Lodi is a town whose time has come. Located on the fertile Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, Lodi is an easy drive from Stockton, Sacramento or even the Los Angles/Orange County area. While other regions in the area have developed a reputation for fancy, high-priced wines and wineries, Lodi has maintained its small-town ambience while earning a reputation for high-quality, small-batch wines. Located just west of the Sierra Nevada and 100 miles inland from San Francisco, the Lodi AVA is known for having excellent climate for not only growing grapes that thrive in inland areas, but also specialties that thrive in river valleys.
Sure, Lodi has earned the title of Zinfandel Capital of the World, producing over 32% of California’s Zin yield, while they are not far behind in Cabernet Sauvignon wine production with Lodi growers supplying 26% of California’s yield. But just as importantly, several small growers are maintaining vineyards of grapes such as Cinsault, from the Bechtold Family’s 132 year-old vineyards and other rare grapes such as Vermentino and Primitivo. Growers like the Schotz family, the Delu family and the Bella Vigna Vineyards take care to ensure that only the best grapes are grown. Some of the other grapes the region is known for are Syrah, Viognier and Petite Sirah.
But is it all worth it? The answer is a resounding “YES!”. At a recent luncheon and wine tasting hosted by the Lodi Wine Commission at Ocean Prime in Beverly Hills, several food and wine writers had an opportunity to meet with Camron King, the Executive Director of the Lodi Wine Commission and Craig Ledbetter of the Lodi Grape Grower’s Association. Craig’s family’s business, Vino Farms, was recently selected by the California Association of Winegrape Growers as the Grower of the Year. They introduced everyone in attendance to a side of Lodi that most were not familiar with.
The meal itself at Ocean Prime was delicious. An excellent House Salad followed by a perfectly cooked filet mignon with a Cabernet Jus, whipped potatoes and haricots verts. The dessert was scrumptious, a Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie that provided an excellent foil for the red wines of Lodi. Ocean Prime, part of the Cameron Mitchell Group of restaurants that originated in Columbus, Ohio, definitely stepped up to the ‘plate’ with the delicious lunch. Other main course choices were a Pittman Farms Chicken and a Teriyaki Salmon.
The wine tasting started before the food. Each wine was chosen by the Lodi Wine Commission as being representative of Lodi’s best small-batch wines and classic grapes.The tasting, led by Camron King and Craig Ledbetter, began with a delicious wine from local Lodi vintner Onesta Wines. The 2013 Viognier showed why this grape has been gaining popularity recently. Produced in a quantity of only 250 cases, the grapes were sourced from Lodi’s Bokisch Ranch. A delightful nose of honeysuckle lead to a first taste of orange and apricot. The wine itself was exceptionally smooth, with a delightful mouth feel that left you wanting more.
The second wine that the Lodi Wine Commission presented was the 2014 Rosato from Uvaggio. Uvaggio was established over 20 years ago and produced their first wines in 1997. Their emphasis is on using Italian grapes to make their own interpretation of Italian wines. Thus, they will use the classic grapes, but make wines to satisfy the modern American palate. The Rosato is a rosé wine that blends 92% Cinsault with 8% Vermentino grapes. Cinsault is a dark-skinned grape from Southern France but has won popularity for its hardiness, which is why it is an extremely important wine grape in Lebanon, Algeria and Morocco. From Provence to Sicily, Cinsault’s ability to grow in sandy soils makes it an important grape to the Mediterranean lifestyle.
The Cinsault used in Uvaggio’s Rosato is truly a California classic. Coming from the Bechtold Vineyards, the 2014 Vineyard of the Year, this Cinsault comprises 25 acres of Bechtold’s growing area. It is definitely a classic, however; these grapevines are 132 years old and one of the few that have survived phylloxera blight in the United States. While many rosé wines are made almost as a consequence of removing some juice from a tank of red wine, Uvaggio does theirs instead by picking the grapes before they are mature (necessary for a red wine) and therefore yielding a wine that is fresh and lively. The Vermentino added just a touch of sweetness to this high-quality rosé, which had a delectable nose of passion fruit aromas. Upon tasting the wine, it was apparent that it was very drinkable, just a touch sweet but having nice body. It made a nice before-dinner wine.
The next glass of wine utilized the Vermentino grape which originally came from Spain. It is best known as a wine grape in the island of Sardinia where it is very popular for its crisp, full-bodied and citrusy wines. Vermentino is also popular in the Mediterranean region as a table grape, since they are large and have a good sugar/acid balance. In California, 85% of the grapes grown are shipped to other regions or wineries. The example chosen was also from Uvaggio, who has distributed them in restaurants in Southern California. This wine was made with 28% of its grapes coming from Gayla’s Vineyards, part of the Schotz family holdings; and 72% from the Bella Vigna Vineyard, grown by Kevin Delu and his family.
The Cinsault grape figures prominently in the history of the Lodi wine region. The next wine to be featured was from Michael David Winery. It was a 2013 Cinsault, made from 100% Ancient Vine Cinsault grapes. From the Michael Bechtold Vineyards. This was a monster of a wine, checking in at 14.5% alcohol. The first thing noticeable was the great nose from it, with hints of strawberry in the aromatics. The mouth feel was smooth, which is unusual for a high-alcohol wine. This wine is being sold direct to consumer for a price of $25.00. Change the appellation to one of the big names areas and you have a wine that could easily be a bargain at double the price. This was easily the most impressive wine of the day and a must to get, especially if you want something that can take on a few years.
Up next was the McCay Faith (Lot 13) 2012 Zinfandel. A small case lot wine from vintner Mike MacCay. The Lodi native, who is a big proponent of ‘natural yeast formation’, has created an elegant Zin that is smooth, very understated and elegant. This was also an impressive wine and well worth searching out in wine stores throughout CA. Finally, the last wine to be served was the Macchia Primitivo, released in a lot of 324 cases and a wine with a retail price of just $24.00 The Primitivo has a nice nose,and a smooth body that complements hearty foods such as pastas extremely well.
Ultimately, what I and the other guests of the Lodi Wine Commission came away with was a new appreciation for this old but relatively unknown wine region. Mature vines, reasonably priced wines that are certainly on par with other more famous regions and unusual grapes that are not found anyplace else——-Lodi is certainly a region to explore for some really good wines.
Next Week: Lodi Part Two, the Town, the Region and a Great Place to Visit