California’s Lodi AVA was approved in 1986, but grapegrowing and winemaking in the area, straight east from San Francisco (and southeast of Sacramento) at the north extreme of the San Joaquin Valley, go back to the middle of the 19th Century. Zinfandel is the grape especially associated with Lodi, home to a remarkable collection of “old vine” vineyards planted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The AVA was expanded in 2002 to the south and west. Lodi is divided into seven sub-appellations, and if you have not heard of most of these rest easy, because I had not heard of them either: Alta Mesa (which I have seen on labels from Lee Family Farms); Borden Ranch; Clements Hills; Cosumnes River; Jahant; Mokelumne River; and Sloughhouse. Interestingly, these sub-appellations, the subject of a five-year investigation and evaluation process, were approved by the federal government at once, in August 2006.
As most wine regions are wont to do, Lodi is busily promoting itself and its “subs” as viable entities. One of the steps is the establishment of the Lodi Native Project, this year focusing on the Mokelumne River AVA. This area is characterized by an alluvial fan of sandy, well-drained soils and is a bit cooler than the other six sub-appellations. The idea is that six winemakers would take grapes from old vineyards, ranging from 1958 back to 1901, and make their wines using similar traditional and non-interventionist techniques, including naturally occurring yeasts; no new oak barrels or oak chips, dust or innerstaves; no acid manipulation; no addition of tannin, water or concentrate products; no must concentration or extraction measures; no filtering or fining. Obviously, the idea is to allow the vineyards themselves, their terroir, to be expressed through the wine. Indeed, we have six quite different zinfandels here, some lighter and more elegant and balanced, others treading the path of more density, floridness and higher alcohol. Though I prefer the former to the latter, the project is a fascinating glimpse into the history of a region and the styles of wine that individual vineyards can produce.
The package of six wines is available for $180 online at LodiNative.com or, if you’re in the area, at the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center.
Lodi Native The Century Block Vineyard Zinfandel 2012, Mokelumne River. Fields Family Wines, Ryan Sherman, winemaker. Three acres, planted in 1905. 14 percent alcohol. (Sherman said in a private communication that the alcohol content on this wine is closer to 13.8 percent.) Medium ruby color; red and black currants, red and black cherries; briers and brambles, lightly dusted graphite; flavors in the mouth lean more toward blackberry and raspberry, hints of fruitcake, black tea and orange zest; dense and chewy yet sleek; borne by dusty, slightly leathery tannins and bright acidity; well-knit, polished, lithic finish. Beautifully-fashioned and poised zinfandel. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent.
Lodi Native Marian’s Vineyard Zinfandel 2012, Mokelumne River. St. Amant Winery, Stuart Spencer, winemaker. 8.3 acres, planted in 1901. 14.5 percent alcohol. Radiant medium ruby hue; slightly fleshy and meaty, very spicy, smoke and ash, graphite; notes of roasted plums and cherries, potpourri, loam; after a few minutes, raspberries and blueberry tart; very dry, slightly grainy, raspy tannins; you feel the wood, not as new wood but as a supple shaping influence with hints of rosemary and tobacco; dry, fairly austere finish. A high-toned zinfandel, rather grave and dignified. Try from 2015 through 2018 or ’19. Excellent.
Lodi Native Soucie Vineyard Zinfandel 2012, Mokelumne. M2 Wines, Layne Montgomery, winemaker. 14.5 percent alcohol. Grapes from the oldest part of the vineyard, planted in 1916. Intense dark ruby-purple with a magenta rim; bright, fruity, very spicy; rhubarb and blueberry. notes of macerated black currants and plums, and more cherry comes up gradually; a rich, warm, spicy mouthful of zinfandel; very dry, and you feel the robust tannins from mid-palate back, though the balance is resolved in perfect equilibrium; the 14.5 percent alcohol feels just right for this wine, a pivot, in a way, the gyroscope that keeps the even keel. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent.
Lodi Native Trulux Vineyard Zinfandel 2012, Mokelumne. McCay Cellars, Michael J. McCay, winemaker. 14.6 percent alcohol. Vineyard planted in the 1940s. Dark ruby-purple color; deep, intense and concentrated, very spicy, earthy and loamy; a big mouthful of blackberries, blueberries and pomegranate, cloves and allspice, an element of fruitcake and oolong tea, and paradoxically, a sort of smoky cigarette paper fragility; still, beyond that nuance, this is a large-framed, dry, robustly tannic zinfandel, vibrant and resonant, that wears its oaken heart on its sleeve. Now through 2017 or ’19. Excellent, with slight reservations.
Lodi Native Wegat Vineyard Zinfandel 2012, Mokelumne. Maley Brothers Vineyard, Chad Joseph, winemaker. 14.9 percent alcohol. 21 acres, planted in 1958, which seems like a youngster compared to some of these other vineyards. Dark ruby-purple color; ripe, rich and spicy; blueberry and boysenberry, slightly caramelized plums and rhubrab; fruitcake, soft and macerated raspberries; very dense and chewy, packed with baking spice, dusty graphite and black and blue fruit flavors; lots of tannic power, even rather austere in the area of structure but also a little jammy; fortunately a clean line of bright acidity keeps it honest. Now through 2017 or ’18. Very Good+.
Lodi Native Noma Ranch Zinfandel 2012, Mokelumna. Macchia Wines, Tim Holdener, winemaker. 15.8 percent alcohol. 15 acres, planted in early 1900s. Opaque dark ruby-purple color; the ripest and fleshiest of these zinfandels, boysenberry, loganberry and tart raspberry, heaps of earthy briers and brambles; fruitcake and plum jam; very dry, on the finish reveals alcoholic heat and sweetness which on my palate throws the wine off-balance. Now — if this is yer cuppa tea — through 2016 or ’17. Very Good.