The Lodi region of California has grown wine grapes for over a century. This history has both burnished and oxidized its reputation. Lodi has some name recognition, but for a specific niche: high octane zinfandel and bulk filler for the kings, queens, and princes to the west, nearer the cool coast. Both because of and despite this storied past, growers new and historic have reenergized the brand “Lodi” with forward-thinking varietal plantings that better explore the potential of the region, while also proudly staking their claim as the rightful heir of old, entish zinfandel vines. Aspiring, trailblazing, and even avante garde, some of these producers now explore a spectrum of wines from broad-shouldered and proud, to vivacious and crisp.
The gateway to California’s massive Central Valley, Lodi often gets lumped in with the growers there who produce millions of gallons of bulk juice to sell to large national producers. This connection has veracity, as Lodi served this role back in the 1960s and ’70s. However, Lodi benefits greatly from moderating winds off the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, which feeds into San Francisco Bay 30 miles west. Without this moderating influence, wines become ripe without balance—the problem faced by the Central Valley farther east and south. For Lodi, however, the delta provides hot, arid daytime conditions with vitally important cool evenings, which enable the potential for compelling winemaking.
Proprietor and winemaker Jim “Giacomo” Moore of Uvaggio recently mentioned in an email interview that he has dropped his production from 7,500 cases back in 2013 to 1,000 cases per year in 2017. While both are minuscule numbers in the world of California wine, Moore is clearly focusing on quality winemaking with this decision. His past experience as assistant winemaker at Robert Mondavi and director of winemaking for Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Ca’ del Solo project also gives reason to take heed.
When a winemaker with a serious resume forges a path on his own under a boutique label, give a taste. With Uvaggio, Moore focuses his energy on Italian varietals, which have long been his forte and passion. Primitivo, for instance, is native to the eastern coastal region of Puglia, Italy, and is a genetic cousin to American zinfandel. It consequently shares the uneven ripeness within individual clusters, a hallmark of zinfandel, which accounts for the hint of green that can co-exist alongside liqueur density. Uvaggio’s 2015 Primitivo yields notes of strawberry and dusty chalk with noteworthy, gravelly tannins and well-tuned acidity. A hint of green on the palate and bitterness in the tannins suggests Moore works hard to avoid over-ripeness. For those seeking a wholly unique white wine experience, get your hands on the 2016 Vermentino, which yields lemon oil, grass, and snap pea with medium body and vivacious acidity. Seek out this intriguing anomaly (by domestic standards).
Tortoise Creek crafts varietal wines as one of the LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing producers. Launched in 2005, LODI RULES provides third-party verification of sustainable vineyard management, akin to Oregon’s LIVE certification. The certification goes beyond grape growing to cover labor practices, water and air quality, and community wellbeing. Tortoise Creek partners with a host of growers around Lodi to produce value bottlings. Their 2016 The Chelonian Zinfandel is a classic zinfandel with dark fruits, spice, and pepper on the nose. The lush and full palate carries the typically high alcohol (15.5% ABV) gracefully thanks to a gentle touch of residual sugar. The 2016 Jam’s Blend Chardonnay is medium-lemon in color with balanced aromas of melon, mango, and lemon zest with a hint of lightly toasted bread. The silky entrance gives way to a floral undertone and gentle acidity—quite a lovely chardonnay.
The Felten family owns and manages 15 vineyards of “old vine” zinfandel ranging from 40 to 120 years old. After selling their fruit to prestigious wineries in Napa and Sonoma for years, they launched their first old vine zinfandel under their own Klinker Brick label in 2000. The 2014 Old Vine Zinfandel gushes raspberry sauce and dark-fruit compote, slathering the palate with layers of fruit and soft, ripe tannins. With clear yet balanced residual sugar, this zinfandel steers clear of any herbal edges, choosing the hedonistic path instead.
Lodi will always loom in the shadows of neighbors Napa and Sonoma. For this reason, accompanied by the thoughtful and downright brave plantings of unheralded varietals that are yielding unexpected flavors and textures, Lodi’s winemakers are proving that they can offer value that most consumers seek, and can do so without sacrificing authenticity and intrigue.