What the hell is going on in Lodi?
This historic region, which stretches between Sacramento and Stockton, is home to more and more thrilling wines, year after year. They keep shocking me with their quality and value. It’s getting a bit absurd.
While vineyards were first planted here in the mid-19th Century, the 20th Century saw Lodi develop a reputation as a fruit basket for bulk wines. And, yes, tons of Lodi Zinfandel (and other grapes) were blended into tons of crappy wine. But to dismiss, or simply ignore, the wines of Lodi is to miss out on a whole lot. Today, Lodi is California wine’s big tent freak show of awesomeness.
Adventurous consumers and beverage buyers have so much to explore: small producers, incredibly varied grape varieties, old vines, funky blends, organic or “natural” stuff. And, due to a variety of factors (like cheaper vineyard land and decades of indifference from large media outlets), the price to deliciousness ratio is excellent.
Lodi wines are getting credit like never before, but this is no accident. The Lodi Winegrape Commission, the region’s trade group, has been preaching the gospel of Lodi wine for about a quarter century, but they’ve really stepped it up in recent years. With their $1.8 million budget, they put together tastings and trade events to showcase the 750 growers they represent. And small producers like St. Amant, Fields Family, m2, Macchia, McCay Cellars and Borra have turned this region’s rich history and diverse grape varieties into a compelling case that Lodi wines can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the big boys.
Take Lodi Native, for example, a cooperative project that brings together a half dozen of the region’s best producers to harness the real treasure of this region — gnarly ancient vine Zinfandel. The wines are made with native yeasts and no new oak, so the unique terroir of these old vineyards (some are a century old) shines through gloriously. I’ve been floored by both the 2012 and 2013 iterations of Lodi Native, and I can’t wait to see what they bring in future vintages.
A lot of the most interesting wines (like the Lodi Natives) hail from the Mokelumne River sub-appellation. This area is home to so many unique and old-school vineyards. Bob Koth planted his Mokelumne Glen Vineyard to a dizzying array of German and Austrian grape varieties in the 1990s, after being blown away by some Riesling on a trip to Germany. He now farms what is surely one of the largest and most diverse collections of Northern European grape varieties in the New World. We’re talking about grapes like Kerner, Bacchus, Dornfelder, Zweigelt, and a bunch of others we native English speakers have trouble pronouncing. The Mokelumne Glen Vineyard produced its own estate wines from 1998 until 2009, but now the fruit is sold to producers like m2, Borra, Ramey and Forlorn Hope.
But Lodi is a very hot place, so the choice to plant cold climate varieties struck me as odd. During a recent online tasting and video chat, I asked Markus Niggli (winemaker at Borra Vineyards and Markus Wine Co.) how these grapes do in Lodi’s climate.
Markus, originally from Switzerland, had worked with a lot of these grapes in his home country, and he said the two climates are obviously and drastically different. But, he added, the reason these grapes work in Mokelumne River is the large diurnal temperature swing, which is especially noticeable in this riverside vineyard. When the temperate drops some 40 degrees overnight, it allows the grapes to cool down, resulting in wines that boast high ripeness while maintaining some refreshing acidity.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve tasted through a bunch of wines from Lodi, including the Mokelumne River Vineyard wines, a few from Ryan Sherman’s awesome project Fields Family, and a trio of reds from Mettler Vineyards.
These wines were all received as trade samples and tasted sighted (except for the Fields wines, which were tasted single-blind along with a bunch of other California reds).
Review: 2015 Holman Cellars Bacchus Uncharted - California, Lodi Mokelumne River
Pale yellow color. Smells of lychee, kiwi, sugar cane and a whole lot of floral notes. Full-bodied with a waxy feel but there’s a lot of refreshing acidity for balance. Juicy chunks of tropical fruit salad (kiwi, pineapple, green melon) load up on the palate, but I also get some dried flower, clover, honey and almond mixed in. A bold but refreshing wine with some interesting texture and flavors. Holman Cellars produces just a few barrels each of their small lot wines, which allows them to experiment with some really cool sites and varieties. This 100% Bacchus wine spends three days on the skins and is then fermented in stainless steel. Only 45 cases produced. (87 points IJB)
Review: 2014 Borra Vineyards Markus Nimmo - California, Lodi Mokelumne River
Pale yellow color. Smells a bit like a new can of tennis balls, if you topped them with potpourri and green melon slices. Medium-bodied on the palate with some nice weight and creaminess, which is balanced by crisp, clean acidity. The flavor descriptors I wrote down may sound strange, but this wine’s fascinating flavors had my mind searching all over for descriptors. Tastes like new Legos and tennis balls mixed with every kind of citrus peel. I also get waxy, honeyed and slightly nutty flavors. This is a tasty but even more fascinating wine that makes me think. A blend you don’t see often: 71% Kerner, 13% Gewurztraminer, 11% Riesling and 5% Bacchus. This wine spends nine months in 60% new French oak, with the lees stirred, giving it some richness and creaminess. (86 points IJB)
Review: 2015 Hatton Daniels Zweigelt - California, Lodi Mokelumne River
Candy purple color. It smells like blackberries and tart blueberries with a lot of spice (pepper, bay leaf) and a note that reminds me of a sour ale. Medium-to-light-bodied on the palate this is a juicy and endlessly fresh wine with mild tannins, but just enough to keep it structured together. The blackberry and blueberry fruit is tart and tangy and laced with notes of violets and white pepper. Lovely and unique, bright and complex, this is equal parts total nerd and insane deliciousness. “11.93% alcohol” (to be precise), these grapes are harvested early (August 7) to make this zingy and fresh wine, which is produced with zero sulfur. (89 points IJB)
Review: 2014 M2 Vintners Belle Étoile Blanche - California, Lodi Mokelumne River
Light gold color. Lovely aromas of sweet peaches, lychee and guava along with honey and a bright floral tone. Medium-to-full bodied, this wine has a silky and honeyed feel to it with a bit of volatile acidity. Given that frame, this is a rich and nearly cloying wine, but the flavors are delicious: lychee, sliced peaches, guava, honeycomb, candied nuts, floral and spice potpourri. A blend of 35% Rieslaner, 25% Weisburgunder, 20% Riesling and 20% Gewurztraminer. What a cool, site-specific dessert wine. 13.3% alcohol with about 94 g/l residual sugar. (85 points IJB)
Review: 2013 Fields Family Wines Tempranillo - California, Lodi
Deep ruby color. Smells of juicy black cherries, tangy dark plums and tart blackberries, deep violets and rich loamy soil, some roasted nuts, spicy clove and some tobacco. So, yeah, loads of complexity on the nose. The palate is so pure, vibrant and balanced — the tannins provide structure but smoothness, while the acidity keeps the wine brisk and alive. The fruit (black cherry, blackberry, plums) is tart and crunchy but juicy as well. Lots of earthy, spicy, herbal complexity, along with notes of coffee. I’m getting a lingering sense of rocky minerality in this wine. Wow, what a beauty. 14.5% alcohol, this only sees neutral French oak. For $25, are you kidding me? Lay this beauty down for a while or give it a good decant and watch it come alive. (92 points IJB)
Review: 2013 Fields Family Wines Syrah Estate - California, Lodi
Deep ruby color. Aromas of juicy plums, tart raspberries, gushing black cherries, some smoke, black pepper and violets. Fresh acidity on the palate, a real bright appeal, good structure but the tannins aren’t too drying. Tart berries, plums with crunchy skins, bright raspberries mixed in. An elegant and restrained approach but it’s plenty juicy and fruity, with notes of smoke, clay soil, cracked pepper, and an underlying minerality. So bright and sexy. Really interesting to see the differences between this and the 2013 Postage Stamp Vineyard. A crazy good buy at less than $25. (90 points IJB)
Review: 2013 Fields Family Wines Shiraz Postage Stamp Vineyard - California, Lodi
Deep ruby. Smells of juicy black cherries, dark plums, some lovely floral and earthy accents. A bit tight at first but really opens up aromatically. Smooth and silky on the palate with chewy tannins providing structure, but this is such a vibrant wine. Black cherries, dark plums, some raspberry jam. Warm but vibrant, silky but fresh, lovely stuff. I get notes of mesquite cola, violets, loam cedar. Long finish. Looks to improve in the cellar. A bit darker and saucier, than the 2013 Estate, but they share a common thread of freshness and vibrancy. Labeled Shiraz because the grapes come from Barossa Valley cuttings planted in 1968, but this neutral oak, refreshing wine is stylistically more nuanced and refined than lots of South Oz Shiraz. I’d love to see what this does with four or five years in the cellar. (92 points IJB)
Review: 2013 Fields Family Wines Zinfandel Old Vines - California, Lodi
Deep ruby color. Smells bright and vibrant but also showing depth, with a mix of raspberry, red currant and strawberry, slightly jammy but mixed with notes of peppercorns, nettle and mint. Juicy, smooth and chewy but it stays fresh and vibrant with moderate acidity and smooth tannins. The raspberry and strawberry fruit is full but not overwhelming, and it’s full of nuanced spice, clove, herb and cola elements. Lovely, which isn’t a term I throw around for Zinfandel often, but this is just lovely. (90 points IJB)
Review: 2013 Mettler Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon - California, Lodi
Dark ruby color. Black cherries and jammy raspberries on the nose, along with cedar, some sweet coffee and dark chocolate shavings. Big and mouth-filling, the tannins are chewy and velvety, medium-low acidity. The currant and blackberry fruit is dark and saucy, but there’s quite a bit going on underneath (fallen leaves, roasted nuts, coffee, eucalyptus, dark chocolate). A big but delicious wine. The Mettler fruit comes from the Johant, Clements Hills and Mokelumne River areas of Lodi. This wine includes 12% Petite Sirah, and it is aged 18 months in 65% new French oak. (87 points IJB)
Review: 2013 Mettler Family Vineyards Zinfandel Old Vine Epicenter - California, Lodi
Deep ruby color. Smells jammy and explosive, with blackberries mixing with raspberries, and I get cola, sweet tobacco and herbs. Juicy and jammy on the palate with chewy tannins and mild acidity. The black and red berry fruit is jam-packed with flavor. I get sweet cola, coffee and roasted chestnut and vanilla. A massive glycerin-like wine at 15.5% alcohol, but this is fun, crowd-pleasing stuff for sure. Includes some Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 18 months in used and new American and French oak. (86 points IJB)
Reiew: 2013 Mettler Family Vineyards Petite Sirah - California, Lodi
Jammy purple color. Smells of black cherry, currant and blackberry jams along with some sweet spice and earth. Dense on the palate, this is dark and chewy with pure, lovely fruit(currant/blueberry/blackberry) and significant tannic structure. Loaded with candied nuts and black pepper, this is a dense but very expressive wine at the same time. It’s delicious now, but very big, and would probably show a lot more in a few years. Includes a combined 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, the blend is aged 16 months in 60% new French oak. (89 points IJB)
If you’re a consumer of online wine media (thanks!), you’re going to be hearing a lot about Lodi wines in the next few months — the Wine Bloggers’ Conference is headed there this summer. I won’t be attending, but I’m looking forward to hearing which gems other wine writers find during the trip.