Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lodi finally finds its Grand Cru vineyard

Vineyard manager Kevin Phillips in the 127-year-old Bechthold Vineyard in Lodi

Until last week, I always had a hard time writing about Lodi. I'm not alone: considering how much wine is made there, you don't read much about it.

The problem isn't that the wines are bad; that's not true at all. If you've ever had a California appellation wine, particularly red, that you liked, odds are good that many of the grapes came from Lodi.

The problem is that while usually competent, Lodi wines are rarely exciting, which may be because of fertile soil that's well-suited to volume. I like Uvaggio's Vermentino a lot because it's a balanced, dependable wine with some character, and that's the first Lodi wine that -- until last week -- springs to my mind. There are some Zinfandels from very old vineyards that are pretty good, although there's an ongoing tendency to hide them in blends or too much oak.


The best thing about Lodi is the Lodi Rules, a fairly stringent set of standards for sustainability that I wouldn't mind seeing adopted for the state of California as a whole. But that's not going to happen because there's no way a Napa vintner is going to put "Lodi Rules" on his $150 Cab. 

Lodi fits uncomfortably in the state's informal classification of appellations. It's not up to the standards of the main coastal appellations, but it's clearly better than the much hotter Central Valley. I probably like Lodi wines as well as those from Paso Robles on the whole, but that's because I don't love what Paso does best, which is huge reds. Is Lodi better than Livermore? It's more professional, but I have a Livermore Cab I've been sitting on for 10 years, and I have no Lodi equivalent.

I'm sure I'm going to piss off my recent hosts in Lodi with this candor, but the fact is that some wineries have less enthusiasm for Lodi on the label than I do. At a Lodi event I attended, a newish winery called Lorenza served a nice, crisp rosé with a California appellation, even though all the grapes are from Lodi. Owner Melinda Kearney, who does sales and marketing consulting for high-end wineries in Napa -- and thus should know what consumers respond to -- was savvy enough to give me this answer when I asked why she wouldn't label it Lodi: "For us, it's easier. California is sun-kissed."

Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project doesn't put Lodi on his rosé made with 100% Lodi grapes either, but I was too busy asking him why his rosé is white (Schoener: "I learned early on that the federal government doesn't define red, white and rosé") to bother with the appellation question.

What this is leading up to is that I recently went to Lodi for the first time in a while basically to try some single-variety Cinsault, because I'm curious about the grape. To my palate's stunned delight, I discovered that there's an amazing 127-year-old vineyard planted only with Cinsault -- nearly unheard of in the 1880s on two levels, because 1) Most vineyard owners planted field blends then to hedge their bets on ripening, and 2) The owner thought he was planting something else.

The vineyard and its delicious wines are the subject of my Wine Review Online column this week, which I won't repeat here. I apologize to all the Lodi vintners I've offended, but I wanted to set the stage for how incredible it was to taste these distinctive, unique, delicious, lively wines from an area that I have come to see mainly as a source of dependability and competence.

As always, WRO's tasting notes and reviews are behind its pay wall (sorry), but I urge you, if you see Bechthold Vineyard Cinsault -- from Lodi -- on a label, any label, give it a try. I've spoiled the surprise for you, but nothing can spoil the greatness of what might be Lodi's Grand Cru vineyard.

Read the Wine Review Online column here.

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12 comments:

Mike Brown said...

Unfortunately your post paints "Lodi" labeled wines with a very broad brush. We source all of our fruit from Lodi and produce soft, flavorful, balanced, low oak reds and bright, crisp, aromatic and flavorful whites. Just because the grapes come from the Lodi AVA it's the combined decisions of winemaker and grower that determine the ultimate wine produced. While Lodi AVA on the label tells you something, it's far from the entire story. I welcome you to visit Cantara Cellars in Ventura County and enjoy some great "Lodi" wines.

Mike Brown
Winemaker
Cantara Cellars

Jon Bjork said...

Thank you for spending time in our neck of the woods, Blake!

I don’t think you need to apologize for your fair assessment of where we currently are. There’s lots of potential here for the right varieties planted in the right places and finished with informed terroir-expressing winemaking. I think as a group we’re just starting down that road.

W. Blake Gray said...

Jon: Who knows what other gems are lurking in Lodi? From what I know of Lodi's history, for a long time people have been growing grapes for others' needs, and doing it pretty well. It does make me wonder what could result from doing what you're saying.

Unknown said...

Your photo of the Cinsault vineyard should rightfully have included Wanda Bechtold, as she is the reason that vineyard wasn't ripped out in 2004. Her determination to preserve a historically significant piece of Lodi's, and her family's, past is what triggered the discovery of the actual cultivar planted there. That discovery immediately brought Randall Grahm and Nicolas Joly to the site, and the rest is as you described. Suddenly, the vineyard went from a state of benign neglect, which suited the cultivar well, to the star it rightfully is today. I made the first varietal Cinsault from that vineyard in 2004, and it sold out in NY as quickly as it was shipped. Wanda and I knew what a treasure it was then, and now many others know it, too.
Another Lodi gem is Wanda's son Greg's Carignane (Jessie's Grove), also made from vines about the same age as the Cinsault, but the vineyard is on the other side of the canal. I'm so glad they're being recognized.

W. Blake Gray said...

I have a photo of Wanda, but she wouldn't pose in front of the vineyard. Is this you, Tegan? You were there. She stood in front of the vineyard on the opposite side of the road.

I tell that story because it's true, but c'mon man, you can't tell somebody what photo they should run because you don't know what they have. I had a slightly more amusing photo of Abe Schoener in the vineyard, but thought the Kevin Phillips one showed the vineyard itself better. There are lots of variables to photo selection. Sometimes I just pick the prettiest, because photos are a visual language of their own.

Casey said...

LOVE all that space between vines and NOT a living weed to be seen. That's old school viticulture for ya!

Seems to me Lodi and killer Grenache should go hand in hand.

Kent Benson said...

A few years ago I spent a day touring Lodi and I too was pleasantly surprised by what I saw and tasted. I visited the Bechthold property and met the wonderfully gracious and charming Wanda Bechthold. A small 4 ½ acre portion of the property is also home to some of the world’s oldest zinfandel vines, planted around the same time as the Cinsault. The Jesse’s Grove label makes a single vineyard Zin called “Royal Tee” from this vineyard.

You may also enjoy the wines of long-time grape grower, Markus Bokisch. His Bokisch label specializes in Spanish varieties, including Albariño, Garnacha, Verdelho, Graciano, and Tempranillo. I was particularly impressed with the Albariño.

See images of Lodi here - http://webpages.charter.net/swirl/index_files/Lodi.htm

Morgan Twain-Peterson said...

It would probably also be good to mention Turley as they made one of the first single-varietal wines from the vineyard with their El Porron bottling. 100% whole-cluster and picked at low brix- it is really beautiful stuff. Tegan, the winemaker at Turley, is responsible for bringing several of the other vineyard clients in.

W. Blake Gray said...

Turley's current release got a nice review from me at WRO. It's a very good wine.

Would like to see what you could do with this fruit, Morgan.

Randy Caparoso: said...

Thanks for coming out, Blake! Zinfandel, of course, is Lodi's non ultra plus, and so if there really are any "grand crus" out in the Delta, it would probably a 90+ or 100+ year old zin planting (like Turley's Dogtown, for one).

Here's my complete report on the Bechthold Cinsault event, including notes on the wines: http://www.lodiwine.com/blog/phillips-farms-hosts-star-winemakers-press-at-historic-bechthold-vineyard-tribute. Thanks again! R

W. Blake Gray said...

Randy, gotta ask you a question, and I apologize to others for the comment drift, but I gotta know: I saw your professional writeup at the Lodi Wine site and wondered who wrote it. How come your name isn't on it anywhere?

Randy Caparoso: said...

Hey, Blake... Jon Bjork told me you posted a question to me...

Yes, I've been penning the lodiwine.com blog since August 2010, but it's an anonymous gig. To those who know me, of course (especially everyone in Lodi), it's hardly anonymous, but I prefer to keep it that way because the focus should be on a "Lodi voice," not mine. That is, I am trying to speak for Lodi growers and vintners...
thanks again!