Lovin’ la Vida Lodi (Part 2 of my adventure)

So I had quite the introduction to Lodi wine country last week, and my second day there only got better.

Filled with enthusiasm and warmth from the previous evening’s festivities, I bounded onto the shuttle at 5:30 a.m. the second morning, ready for a sunrise harvest at Michael David Winery.

Harvesting Viognier at Sunrise at Michael David Winery
Harvesting Viognier at Sunrise at Michael David Winery

Oh, who am I kidding. I dragged my zombified self onto the bus, clutching my to-go cup of hotel coffee like a life preserver and wondered what the heck I’d gotten myself into.

Kevin Phillips, putting all us bloggers to work harvesting Viognier
Kevin Phillips, putting all us bloggers to work harvesting Viognier

But the enthusiasm would soon return for real the moment we stepped into the vineyard, now bathed in a soft pre-dawn glow.  The air still had a bit of coolness (enjoy it while it lasts!), and field workers were already hard at work hand-harvesting Viognier grapes–which is the same task we were about to try for the first time, and general manager Kevin Phillips was there to crack that whip and make sure we got to work pronto.  A ruthless taskmaster, that man (not really; he was a riot, and a great sport for allowing us into his vineyard for some very sketchy beginner-level field work).

Pros putting us all to shame while they harvest Viognier at light speed
Pros putting us all to shame while they harvest Viognier at light speed

Let me just say this: those workers are GREAT at what they do, and the speed with which they do it will blow your mind.  I was already impressed just watching them work their way down the rows, but when the rest of us donned gloves and picked up clippers to give it a shot, I was even more impressed.  That is some seriously demanding work, and the level of skill and focus it takes to move with any speed down those rows comes from a lot of dedication and practice.  It is hard, hard, hard work.  They are Bad. Ass.  We, on the other hand, kinda sucked–but learned a little more about what goes into making our favorite liquid-in-a-bottle, and got a genuine appreciation for some of the most back-breaking work that’s such an integral part of the process of going from grape to bottle.  Everybody jumped in and gave it their best shot, and we almost, kinda-sorta filled up one big bin as a group.

Bloggers getting a taste of harvest-time hard work
Bloggers getting a taste of harvest-time hard work

After a field worker’s breakfast at the winery (coffee and a massive breakfast burrito), we were off to Mokelumne Glen Vineyard to check out one of the (if not THE) most unusual vineyards in all of California.  Bob Koth’s vineyard along the banks of the Mokelumne River is a living museum of German and Austrian varietals.  While it doesn’t include every such varietal in existence, the Koths do grow almost 50 different varietals (including several different Riesling clones)–many of which are the only such plantings in the U.S., and in one of the least likely places to grow these cool-weather grapes.  But grow them he does, and it’s become a varietal playground for winemakers, a few of whom greeted us at the end of our vineyard tour (where I hope nobody was keeping track of how many Gewurztraminer berries I was munching along the way).

Borra winemaker Markus Niggli talks to our group about the wines me makes from Mokelumne Glen's fruit
Borra winemaker Markus Niggli talks to our group about the wines he makes from Mokelumne Glen’s fruit
MVG Wines
Some of the wines made from grapes grown at Mokelumne Glen vineyard

We sampled wines made from Mokelumne Glen grapes by Borra Vineyards, Holman Cellars and Sidebar Cellars–my favorites were the Holman Uncharted, made from MGV Bacchus grapes (a new varietal for me), and Borra’s Nuvola–a crisp, dry 100% Gewurztraminer made from MGV grapes.  The excitement that these winemakers have about the opportunity to work with Mokelumne Glen’s rare varietals was palpable (and made the tasting that much more fun).

After we finished our tasting there, we stepped across a continent (figuratively speaking), meaning we walked across the road to Bokisch Vineyards’ Las Cerezas vineyard, planted with Spanish varietals Tempranillo, Albarino, and a new-for-me red varietal that Bokisch specializes in, Graciano.  Owner and grower Markus Bokisch took us through a tasting of these wines (again, such a great experience standing in the same vineyard where the wine you’re drinking was grown).  Bokisch spent several years in Spain, and came away with a passion for (and extensive knowledge of) Spanish varietals, and they are the centerpiece of the wines he makes.

Our delicious Catalan-inspired al fresco lunch at Bokisch Vineyards
Our delicious Catalan-inspired al fresco lunch at Bokisch Vineyards

We were soon off to Bokisch’s Terra Alta vineyard and tasting room for another vineyard and winery tour (including a FUN taste of freshly pressed Albarino juice!), and finally settled in under a massive oak tree in the middle of the vineyard where we enjoyed a Catalan-style repast prepared by Liz Bokisch, accompanied by more of those delicious Bokisch wines.  There were open-faced build-it-yourself sandwiches, a watermelon and feta salad, and an incredibly fresh, bright and perfect-for-the-heat gazpacho.  It was the perfect warm weather meal, and the al fresco vineyard setting was beautiful.  And I came away with a mild obsession for his Mourvedre-based Monastrell; we tasted the soon-to-be-released 2014, and I will be back for more of that.

So, what’s the best thing to do after feasting on a Spanish-inspired vineyard lunch?  Go see more vineyards!  Off we went again, this time to the Abba Vineyard where we were met by grower Phil Abba and winemaker Mike McCay of McCay cellars, who uses the Abba Syrah and Grenache in his wines.

McCay Rose of Carignane and Grenache--bright, dry and delicious
McCay Rose of Carignane and Grenache–bright, dry and delicious

We were back to triple-digit temps, so being met with McCay’s cold and delicious Rose of Carignane and Grenache to start off with was a welcome treat.  With refreshing rose in hand, we got a tour and quick lesson in trellising in the Syrah vineyard.

Smart-Henry trellising system for Syrah at Abba Vineyard
Smart-Henry trellising system for Syrah at Abba Vineyard

For this particular varietal, Abba uses an uncommon trellising system known as Smart-Henry, where the grapes are trained into two tiers.  And it’s the most aesthetically beautiful trellising I’ve ever seen.

McCay's Abba Vineyard Syrah, from vine to glass
McCay’s Abba Vineyard Syrah, from vine to glass

We had a taste of McCay’s Syrah from that vineyard, and then proceeded down the road a bit to Abba’s Grenache vineyard.  Not only did we again sample the wine from that vineyard while tasting the almost-ripe Grenache berries, we got to do something this wine geek has been fascinated by but never tried before–we played around with one of the winemaker’s and grower’s most important harvest-time tools, the refractometer.

Using the refractometer to check sugar levels in the grapes
A fellow blogger using the refractometer to check sugar levels in the grapes

This is used to measure the sugar level, or brix, in winegrapes and helps determine when the time is right to pick those grapes (and by the way, that McCay Grenache–currently one of my favorite varietals generally–knocked my socks off; big and spicy on the palate, with a cherry cola nose that I flipped for).

I can’t say enough good things about how Lodi Wine planned this excursion, by the way–our final vineyard stop of the day was yet another educational (and really interesting) lesson in wine.  We left the Abba vineyard and headed to the Rous vineyard of true ancient-vine Zinfandel.

Chris Rous, Steve Millier, Tim Holdener and Mike McCay tell the group all about the Rous Vineyard ancient-vine Zinfandel
Mike McCay, Tim Holdener, Steve Millier and Chris Rous tell the group all about the Rous Vineyard ancient-vine Zinfandel

Grower Chris Rous sells fruit from that vineyard to three different winemakers–Mike McCay, who seemed to be just following us around at this point (I KID, I KID!–McCay was one of my favorite people I met on this excursion), Steve Millier of Ironstone Vineyards, and Tim Holdener of Macchia Vineyards.  They all make an old-vine zin from this vineyard, and we were treated to a side-by-side tasting of all three.  There were definite differences in style between the three, all were delicious, and it was really interesting to taste the different takes on old vine zin from the same vineyard.  Yet another wine geek’s treat.

I may never stop raving about this experience.  Lodi Wine did an amazing job showing off their great wine region, and including lots of general in-the-field wine education as well.  I was so impressed not just by the wines, but by the wonderful people making them.  Lodi is a small town, and those winemakers all know each other and have built a wonderful community–and it shows.  I was honored to be included in that community, even if it was just for a couple of days.  I’m already planning a trip back later this fall to interview several of the winemakers so I can more properly introduce them to you here on winestainedlens.

 

Surprised by Lodi (Part 1)

I’m one of the first people who’ll urge you to put aside your assumptions when you go into any new situation, but even I wasn’t sure what to expect when I traveled to Lodi, California for the ninth annual (and my very first) Wine Bloggers Conference last week.

And boy, was I blown away by what I experienced.

Known in the past mostly for its (very) large-scale production of wine grapes, used mostly in bulk wines, it’s so much more.  Lodi was named 2015’s Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine–no small accomplishment–so I suspected I was in for a treat.  I already have a soft spot for underappreciated wine regions (see my love of all things Paso Robles), and Lodi just went straight to my heart.

I opted to participate in the pre-conference excursion in Lodi on Wednesday and Thursday (the conference officially kicked off on Friday morning), and I’ll spend this post filling you in on that first day and first up-close experience with Lodi wines (tomorrow you’ll hear about day 2).

Picpoul Blanc berries in their pre-wine state
Picpoul Blanc berries in their pre-wine state

The conference picked us up at our respective hotels (with the delightful Randy Caparoso, a wine journalist who writes for the Lodi Wine Commission and is also editor-at-large for SOMM Journal and The Tasting Panel magazines as our guide) and we were off to our first winery and vineyard visit–Acquiesce Vineyards, where winemaker Susan Tipton produces Rhône whites only (okay, and one VERY tasty rosé).  Who even does that?  Susan Tipton does, and she knocks it out of the park, thank you very much.

Acquiesce's lineup of luscious Rhone wines (and don't you just LOVE that bottle shape?)
Acquiesce’s lineup of luscious Rhone wines (and don’t you just LOVE that bottle shape?)

Now, granted it was just ridiculously hot in Lodi last week, but those were some of the most crisp, refreshing white wines I’ve tasted in a very long time.  We took a quick stroll through her vineyard, and then escaped the heat to try the wines inside the (blessedly cool) tasting room.  Her Picpoul Blanc was easily my favorite (and currently sold out), but the entire lineup is a beautiful expression of everything that makes those wines simultaneously a perfect representation of both the Rhône region they hail from and the synergistic perfection of those varietals grown under optimum Rhône-like conditions here in California.

Gorgeously gnarly 112-year-old Zinfandel vines at Lizzy James Vineyard
Gorgeously gnarly 112-year-old Zinfandel vines at Lizzy James Vineyard

We were soon back on the bus and on our way to the Lizzy James Vineyard, where we were given a vineyard walk-and-talk with owner/grower Kyle Lerner of Harney Lane Winery and winemaker Chad Joseph.  There’s something truly special about tasting a wine while standing in the very vineyard in which the grapes were grown (and this would not be our only such experience).  These vines in particular are true old vine Zinfandel, planted in 1904, nice and gnarly and something Lodi still has in abundance–and part of what makes it such a special wine region.  And those old vines produce some of the most intense, complex fruit–and resulting wine–you’ll ever put to your lips.

Beautiful bouquet of rosés at Harney Lane
Beautiful bouquet of rosés at Harney Lane

After learning all about those vines, we headed on to the Harney Lane tasting room for our last stop of the evening.  We sampled the Albariño, then the rosé of Tempranillo, Petite Sirah & Zinfandel (bone-dry, rich and absolutely heavenly).  Glasses in hand, we decamped to the winery’s patio, where the Lerners had set an incredible dinner for all us bloggers.

Harney Lane (delicious) Dinner Menu
Harney Lane (delicious) Dinner Menu

I’ve enjoyed more than a few winemaker dinners over the years, and this one–well, it was fabulous and friendly and brimming with great food, great wine (including that Lizzy James zin!), and great conversation and laughter.

Toasting a great meal and a great first day in Lodi wine country
Toasting a great meal and a great first day in Lodi wine country

What a wonderful way to get acquainted with each other (beyond our electronic friendships) and the lovely and gracious Lerner family.

We ended the day with several in the group taking a ride on a harvester as it mechanically picked chardonnay clusters just as the sun was going down and the delta breeze from the Carquinez Strait kicked in (aaaahhhhh).

A sunset joyride on a chardonnay harvester at Harney Lane
A sunset joyride on a grape harvester at Harney Lane

WHAT a day.  It was an incredible introduction to Lodi, full of charm and killer wine.  And we were just getting started (Part 2 tomorrow!).

Home, home on the Range(land)

If you happened to run into Laird Foshay in town in Paso Robles, you’d quickly figure him for a local cowboy–the requisite boots and hat, perfectly placed (as an exiled Texan, I can speak to the subject of cowboy hats; more finesse is involved than you might imagine).

Rangeland's Award-Winning Wines
Rangeland’s Award-Winning Wines

But you’d be wrong–to an extent.  Foshay, whose first career was in tech publishing, is a Nova Scotia native who grew up in Palo Alto.  His startup INVESTools was one of the early web-based investment newsletters; he sold that and in 2000 purchased some of the sweetest west side Paso land you’re likely to encounter, Adelaida Springs Ranch, and moved the family to the burgeoning wine region.

Laird Foshay pouring a flight of his winesFoshay and his wife Lisa now raise cattle and sheep on the ranch (all grass-fed), and have 40 of those 1,500 acres planted to wine grapes.  This former Silicon Valley entrepreneur now spends his days as a bona fide rancher, a lot of that on horseback.

Just 12 miles from the ocean and at over 1,700 feet elevation, those 40 acres of grapevines thrive in the rich limestone soil and the cooler coastal air of the Adelaida District sub-AVA.  The Foshays initially planted 20 acres of vines in 2002, all to Bordeaux varietals, and have since doubled that and added Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and several Rhone varietals.

Estate VinesLiving in such a geologically and agriculturally rich location means that Foshay and winemaker Paul Hinschberger opt to take a mostly non-interventionist approach to their winemaking, preferring to let the wines show the beauty of that terroir to the greatest possible extent–a wise choice, clearly indicated in the quality of the wines.

Rangeland does not have a public tasting room–yet (more on that in a moment)–but is happy to set up a private tasting for you.  When you go (and, oh, you should go!), you’ll drive deep into the west Paso hills, through the ranch gate and arrive at their stunning ranch house–where you’ll most likely be greeted by Arrow, the ranch border collie.  And a green tennis ball.  You know what to do.Arrow the Ranch Dog

Once inside, you’ll enjoy a flight of their wines in a casual setting with breathtaking views to the west.  Their wines are a solid lineup, from the rosé (a blend of Zinfandel, Mouverdre, and Cabernet Sauvignon) to a GSM through a couple of red blends, Cabernet, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.  The latter two were easy favorites of mine–big, as you might expect for those varietals, but with a surprising amount of restraint.  The Petite was especially impressive.

View to the westThe first time I visited, back in February, they were hosting a vertical tasting of their cabs, capped off with a rustic lunch of a beef pie made from their own grassfed beef.  And that’s where you’re going to find yourself faced with a tough decision–the Foshays offer not just a wine club, as you’d expect, but they also offer a beef club and lamb club.  Join any of their clubs, and you’ll enjoy an across-the-board 20% discount on wines and meat.  I dare you to resist.  We’re beef club members, incidentally (yeah, I couldn’t resist that).Rangeland Glass

Try to make it up for a private tasting and ranch tour–and then look forward to their upcoming expansion.  I was delighted when Laird pulled out the map and plans for their future tasting room and winery; while the intimacy of enjoying a tasting in their beautiful home is a special experience, the new facility they have planned will be impressive in its own right–and with those same sweeping views.  I’m excited by what they have planned, and look forward to following up as soon as the new tasting room is completed and opened.Plans for the Future

Rangeland Wines (on Adelaida Springs Ranch) is located at 10425 Klau Mine Rd. in Paso Robles.  Use the contact form on their website to scheduling a tasting, or call 805-674-9232.

 

Rhone Rangers Los Angeles tasting is this Saturday!

I’ll take any opportunity I can think up to drive up to Paso Robles for a little quality wine-tasting time–but one of the benefits of living in a big city like Los Angeles is that sometimes the good wine comes to YOU.

Rhone Rangers Los Angeles TastingAnd the Rhone Rangers tasting event in Los Angeles is one of those lucky, lovely times.

If you’re not familiar, the Rhone Rangers began as a way to educate the public and introduce them to (and promote) the great new-world Rhone wines being made in the U.S.  Originally a solely California creation, it now boasts member wineries from Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Michigan, New York, and Virginia.

The Los Angeles event features mostly California producers, including industry leaders such as Tablas Creek and Halter Ranch, and also many small producers (which you already know I have a soft spot for) such as Lone Madrone and Calcareous.  More than 40 wineries will be there, and styles run the full gamut, meaning you’ll find plenty of teeth-staining goodness to enjoy no matter what your preference is.

There are multiple ticket options for the event–I’d recommend the Saturday pass, which gets you in bright and early for the winemakers’ seminar at 11:00 a.m.  The seminar “The Past and the Future” features a panel of winemakers and includes a flight of red and white wines.  That pass also gets you into the VIP tasting (ahead of the crowds) as well as a buffet lunch.  You can also choose to attend just the VIP tasting or the main event–but be aware that the Saturday and VIP passes are almost sold out.  Grab a ticket now, and use code RRLA16 for $10 off the ticket price.

A few wineries I recommend as must-try tastings are Tablas Creek, Halter Ranch, Lone Madrone, Calcareous and Ridge.  Whatever your Rhone preferences, this is a definite don’t-miss event, and it’s a great way to spend a Saturday.

Here’s the full schedule for the day:

Date:            Saturday, August 6

Location:   Skirball Cultural Center
2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90049
Complimentary Parking

Time:
11 am – Winemaker Seminar
(with Red/White Rhone Blends)
12:30 – Trade and Media Tasting
12:30 pm  – New Event: Winemaker
White/Rosé Luncheon
1:30 pm – VIP Grand Tasting
2:30 pm – Grand Tasting General Admission