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.




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)