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.

 

So. What’s this all about.

Welcome to my new wine blog!  EXACTLY what the world needs, no?  Perhaps–but I think this will be fun (for all of us).

First, a little about me.  I’m a nature and landscape photographer, which you can find out more about here and here.  I’m a writer.  My major in and early career out of college was journalism.  I used to be a newspaper reporter and editor (and then the internet came along, and let’s just not talk about what happened to print journalism)–and I loved reporting.  Specifically, I loved telling people’s stories.  And I’ve never really stopped loving that, even if I’m no longer a working journalist.

Some of my faves in my wine stash
Some of my faves in my wine stash

I’m also a wine lover.  I moved to Los Angeles, California at the beginning of 2000, and experienced my first wine tasting a couple of years after that when I moved to the bay area.  Like so many of us are, I was hooked.  I am fascinated by process and varietals and terroir and every other little thing.  I kept tasting.  Sonoma County.  Napa County.  Livermore Valley.  Mendocino County.  Lake County.  Then I moved back to LA.  Santa Barbara County.  Monterey County.  San Luis Obispo County!  I began researching which wineries I wanted to try on future trips, because this was serious fun.  In researching new wineries to try, I look at two things.  One, I like to see which varietals they grow and/or specialize in.  And two, I go straight to the “about” page on their website, because I want to know their story.  Most of the time, that’s what gets me to their tasting counter.  And the great thing about wineries, especially small wineries, is that so many of them have great stories.

Now, in perhaps the best case of serendipity ever (for me), it so happens that one of my favorite places to photograph–Big Sur and the hills of the central coast–is right in the middle of one of the state’s best wine regions.  So I explore.  A lot.  I have my biases as a result of these explorations–I think the wines of west Paso Robles (west of Highway 101 and north of Highway 46) are pure magic.  I think some of the best and most interesting wines come from this very specific area.  There are still scores of wineries there I have yet to try–as well as places as far afield as I can get to.  So what does this have to do with this blog?

Well–I like wine.  I love to write.  The photography should go without saying.  I’ve got a decent palate and know my way around a wine list without embarrassing myself.  But I really get excited about the stories–and that’s what I love to talk about.  For a while now I’ve kicked around the idea of starting a wine blog, but didn’t see any need to reinvent the wheel.  There are some fantastically good wine blogs out there, and plenty of folks who are great at reviewing wines.  But again, the stories.

So that’s what I’ll be doing–when I come across a winery with something interesting to share, whether it’s in how they got their start or maybe where their winemaker came from or any number of things that make me curious enough to walk in and sample their wines, that’s what I’ll share here along with the occasional review (because opinions are a thing I have plenty of) and other wine-related chatter.

Now go get your glass, and let’s hear some stories.