The Lodi Native Zinfandel Project

The Lodi Native Zinfandel Project

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The Lodi Native Zinfandel Project

The Lodi Native Winemakers

Lodi Native Winemakers (clockwise from left): Layne Montgomery, Stuart Spencer, Ryan Sherman, Michael McCay, Tim Holdener, Chad Joseph. Photo courtesy of Randy Caparoso.

Propelled by an idea of Randy Caparoso, six Lodi winemakers have produced and released the Lodi Native Project, a collection of six different Zinfandel wines made from six separate heritage vineyards of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA. The winemakers include Chad Joseph of Maley Brothers Vineyards, Layne Montgomery of m2 wines, Michael McCay of McCay Cellars, Stuart Spencer of St Amant Winery, Ryan Sherman of Fields Family Vineyards & Winery, and Tim Holdener of Macchia Wines.

What defines the collection rests in technique. The wines are individually made using only ambient yeast fermentations, in neutral vessels, without the addition of anything beyond sulfur, without alcohol reductive techniques, and avoiding fining, or filtering. The wines, in other words, are produced with minimal intervention. The goal is to offer the best expression of the vineyards themselves.

The Wealth of Lodi Vineyards

Weget Vineyard w Chad Joseph and Layne Montgomery

Standing in Weget Vineyard, Zinfandel planted in 1958, Mokelumne River AVA Westside, with Chad Joseph (left) and Layne Montgomery, July 2013. Photo courtesy Randy Caparoso.

Lodi offers some of the highest concentration of quality old vine material in the state of California. As vines age through vintages, they adapt their growing patterns to the conditions of their site, becoming more responsive to the intersection of factors–soil type, water availability, drainage, mineral content, sun, wind, and humidity exposure, etc–unique to their environment. The result yields fruit expressive through aroma, flavor, structure (and even color and size) of its peculiar vineyard.

Younger vines, on the other hand, grow instead with the vigor of their variety. Not yet adapted to the demands of their vineyard location, younger vines produce grapes with resounding fruit flavor, but not necessarily showcasing the elements unique to their growing location. For wine lovers hoping for the taste of a place, then, such potential rests in older vineyards. In a state dominated by vineyards twenty years of age and younger, Lodi’s older vineyards could be understood as viticultural wealth.

However, Lodi commonly gets underestimated by wine media who take the region to produce only overripe mass market wines. Misperceptions of ripeness depend partially on misunderstandings about Lodi climate. As part of the central valley of California, Lodi is taken to be far warmer than it actually is, perceived to match temperatures of growing areas south like Modesto. In actuality, Lodi benefits from the Sacramento-San Joaquin RIver system, or California Delta. The Delta forms a gap in the coastal mountains that pulls cool air from San Francisco Bay over the growing regions of Lodi keeping the area cooler than the rest of the Central Valley. As a result, Lodi day time highs average similarly to mid-to-St. Helena Napa Valley with a cooling breeze hitting daily by mid afternoon.

Wanting to find a way to help improve awareness of Lodi’s quality vineyards, Caparoso brought together the six winemakers to develop a project that would become Lodi Native. Together the group focused in on the question of how to best express the wealth of Lodi vineyards. Towards such ends they agreed upon working with older sites utilizing minimal intervention winemaking techniques. The result is a collection of six distinctive Zinfandels offering juicy while crystalline focus on the character that is Mokelumne River.

The Lodi Natives Project: the taste of Mokelumne River

Marians Vineyard Mohr Fry Ranch

Marian’s Vineyard, planted 1901, Mohr-Fry Ranch. Photo courtesy of Randy Caparoso.

The Mokelumne River appellation of Lodi gives a distinctive disposition to its wines. The fine grained soils of the river valley bring a suave character to the tannin ranging from the texture of a voluptuous slippery silk to melt away shantung. The cooling influence of the afternoon breeze offers ample juiciness. Together its a structure that is definitively Lodi.

Moving from East to West along the river appellation the flavors markedly shift. The Eastern half of the AVA showcases ultra fine sand to silt soils that give lifted, pretty red fruit and flower character brushed through with a natural baking spice and light musk element I taste as a range from clove to ginger.

Moving West, the appellation approaches the Delta, with water tables coming closer to the surface as a result, and soils shifting to just a touch more fertile sandy loam. The result is an earthier component to the wines, often giving a loamy essence throughout, sometimes verging on a loamy funk. The fruit tends darker in comparison cut on the edges with a hint of celery salt thanks to the Delta influence.

The Lodi Native Wines

Lodi Native Zinfandel 2012

click on image to enlarge

These are six nicely crafted wines that each give focused expression of their site. The minimalist approach is new to many of these winemakers but in each case they executed the methodology to positive effect. These are clean wines. Together the collection offer crystalline insight into the character of Lodi’s Mokelumne River appellation giving pure expression to the vineyards. Separately they each carry the juiciness of wines to drink with food, and the medium to medium-light body that allows them to work on their own.

Westside Mokelumne

The three wines from Westside Mokelumne–Weget, Soucie, and Trulux Vineyards–offer the celery salt edge with loam elements ranging from mere accents to integrated loaminess characteristic of the Delta influence.

Of the three, the Weget Vineyard farmed by the Maley Brothers and vinified by Chad Joseph gives the most singular focus on fruit with a definitively red lift to the aromatics and palate characteristic of carbonic notes. The red fruit aromatics and palate are touched through by blood orange peel, and faint savory spice. I’m super curious to see how this wine will continue to develop. As it is now, the Weget carries the strongest focus on freshness of the collection with those carbonic elements rising from the glass. There are edges through the wine, however, that hint it will deepen in character and develop further complexity with time.

The collection’s Soucie Vineyard, made by Layne Montgomery and farmed by Kevin Soucie, shows the strongest influence of the Westside funk with the loam elements deepening into loamy musk. At first sniff the funk can be surprising but with air it dissipates and integrates into the overall wine. The wine, however, shows up too with lots of juicy lift and pure fruit expression so that the dark earthy elements are paired alongside red juiciness. This wine likes air as the pairing of elements can then open and swirl together.

Michael McCay makes the Trulux Vineyard bottling of the collection giving a wine focused on earthiness accented by floral aromatics and fruit flavors. The fruit and flower show up deepened by evergreen forest and loamy touches throughout and accented on the finish by dried beach grass and celery salt. This is a nicely focused, nicely balanced wine with lots of juiciness and a shantung textured tannin melting into juicy length.

Eastside Mokelumne

The Eastside wines of the collection–Marian’s, Century Block, and Noma Vineyards–showcase the lighter presentation, pretty fruit elements characteristic of that portion of Mokelumne River vineyards.

Marian’s Vineyard, farmed by Jerry and Bruce Fry and vinified by Stuart Spencer, rests on what would be the center line between East and Westside Mokelumne. However, the site showcases the soils more typical of Eastside plantings. The wine offers perfumed, concentrated fruit of an old vine planting with lots of juiciness balanced by light tannin grip. Light clay notes and musk lift appear in the wine and the fruit characteristics mix blackberry pie (without sweetness or jammy character) and red cherry with clove. This wine shows off the naturally concentrated while still lively flavor of old vine fruit.

The Century Block Vineyard bottling, made by Ryan Sherman, offers lots of red and dark cherry with light plum (no sweetness) fruit concentration spun through with natural (not oak) dark cocoa, touches of red currant, and perfumed musk leading into a talcum finish. Though this wine carries lots of red fruit, the fruit is not the focus. Instead those fresh red elements come in clothed with evergreen and dry cocoa bringing a sense of rusticity to the wine.

The miniaturized vines of the Noma Ranch bottling, vinified by Tim Holdener and farmed by Leland Noma, offer lifted fresh red cherry with black cap and sour dark Morello integrated with natural fruit spice and touched by perfumed musk. The brilliance of older vines shows here as the Noma bottling turns out to have the highest alcohol level of the collection but carries it in good balance with lovely juiciness, concentrated flavor, and easy lightly drying tannin.

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The Lodi Native Wines are available as a complete 6-pack collection sold in wooden box. For the Lodi Native website: http://www.lodinative.com

For Reed Fujii’s write-up on Lodi Natives: http://www.recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20140309/A_BIZ/403070305/-1/A_BIZ04

For Fred Swan’s write-up on Lodi Natives: http://norcalwine.com/blog/51-general-interest/871-lodi-zinfandel-goes-native

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Thank you very much to Randy Caparoso, Chad Joseph, Layne Montgomery, Michael McCay, Stuart Spencer, Ryan Sherman, and Tim Holdener. The Lodi Natives group invited me to taste these wines with them through early stages beginning in July 2013, as well as to join in discussion of the project. I very much appreciate being able to see the development of the project, as well as the wines. Thank you.

Thank you to Alex Fondren, and Rebecca Robinson.

Thank you to Wine & Roses.

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