Over the last several months, I wrote quite a bit about my media trip out to Lodi, California (including a list of potential Man-Crushes). The trip was great on a number of levels, but it was also a bit surreal. It was my first media trip and I had no idea what to expect, so I approached it like I do most aspects of my life: I wanted to have fun.
That was accomplished. I made some new friends (I think) and reaffirmed some older friendships (I think). I also learned a lot more about Lodi wine and some of the people there.
During that trip, I met Stuart Spencer several times over the course of those four days both in his role as a winemaker/winery owner and as an employee of the Lodi Winegrape Commission. I never really got a chance to interact all that much with Stuart as we had a fairly packed schedule. And as a guy working two full-time jobs, so did he.
When there was a chance for some dialogue, Stuart came across as both extremely knowledgeable as well as having a bit of a sarcastic, even joyfully combative streak.
In other words: my kinda guy.
Thus, a few months later when I was back in Lodi, I scheduled a meeting with Stuart at St. Amant winery. He was in the middle of crush, but he took some time out of his rather busy day to pour a little wine for my wife, my father-in-law, and me.
Stuart’s life is intrinsically linked with St. Amant, so as we tasted through the wines, the accompanying stories provided insight not only for the wines, but also a look inside the Spencer family.
St. Amant does not produce much white wine, reflecting the family’s preference for bigger fuller bodied reds. The Verdelho and Rosé that we tried were both very good, however, and at $15 an obvious choice for an everyday type of wine.
2014 St. Amant Verdelho Amador County: Retail $15. Bright and acidic with crisp lemon and nice finish. Very Good+ 88-90 Points.
2014 St. Amant Barbera Rosé Lodi: Retail $15. A saignée but the Barbera is naturally high in acid so this works. Really dry and very nice. Very Good. 87-89 Points.
Moving onto the reds, I braced myself for the long haul.
2013 St. Amant Barbera Lodi: Retail $18. Good fruit of raspberry and blackberry. Great deal if you ask me (and since you are reading this, I will assume you did). Very Good to Outstanding. 88-90 Points.
One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Stuart was to taste through some of his Old Vine Zinfandels that I first tried a couple of months prior in the middle of the vineyard that provided the fruit for the wines. As I have said many times, wine is contextual–many elements go into the evaluation of a wine–and I wanted to make sure that my appreciation of his wines were not jaded by the context of that first tasting.
It wasn’t. Those Old Vine Zins of his are fantastic.
2013 St. Amant Old Vine Zinfandel Mohr-Fry Vineyard Lodi: Retail $18. Not big at all but still juicy. This is why I came to taste here–this is my kind of Zin. Mocha and depth. Fantastic, but for the price? Practically stealing. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2013 St. Amant Marian’s Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi: Retail $24. Just when I thought the Mohr-Fry was “where it’s at” Stuart poured me this. Planted in 1901 on their own roots–I should not have to say more, even if you have no clue what it all means. Outstanding and at least one Whoa (I bought four bottles). 92-94 Points.
St. Amant embraces the beginnings of the winery, which had a bit of a sordid start. Tim Spencer was originally a grape farmer and eventually a part owner of a fine wine shop. It was through that shop that he developed a love for Port wine, which led him to plant several Portuguese varieties in their Amador County vineyard (this was in the late ’70’s when few had heard of Pinot Noir, let alone Tinta Cao, Alvarelhao, and Souzao).
Despite a decade of growing grapes and his partnership on the retail end, he apparently had little interest in making wine. That suddenly changed in 1981 when he learned that the winery to which he had agreed to sell all his Portuguese varietal grapes was going to declare bankruptcy right after harvest. Rather than risk not getting paid for his fruit, he decided to go to the winery and “reclaim” the best of the wine that he found.
He loaded up 300 gallons of a young port wine (that had been made from his still unpaid for grapes) on his pick-up truck and headed off, worrying about the next steps while on the road.
That somewhat audacious step into winemaking is still celebrated three decades later by the Bootleg Port and the Speakeasy Red, both part of the “Bootleg Society” references to which are prevalent in the tasting room.
2013 St. Amant Speakeasy Red: Retail $24. From the website: “65% Marian’s Zinfandel with Barbera, Souzao, Tempranillo and a few secret ingredients.” Normally, I eschew all that “secret ingredient” crap, but this was Stuart, and so I gave him a pass. For now. Big, but not huge fruity and a great drink. My father-in-law loved this one. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
Stuart also bottles some of the Portuguese varieties as stand alone dry reds, which is certainly rare in this country (and I thought would therefore be near impossible to sell), but they tried it and the wine club loved it, so it has endured.
2013 St. Amant Souzao Amador County: Retail $18. Dark and brooding. Intensely fruity and acidic. Fun and tasty. Very Good. 87-89 Points.
2013 St. Amant Touriga Amador County: Retail $18. Can’t be called “Touriga Nacional” because of Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) rules, which I do not think anyone understands. Perfume and dark fruit. Very Good. 86-88 Points.
The last of the dry reds was the Tempranillo, which is a bit of a monster right now.
2013 St. Amant Tempranillo Amador County: $18. Mint and eucalyptus. Big and chewy. A bit of a tannic beast. Great now. But in five years? Watch out. Now? Very Good+ 88-90 Points. In five years? Potentially Outstanding. 91-94 Points.
We then tasted through all three ports: the 2012 Vintage Port ($35/750 ml), the 2012 Bootleg Port ($18/500 ml), and the Tawny Port Lot #7 ($35/500 ml). Although I do not have detailed notes on the ports (my father-in-law was getting antsy), they were all Outstanding (I purchased a bottle of the Tawny to take home), among the best “American Ports” I have ever tried.
Much thanks to Stuart for the visit during a pretty crazy time at the winery.