Hidden in plain site: the treasure that is Lodi’s (endangered) ancient vines.

As Lodi gradually builds awareness of its place in California wine culture, and therefore as a wine travel destination, it is simultaneously losing, bit by bit, one of the most important resources that make it a wine country treasure: its ancient-vine vineyards, many well over 100 years old.

Detail, 131-year-old Cinsault vine.
Detail, 131-year-old Cinsault vine.

Kevin Phillips, Vice President of Operations at Michael David Winery, a large family-owned winery in Lodi, estimates that Lodi lost approximately ten percent of its old-vine plantings this year alone.

Let that sink in.

If you drove through the backroads of Lodi in the weeks following this year’s harvest, you would have seen vineyards at every turn piled up with torn-out, gnarly grapevines.  And that’s a sight that should break any wine lover’s heart.

Ancient Vine Flame Tokay at Jessie's Grove Winery
Ancient Vine Flame Tokay at Jessie’s Grove Winery

But there is cause for at least a little hope.  There is a kind of lovely irony that a winery that produces almost 1 million cases of wine a year would also be leading the charge to preserve some of these old vineyards–the wine business has its bottom-dollar requirements just as any business does, so it’s almost remarkable that a hometown operation the size of Michael David has embraced a caretaker role in overseeing vineyards that will never be big-yield moneymakers.  Their company size also makes this caretaker role especially significant, and gives great visibility to the need to preserve the old vines.

Kevin Phillips pours some of his family's wines during a discussion of Lodi's ancient vines.
Kevin Phillips pours some of his family’s wines during a discussion of Lodi’s ancient vines.

And while they will never be cash cows for growers, what they really are is the soul of Lodi.  They are Exhibit 1 in the case for Lodi terroir.  And we’re only just beginning to get to know them.

The Bechthold Vineyard.

The names of individual ancient vineyards in Lodi are becoming better known among those who are getting better acquainted with the area: Lizzy James, Rous, Soucie, Mohr-Fry, and one of the most important ancient plantings in Lodi, the storied Bechthold Vineyard.

131-year-old Cinsalt in Bechthold Vineyard
131-year-old Cinsalt in Bechthold Vineyard

Planted by Joseph Spenker in 1886, this vineyard of primarily Cinsault vines has gained a deservedly high reputation for the quality of grapes the vineyard produces, drawing the interest of local winemakers as well as Bonny Doon’s iconoclastic Randall Grahm, who recognized the quality of Bechthold fruit many years ago.

The California State Fair named Bechthold Vineyard of the Year in 2014, drawing yet more attention to this vineyard and to Lodi’s old vines generally speaking.

Wanda Bechthold at Jessie's Grove Winery
Wanda Bechthold at Jessie’s Grove Winery

The vineyard has remained in the family to this day (part of Jessie’s Grove Winery), but it is currently managed by Kevin Phillips at Michael David, who was asked to take on care for the ancient head-trained, own-rooted vineyard by Jessie’s Grove owner Al Bechthold himself.  Bechthold’s one request was that anyone who purchased fruit from the vineyard put the vineyard’s name on the label.  If you drop by the patio at Jessie’s Grove most Saturdays, you are likely to find matriarch Wanda Bechthold holding court and telling the story of her family’s history in Lodi to interested visitors (and what a story it is).

So . . . what does Lodi taste like?

It’s been fewer than 20 years ago that adventurous winemakers (and often growers-turned-winemakers) in Lodi began focusing on these individual vineyards to see what the fruit once destined for bulk-produced jug wines actually tastes like on its own.  Is the fruit of high quality? Is it indicative of the region in which it’s grown?  Lodi has over 110,000 acres planted to winegrapes, but what constitutes Lodi’s terroir?  Nobody really knew.

Winemakers like the team at Michael David and Mike McCay of McCay Cellars, among several other locals, began experimenting to determine exactly that, and in most cases they gravitated to vines that were 50, 75, 100, 100+ years old.  None of these vineyards had ever been made into its own wine.  Nobody knew what a single-vineyard Lodi Cinsault or Zinfandel tasted like, because such a thing had never existed before.

Mike McCay inspects grape skins and seeds fresh out of the press.
Mike McCay inspects grape skins and seeds fresh out of the press.

McCay has an unequaled roster of single-vineyard Lodi Zinfandels that stand out like a roadmap to the terroirs of different Lodi AVAs, each with minimal intervention during the winemaking process to let the grape show as much of its personality as possible (and his series of Zins is so remarkably good I’ll devote a separate post to a detailed tasting in the coming weeks).  These are almost exclusively very old vines, and it’s a tragic sign of the times that the vineyard for his top-of-the-line Zin, the Contention, was ripped out this fall, destined for higher-yield cabernet grapes bound for contracts with wine behemoths like Gallo.

Can Lodi’s ancient vines be saved?

It’s a simple bottom-dollar issue.  You can’t expect a grower to maintain those ancient vines if they can’t get the necessary yield from them (and therefore the necessary return on investment).

So how to preserve at least a portion of those old vines?  Kevin Phillips has some ideas.

“We have to find some way to document these vineyards,” Phillips said during a recent interview at the winery.

Phillips says that all of these old vineyards, some of which were only rehabilitated into productive vines in the last few years, first have to be identified.  “Before we can even think about preserving these, we have to know what we actually have.”

Bechthold is the only vineyard Michael David manages that they don’t also own–and they have sought out older vineyards for their own estate, with the purchase this year of the 160-acre DeLuca Vineyard in Lodi, planted to significant amounts of old-vine Zinfandel.

“We’re a giant boutique winery,” Phillips jokes, but his joke points to a very serious commitment that the winery has made to preserving these vines.  Michael David was also the area’s leader in pushing implementation of the Lodi Rules sustainable growing standards created by the Lodi Winegrape Commission, so they do not shy away from assuming the role of industry leader and industry innovator, and they do so with a level of corporate conscience that is refreshing.

Kevin Phillips overseeing harvest at dawn at Michael David's estate.
Kevin Phillips overseeing harvest at dawn at Michael David’s estate.

In a way, the issue surrounding Lodi’s old vines and whether or how to preserve them is just one facet of Lodi’s overall journey to figuring out what it is and how it fits into California wine culture.  The winegrape commission recently held a seminar on premiumization, which is really part of the same issue.  Lodi produces seriously high quality grapes, but with decades of being under contract mostly to the Gallos of the wine world with all that Lodi fruit going into mass-produced, faceless wines, it never before had to approach the concept of establishing Lodi as a premium winegrape growing region.  Know what you’re worth, and demand requisite prices.

Phillips believes premiumitizing some of these old vines can be a key part of Lodi’s identity as a wine region (and not just a winegrape region).  He suggests that–once those old vines are documented–some sort of grape exchange specific to old vines, perhaps put into place by the winegrape commission, could go a long way in creating and sustaining a market for these beautiful and endangered vines.

Until then, seek out these wines, and seek out Lodi.  The acres of old vines that you will see on a drive around the area are a thing of beauty, but they may not be there much longer.




You say garrigue, I say chaparral: why California wines deserve a native descriptor.

Old habits die hard, and there is safety in the familiar.  In the wine world’s accepted collection of wine descriptors, garrigue and garrigue herbs is often used to describe a particular herbacious quality in certain wines–but what is garrigue?  And are we really using the term correctly in describing California wines?

Scientifically speaking, garrigue describes a Mediterranean scrub ecosystem in areas with calcareous soils, particularly in France’s Rhone and Bordeaux regions.  Think wild thyme, lavender, rosemary.  Now, that term works just fine describing wines grown in that region, a sort of herbacious  je n’ais cest quoi that suggests a particular savory note common to those wines.

Lupine in coastal chaparral west of Paso Robles
Lupine in coastal chaparral west of Paso Robles

But is that descriptor really accurate for California wines?  I see it most often used in describing California Rhones, as a reference to the brambly herbaciousness in the Rhones grown in the plentiful and fertile calcareous soils of California, especially along the coast, central valley and Sierra foothills.

Those areas also, not coincidentally, contain some of the highest concentrations of chaparral in the state–a similar but distinct Mediterranean-type scrub ecosystem.  And the flora native to chaparral are markedly different from those in France.

Derived from the Spanish word for scrub oak, chaparro, chaparral is  a shrubland or heathland plant community found primarily within the state of California (small vestiges of chaparral ecosystems stretch south into Baja California and southeastern Oregon to the north, but it is almost entirely a California landscape).

Evening light on Tablas Creek vineyard in the rolling, chaparral-covered hills of west Paso Robles.
Evening light on Tablas Creek vineyard in the rolling, chaparral-covered hills of west Paso Robles.

Instead of the wild thyme and rosemary and lavender of garrigue herbs, the deeply fragrant range of wild herbacious plants in California chaparral ecosystems includes sumac, bay laurel, sage, buckwheat, lupine, mountain mahogany, bush poppy, manzanita and even the non-native but fully adapted wild fennel that’s found in coastal chaparral–and many more.

In the interest of disclosure, I have an ongoing interest in chaparral, both as an iconic California landscape and as a vital sensory component that memory and imagination seize upon in defining the golden state.  Chaparral is the focus of my ongoing Land/Sea photography series, and I waxed rhapsodic last year over Greenbar Distillery’s Grand Poppy bitter liqueur that uses a collection of chaparral aromatics and herbs for its flavor.  As unloved a landscape as chaparral can be, it is the flavors and aromas native to chaparral that make up the heart of the California we can smell and taste and thus remember in an almost Proustian way.

Garrigue–or, as I suggest here, chaparral–is a descriptor that suggests (the horribly overused and unscientific idea of) terroir, or an element thereof.  If it’s tied to place, then it is also connected to experience.  The idea of garrigue is almost certainly born from the experience of smelling those herbs in the limestone-heavy regions, kicked up by the Mistral winds that sweep across the rocky hills in France.

Manzanita, an iconic chaparral plant, in bloom.
Manzanita, an iconic chaparral plant, in bloom.

France has the Mistral winds, we have the Santa Anas.  Similar, but distinct.  If you’ve ever hiked the coastal hills on a foggy morning, or the deep canyons just inland after a good rain to lift the scent, then you have smelled those chaparral herbs.  You are smelling California, you are smelling that “green” component unique to the state.  The tangible-intangible of chaparral herbs is as much a part of the regional terroir as the rocky limestone soils that support them and the vast acreage of wine grapes that grow among and nearby chaparral.  California still suffers from an inferiority complex in some ways when it compares its wines to those of the old world, and that is the most likely reason garrigue continues to keep hold as an imperfect but old-world-familiar wine descriptor.

Wine nerds strive for shades of specificity and precision in their language when discussing wines–if one notes the presence of floral qualities in a wine like lilac or violet, it is often further refined by specifying whether that essence is fresh, dried or decayed petals.  Why, then, do we not gravitate to similar precision in the catch-all of garrigue?

Those studying wine are often encouraged to smell or taste the things that are used to describe wines:  Lick a rock to understand minerality.  Smell and come to understand the difference between violet and rose notes of red wine and the more exotic “white flowers” used to describe certain white wines.  Seek out violet flowers in different stages of bloom and decay.  Understand what these descriptors really mean so that they can be used with precision.

Epoch Wines in west Paso Robles is a respected producer of California Rhone varieties.
Epoch Wines in west Paso Robles is a respected producer of California Rhone varieties.

So in a similar way, stand on the slope of a coastal hill in San Luis Obispo County–or Sonoma County or Amador County or Santa Barbara County, for that matter–all places where chaparral makes up a significant part of the landscape, breathe deeply and make an inventory of what you smell.  Keep that in mind the next time you open a Mourvedre from Epoch or a Syrah from the canyons of Santa Barbara County or one of Tablas Creek’s outstanding Rhone blends.  Do you really smell garrigue–do you even know what garrigue smells like?–or are you smelling the herbacious plants of California chaparral?

If you strive for specificity and accuracy in talking about wines, and those wines happen to come from California, then embrace the chaparral.



RE:FIND Distillery is up to even MORE fun and delicious things

RE:FIND Distillery is still the best little distillery on the Central Coast.

I am somewhat biased about this, but trust me.  You need to try these spirits.

I stopped in for a visit last week to see what they’ve been up to since I featured them last year–because the Villicanas (owners Alex and Monica), with their mutual boundless energy, are always up to something fun and interesting.

The RE:FIND tasting room is in the distillery, so you get to see the stills and barrels and all working parts. Fun!
The RE:FIND tasting room is in the distillery, so you get to see the stills and barrels and all working parts. Fun!

Was I disappointed?  HAHAHAHAHA no.  Don’t be ridiculous.  They’re still making the same top-quality artisanal spirits (and they do MAKE these spirits from scratch, which is a distinction most craft spirit producers cannot claim).  But, ever focused on education as much as the sheer fun of this, they’ve introduced some new things that novice spirit consumers will enjoy, and will appeal to even the most jaded craft cocktail pros as well.

They’ve added a Kumquat Liqueur to their lineup (the fall/winter alternative to their Limoncello that’s so good for spring/summer quaffing).  I really love liqueurs generally speaking, but this one is just NEAT.  If you’re familiar with orange liqueurs, you might be expecting this to taste like those.  And you’d be wrong, mostly.  It still has sort of an orange-y quality (which is fine and lovely and delicious), but the Kumquat Liqueur is exotic and perfume-y in a way that no orange liqueur could be, no matter how hard it tried.  The nose on this just delighted me when Monica poured a taste–the immediate impression reminded me of the sharp floral burst you get when you twist a piece of orange (or in this case, kumquat) peel.  There is an almost aerosolized brightness that leaps out of the glass.  And that, naturally, makes one want to TASTE it.  What follows on the palate is equally perfume-y and exotic.  Definitely citrus, but not your dad’s Grand Marnier.  This is a fun and pretty and delicious liqueur.

So what does one do with a Kumquat Liqueur?  Aside from drinking it straight (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it’s fabulous in cocktails.  Monica made an on-the-spot RE:FIND cocktail using this liqueur and their “[e]” barrel-finished vodka (which tastes more like a whiskey, or whisky, which may explain that bracketed E in the name just a bit).  That riff on a classic cocktail works really well.

RE:FIND's Barrel Finished [e] Vodka alongside one of their specially crafted mixers
RE:FIND’s Barrel Finished [e] Vodka alongside one of their specially crafted mixers
*I will pause right here to tell you that tentatively sometime this coming summer, they will release their second bourbon.*  I am a bourbon fanatic, and may be unduly excited by this.  Okay, I’m SUPER excited by this.  Their first bourbon release sold out in three hours.  I missed that one, but (hope) I won’t miss this upcoming release.

Root Elixers' Grapfruit Jalapeno soda, which mixes with their vodka for a wild--and delicious--take on a Moscow Mule
Root Elixers’ Grapefruit Jalapeno soda, which mixes with RE:FIND’s gin for a wild–and delicious–take on a Greyhound cocktail

So back to the cocktail thing–this is now a thing at RE:FIND (and a very good thing).  They’re working with local artisanal soda and mixer producers to create exclusive mixers to pair with their spirits, which is great for these artisanal producers and even better for the RE:FIND customer.  In addition to their original spirits club, they now have a cocktail club which ships in May and September.  This is a brilliant idea, and a great way to give guidance to their customers on how to make best use of the spirits they take home from the tasting room.

The September selection (pictured here) includes their Gin, Barrel Finished Vodka, & Kumquat Liqueur, plus mixers & recipes.  The cost per shipment is $110 (before tax/shipping), and gets you a 20% discount on any of their spirits you buy in addition to this.  It makes a fun gift (especially a gift for yourself, of course).

The latest selection in RE:FIND's new Cocktail Club (and what a great holiday gift this would make!)
The latest selection in RE:FIND’s new Cocktail Club (and what a great holiday gift this would make!)

And because RE:FIND’s raison d’être is to recapture what would otherwise go to waste–specifically, saignee from the winemaking process that would otherwise be discarded–here’s an update on this year’s harvest.  Monica reports that they purchased saignee from 25 different Paso-area wineries, thereby reclaiming more than 60 farmed acres’ worth of winegrapes (and all the resources that go into farming those grapes).  It’s not often you can enjoy a cocktail while simultaneously helping to save the planet, but that’s what you’ll get with RE:FIND’s spirits.

The RE:FIND tasting room is part of the Villicana Winery’s tasting room–and I recommend you try both the next time you’re in Paso (start with the wines, and finish with the spirits).  A profile of their wines is still on my to-do list, but I will tell you that their wines are every bit as good as their spirits (they produce an outstanding Merlot, for starters).  They also offer the artisanal mixers for their spirits right there in the tasting room, so you can get everything you need in one stop.

Don't forget that the winery is what started everything. Make sure you START with a tasting of Villicana Wines when you head for RE:FIND
Don’t forget that the winery is what started everything. Make sure you START with a tasting of Villicana Wines when you head for RE:FIND

The Villicana and RE:FIND tasting rooms are located on the west side of Paso Robles at 2725 Adelaida Road. 805-239-9456, and are open daily from 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Quick update: Rangeland’s new tasting room is open!

You may recall my profile of Rangeland wines in Paso Robles last summer–beautifully crafted estate wines in a gorgeous west Paso setting.

The only catch was that you had to make an appointment to taste their wines–maybe you’re shy about that, or maybe it’s just a difficult thing to schedule on a weekend of wine tasting–but that is not the case anymore.

Their new tasting room opened a couple of weeks ago in Templeton (in the greater Paso Robles area), and you can now walk in any time Thursday through Saturday and belly up to the tasting bar.

Rangeland's new Templeton location
Rangeland’s new Templeton location

They’re sharing space with Nature’s Touch, a locally owned natural grocer, at 225 South Main Street in Templeton (trivia: Nature’s Touch was one of the first local grocers to sell Rangeland’s excellent organic pastured beef), and they have built a beautiful tasting area within the store.  For the time being (until they decide to expand their hours and add more staff), you’re likely to be served by owners Laird and Lisa Foshay, or their winemaker, Paul Hinschberger–and there is no better way to taste wine than when you can do so in the company of the people who actually make what’s in your glass.

A few of Rangeland's offerings
A few of Rangeland’s offerings

They were already up and running and hosting a wine club event when I stopped by last weekend, so they are ready to see you.  Their Bordeaux varieties are stunners, especially the Watershed Bordeaux blend and Limestone Cabernet Sauvignon, and they do the most elegant Petite Sirah I’ve ever tasted (seriously, this one alone is worth the trip).  There’s also a selection of Rhone blends (the result of their recently expanded estate vineyards), so there’s something for every palate.  This is one of Paso’s sleeper wineries, but now that they’ve got a public tasting location, expect that to change.

Rangeland's Current Tasting Flight
Rangeland’s Current Tasting Flight

Rangeland Wines, 11-5 Thursday through Saturday, 225 South Main Street, Templeton, California, 805-674-9232.

A celebration of Lodi’s old vine Zinfandels

If you have ever uttered the words “I don’t like Zinfandel,” I humbly suggest you are most likely wrong about that.

Sure, taste in wines is a hugely subjective thing, but when most people say “I don’t like Zinfandel,” what they almost always mean–whether they realize it or not–is that they don’t like the popular-10-years-ago super jammy, extracted, oaked-to-death, high-ABV fruit monsters that (unfortunately) came to be considered the California style of Zinfandel.  While there’s some truth to that, it’s really not representative of what’s currently going on in the state with this variety, and certainly not representative of what’s going on with zins in Lodi.

Lodi Old Vine Zinfandels
Lodi Old Vine Zinfandels

While Lodi is pretty much ground zero for Zinfandel production in California, a growing number of winemakers are turning this ubiquitous grape into gorgeous expressions of the local terroir–you now see a lot of native fermentation, little or no oak, and harvest at somewhat lower brix than in the past.  Most of these wines also come from very old vines, some more than 100 years old.  The result is an array of truly beautiful wines that showcase this under-appreciated variety.

The Lodi Wine Commission recently hosted a virtual tasting of a selection of these wines on live video on their Facebook page, and I was one of the bloggers invited to participate (yay, samples!).  We all tasted four different Zinfandels for the event, and all were notably different.

An ancient Zinfandel vine in Harney Lane's Lizzy James Vineyard
An ancient Zinfandel vine in Harney Lane’s Lizzy James Vineyard

The wines ranged from an almost Beaujolais-style lighter take on zin to darker, fruitier wines with fantastic terroir and an almost savory quality.

Some of you may be puzzled by the idea of savory notes, but I’m talking about fully complementary flavors that meld beautifully with the fruit and floral notes.  The Michael David Winery’s Earthquake zin–from a vineyard planted the same year as the great San Francisco earthquake–and Ironstone’s Rous Vineyard zin, planted in 1909, both showed those savory qualities including sage, black olive, tea leaf and funky white pepper.  These pair wonderfully with hearty winter dishes (which is exactly what I did with these two).

The Harney Lane Lizzy James Vineyard old vine zin is just a straight-up beauty.  It carries all the qualities of what most people think of as a big California zin, but with across-the-board restraint and a softness that will surprise you.  You will get familiar notes of cherry pie, unsweetened cocoa, and a little raspberry on the palate.  The nose going in is all lush violets and red current, and the finish is noticeable spice and chocolate-covered dried cherries.

Harney Lane's Lizzy James Old Vine Zin
Harney Lane’s Lizzy James Old Vine Zin

And finally, the most surprising of the lineup: the Fields Family Stampede Vineyard old vine zin.  Crafted 100% under the protocols for the Lodi Native program, this is the lightest-bodied zin I’ve ever tried (and I LOVE it).  It still has the trademark garnet hue of a good zin, but it’s lighter and almost translucent in the glass.  The nose on this one fascinated me–my tasting notes read “men’s cologne and spaghetti” (hey, I get very literal with an almost Joycian habit of writing down the first descriptor that strikes me–which means sometimes my notes are a little . . . weird), which to everybody else roughly translates to herbal/fennel notes and exotic spice.  But on the palate, one is almost surprised by the brightness of this wine.  Tart red fruit–cherries, red currant–hints of almond (but there is NO oak on this, so this is not a flavor that comes from the expected source) and spice somewhere between black pepper and cardamom.  The finish is quite long for a lighter-bodied zin, with lingering notes of cherry and unsweetened cocoa.

Fields Family Stampede Vineyard Zinfandel
Fields Family Stampede Vineyard Zinfandel

Each of these Zinfandels is unique in its own way, and hints at the variety to be found between the different Lodi AVAs (something I’m going to dive into deeper soon).  Lodi’s sandy loam soils are incredibly deep, which likely speaks to both the vines’ longevity and the (almost unexpectedly) complex flavor profiles in these wines, most especially an almost lush softness that is in no way “big.”

These are not your typical zins, and that is a very good thing.


2018 California Wine Country calendar – pretty pictures for a great cause!

Along with my usual nature photography calendar (my annual Visionary Light calendar), I’m offering a California wine country calendar this year.  It features images from the state’s beautiful wine regions, and I’m donating $5 from the sale of each calendar to the RCU North Coast Fire Relief Fund, which is helping with recovery from this year’s devastating wildfires in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties.  Just click this link to see a full preview that shows the 12 included images (and purchase one or a dozen!).  They make a great holiday gift, and the funds are going to a great and important cause.

2018 California Wine Country Calendar
2018 California Wine Country Calendar

Some photos from California’s 2017 harvest

Just because California (mostly) broke its five-year drought this year did not mean it was a perfect year for growing winegrapes.  Growers dealt with devastating floods early in the season–leaving some of Lodi’s most storied vineyards submerged in water until early summer!–and an unprecedented heat spike just as harvest began, with almost two weeks of 100-plus-degree days across the state (which made for an all-hands-on-deck kind of insanity for a while with seemingly everything coming in at once).  And then there were the devastating wildfires that tore through Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa counties at the end of harvest (which reminds me–have you bought your 2018 California Wine Country calendar yet? $5 from each sale goes to fire relief in those counties).

Still, reports from across the state show that it’s been a pretty good year with a harvest that has most winemakers looking very positively on the results of the 2017 vintage.

We’ll have to wait a while longer to taste these wines, so until then enjoy some images from this year’s harvest.

Harvested grapes arrive at the winery, ready for the winemaker to work his magic.
Harvested grapes arrive at the winery, ready for the winemaker to work his magic.
A portrait of the historic Bechthold Cinsault vines
A portrait of the historic Bechthold Cinsault vines
At work before dawn for the last day of harvest at Tablas Creek
At work before dawn for the last day of harvest at Tablas Creek
No-longer-used grape boxes at Jessie's Grove Winery
No-longer-used grape boxes at Jessie’s Grove Winery
Freshly hand-harvested Grenache clusters
Freshly hand-harvested Grenache clusters
Out of the microbin, into the macrobin
Out of the microbin, into the macrobin
Hand harvesting the last of the Tannat on some of the steepest slopes at Tablas Creek.
Hand harvesting the last of the Tannat on some of the steepest slopes at Tablas Creek.
Ivy and old barn, Jessie's Grove Winery
Ivy and old barn, Jessie’s Grove Winery
Tannat clusters on vines already changing into their fall colors
Tannat clusters on vines already changing into their fall colors
Winemaker Mike McCay checks out the spent grapes fresh out of the press
Winemaker Mike McCay checks out the spent grapes fresh out of the press
Moody skies over vine in their autumn attire in west Paso Robles
Moody skies over vines in their autumn attire in west Paso Robles
Post-harvest sunset at Bokisch Vineyards
Post-harvest sunset at Bokisch Vineyards
Perfect Grenache clusters awaiting harvest
Perfect Grenache clusters awaiting harvest at Heritage Oak
Roussane drying on straw for Tablas Creek's amazing Vin de Paille
Roussane drying on straw for Tablas Creek’s amazing Vin de Paille
Evening light on the vineyards at Kukkula Winery in west Paso Robles
Evening light on the vineyards at Kukkula Winery in west Paso Robles

It’s that time again–California Garagistes’ Urban Exposure Los Angeles THIS SATURDAY 7/15

Like wine?  Go here.  Seriously–of all the wine events I attend each year, I always have the most fun at Garagiste because there’s a little bit of everything.  No matter what type of wine you like–got a favorite variety? Favorite style?  “Big” wines? Low alcohol wines?  It’s all here.

In addition to the fantastic variety you’ll find at this festival, I have my own reasons for loving this event.  Since my blog is all about story, this gives me a great opportunity to taste my way through small producers I would likely never encounter otherwise–and if I find something I like (and I always do), I’m able to get a quick version of the story behind the wine because it’s usually the winemakers themselves doing the pouring.  Now how about that.

That means that if you like to ask lots of questions about wine or get to know the people who make it, this is your kind of tasting event.

The festival features 50 small producers (anywhere from 1500 cases/year to those with who only produce 100 or so cases a year), and styles run the gamut.  Like lovely, old world style low-alcohol wines?  You’ll love Two Shepherds.  Are you a wine lover on the other end of that style scale–the bigger, the better?  Then check out the beautiful brawny beasts of Pulchella.  These are two of my favorite regulars at Garagiste events, and they produce some of the same Rhone varieties–but they could not be more different.

In addition to those two, other personal favorites I recommend at the festival are Caliza (especially their Azimuth), Alta Colina (I love their Sun Worshipper Mourvedre), and Bodega de Edgar.  Most of the producers are from the Paso Robles area, but you’ll find wines from as far north as Sonoma County, to right down to our own Malibu hills in Los Angeles.

Garagiste LA 2017
Garagiste LA 2017

This year, the LA event is being held in Santa Monica, in the historic Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club.  Tickets for the Grand Tasting are sold out, but the VIP tickets–which get you into the event an hour early–are still available, and a bargain at $99–VIP access includes exclusive tastes of “Rare & Reserve” wines* ONLY being poured from 2-3pm for VIP Attendees.  Get your tickets here.  The tasting runs from 3 pm to 6 pm this Saturday (and 2 pm to 6 pm for VIP attendees).  In addition to unlimited pours of a huge variety of wines, your ticket also includes bread, cheese & charcuterie, artisan food samples, as well as a souvenir Stolzle crystal wine glass.

But you know what’s really great?  This:

Since inception, the non-profit Garagiste Events (producer of the Garagiste Festivals) has benefitted San Luis Obispo-based Cal Poly Wine and Viticulture Program, as part of its mission of furthering the education of future winemakers and those training for employment within the wine industry.

You can also feel good about where the proceeds from your ticket purchase goes.  In addition, they’re also having a silent auction during the event featuring some of the best-of-the-best bottles from participating wineries.  The proceeds from this also go to the Cal Poly program.

Check-in for VIP attendees begins at 1:50 pm, with VIP tasting beginning at 2 pm.  The location is at 1210 Fourth Street, Santa Monica, CA. The event entrance is on Fourth just south of Wilshire Blvd.

Markus Niggli and the importance of place.

I have been going in circles for months now over how to tell you about Markus Niggli and his incredible, challenging (and astonishingly good) wines.  Writer’s block isn’t generally something I struggle with, but I also rarely come across someone like Markus–or his wines.  And yes, I’m going to be throwing out a barrage of highly effusive superlatives here, because in this case it’s fully justified.

Flash back to last August, when I was in Lodi for the annual wine bloggers’ conference: I opted to go on the pre-excursion before the conference-proper began, and found myself in an intensive get-to-know-Lodi-wines experience.  One of those get-to-know moments was in a shaded picnic area at Mokelumne Glen vineyard, where we were introduced to a handful of winemakers who produce wines from the Koth family’s “experimental” vineyard of German varieties, the vast majority of which are the only such plantings in the U.S.

Markus Niggli, holding forth in the Koth vineyard at Mokelumne Glen last summer.
Markus Niggli, holding forth in the Koth vineyard at Mokelumne Glen last summer.

There was one winemaker in particular who really got my attention, along with his wines.  It was Markus Niggli.  My initial impression of these wines was that they challenged my palate and what I thought I knew about white wines in a completely confounding, wonderful way.  These are unusual wines in the best way–wildly aromatic, low-ish in alcohol, fantastically dry, and every bit as complex on the palate as they were on the nose.  And then Markus took his turn to talk to our group.  Tall and lanky, slightly intense, affable, and very, very Swiss.  Not your usual Lodi type, to be sure.

So how does a Swiss winemaker find himself in Lodi?  By way of Australia, naturally.  Niggli’s first career was in tourism in Switzerland, and as he moved up the corporate ladder in that field, he traveled the globe and developed a keen interest in wine–and eventually in winemaking.  He quit the tourism industry for a vineyard job in Perth, Australia, leaving his homeland–but never forgetting where he came from.  This sense of place remains a powerful part of what he does, reflected not just by what’s in the bottle, but also what’s on the bottle (more on that in a moment).

Markus Wine Co. wines on display in the tasting room.
Markus Wine Co. wines on display in the tasting room.

After a few years in Australia, Niggli moved to California to continue his path as a winemaker; he was working at a winery in Napa when he jumped to Lodi’s Borra Vineyards in 2006, taking on the job of winemaker for Steve Borra’s smartly styled wines.  But it’s his “sub-venture” with Borra, under his Markus Wine Co. label, where he gets free creative reign over a lineup of (mostly) white wines that are both unconventional and evocative of more traditional European (especially German and Swiss) styles.  Though it’s not his sole source of grapes for the Markus label, access to the Koth’s vineyard gives Niggli the opportunity to produce wines using varieties like Kerner and Bacchus, with outstanding results.

One of his most interesting wines is his Kerner-dominant Nimmo; rather than aging it in stainless steel or concrete (the more conventional approach for the European versions of this grape), this wine sees several months in new oak.  Now stop right there:  if your mind immediately thought of oak-y Chardonnay, you could not be further from what this wine is like.  The prominent terpene compounds common to these German varieties–Riesling, Kerner, Bacchus and so on–transform into something quite different with new oak; it’s an age-worthy, exceptionally dry, and (of course) highly aromatic wine.  It’s one of the most fascinating (and tasty) wines I’ve ever tried.

Niggli behind the bar in the tasting room, where he speaks passionately about the wines he makes.
Niggli behind the bar in the tasting room, where he talk passionately about the wines he makes.

Niggli’s wines will shake up your palate and make you think about what’s in your glass.  Most of his other wines–which include another variation on the Kerner grape, a 100% Gewürztraminer, a Torrontes-Traminette blend (all highly aromatic varieties)–are aged in stainless steel, and all of his wines are fermented with native yeasts, with no secondary ML fermentation.  You will taste (and smell) a range of white flowers, meyer lemon, lychee, green apples–with a backbone of minerality that lends terrific balance (and I deliberately use the somewhat controversial term “minerality,” because there is an unmistakable note of wet rock, a dustiness, a chalkiness, that lingers on the finish on Niggli’s wines).  I admittedly have a mile-wide soft spot for dry, aromatic white wines, and these have become instant favorites of mine.

Now, about what’s on the outside of those bottles:  I resist getting too hung up on wine labels, because they generally have nothing to do, really, with what’s inside that bottle, but Niggli has taken an interesting approach to his.  Most of the labels (and in one case, the actual name of the wine) commemorate his connection to a place or some experience in his past.  The label for his Nativo (the stainless steel Kerner blend) is an odd assortment of letters and numbers.  He decided to seek out the work of design students at University of the Pacific–these students have designed all of the Markus Wine Co. labels–but didn’t want them to be focused on the wine itself for the design–he gave them zero information on the wine inside the bottle, and instead gave them the combination “MBKW8872” and designated the color green for the label.  The significance of that text is this: M, B and K are the first initials for Markus and his two brothers, the W refers to his home town Weesen, Switzerland, and 8872 is Weesen’s postal code–a nod to his home and family.

His Nimmo (the oaked Kerner blend) takes its name from a mnemonic acronym he created when he lived in Australia and needed to remember how to find his way to his winery job–it’s the first letters in the names of the streets he needed to take to get to and from work; as the name of his wine, it’s an acknowledgement of where his path as a winemaker got its start.  Place matters, and Niggli never seems to lose sight of all the places that have brought him to where he is today–he makes thoughtful reference to this on his labels, but more important is that you also find the influence of all those places in what’s inside the bottle.  And what’s in the bottle is very, very good.

The tasting room for Markus Wine Co., in the heart of the beautiful Borra vineyard.
The tasting room for Markus Wine Co., in the heart of the beautiful Borra vineyard.

You can taste Markus Wine Co. wines at the Borra tasting room–they’re open the last weekend of every month, and also by appointment (which you can do directly on their website).  If you’re lucky, you’ll get to chat with Markus himself (something I highly recommend).

The 2016 Markus Wine Co. Zeal, a Rosé of Syrah. You need this wine in your life.
The 2016 Markus Wine Co. Zeal, a Rosé of Syrah. You need this wine in your life.

Borra and Markus Wine Co. hold an open house the last weekend each month; upcoming dates are July 28-30, Fri-Sun 12-5 and August 25-27, Fri-Sun 12-5.  Make sure to try (and take home a few bottles of) his 2016 Zeal–a rosé of Syrah that will knock your socks off.  It’s bone-dry, spicy-strawberry-rhubarb, with a bright acidity that’s perfect on a hot summer day.

Borra Vineyards/Markus Wine Co.
1301 East Armstrong Road
Lodi, CA 95242


Adventures in wine and food pairing at Lodi’s beautiful Wine & Roses Hotel

When LoCA’s Randy Caparoso asks if you might possibly have plans to be in Lodi the following weekend, you should probably say YES, even if you live in Los Angeles and did not, in fact, already have plans to be in Lodi.  If it were me, that is–and it was, and I did say yes.

Randy was leading a culinary wine and food pairing class (“exploration” might be a better word) at Lodi’s beautiful Wine & Roses Hotel a couple of weeks ago along with Executive Chef John Hitchcock, and I happily accepted the offer to cover the event for Lodi Wine.

As part of Wine & Roses’ ongoing Cooking School offerings, the evening was somewhere between a class (ahem, exploration) and an elegant food and wine pairing featuring some of Lodi’s best offerings.  The hotel itself, an historic Lodi property which had its beginnings in 1903 as a private estate, is a gorgeous setting for such an event.  I had the privilege of staying at Wine & Roses that weekend, and it’s a wonderful destination in its own right with the on-site Towne House restaurant and spa.  The rooms are spacious and well-appointed, with an unmistakable air of luxury.

The setting for our exploration of food and wine pairings at Lodi's Wine & Roses Hotel
The setting for our exploration of food and wine pairings at Lodi’s Wine & Roses Hotel

As I skimmed the menu for the dinner and pairing, three significant things jumped out at me.  One, there was a nod to classic pairings (caviar and bubbles, for starters); two, some challenging pairings–and by challenging, I mean dishes that employed unconventional flavors (and thus a challenge to find just the right wine) such as wasabi; and three, that some of Lodi’s best wines (and several of my personal favorites) represented the region quite well in the company of great cuisine.

Yukon gold blini with creme fraiche and caviar, paired with LVVR's Lodi Appellation sparkling wines
Yukon gold blini with creme fraiche and caviar, paired with LVVR’s Lodi Appellation sparkling wines

First up, and perfectly so, was the Yukon Gold blini with caviar, creme fraiche and lemon zest–this French Laundry recipe was paired with two Lodi sparklers, a Brut and a Blanc de Blancs from LVVR Sparkling Cellars.  The two non-vintage sparkling wines are produced in the méthode champenoise style and were an ideal accompaniment to the lighter-than-air blini and the hit of salty-briny caviar.  Both are fine sparkling wines with their traditional production method evident in the yeasty, bready nose; these were both new Lodi wines for me, and I still can’t decide on a favorite.  I thought both paired really well with this small bite, and provided a great introduction for the assembled crowd to begin thinking about the relationship between food and wine.

Billi Bi - a traditional French cream of saffron mussel soup
Billi Bi – a traditional French cream of saffron mussel soup

The second offering, Billi Bi – a traditional French cream of saffron mussel soup, was served as a small bite on porcelain spoon, and was the first real wake-you-up flavor of the night with the mouthful-of-ocean taste of the mussel.  Paired with that was Markus Wine Co.’s 2016 Nativo, a bone-dry and intensely aromatic blend of German varieties (Kerner, Riesling and Bacchus) from the Koth vineyard in Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA.  This particular vineyard, which boasts more than 50 German varietals–many of them the only such plantings in the United States–is one of Lodi’s most remarkable hidden gems, and winemaker Markus Niggli creates some of the most compelling and original wines from them.  The Billi Bi is a tricky pairing, because it does best with a white wine, but needs a white that can stand up to the strong flavors of the dish.  The Nativo’s elegant and spicy acidity was the perfect choice (and I’m currently working on a profile of Markus Niggli, which I hope to publish next week).

Caparoso 1
Sommelier Randy Caparoso guides the attendees through a series of wine and food pairings featuring Lodi’s best wines (and cuisine).

This particular pairing, along with the oyster with wasabi that followed, was the ideal platform for Caparoso to go into a subject area that few in the business know better (not to mention had an active hand in developing)–how to pair wine with decidedly non-French, non-traditional (non-European) flavors of spice and umami.  After years as a sommelier and wine program manager for more traditional French restaurants, Caparoso joined up with Hawaiian Chef Roy Yamaguchi and would go on to co-found the Roy’s Restaurant franchise, ultimately reaching 28 locations across the globe.  Roy’s helped popularize the pan-Asian cuisine that now seems omnipresent, but that cuisine presents a spectrum of flavors that do not immediately and obviously bring to mind the kind of wine pairings familiar in more traditional Euro-centric restaurants.

Wine pairings, Caparoso told the class, should take into consideration contrast as well as similarity.  “Food should make the wine taste better, too” (not just the other way around).  Think of wine AS food, he said–or as an ingredient with the food.  With food featuring flavors of spice and umami, use that idea of contrast when you begin to search for wines that will pair well with those kinds of dishes.

Wasabi Oyster
The Kumamoto oyster with micro wasabi and asian pear (my favorite small bite of the evening)

And indeed, the next pairing was a great example of what Caparoso was talking about.  The fried Kumamoto oyster with micro wasabi and asian pear had exactly that pan-Asian personality, with the subtle but sharp heat of the wasabi lifting the savory fried oyster to a whole new level.  So what goes with wasabi?  Forget the Asahi and Sapporo.  Wine absolutely can be successfully paired with this flavor, and it doesn’t have to be the most oft-parroted suggestion of a dry Riesling.  With this, the 2016 Fields Family Wines’ Vermentino was dry, tart, and perfect.  Flavors of meyer lemon and lemongrass, a slight salinity and solid minerality–that citrus backbone balanced so well with the fried oyster, and held its own against the wasabi component of the dish.

Randy Caparoso and Executive Chef John Hitchcock discuss the pairings with the class
Randy Caparoso and Executive Chef John Hitchcock discuss the pairings with the class

We enjoyed a third wine in the mix with the appetizers before heading on to the main course–Acquiesce’s 2016 Grenache Rosé.  We were encouraged to try the two whites and the Grenache Rosé with both of the appetizers as a way of experiencing how a dish can pair well with a variety of wines.  This traditionally styled Rosé, with a strong nod to its French roots, is dry, with abundant fruit and a little of that trademark spice that the Grenache grape shows so well.  And it was a great transition into the wines featured with the next course.

Plating the seared sous vide squab with the beautifully brunoised ratatouille
Plating the seared sous vide squab with the beautifully brunoised ratatouille

The entree for the evening, seared squab with pan jus and ratatouille, was a simple, traditional and stunningly presented dish–instead of the traditional rustic presentation, Chef Hitchcock and his staff prepared a meticulously brunoised take on this dish; that careful and skillful touch elevated an already-great dish; the aesthetics and texture were simply lovely.  The squab was prepared sous vide and then seared and dressed with pan jus.  And to go with this hearty but not heavy dish?  Two stellar Grenaches: Bokisch Vineyards’ 2014 Garnacha (the Spanish name for the Spanish variety perhaps better known by its adopted Rhone identity), and McCay Cellars’ 2014 Grenache.  This is a lightish/mediumish-bodied variety, with lively spice and fruit, and both iterations of this wine tasted beautifully with the squab.  These wines are a wonderful testament to Lodi’s ability to produce high-quality reds that are a universe apart from the big Zinfandels which built Lodi’s reputation over the last century-plus.

Artful plating takes our dessert course from this . . .
Artful plating takes our dessert course from this . . .
. . . to this
. . . to this

The final course (dessert, of course) struck me as a perfectly pitched, almost sentimental nod to Lodi.  The vanilla bean panna cotta with rhubarb and strawberry salad with micro mint and lavender was light and creamy, with the seasonal, local rhubarb and strawberries throwing a balancing note of tartness.  It was paired with perhaps the Lodi-iest of Lodi wines: the Jessie’s Grove Ancient Vine Tokay.  This grape–a Vitis vinifera variety that was more commonly grown and consumed as a table grape–was the leading grape crop in Lodi before seedless varieties eclipsed it over the last quarter century (I could, and very well may, devote an entire post to this fascinating grape).  It’s made in a white port wine style–so it’s lightly fortified–from 130-year-old Tokay vines, and never sits heavily on the palate.

New Culinary Director Bradley Ogden (left) speaks to the group at the end of the evening
New Culinary Director Bradley Ogden (left) speaks to the group at the end of the evening

It was a beautiful way to close out a great evening, and as the class lingered over the dessert, Wine & Roses proprietor Kathy Munson introduced James Beard Award-winning Chef Bradley Ogden, who joins Executive Chef John Hitchcock as the hotel’s new culinary director.  It’s exciting to look forward to what these two great culinary minds will come up with as a team (and also a good time to note that Wine & Roses has several dinners on its summer schedule, each featuring a particular Lodi winery).

Wine recap:

LVVR NV Lodi Sparkling Brut ($20)
LVVR NV Lodi Blanc de Blancs ($20)
Markus Wine Co. 2016 Nativo ($22)
Fields Family Wines 2016 Vermentino ($19)
Acquiesce 2016 Grenache Rosé ($24)
Bokisch Vineyards 2014 Garnacha ($20)
McCay Cellars 2014 Grenache ($35)
Jessie’s Grove 2011 Ancient Vine Tokay ($35)