This is my thirteenth article in my series about my recent trip to Lodi, California on a media trip sponsored by the Lodi Winegrape Commission with four other bloggers (Amy of Another Wine Blog, Frank of Drink What YOU Like, Gabe of Gabe’s View, and Julia of Wine Julia) and Mark and Claudia from Snooth.com. For most of the trip we were also joined by Jenny Heitman and Camron King of the Wine Grape Commission.
Quite honestly, I thought that last week’s Lodi Friday was going to be the last in this series, not because I had exhausted all the stories to be told from my brief time there–I still have a ton of notes–but because, frankly, as the trip went on I became a bit worn out and my notes reflect that; I found myself blindly jotting down the facts instead of looking for the stories behind them.
This week, though, I was out in California again, this time for a wedding, and we spent a few days in the East Bay with my in-laws. Since Lodi is less than an hour drive away, I was able to convince my wife that driving over for a few appointments was a good idea (it did not, in any way, also serve as a way to get out of the house for a few hours…).
On Tuesday, after a morning with the magnanimous and talented winemaker Ryan Sherman of Fields Family Winery (a post on that visit will come shortly), I spent the afternoon with the equally magnanimous Camron King, the Executive Director of the Lodi Wine Grape Commission. Even though this will cause irreparable inflation of his ego, Camron is a really great guy and ever since the first night of the press trip, we really hit it off (often to the consternation of others who happen to be within ear shot of our banter).
We visited a few wineries that afternoon: McCay Cellars (really great dry White Zinfandel and Old Vines Zin) and Jeremy Wine Company (their newly released Tempranillo is a knockout). The last stop of the afternoon was Klinker Brick, one of the largest producers of quality wine in Lodi, with an annual production of 100,000 cases. As I was there at the bar enjoying the first wine on the list, their luscious 2014 Albariño, Camron tapped me on the shoulder, I turned, and he introduced me to Steve Felton, the owner of Klinker Brick, who had just entered the tasting room.
As we moved on to the 2013 Klinker Brick Dolcetto, Steve grabbed a glass and joined us. The subsequent conversation vacillated from the harvest (which was ongoing), children, travel, and the state of Lodi wine. It was never forced, nor rushed (until Camron had to leave to make it to his kids’ back to school night), and never once did I feel like I was talking to the owner of a multi-million dollar business.
Then it hit me.
Lodi gets it: there is more to wine making than just making great wine.
Why else would Steve come down for a chat in the middle of crush? I am sure that Camron had texted him to let him know that I was there, but the fact that Steve took a few moments out of his no doubt busy day showed that even owners of the larger wineries in Lodi feel the need to jump in and pull with everyone else; that all need to be on board to move Lodi forward.
It was then that I realized that there had been signs of Lodi “getting it” everywhere, so I went back to my notes and I started taking a bit of inventory.
First, there are the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing, California’s first 3rd party-certified sustainable wine growing program, which promotes “practices that enhance biodiversity, water and air quality, soil health, and employee and community well-being.”
There is also the Wine Grape Commission’s Website, which is the single best wine region site I have seen. It not only has a wealth of information about many of the people and places in the appellation, but it also serves as an essential tool for visiting the region (I referred to it countless times this week as I planned out my visits, which was a unique experience for me–I can’t think of another region’s website that was anywhere close to as useful).
Third, Lodi was recently announced as the location for next year’s Wine Bloggers Conference. While that might not seem like that big of a deal to the non-bloggers out there, I can assure you that it is a fairly significant development. 300-400 wine writers and professionals will be in town next August, all of them experiencing how Lodi “gets it” and reporting it to their varied audiences.
As I scrolled through my phone (I “write” almost all my notes on my phone), even in the comments I made while I was a bit fried from taking notes there were signs of how Lodi “gets it.”
Near the end of the trip we had breakfast at Michael David Winery, a 600,000 case producer in Lodi, where we were joined by David Phillips (the “David” of Michael David Winery). We chatted about a number of issues (including bike racing–a big cyclist is the David), but what struck me were the incentive programs that they have instituted for their growers. For example, they have quality bonuses: all the growers come in for a blind tasting of all the wines and all in attendance partake in rating the wines. The growers of the fruit with the best ratings receive bonuses. There are also bonuses for sugar content: as the fruit hangs on the vine, it increases in sugar while decreasing in weight. Since many contracts are based on weight, Michael David will increase the price that they pay to the grower as the grower allows the fruit to mature.
We visited vineyards with Craig Ledbetter, of Vino Farms, one of the largest family owned grape growing companies in the country and who is dedicated to restoring unfarmed or difficult areas of their vineyards back to natural habitats with native plants and introducing native wildlife. Similarly, we went to the Lange Twins Family Winery, who are equally committed to restoring native habitats on the vineyards that they own and manage.
We went up to the Bechthold Vineyard, the oldest Cinsault Vineyard in the world, that is managed by Kevin Phillips (the son of the “Michael” of Michael David Winery). The vineyard is certainly not all that large (25 acres), but the Phillips nonetheless parcel out the vineyard to numerous winemakers (some on a rotating basis) so that the special nature of the vineyard can be expressed in many ways. They do not have to do that, but they get it–the more people that are exposed to what makes Lodi special, the more it benefits all in the region.
Others are starting to notice the fact that Lodi seems to “get it.” Last year, for the first time, the California winery of the year (Delicato Family Vineyards (DFV)), vineyard of the year (the aforementioned Bechthold Vineyard), and grower of the year (the pictured Craig Ledbetter), all came from the same region: Lodi.
The region is also getting some recognition from national outlets as just last week, Lodi was nominated for Wine Region of the Year by the Wine Enthusiast.
For the past several decades, it has been easy to peg Lodi as a bit of a one trick pony as “big Zinfandel” was where its wine diversity seemed to start and end. Today, though, there are over 100 different varieties grown in the appellation and even the region’s Zins are evolving–just a taste of one of the Lodi Native wines will likely convince even the most determined skeptic that there is much more to Lodi Zin than big fruit.
So Lodi gets it, but really it goes further than that. In my days traveling around the region, one other characteristic really jumped out at me. While the growers and wine makers certainly take their respective roles in the wine making process very seriously, they do not take themselves all that seriously. Lodi people, for the most part, are fun to be around.
They seem to get it: Wine is a beverage. It should be fun.