Lodi’s gift is its history. Generations of California’s agricultural families are entrenched in this Central part of the state, situated between the San Francisco Bay and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There was good reason immigrants from Europe settled in this pocket in the San Joaquin Valley over 100 years ago to plant grapes, along with cherries, watermelon and other prolific fruit.
The ground in Lodi is generous in size and resources. The abundance of nature’s blessings persists in full steam ahead mode; the Land of Plenty is as ready as ever to emerge into a New Age.
For decades, grape growers were ready, willing and able to fill trucks and warehouses with fruit, shipping off their cargo to California’s top wine regions. With this ability to fulfill a vast supply, Lodi became synonymous with bulk wine production.
In the past several years, as the wine business evolved, it reached out to an entire world of buyers, Lodi is not only keeping up with the pace, but setting its own trends.
I call this new movement the Vin-Artist, a collective consciousness of talented viticulturists, marketers and the next era of family-owned grower/farmers who realize the value of their land and the treasure that comes forth from its soils.
The Vin-Artists are Lodi’s present and its future, demonstrating their niche in the global fine wine arena.
Heading up the nation’s leading (and first) sustainable viticultural program for the past 15 years, Lodi winegrowers have adopted a practice that goes hand-in-hand with wine quality, measurable improvements in the health of the surrounding ecosystem, increased wine sales for the area, and the benefit of the community as a whole.
The “Lodi Winegrower’s Workbook” became the model for the Golden State’s own Code Book on sustainable practices. Just in the past 18 months, the credo reached certification stage.
“We’re on the horizon of seeing the word ‘sustainable’ on our wine labels,” says Mark Chandler, Executive Director of the Lodi-Woodbridge Wine Grape Commission. For the past 16 years, Chandler has dedicated his cheerleading enthusiasm into rebuilding Lodi’s image and champions his winemaker members by reaching out to wine buying markets outside his own district through promotion, educational seminars, tasting events and other ambassador-like efforts.
“In the past 12 years, we’ve experienced a 75-percent growth in new vineyards,” Chandler told Patterson’s on our recent visit to the area. “We’re definitely shedding the old jug wine image. Lodi has staked a vibrant and exciting claim in the wine business.”
In 1991, eight wineries existed alongside a plethora of family-owned ranches and vineyards. Today, that number jumps to 62 existing wineries. 1991 also earmarks the establishment of the Lodi-Woodbridge Grape Commission, which stands as a focal point for the area, reporting on its history, educating on the art and science of winemaking and introducing enophiles to Lodi’s exciting boutique labels through a spacious tasting room.
The Lodi-Woodbridge Wine Commission offers 200 Lodi appellation wines for tasting, from its famous Zinfandels to its outstanding Petite Sirahs, Viogniers and exciting new varieties. Here is Kelli Mettler, manager of the Lodi Wine & Visitors Center with Stephanie Beasly, marketing manager for the Lodi-Woodbridge Wine Commission.
Lodi’s classic Mediterranean climate is affected by cool coastal breezes coming off the edge of the Sacramento Delta, east of the San Francisco Bay, which provides natural air conditioning throughout the growing season.
The lush, round silky profile of Lodi’s wines are due much to the long ripening season that has been recorded far into November in some years.
Lodi soils are comprised of sandy loams, where old vine Zins still thrive today. Roots have been documented as deep as 20-feet. The sandy nature of the soil allows vines to slowly draw water over the course of the season, providing for uniform growth and ripeness.
Lodi has reached a point of re-awakening. Growers, who for over a century have packed up their consigned harvest, destined for bottling outside the area are now keeping the best grapes for themselves, launching their own brands.
In some cases, it’s the youngest family members who are contributing to the latest winemaking influence. “As the next generation is graduating college, they return home, helping their parents and grandparents with sales, marketing and hospitality,” notes Chandler.
For others, it’s a wake-up call to the nature of the industry. While global markets compete in California, growers-turned-winemakers realize their greatest assets are not only in their own “backyard,” but in their ability to retain their family’s vested interest by illustrating Lodi’s wine region as a world-class contender.
Growers Turned Vintners
Klinker Brick Winery, Steve & Lori Felten
Steve & Lori Felten, Klinker Brick Winery
“I’m the assistant winemaker,” jokes Steve Felten, whose family – and his wife Lori’s family – have been growing grapes in Lodi for decades. Fifth generation growers, the Feltens hired Barry Gnekow (see our tribute to “The Changemaker”) to oversee production for their label which debuted in 2000.
Klinker Brick Zinfandel makes a statement. From vines as old as 103, the wines are a mark of the new era for Lodi; a Zin with complex appeal, twists and turns of fruit and texture. At 10,000 cases, it’s a label with a plan.
“We didn’t start out to be wine marketers,” Felten explained over dinner at Lodi’s superb Wine & Roses Inn, where his zin paired magnificently with a roasted pork chop. “For the past few years we didn’t do very much (marketing) and vintages stacked up, with tons of money wrapped up. Nothing was selling.”
Kismet occurred when Felten met Midwest wine distributor Lynn Bernard, who recently transplanted to Lodi, now combs the country as the Klinker- Brick National Sales Manager. The brand is available in 16 states.
Bernard is also the creative force behind the proprietary “Old Ghost,” a 1500-case production zinfandel that celebrates the winery’s best lots. “Dead vines, high grass and foggy vineyards inspired the name,” Felten lets on, adding, “Many of us in Lodi are becoming more adventurous in our winemaking.”
Klinker Brick 2004 Old Vine Zinfandel, Lodi takes you from cinnamon and all-spice to a coffee-toffee sensation and a whisper of white pepper typicity.
Old Ghost is a smoky songstress, cloaked in a crimson velvet gown. In a well of depth, the wine is meaty, but elegant: this will haunt for a long time.
Jessie’s Grove, Greg Burns/Wanda Bechtold
Mark Chandler, Executive Director of the Lodi-Woodbridge Wine Commission with Jessie’s Grove Tasting Room Mgr Johnny Medina and Winery Proprietor Greg Burns
“Lodi is taking hold of its grapes and changing from marketing as growers to marketing as winemakers,” notes Greg Burns, whose family of growers dates back in Lodi to the mid-1800s. “It’s not just about being competitive in the production of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, but about producing these and other varieties at the top of the scale.”
Jessie’s Grove’s collection of gold medals is proof of that statement.
Burns’s mother, Wanda Bechtold is a self-made historian who documented over a century of photos, artifacts and anecdotes from her grandparent’s property, where Jessie’s Grove remains today as a working ranch and vineyards.
Jessie’s Grove Earth, Zin & Fire 2004 is inspired by the legendary rock group and cleverly promoted as “Front Row Zin.” (The winery actually stages concerts on the ranch). This is a fruit-forward, earthy wine with soft tannins for a ticket to enjoyment.
“This is the wine that helps me define what to do with three old vine Zinfandel lots,” Greg Burns of Jessie’s Grove points out. Zin from each field is vinified separately and blended back with two years of barrel aging. Plums and chalky tannins, with lots of body: a brilliantly fashioned wine.
David Phillips, co-owner of Michael-David Winery
“Michael” and “David” are Michael and David Phillips, brothers whose family has farmed fruits and vegetables in the Lodi region since the 1850s, cultivating wine grapes for nearly a century. Michael and David constitute the fifth generation of grape-growers in the Phillips family, with Michael’s son Kevin, the winery’s vineyard manager, continuing the tradition into the sixth generation.
Today, Michael-David Winery owns or controls nearly 400 vine acres, Fifteen grape types are cultivated, ranging from mainstream varieties like Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, to Rhône Valley varieties including Syrah, Mourvedre, Viognier, Carignane and Cinsault.
In addition to wine grapes, the Phillips family farms 100 acres of row crops, including sweet corn, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, specialty melons and table grapes. This produce is offered exclusively to visitors to the Phillips’ fruit stand and café, which are adjacent to the tasting room on the winery estate.
Inventive labels and label monikers further Michael-David wines’ appeal, such as 7 Deadly Zins, a popular old-vine zinfandel incorporating fruit from seven top Lodi vineyards; 7 Heavenly Chards, a richly flavored Chardonnay aged in seven different types of French oak; and Incognito, dedicated to Rhone varieties and including a Viognier-Roussanne and a Rhone-style red.
7 Deadly Sins is a national hit for Michael-David Winery. It’s approachable, fun and offers a juicy, generously fruity side with hints of minerality from Lodi’s sandy & loamy “west side.” (Young’s/CA, SW&S of NV)
Van Ruiten Family Winery
Mark Fedorchak, president of Van Ruiten Family Winery
John Van Ruiten, a Dutch immigrant, settled in Lodi shortly after WWII, planting Zinfandel vines. Fifty years later, the Van Ruitens farm over 800 acres of winegrapes, exploring new opportunities as a modern winery of the 21st Century.
As growers, the family’s commitment includes a high level of sustainable farming practices – as an example they use cow manure rather than commercial fertilizer – and at the same time maintain a state-of-the-art winemaking facility and a gorgeous tasting room.
Influenced by famous wine consultant Michel Rolland, Leemon adds a French accent to Lodi. We loved the Van Ruiten 2004 Pinot Gris, an Alsace-style with aromatic peaches and hints of sunshine laden pears, with a notable minerality.
The Burgundian Van Ruiten Chardonnay (50% stainless steel, 50% barrel fermented) is ripe with tropical notes, bright acidity and a lemon chiffon finish.
From 50 year old vines, Van Ruiten Old Vine Zinfandel comes from the family’s original rootstock White pepper, lifted oak (American), mouth filling gobby (not jammy) fruit and a vanilla back speaks volumes about texture and structure. (SW&S – NoCal)
We were wowed by Van Ruiten Cab-Shiraz, estate grown and at 15% alcohol, realized that Lodi’s long growing season wipes out the over-the-top quality of the area’s wines. Black fruit loads up with 60/40 blend, and it shines to its lengthy finish.
Borra Winery, Stephen Borra
The fist boutique winery to open up in Lodi, Borra’s 2500 case production, all estate grown wines are certainly hand crafted. Proprietor Stephen Borra takes care of the vines and the winery, while daughter Gina runs the tasting room. (Borravineyards.com)
Borra Fusion 2003 is peppery and spicy up front, a juicy glass of joy melding 51% Syrah with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel.
Borra 2003 Merlot is so seamless, it patterned itself after a silky ruby robe, the fruit actually gliding over the tongue. The nose exudes a rich ripeness, as in money. This is heavenly.
Grands Amis, Jonathan and Cathy Wetmore
Among art galleries, high end restaurants and adorable shops, the Wetmore’s opened downtown Lodi’s first tasting room to showcase their beautiful wines. In the small, 1000-case Grand Amis, we noted an Old World style that was unique to the profiles we experienced many of the other area labels.
Grand Amis single vineyard Zinfandel, Graffigna Vineyard, maintains an exotic spice and white pepper character. This wine is unfiltered, and integrates its pomegranate and cranberry lushness with great tannic structure.
Vino Con Brio, Anne Matson
Anne Matson fulfills her destiny as the new generation of wine marketer for a family of Lodi grape growers
Growers since 1978, shipping off their grapes to Napa and Sonoma, Mike Matson started making wine in his garage in the mid-90’s, although the winery was officially bonded in 1999 with the Matzin label. A year later “Vino Con Brio” was born, a salute to the passion of wine (Brio is Italian for passion).
27-year old Anne Matson now runs the winery, returning to her roots after pursuing a law career. She attended UC Davis to study Political Science instead of Enology. She even tried a stint at corporate America, but soon tired of the “rat race.”
“What I did obtain, was a background for finance and business.” In July of 2003, her parents welcomed her home with open arms – and she utilized her skills to then then-newly opened winery and tasting room with its small Bed & Breakfast called the “Amorosa Inn” right on the property.
Matson travels one week out of every month, working closely her distributor network. “This is an opportunity for me to do something more satisfying,” she admits. As the third generation of Lodi agricultural bloodline, Matson continues to participate with her parents and her grandfather, Keith Harvey, who started it all. “He’s very active and still runs the Zinfandel vineyard.”
Vino Con Brio epitomizes artisan wines and the fruit is estate grown and hand harvested. She insists that the winery’s production will not top six thousand cases.
A local expert on the subject of “millenials,” Anne conducts seminars on the”general preferences of the newest generation of wine drinkers,” of which she is a strong force herself. She talks at schools, tasting panels and during courses at the Society of Wine Educators.
“I report on what we’re spending and what we like and wine marketers pay close attention.” We paid close attention to Matson, a charming, lovely and ambitious woman who, for Lodi, is its staunch defender, supporter and victor. (Vinoconbrio.com)
The Wines of Vino Con Brio
Vino Con Brio Pinotage 2003 is a first of its kind for the area. Mike Matson majored in Botany and loves to research root stocks and clones and discovered that Lodi and Capetown share a similar microclimate. Eight acres later, the Pinotage came into being. More fruit than the South African version is notable, although the cuttings hailed from the Cape. Lodi offers up plums and currants and an elegant profile for this sublime wine.
When in Lodi, drink the Zin. Matzin 2004 zin is produced from 64-year old vines, aged in French and American oak for a line-up of spice, white pepper, clove, tobacco and juicy plum plushness.
A blend of 96% Sangiovese and 4% Petite Sirah, Vino Con Brio! Passione Rosé is a hot number. Hot pink that is. Cherries and mineral notes combines for a refreshingly marvelous experience.
Berghold Vineyards, Joe Berghold
Joe Berghold restores antiques and explores the nature of Lodi’s fine wines.
An antiques dealer from Pennsylvania, Joe Berghold has also in his past traveled the Corporate path, as CFO for Six Flags and Treasurer for Levi Strauss.
Now entrenched in Lodi’s wine business (his son Miles is the Winemaker), Berghold’s estate is a landscaped paradise. His well-thought out European designed mansion-cum-tasting room is filled with custom temperature controlled “wine armoires,” century-old collectables, tiffany stained glass windows and a 26-foot long, 130-year old mahogany tasting bar that once served temptresses and their clientele at an East Coast brothel.
Berghold fascinated us with stories as we walked through his property (1400 rose bushes and 60 fully mature olive trees, Mediterranean fountains) and intrigues us even further with his outstanding wines.
Berghold “Foot Stomp” Lodi Zinfandel is from a single vineyard on the estate and is an inky dark, easy drinking, fruit forward favorite with satiny roundness and a cinnamon stick middle.
The floral beauty of Berghold 2001 Viognier is in its ability to not show its alcohol level. Fermented dry, and barrel aged in 30% French oak, this creamy dream exhibits a candied peach finish.
The French Sauterne style of Berghold’s late harvest Viognier demonstrates the European qualities that Lodi can showcase. Aged three years in French oak(!), this time consuming and labor intensive dessert wine deserves praise (and quaffing). (SRP $45)
Berghold 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon was a show-stopper. Aged for 16-months in American and French oak, the taste was purely royal. A mouth-gripping, mouth stainer with opulent fruit all the way around.
Barry Gnekow is Consultant to Lodi’s Labels
Barry Gnekow, among some of the labels he works with. Photo taken at the School Street Bistro in Lodi.
The man behind many of Lodi wine’s gold medals is Barry Gnekow. Although he consults for wineries throughout the State, his ties to Lodi wineries (Mettler, Jessie’s Grove, Klinker Brick and Michael David) have offered him high stature among the Vin-Artists and a go-to guy for style and sage advice.
Winner of the Lodi-Woodbridge Award of Merit, Gnekow began his wine career working in Santa Cruz for J. Lohr in 1976 and worked his way through winemaking until 1994. “I was their second full time employee,” he told us.
After a few years on the road seeking jobs in South Africa and Australia before the major world wine market emergence, he returned to Jerry Lohr, donning a suit and tie in the role of National Sales Manager.
“That was the best and most important career move for me.” Gnekow acknowledged how it totally changed his perspective on winemaking. “I saw what was important to distributors, buyers and retailers, instead of being oriented from the soil up. I now ask: is there a place for this type of wine in the market? A demand for it?”
Gnekow sees the value in Lodi, from its old vine zinfandels (“the original growers didn’t have marketing studies, they planted what worked, and these vines are an American treasure”), deeply rooted vines that may be Phylloxera proof, to the investment of heart, soul and labor that generations of families now dedicate to the area.