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.



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.


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

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)



Beautiful wines and beautiful food, beautifully paired

I was invited to a trade luncheon last week featuring the wines of one of the oldest Chateaus in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Chateau La Nerthe, at Georgie restaurant in Montage Beverly Hills.

The wines of Chateau La Nerthe
The wines of Chateau La Nerthe

More about the Chateau and Georgie in a moment, but first, about the lunch itself:  it was such a wonderful reminder of why I–and I suppose all of us–love wine so much.  I love to settle in with a glass of something delicious all by itself, but there’s something transcendent when you have just the right great wine with just the right food.  It can be downright revelatory.

If you’ve never dined at Georgie, it’s well worth a visit.  All of the dishes we had at the luncheon are available on the regular menu, so if you see something here that looks good–go get it!

Oyster Escabeche, which was as beautiful as it was delicious

We started out with a thoroughly impressive pairing–Prieuré de Montézargues rosé (one of the labels owned by the Chateau), with a single, perfect oyster escabeche, a Galician preparation topped with a meticulously brunoised pepper relish.  When an Amuse-bouche is placed in front of you and you reflexively grin at the sheer aesthetic loveliness, you know you’re in for a good time.

Herbed Labne on Pita
Herbed Labne on Pita

And so the rest of the lunch progressed–yellowfin poke and the Chateau’s 2012 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc; kale and tabbouleh salad with the astonishing 2012 Clos de Beauvenir, a Roussane-dominant blend and the estate’s top white.  I will dream about this wine.  My favorite of the starters, the herbed labne–a riff on tzatziki topped with cucumber, cherry tomato and pickled red onion–was paired with the 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, which has aged beautifully, drinks beautifully, and still has years of (delicious) life in the bottle.

Export Director Christophe Bristiel discusses the wines of Chateau La Nerthe
Export Director Christophe Bristiel discusses the wines of Chateau La Nerthe

And those were just the whites.

A family-style lunch paired perfectly with the Chateau's offerings
A family-style lunch paired perfectly with the Chateau’s offerings
The made for an unconventional but perfect pairing with salsa verde marinated shrimp
The Cotes du Rhone Villages made for an unconventional but perfect pairing with salsa verde marinated shrimp

On to the heavier plates and the lineup of the estate’s Côtes du Rhône Villages, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge (2012 and 2006), and their Châteauneuf-du-Pape des Cadettes, their premier Rouge, made from a dedicated 20-acre vineyard under vines ranging from 80 to 100 years old.  The food continued to impress as we moved into the heavier dishes, including some truly inventive pairings–especially the salsa verde marinated shrimp which made for a surprisingly spectacular pairing with the Côtes du Rhône Villages.  My favorite dish served with the reds was the short rib ravioli (because come ON you know this is going to be good!) and the des Cadettes.  FANTASTIC.

An artisinal cheese board finished off a beautiful lunch
An artisinal cheese board finished off a beautiful lunch

In short, Chateau La Nerthe produces some of the finest Rhône wines you’re likely to find–know that much (and those of you in the Los Angeles area can find them at Wally’s).  The Chateau has a wonderful history, and I’ll be interviewing their export director, Christophe Bristiel, here in the coming days about that in detail.


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!).

Update on Justin Winery’s Land Destruction

When last we spoke about this, we were awaiting the first fallout from the discovery of Justin Winery’s horrendous destruction of its Sleepy Farm Road property in west Paso Robles.  The county and the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District had both issued “stop work” orders and local outrage was spreading like wildfire, becoming a national headline.  Since that time, social media backlash exploded and local businesses began boycotting Justin wines.

The Resnicks, who own Wonderful Brands (who in turn owns Justin, among other properties), are now attempting to repair the substantial self-inflicted reputational (ha!) damage.  First, the news:  they’ve announced they are abandoning efforts to convert their land, including the construction of a mind-bogglingly ill-advised large-capacity reservoir (which they would not fill by the long-term and environmentally sound method of using runoff, but by pumping out 6 million gallons of precious and scarce groundwater).  They also announced they intend to donate the now-decimated parcel of land on Sleepy Farm Road to a yet-to-be-named land conservancy.  Gosh, thanks.

And I’m completely unmoved by their half-hearted mea culpa.  Here’s why.

First, the Resnicks are motivated by the accumulation of wealth, and apparently little else.  If you’re unfamiliar with them, this is a good place to start.  They’ve ruined the water supply for the entire population of the island of Fiji.  They’re quickly doing the same in California’s central valley.  My opinion of this couple?  Horrible, awful people.  Irredeemable.

But it gets better.  In their self-serving press release, do they accept responsibility for what’s been done to their land?  OF COURSE NOT.  Read on, from the San Luis Obispo Tribune’s story this morning:

In their announcement, the Resnicks blamed their “local team” at Justin Vineyards and Winery for the “terrible situation at our Sleepy Farm Road property, not to mention our poor reputation within the community.”

That is the lowest, sleaziest and most cowardly tactic–blame your employees, and accept no responsibility.  That’s truly reprehensible.

These people do not care about their land, regardless of their self-serving hand-wringing to the contrary.  They’re on a cut-your-losses P.R. salvage mission, and nothing more.

Like so many others, I will continue to boycott them–all of their products, including Justin wines.  You should, too.