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Winemakers Discover Lodi Natives

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Lodi Native six wines and brochure PicmonkeyOur first tastes came at Wine & Rosesby Dan Clarke

Lodi is both an old region and a new one. Though some of its century-old vineyards are still productive, much new planting has been done in recent years Lodi is now home to between 110,000 and 120,000 planted acres of winegrapes. It produces about 40% of all the Zinfandel grown in the state.

Though maps will show Lodi just about in the middle of California's very warm Central Valley, its growing conditions belie that fact. Lodi benefits from a marine influence that travels eastward from San Francisco Bay, making its climate considerably cooler than the interior growing regions south of it.

As wine consumption in America has grown in the last couple of decades, Lodi has become a valuable resource for California's wineries, producing good quality varietal grapes at reasonable prices. However, much of each harvest has gone to large wineries outside the area, often to be blended into wines carrying the identities of more prestigious coastal regions.

Todd Maley in Wegat Vnyd PicmonkeyTodd Maley explains the nature of head-trained vines to his visitors

The Lodi region is diverse and grows more than 60 different grape varieties commercially with more planted experimentally. Two thirds of the production is reds, but the signature grape here is Zinfandel and some of those old Zin vineyards are absolute gems.

As the quality of Lodi fruit has become better known, the area has attracted artisan winemakers. At the moment there are more than 70 wineries in the area, most of them small and family operated. Many of the winemaking newcomers have sought out those old Zinfandel vineyards that are the heritage of the region.

What are the best of Lodi's Zinfandel vineyards capable of producing? At the instigation of wine writer Randy Caparoso, some of the area's best winemakers and growers put their heads together to explore that idea. After a considerable number of meetings, the group devised the “Lodi Native protocols,” which defined what the winemakers could do—or perhaps not do—in making that fruit from these vineyards into wine. The vineyards were already known to the six participating winemakers and had supplied grapes for some of their best wines. But this was about the vineyards, not the wineries. It was decided that the vinification would involve minimal intervention from the winemakers. Only the ambient (native) yeasts on the grapes would be used, no new oak would be employed, no alcohol reduction techniques, no fining, no filtering. As Caparoso put it, “the objective was to make the most vineyard-expressive wines possible.” Each winemaker agreed to make a quantity of wine in this manner from the 2012 harvest. Ultimately, 120 six-bottle cases would be made available for sale—every case containing a bottle from each of the half-dozen winemaker/grower collaborations.

St Amant Marians Vnyd bottle PicmonkeySt. Amant label shows vineyard sourceAs part of The Lodi Zinfandel Experience, a few journalists joined a larger group of Zinfandel fans to hear from the growers and the men making wine from their heritage vineyards. Visitors who gathered in the ballroom of Lodi's Wine & Roses Hotel recently had half a dozen glasses in front them, allowing tastes from the products of each of these six vineyards as it was being discussed. Later in the day attendees boarded buses to visit three of these Lodi Native vineyards, where they could again sample the wines expressing their essence while hearing about the viticultural practices from the growers themselves.

Locals speak of “West Side” and “East Side” vineyards, with the division being Highway 99, which bisects the area in a north-south line. Asked about this East-West difference, Maley Brothers winemaker Chad Joseph replied as a winemaker at first, saying vineyards to the east tend to produce fruit that is more spicy, giving clove and cinnamon qualities. In those to the west, he believes fruit tends to produce wine with more baked cherry aspects and pronounced herbal notes.

Todd Maley's family has been farming in the area since the 1850's. Our group got first hand experience at his Wegat Vineyard, which is located on the West Side. It was field-budded onto St. George rootstock by the Maley family in 1958 and was one of the three vineyards our group visited in the afternoon. There we again tasted the wine that the Wegat Vineyard has produced and got a chance to hear Todd Maley tell us more about how he farms the property while we walked among his vines.

Stuart Spencer, winemaker at St. Amant, related that he and his father started using the Mohr-Fry Ranch's Marian's Vineyard in 1999. The relationship with Bruce and Jerry Fry has been felicitous. “We had no written contract, we just worked it out,” remembered Spencer, who added, “which I think is what Lodi is all about.” The 113 year-old, eight-acre vineyard is about in the middle of the West-to-East divide, but shows more of the sandy soils typical of Lodi's East Side vineyards. Marian's Vineyard yields the more classic big Lodi cluster with big berries, he said.

Tim Holdener at Noma Vnyd PicmonkeyTim Holdener gestures toward encroaching properties

Macchia is known for producing an array of vineyard-designated bottlings and its proprietor-winemaker Tim Holdener chose the Noma Ranch to source grapes for his contribution to the Lodi Native project. The vineyard, planted in the early 1900s, is half-a-mile east of Highway 99 and is described as one of the East Side's sandiest sites. It is dry-farmed and yields only about one ton per acre on scraggly, low-lying vines, but its small Zinfandel berries provide powerful flavors. The 15-acre vineyard is becoming surrounded by commercial neighbors and, at such tiny production, doesn't return much on the ever-increasing value of the land. Its future agricultural viability may be in doubt, but for the moment the Noma vineyard remains the source of Macchia's most intensely concentrated fruit.

The six vineyards providing grapes for the 2012 Lodi Native wines are part of the heritage of this winegrowing region. It's expected that others will join these pioneering growers and winemakers and that The Lodi Native project will continue in each subsequent vintage. Stuart Spencer called the development, “very encouraging,” adding “I think we'll keep looking at it to raise the profile of the Lodi region and help tell its story.”

Editor's note: More detailed information about the Lodi Native project can be accessed at www.lodinative.com. If you're planning a visit to this growing region check out the Lodi listings in the Central Valley section of Taste California Travel's Resource Directory. There you will find links to the websites of area wineries, as well as links to Wine & Roses and other Lodging and Dining options. 

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