The Soul of Lodi
A couple of days ago I read on the Wines and Vines website a story about the Lodi-Woodbridge Grape Commission. It seems they have changed their name and their mission. Now known as the Lodi Winegrape Commission, their new operation is directed towards consumers.
It seems about time. There was a time when Lodi was a place where there were wine grapes growing as far as the eye could see but nary a winery to sample the finished product. Over time, less and less grapes were being used for bulk wine and more and more independent small family run wineries were competing side-by side with the corporate conglomerates. The days of Gallo, Mondavi Woodbridge and CK Mondavi having a lock on all the grapes grown there have diminished. Sure, a lot of grapes are still contracted to these guys and some other big names in the industry including Bronco Wines and Delicato Family Vineyards, but high quality and low yielding wines are also being made there and this is what brings consumers to Lodi.
I have always enjoyed the distinct ranch/farm feel of Lodi but I come from the South where we all have a connection to the land and the vibe of the area. I felt that even back in the days when I was stationed at Castle AFB, which was in the early seventies, it was apparent farming in central California whether it be grapes or onions was taken very seriously. Their advanced agriculture (raised to levels not practiced yet in the Rio Valley or Florida) fed the need for the demands of a different style of culture. As fast food flourished, so did the need for lettuce, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and any crop you could make vegetable oil out of—those would be corn, soybeans, safflower and olives.
Fast-forward a couple of decades. When I lived in the bay area, I would get over to Lodi from time to time in the early nineties. Now for the past couple of years I have judged the California State Fair Home Wine Making Competition. This is an interesting competition as it usually draws around 1200 to 1400 entries and every year I keep hoping I will taste wine that will cause me to talk the winemaker into going pro. While that has not happened yet, the competition is still very interesting. Two years in a row one of the first wine flights I judged there was a wine I felt deserved gold and both years those wines became best of show—a red (Petite Sirah) the first year and a white (Gewurztraminer) the second year.
In the meantime, I have been exposed to wines that were not made from grapes or other fruits—think Tomatillos and Hibiscus Flower. No, they were not combined, they were separate wines and uniquely distinct. The dragon fruit wine was a bit of a letdown after witnessing the psychedelic hue that imbued the wine with a color that I have never witnessed before but will remember to the very last breath I breathe. To say the least it left a lasting impression. This wine was visually unparalleled; however, the taste was not extremely pleasurable. Undoubtedly, the flavor was probably the best Dragon Fruit Wine one could ever make. Just imagine had the dragon fruit turned out to be balanced and opulent—the perfect foil for the Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings at Pok-Pok. I wonder if G.M. Pooch Pulaski has ever had those wings. The Hibiscus flower wine was actually pretty good. It would have been a good flavor when wine coolers were the rage.
I really enjoy Lodi and all the expressive unique wines produced there. As expressive as I can sometimes be about other regions and AVAs, I must admit I have failed to promote this region, as I should have given our history together. Lodi has been in my life for so long I tend to take it for granted. I look at it as the place where they will always do wines well and offer them at a reasonable price. I try not to let price influence my reviews but often Lodi is a region that makes that policy hard to keep.
It is not fair to my stalwart favorite of early discovery that I not extend my fond experiences to all of those who have yet to have experienced the great hospitality they always extend in Lodi. It is a ‘must see’ wine destination—the historical factor and their Zinfest in May is a ‘must go’ event. The wines are great with a few producers reaching excellent and approaching awesome.
When I was to return last year for the previously mentioned contest I was judging, the Lodi Wine Commission took the time to show me around the area on an excursion that was beyond anything I had previously experienced in Lodi before. True to form I arrived in Lodi after making a stop the day before at a social networking event in Napa Valley at Signorello Winery. I hung out late with one of the best hosts in the valley. I was called upon to gather all the professionalism I could muster for the first couple of hours of my morning. Feeling the length of the night before, Gatorade was my best friend and I recommend it highly if you need some serious hydration the day after imbibing a wee bit too much.
It had been a long time (in fact 1974) since the last time I drove from Yountville to Lodi. I made my way through the river delta easily, something I was quite used to back then and obviously, it’s like riding a bike. It was pretty easy once I got to I-5 because it was the route I took during my last trip from I-5 east to Lodi. I stayed there the year before last. I rolled up on my destination, which was the Lodi Wine Center located in the lobby of the Wine and Roses Hotel—just in time to get checked in before I started my tour with the Director of Lodi Grape Commission Mark Chandler. The home winemaking event for the California State Fair Competition takes place in Lodi at the Wine and Roses Hotel, Restaurant and Spa. These folks have a beautiful property and a great restaurant making the trip worth taking just to stay there. The Lodi Grape Commission has a wonderful tasting room and discovery center located in the lobby of the hotel. They have an educational vineyard right on the premises to go out and feel, touch and sometimes even taste the grapes before they pick them. It was a beautiful day to taste wine—not too hot by Lodi standards; windy in some spots that is common there. I was lucky to experience the favorable temperate conditions that were just a little cooler than Lodi usually is in early June.
We started the morning at a place that was apropos for starters. Jessie’s Grove is a winery and museum—also a location where live theater and concerts happen under the stars. They have been around since 1868 and a few of the artifacts in the museum date to earlier times and some of the unusual engineering and farm tools are definitely worth making the trip to see.
Now to the nitty–gritty how were the wines? When you have 118 year-old vines you expect they probably figured out how to do it right by now and they have. The Chardonnay was impressive in the fact of how big it was without being awkward and clumsy; it was deft and balanced and offered a tropical fruit, melon and honeysuckle bouquet. The Carignane was a treat Earth, Zin and Fire and Fancy Quest are unique individually packaged wines. The Royal Tee and Westwind are both consistent and tasty upscale offerings. The Petite Sirah was one of my favorites but that is my favorite variety of grape from the Lodi area.
After the tasting and vineyard tour at Jessie’s Grove, we headed out to Van Ruten Winery where we met a very enthusiastic Bill Rogan, the husband of one of the Van Ruten girls. They had an impressive lineup of wines to taste. The Zinfandel wines were the most impressive. Bill’s east coast work ethic cuts through the usual aw shucks farmer shtick too many winery operators try to pull off.
Bill was impressive in expressing how his family is building a successful winery and using a lot of good experience he brought from other disciplines to accomplish a tough mission. That mission is to stand out in an area where many people have been there for a long time and the Van Ruten’s are doing a good job at it. Now if they can just hang on to those solar panels. The sad story is that in 2009, Lodi wineries and Sonoma wineries were having their solar panels stolen and re-sold around the central coast. The Van Ruten’s had been on the losing end of that deal having several panels stolen.
Like many other Lodi growers, the Van Ruten’s are another family with a long history of growing grapes and now they are making, selling and distributing wine.
Speaking of folks who have been there a while, my next stop was Michael David Winery. Now I have to say I have seen many different setups when it comes to places—you might be offered the chance to do some wine tasting but this one is a one of a kind. In what looks like a rural version of a small strip mall, we pulled into the parking lot and were told it was our lucky day because it was Taco Tuesday and this was one of Lodi’s culinary gems.
Inside it was a long narrow building where at one end was the Michael-David tasting room that inhabited about 400sq ft. and between that and the restaurant where we were dining, on the other end of the building was a pie shop (yes they specialized in pie to go) an espresso stand, a flower shop and fruit stand. The carnitas tacos and tortilla soup were fantastic at the Farm Cafe.
If you didn’t already know, Michael David produces Seven Deadly Zins, and a lot of other eye-catching labels and unusual blends like their Petite Sirah-Petit Verdot blend. I felt weird after not having wine with lunch but after not spitting a couple of times at Michael David’s tasting, I managed to consume enough wine to help digest lunch.
As we moved on to Abundance Vineyards we met the congenial Dino Mencarini who has been farming in Lodi with his brother since before I was stationed at Castle AFB. Their Reserve Petite Sirah was a knock out. They also make a couple of sparkling wines, which seemed to be a favorite for some of the locals who happened to be out tasting that day. One was an Almond flavored sparkling. The younger ladies seemed to find it most pleasurable.
Our final stop before a well-earned respite prior to a wine dinner slated for later that evening was Macchia Wines, a winery that makes ten different Zinfandel blends. The winery has a great kayaking team and if memory serves me well they are way into snowboarding.
They seem to have a small but prestigious cult following that obviously is doing pretty good at keep their wines a well kept secret. After we finished tasting, we headed back to the hotel. I had just enough time to collect my composure—shower and get dressed for dinner.
My hosts for the evening were some of the best representatives of Lodi’s grape growing and winery industry you could have gathered for a jaded former chef from the Bay Area. Jonathan Wetmore of Grand Amis boutique winery and Round Valley Ranches, a vineyard management company, who provides Jessie’s Grove with some of their grapes. Robert Pirie his best friend and co-culinary superstar had volunteered to cook. Robert too owns a vineyard management company called Colligere Inc. Jonathon and Robert cook together often, entertaining for friends and family.
They had recently completed a cooking lesson by a master paella chef from Spain so Paella was to be the main event of the evening. This culinary delight would also include some very well chosen wines to go with the evenings masterfully prepared recipes.
The setting: accomplished wine country men cooking and four beautiful ladies to entertain with my endless banter; a better setting to make me feel at home I could not have wished for. My lovely companions were Jonathan’s wife Cathy, Robert’s wife Susan who was our gracious hostess for the evening and Robert’s daughters Mallory and Jaclyn who live in the city (San Francisco). Nothing stimulates great conversation for me than great wine, great company and fantastic food. As Robert and Jonathan grilled head on shrimp and accomplished executing a perfect Socarrat for the paella that was to be served as the entrée, I messily attacked a couple of shrimp. I sampled several of the wines and sank into this rich experience as the sun started to set and the beauty of this area became once again familiar. Nostalgic memories of this location from the past bring home the fullness of the climate, air and smell all the sensory markers of a distinct place.
For many people their first visits to wine regions can be associated with Bordeaux, Rioja, Tuscany or Priorat. Me, I’ve got Lodi. I still feel lucky, forty years later when I visit there.
That night, I had the pleasure of tasting a Tempranillo produced by a family who epitomizes the Lodi spirit and tradition, a fourth generation farmer and recent winery owner and wine maker Kyle Lerner of Harney Lane Wines. Entertainment included the antics of a vineyard cat named Denny Crane and his buddy Gabriel. As I pulled away, I thought of how many times I had been to Lodi and had great times but never experienced the depth of good times and old-fashioned hospitality served up that evening. The best part of an experience like this always includes great food and this was no exception. That was probably one of the best paellas I have ever had including those I have personally prepared.
All that combined with the fantastic wines and a sunset that you wish you could see every night made the evening. As it came to a close, it took on a magical quality that I look forward to experiencing again sometime soon. A taste of Lodi is always available no matter where you are if they serve American wines, but it is worth the trip to be there and experience firsthand the “Soul of Lodi”.