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.