Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Adventures in the Lodi Wine Country

Last Saturday was an absolutely amazing day out in the wine country. Yet, the venue of my adventure is probably one of the most over looked wine countries in California - Lodi. This past weekend I visited Borra Vineyards, M2 Wines, Lucas Winery and an old favorite of mine - St. Amant Winery.

The town of Lodi, located in San Joaquin County in the Central Valley of California, has that “out in the country” feel that the Napa Valley had thirty years ago. The landscape is one of oak lined roads, old country barns and small quaint tasting rooms. Yet when people think of this region many are probably prone to recall the lyrics of Credence Clearwater Revival’s song:

“Things got bad, and things got worse, I guess you will know the tune. Oh! Lord, stuck in Lodi again.”

There was a time in which wineries in this area would use the appellation “California Central Valley” for fear that “Lodi” might make some people think that they were producing jug wines that are not worthy of a critic’s esteem. But this is no longer the case. The Lodi appellation has grown up so now many wine growers here are not only producing respectable vintages but are proudly waving the Lodi banner.

The great thing for the wine adventurer is that many of these wineries are crafting their wines without having to charge an arm and a leg in order to sell them. If you want to spend a day tasting and exploring fine wines without the crowds, hustle and bustle of more popular and overpriced regions in California then come to Lodi! You’ll often find that the server may also be the owner and wine maker who is more than happy to talk to about his love for the craft of wine growing.

Lodi has its own unique character for producing fantastic wines and it is steadily developing a reputation of being “The Zinfandel Capital of the World.” There are currently 38 wineries with tasting rooms in Lodi and an additional 22 that do not have such a facility available. Some of the wineries are spread out throughout the region along with their vineyards, while others host their wines at the Vino Piazza (the Winery Plaza).

In 2005 the Lodi Winegrape Commission began the annual “Zinfest” which is held at the beautiful Lodi Lake and features Lodi’s finest Zinfandel wines. It is usually held on the third weekend of May. Over the past few years radio talkshow host Gene Burns has broadcasted his show “Dining Around with Gene Burns” on KGO 810 AM at the event, publicizing the Top 12 Zinfandels of the year.

Borra Vineyards

I tasted several wines at Borra vineyards. The first was a Rhone-style Rosé ($16) made with equal parts of Syrah and Grenache. It has a floral, strawberry and grapefruit perfume with watermelon notes on the finish. This is not your typical unmanly “White Zinfandel” rosé that is sweet. On a hot day this is a nice wine for sipping while relaxing in the shade on the patio. The second was the 2006 “Fusion White” ($16) a blend of classic Rhone varietals of 73% Viognier, 26% Roussanne, and 1% Marsanne. The third was a Gill Creek Ranch, Estate Bottled Old Vine Zinfandel 2004 ($20). The third was the 2004 Gill Creek Ranch, Estate Bottled Merlot ($18). It is an unfiltered and unfined wine which I think adds to its character and helps it maintain more body than your typical Merlot.

M2 WinesI tasted six wines at M2 - the 2007 “Celestial” Viognier, Fair Play ($26), the 2006 “Singularity” Cabernet Sauvignon, Frazier Vineyard, Napa Valley ($35), the 2006 “Duality” Red Wine, California ($20) which is a ‘petite sirah/syrah’ blend, the 2006 “Trio” Red Wine, from the Sierra Foothills ($18), and the 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel, Soucie Vineyard, from Lodi ($28). All of these were descent wines at a fair price.
My favorite of the line up was the 2006 “Row 23” Petite Sirah, Herzog Vineyard, from Clarksburg ($22). The grapes are from a region that I have yet to explore but I am already making plans to do so. This wine displays all the characteristics that the Petite Sirah varietal is known for - inky, floral, spicy and full bodied with fruit, a nice balance from start to finish with a pleasing bold structure that will pair well any good barbequed meats. Petite Sirah is quickly becoming a favorite Summer red wine for me, rivaling Old Vine Zinfandel, so I picked up a bottle to take home.

St. Amant WineryI first visited St. Amant several years ago when I went wine tasting with a friend that I met in seminary along with another couple from my church. I had heard about this winery from Gene Burns on the radio as their Marian’s Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel had made the Top 12 list at the Zinfest.

The lineup at this winery is absolutely impressive and over the past few years I have probably gone through at least a half-dozen cases of their wine. Rarely do I ever visit a winery at which I am in love with every one of their wines and it is probably impossible for me to pick one as a favorite. I have shared their wines with many of my friends who in turn also have become big fans of St. Amant.

One of the fun things about getting out of the wine shop and the grocery store to explore the wine country is to taste rare varietals that are hard to find and offer a new experience an education for the palate. St. Amant Winery is a very unique winery in an unpretentious business park like setting. I remember the first time I visited this winery, as I drove past the front gate I asked myself, “Can this place really produce good wines?” Then as my friends and I entered the tasting room the interior consisted of a plastic table (occupied by a cat) and a simple wood plank on top of barrels. Soon my friends and I discovered why you can’t “judge a book by its cover” nor a winery by its tasting room. Not only are their wines extremely reasonably priced but they are absolutely top notch!

St. Amant’s Verdelho ($15), a Portuguese white grape from Amador, is one of my favorite white wines of all time. Unlike many other whites, this one has lots of bold spice that make it a great partner to a spicy chicken dish or it can be used to cut through heavy cream sauced pasta dishes.

One of the most unique wines that you will not find anywhere else is their Tres Cachos from Amador ($15). This wine is not produced every year and it is a blend of three grapes usually used in making port. This Portuguese-inspired red blend (Touriga, Tinta Cao, Tinta Roriz) has a mouth full of plums, cherries, and a definite taste of licorice in the finish. It has nice lively tannins that give this fruit forward wine a nice balance. It also has a significant spice component that will accompany any great barbequed meats.

Another hard-to-find wine is their 2006 Touriga from Amador ($18). This is a new bottling that they are currently serving in the tasting room and you might think of this wine as sort of a dry port. If you have never tasted this varietal, this is a great opportunity to educate your taste buds and expand your palate.

St. Amant’s Tempranillo from Amador ($18) is probably my favorite of this varietal, surpassing many Spanish imports that sell for more than twice this price. This is the deepest, darkest, boldest bad-assed Tempranillo I have ever had and they are consistent with it each year. It is a bowl full of bright cherries bouquet, dried tobacco and with a gold-country mineral finish. Yet the tannins are incredibly balanced and it is an absolute steal for only eighteen bucks!.

The Mohr-Fry Ranch Old Vine Zinfandel ($18) is probably the wine I purchase the most from St. Amant. From old vines planted in 1944, this wine is loaded with bright raspberry, dried fruits like plum and figs, and lushes of blackberry flavors with soft tannins and an absolutely wonderful finish. This is a great wine for barbequed meats, pasta, and it is absolutely killer with pizza!

The Mohr-Fry Zin is only surpassed by the Marian's Vineyard Zinfandel ($24), which I did not taste on Saturday but I have a few bottles of the 2003 at home. This wine comes from vines were planted in 1901 that will give you a taste of heaven with a mouth full of plum, chocolate and blackberry. This wine is rich and your guests will find it hard to believe that a wine can taste this good for only twenty-four bucks!

To be honest, I’m not a big port drinker as about the time dinner is over I am ready for a cup of coffee, not another glass of wine. But even if you’re not a bibber of ports St. Amant’s Vino do Sol White, Bootleg and Vintage Ports are not to be missed.

It is not uncommon to find wineries that make “ports” using California zinfandels which usually (in my experience) have a rather simple sugary sweetness. Here is where St. Amant sets itself apart as a maker of Ports.

The Veno Do Sol White Port ($18) is made with fortified Verdelho grapes from 67-year old vines. Their red Port are made from the traditional blend of the five classic Port-wine grapes; Touriga, Tinta Cao, Alvarelhao, Souzao, and Tinta Roriz. From these they produce two different red ports the Bootleg Port and their St. Amant Vintage Port .

Since the line up at St. Amant is an entire adventure by itself, you may need to come back more than once to truly experience and appreciate all their wines. Or better yet, buy a mixed case and try them at home during your family dinner with friends.

The Lucas Winery
The Lucas Winery defies all stereo types of Lodi wines as each bottle exemplifies the wine growing philosophy of David Lucas; great wines come from the maintenance of balance and harmony in the vineyard, they are grown and nurtured – not made.

On Saturday I had the opportunity to spend about an hour with David Lucas, one on one. We discussed his wines, the history of the winery and his wine growing philosophy of "balance" in the vineyard. It was a very rare and unique opportunity to learn from someone who pours his heart and soul into every bottle and readily acknowledges how he has learned from his mistakes, the errors he sees that are common amongst novice wine makers, and how wisdom ought to be gained from our forefathers who grew wines in the past and in historic wine regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy.

California Chardonnays can have the reputation of being overly oaked, too buttery and the designation “Lodi” can lead some people to assume that the wine can only fit into the low-end spectrum of this wine’s place in the market.

The 2005 Lucas Chardonnay ($28.95) definitely defies this stereotype so that while it definitely has a subtle oak character it does not overshadow its fruit flavors and crisp acidity. I would put this wine up against any Chardonnay from the Caneros region of the Napa Valley. David Lucas has proven that Lodi isn’t just about Zinfandel as it has a great potential for making great Chardonnays as well.

My favorite wine from Lucas was the 2006 Zin Blossoms Rosé ($19.95). It was about 95 degrees on Saturday so this cool refreshing 100% pure Zinfandel really hit the spot. Strawberries, kiwi fruit and melon are prominent from start to finish.

Other worthy wines that I tasted were the 2003 ZinStar Zinfandel and the 2003 Citizin Zinfandel ($26.95). But my second favorite of the afternoon was the Late Harvest Straw Wine ($64.95) which is an incredible dessert wine. A little of this chocolate-boysenberryish wine goes a long way and it exemplifies the intense labor that goes into the craft of making such a wine as it is far cry from the overly raisony type late harvest wines that you will find at most wineries.

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