I’ve been working on a project for the past five years and it’s finally complete. This is a blog post about a book that is a guide to fine wines that are made in Lodi, California, the wine region that I’m most familiar with. The essence of this blog post is to compile the information from the book into a nice little read, to summarize it all: my personal experiences, the history of Lodi wine, and how to appropriately pair the wines to meals and food.
The Lodi region in Northern Italy is known for its white wines, but with the rise of interest in biodynamic wines, producers have been experimenting with red varieties, too. One example is the “Rosso di Lodi” red made by Sant’Agostino.
Lodi is a small town in northern California, renowned for its native wines and for its terroir-focused wines. These wines share the characteristics of the area where they are made: terroir or “terroir” is the unique characteristics of an area that are influenced by the soil, climate, and other aspects of the terrain. Lodi’s terroir is very important to the development of its wines because it is a combination of the area’s characteristics and climate, and the soil, which is a mixture of sand, gravel, and clay.. Read more about lodi wineries and let us know what you think.
Terroir is a French word that refers to the natural environmental elements that influence grape quality and, eventually, the wines produced from those grapes, such as climate, soil, terrain, aspect, elevation, latitude, and so on.
Because vineyards, like wines, need human intervention, viticultural traditions linked to certain areas or epochs are often regarded part of a region’s or vineyard’s terroir.
When sensory characteristics like as varietal character or brand style are less important, the term terroir is often used to sensory aspects in resultant wines in terms of their representation of “feeling of place.” On a sensory level, a wine’s representation of terroir isn’t always an earthy or minerally character, as the term suggests, but earthy or minerally aspects may definitely be present. The most common sensory impressions of terroir in a wine include fragrance and palate sensations like body (which is strongly linked to the amount of alcohol in the wine), acidity, and tannin.
Commercial Style’s Terroir-Related Aspects Wines from Lodi
Is terroir, however, a significant influence in the creation or enjoyment of commercial wines? Both yes and no. For example, Michael David Winery, Lodi’s most successful family-owned winery, focuses on wines labeled with theme iterations of either varietals (i.e., wines focusing on grape-related qualities) or whimsically named brands (labels such as Freakshow, Earthquake, Inkblot, Lust, Rapture, etc.).
Vineyard-designate bottlings of red and rosé Cinsaults from Lodi’s fabled Bechthold Vineyard, which the winery crafts to be true to the fragrant, subtle earth/mineral/spice profiles of the grapes growing in this 135-year-old vineyard (Lodi’s oldest continuously farmed block of own-rooted vines), are two exceptions in Michael David’s portfolio. These are Michael David’s only wines, cultivated and made only to represent the terroir of a single vineyard in the truest sense.
Cinsault planted in 1886 at Bechthold Vineyard / Randy Caparoso is the author of this article. Photography
Michael David’s other Lodi appellation wines are all mixes of various vineyards and, in some cases, multiple fruits. Petite Sirah, for example, is a popular mixing grape that can be found in Zinfandels as well as other varietal bottlings like Cabernet Sauvignon (VP of Operations Kevin Phillips quips that if he could blend Petite Sirah with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, he would!).
Otherwise, Michael David’s blending program’s primary goals are to create wines that are: 1) intense, compelling, but approachable; and 2) reflections of consumer-friendly qualities inherent in grapes grown in Lodi, which is proudly shown as the appellation on Michael David labels (note: Michael David does produce a handful of wines from appellations other than Lodi, which are duly noted on labels).
As a result, Michael David’s wines could be described as wines that express the Lodi appellation in the broadest sense: that is, wines that express the region’s natural proclivity for producing red wines with softer tannins but pungent aromas, as well as fresh, fruit-forward whites that are commercially appealing. These broad wine characteristics might be described as expressions of a regional terroir, the direct consequence of Lodi’s warm, sun-drenched Mediterranean environment and diverse range of grape-friendly, rich but well-drained soils.
Michael David – Petite Sirah harvest / Kevin Phillips – Randy Caparoso Photography
Michael David has not only fully embraced the sensory implications of Lodi’s entire terroir, but has also banked on it. This is why the Phillips family of Michael David Winery is credited by all of Lodi’s 800-odd farmers and winery partners with doing more to promote the Lodi appellation throughout the globe than any other local business.
To give credit where credit is due: Other Lodi-based wineries owned and operated by longtime Lodi families who have done terrific jobs getting wines with Lodi on the label on to the tips of tongues and in the minds of consumers across the country and around the world include Klinker Brick Winery, LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards, Ironstone Vineyards, and Mettler Family Vineyards.
Terroir-Focused Wines’ Growing Pains in the American Wine Industry
Wines labeled with single vineyards as exclusive sources of wines tend to be implicitly terroir focused — coming to you with expectations that what you get in the bottle is strongly indicative of sensory qualities resulting from growing conditions associated with a specified vineyard. The reality, however, is that this is not always what happens. In fact, for a long time American wine producers considered sensory qualities resulting directly from vineyards terroirs to be far less important than other factors — even in wines with single vineyards cited on the label.
For example, many wineries release multiple wines each year with vineyard designations on the labels — Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Grenache, Mourvèdre, you name it — but when you taste each of those wines (if made from the same grape), they taste almost identical, as if vineyard differences don’t matter. To put it simply, this is due to one of two factors.
- Winemaker egos (honestly, the bulk of American winemakers, regardless of vineyard origins, are concerned with stamping their own mark on wines, like “artists”), or
- Winery “house” styles (in the United States, part of recognizable branding typically include ensuring that all products in a winery’s portfolio have a commonality of sensory characteristics).
These conditions have been a part of the American wine industry’s maturation process. For one thing, wineries and winemakers want oak barrels from certain cooperages that have been completed to specific “toast” degrees (degree of charring over fires during the barrel coopering process). As a result, it’s not unusual to sample a winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Grenache, and Petite Sirah and discover that they all taste the same — owing to the fact that they were all matured in the same kinds of barrels.
Many commercial American wines are marketed based on numerical ratings given by a few widely read magazines, particularly for super-premium priced, “artisanal” type wines, whose sales are reliant on 90+ scores. As a result, the typical approach to wine production is to pick grapes as ripe as possible (based on the premise that the riper the grape, the more intense the varietal character, which leads to higher scores and thus more demand and sales), and then simply “adjust” the wines once they arrive at the winery (i.e., adding water to lower alcohol levels, adding acids and/or oak amendments to balance), and then simply “adjust” the wines once they arrive at the
“Terroir is elusive, subtle, and difficult conceptually, but just because it is subtle does not mean it is not real,” one longtime California winemaker/friend once said of the difficulty the American wine industry has had in transitioning to a more genuine focus on terroir, away from sensory profiles prioritizing varietal character or brand styles.
Lodi Wines with Vineyard Designations Achieve Various Levels of Terroir
Spenker Ranch 1900 Block Carignan Harvest / Randy Caparoso Photography
Lodi is no exception — there are more than a few locally based brands that tend to cling to house styles, or wines prioritizing winemaker sensibilities over vineyard or even broadly defined regional characteristics. But as with other wine regions, Lodi has been making rapid progress over the past ten, fifteen years with wines that are increasingly capturing qualities specific to Lodi in general, or to individual vineyards within the Lodi appellation.
Some Lodi vineyard-designate bottlings, for example, may taste more like a winery’s style, barrels, or adherence to varietal character than an actual vineyard. Many times, just because you are unfamiliar with a vineyard’s terroir-related qualities, you may not identify them. Vineyard characteristics may not have established a track record with you.
LangeTwins Family, for example, has received a lot of praise for their newly launched line of vineyard-designate wines produced from a variety of grapes, mainly Italian. But even David Akiyoshi and Karen Birmingham, the Langes’ brilliant winemaking pair, believe that it will be another ten or fifteen years before we have a clear sense of each of these unique growths — what to anticipate, or (on the winemakers’ side) how to capture it. However, they are as enthralled by the discovery process as anybody else!
Bottlings from better-known vineyards, such as Bechthold Vineyard’s Cinsault, from which approximately a dozen vintners make a red or rosé every year, have well established track records. Rous Vineyard is one of Lodi’s lesser-known ancient vine Zinfandels, with only 10 acres of vines planted in 1909, but sensory qualities (violet/floral notes piled upon plump, blueberryish fruit sensations) already common to bottlings by Ironstone Vineyards, McCay Cellars, and Macchia Wines have firmly established a distinct “Rous” identity — something that tha
An ongoing initiative dubbed Lodi Native has taken a giant step toward terroir-focused winemaking, with winemakers willingly drawing back on their personal or house styles to create Zinfandels that put historical vineyards front and center, beginning with the 2012 vintage. The Lodi Native initiative, along with the efforts of other small wineries, has lately led to the discovery of unique sensory markers in Zinfandel crops.
We’re starting to gain a strong sense for terroir-related identities as more small, handmade, minimum intervention wineries make Carignans from vineyards like Jessie’s Grove’s 1900 Block (also known as Spenker Ranch) and the Shinn family’s Mule Plane Vineyard (planted in the 1920s).
Hopefully, this will serve as a model for increasing the value of other old vine Lodi plantings that are less well-known and underappreciated, lest they be obscenely ripped out of the ground due to a perceived lack of marketability.
Randy Caparoso (Randy Caparoso)
Randy Caparoso Photography / Rous Vineyard – Zinfandel planted in 1909.
Randy Caparoso Photography / Rous Vineyard – Zinfandel planted in 1909.
Randy Caparoso is the author of this article.
Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist/photographer living in Lodi, California. In a prior incarnation, he was a multi-award winning restaurateur, starting as a sommelier in Honolulu (1978 through 1988), and then as Founding Partner/VP/Corporate Wine Director of the James Beard Award winning Roy’s family of restaurants (1988-2001), opening 28 locations from Hawaii to New York. While with Roy’s, he was named Santé’s first Wine & Spirits Professional of the Year (1998) and Restaurant Wine’s Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 and 1998). Between 2001 and 2006, he operated his own Caparoso Wines label as a wine producer. For over 20 years, he also bylined a biweekly wine column for his hometown newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser (1981-2002). He currently puts bread (and wine) on the table as Editor-at-Large and the Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal (founded in 2007 as Sommelier Journal), and freelance blogger and social media director for Lodi Winegrape Commission (lodiwine.com). You may contact him at [email protected]
The seasonal variations of weather, and the cultural and ethnic characteristics that people bring to the region, have made it unique in its flavorful terroir. Its a wine region that has been carefully chosen over centuries to be the home of many wine varieties that are sought after today by wine connoisseurs. The soil type and the elevation of the region all add to the unique characteristics that make Lodi wines unique. While there are some aspects that are completely unique to the region, most of the important wine varieties from Lodi are found elsewhere. The grape varieties that are grown in Lodi are sourced from all over the world, and while some have been grown in Lodi for hundreds of years, the region has always been the home of other less. Read more about lodi wine growers association and let us know what you think.
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