly refreshing, and it's obvious that Albariño has found a home in Lodi. 

Red wine of the week: With so many fantastic reds to hit my palate in the few days we were in Lodi, this is truly a tough question to answer - multiple Zinfandels, and other varietals, were incredibly impressive. Two Zinfandels that really stood out were completely opposite in their characteristics; however, they both displayed qualities I loved.  The M2 Soucie Vineyard Select Block 2012 Zinfandel was described by winemaker Layne Montgonery as "Velvet Elvis." Here's what I wrote in my notes, "By far, one of the finest Zinfandels I have EVER had. Cherries, fresh rolled tobacco, smoke, earth, spice and pure perfection on the palate. Lush & velvety, beautiful acidity and balance."
A lighter, more feminine and elegant Zinfandel that also wowed me was the Trulux Vineyard McCay Cellars 2012 Lodi Native Zinfandel. Completely unmanipulated and showcasing its terroir in depth, this beauty of a Zinfandel was sleek, clean, pure and focused. Even mentioning one of the Lodi Native Zinfandels has me looking over my notes for all six of these project wines, and they were all outstanding in their own way.  Another one I absolutely loved was the Schmiedt Ranch Macchia Wines Lodi Native Zin...and so on. 
Then there was the Harney Lane Old Vine Zin. I could certainly go on and on. 

Most Memorable Moment(s):
Again so many! What was really special is the way we all got along and had fun learning about Lodi! When Jeff asked a silly question to a winemaker."Are you a triathlete?" -- that was funny! But my favorite experience was sitting in the Bokisch* backyard eating paella, drinking their lovely Spanish wines and talking with Markus Bokisch's sister.

*Editor’s note: Markus Bokisch is a pioneer for new wine grapes, specifically Spanish varietals, in Lodi. The Bokisch family was the first to bring the Graciano wine grape to the United States. They recognized the grape’s potential in Lodi and worked with the relevant governing bodies to successfully bring the grape from Spain to California. It was no easy task, but well worth the sweat. The Bokisch’s varietal bottling of Graciano is known among staff as “the secret weapon”. It’s a difficult variety to grow, but the rewards are boundless.  What started out as a blending grape in the Rioja now thrives in its own Lodi appellation bottles.

While each vineyard visit and winemaker interaction provided a uniquely memorable experience, I would have to say the visit to Mokelumne Glen Vineyards and meeting Bob and Mary Lou Koth was the most memorable experience of my time in Lodi.  Sitting at picnic tables under the shade of decades old oak trees, cooled by gentle delta breeze, tasting new-to-me wines, listening to Markus share stories of the grapes from the Koth’s vineyard was the highlight of the trip.  I appreciate the history that Bob and Mary Lou provided. Thinking about the enormous risk the Koth’s took in 1962 to plant German and Austrian varieties like Kerner is memorable.  A special visit.

Visiting the Bechthold Vineyard* was a significant highlight for me. In a sense I grew up on and cut my teeth on California wines. They represent some of the most formative experiences I have had as a wine lover and now writer. To stand among the oldest Cinsault vineyard in the world (1886) was a sight to behold. To then taste several distinct offerings from those very vines only enhanced that. Wine geek? Guilty as charged I suppose.

*Editor's Note: The grapes from Lodi's famed Bechthold Vineyard are hallowed. They are also certified under Lodi's sustainability program, the Lodi Rules. Yes, these are the oldest known Cinsault vines in the world. The twenty-five acre Cinsault parcel is 100% organic and dry farmed. At their age, the vines are stingy with their yields. Any wine produced from Bechthold grapes is a rare and wisdom-filled treat. A few selections to try: Michael David Ancient Vine Cinsault 2011, Onesta 2013 Rosé.

There were a lot of great moments, some at my expense, but for me, it was the side conversation I was able to have with Layne Montgomery in the middle of the 99 year-old Soucie Vineyard. For the preceding couple of days, we were all warned about our meeting with Layne; many people alerted us to his propensity for memorable quotes and "colorful" language. When we all finally met, however, I think I can speak for all of us to say that after the build-up, we were a bit underwhelmed. I was expecting a three-ring circus, but we got a Layne Montgomery that had been battling a three-day cold. The attention shifted to the vineyard's owner and manager Kevin Soucie, with several questions pertaining to the vineyard and the approach to farming. I started to listen, but quickly retreated to Layne's side for a couple of reasons: 1. He had an open bottle of his stellar 2012 M2 Select Block Zinfandel, and 2. Layne is one of the few people in Lodi who can make me feel short (I am 6'4" and I would guess he has an inch or two on me). Once there, after a couple glasses and a little prodding, Layne warmed up and the one liners were flying. I can't really repeat any here, but suffice it to say that Layne spares no one in his barbs.
My most memorable moment is actually a combination of similar moments combined: moments that I like to call "tailgate tastings."  Until visiting Lodi, I wasn't aware that the Lodi region consists heavily of winegrape growers - generations of folks that farm the lands where the fruit is grown and produced into wines that are truly showcasing the terroir of where they once weathered the unpredictable conditions and thrived to survive. There's such a dramatic sense of place when meeting the winemakers and farmers in the middle of their vineyards, dirt under their nails, bottle of wine in one hand and a shovel in the other. In Lodi, I discovered there's no better place to taste wine than on the tailgate of a Chevy pickup. 

Biggest Lodi Mythbusters:


I had heard Lodi was a cow pasture that grew only Zinfandel. So not true! What I truly loved about Lodi was all the diversity -- of its people, its wineries and vineyards! From the small "Noma" vineyard behind a warehouse to the expansive vineyards of Delicato and Michael David's Bare Ranch. Rhone varieties, Spanish varieties, even German varieties! I had no idea there was so much to learn in Lodi! I posted a story that discusses Lodi and Mokelumne Glen Vineyards in a story about German wines. You can read it here: Ahr to Lodi: Spotlight on German Wine.

Prior to visiting the region, I pretty much considered Lodi the epicenter of industrial wine production.  Each vineyard and winemaker visit chipped away at my misconception of Lodi, revealing a region built by family winegrowers (many multi-generational) — many of them small, boutique operations — deeply passionate about their region, vineyards and wines, deserving of more recognition.  Very much like my home state of Virginia!

This isn’t so much a myth buster but something I learned that I was glad to see. There is a spirit of camaraderie and all for one going on in Lodi today that was great to witness first hand. On several occasions I heard growers and winemakers alike mention that the rising tide would help raise all the boats. I admire this in general but I also love what it represents in a universal California Wine Industry sense. It speaks directly to the influence of Robert Mondavi who always felt that way about Napa. Now that Lodi wineries are more focused on their small lot wines than growing grapes for a larger conglomerate they’re applying what Bob preached to their own backyard. Almost 50 years after the rise of the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa, it’s great to see the same lessons and principles applied so selflessly in Lodi.

This was a tough one for me since I imagined that others have stated they were surprised that Lodi was not so hot, or it is so much more than Zin. Or even that they were surprised by all the high level wines being produced. For me, though, the myth that was busted was was more general in nature, one that applies to all grape growing regions. Until my time in Lodi, I was under the impression that a wine region is defined by just that--the wine. It is the wineries and winemakers that garner all the attention and they are responsible for the region's renown (or lack thereof). After visiting Lodi, however, I came away with knowing that the wineries and winemakers, though talented and worthy of attention, are merely at the end of a line that was started and is dominated by the growers.
Huge diurnal swings in the daily temperatures and the famed Delta Breeze (maritime winds that find their way through a gap in the northern and southern coastal ranges surrounding the San Francisco Bay area) were the two most surprising facts about Lodi that clearly bust the myths of it being a hot region solely conducive to farming red wine grapes, such as Zinfandel.  In truth, Lodi is a grape growing region that not only successfully grows the unrivaled Zinfandel varietal that it's unequivocally renowned for, but a plethora of surprising red and white varietals from around the globe, as well.

So, what is wine life like after Lodi? I believe it is one of broadened horizons. Don’t get stuck in a rut with the same old same old wines from the same old same old places. Embrace your love of wine by tasting the selections caringly crafted by smaller, family producers in Lodi. What they do is art, and they deserve our support. Furthermore, Lodi is in the heart of California wine country. Its history as a grape supplier to surrounding wine regions makes it a huge part of America’s wine heritage.  It’s also a down-to-earth small town where you can taste really excellent wines at astounding values. Wear your Birkenstocks or your Jimmy Choos to the tasting room; no matter what you wear, you will feel welcome. These are people who love their land. They love what they do. And I’m so grateful to have experienced it all with an incredible group of new wine friends.

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