Changing Lodi Zin culture: Klinker Brick Winery

Fifth generation farmers Steve and Lori Felton grow brand

loca-sign-klinkerbrick800
Fifth generation grape growers, Steve and Lori Felton, opened Klinker Brick Winery in Lodi, Calif. in 2000.

A Zinfandel stronghold and track record of over 150 years, Lodi, California, has long attracted lovers of Old Vine Zins. Since the early 1900s though today, generations of families have farmed and produced over 40% of California’s premium Zinfandel and the region has long been branded that way.

Steve and Lori Felton, fifth generation Lodi grape growers, continue this family farming tradition and now exclusively farm, grow and produce wine on land their ancestors planted. And while they worked in the industry for years producing Zinfandel for other wineries in Napa and Sonoma Counties on 16 individual vineyard blocks of Old Vine Zinfandel, today they produce premium Old Ghost Old Vine Zinfandel under their Klinker Brick Winery label.

However, Klinker Brick Winery, founded by the Feltons in 2000, continues to change the way wine enthusiasts view the Lodi wine region.

From their first vintage of Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel in 2000  and their first vintage of Farrah Syrah in 2001, the Feltons and Klinker Brick have set out to produce world-class wines that move far beyond the Lodi growers who singlehandedly kept the American wine industry alive during Prohibition, sending out thousands of railcars each harvest full of Zin, Tokay and Alicante Bouschet.

klinkerbrickoldghost
Old Ghost represents the best Zinfandel harvested each year at Klinker Brick Winery. This is lush excellence, perfect with prime porterhouse, grilled lamb or beef stews.

With a passion for producing exceptional wine and the vision and passion of winemaker Joseph Smith, Klinker Brick views themselves as stewards of the land and their ancient vines. They have also expanded and are creating award-winning Syrah, Petite Sirah and dry Rose among other wines. In addition to their own property, they manage a number of vineyards in the region with the goal of producing award-winning fruit.

Smith joined Klinker Brick in 2008 after starting his career in the nineties as an apprentice with Gnekow Family Wines. In fact, Smith actually made his first bottle with Felton as a consultant in 2000. Smith says his and the Felton family’s love for many varieties helped fuel their passion and they seemed to gel. The Feltons were ready to expand from just the farming aspect of the business and took Smith on to build Klinker Brick Winery as a label.

“While we are known as Zinfandel producers and branded as a Zinfandel region, we are wine drinkers and wine producers,” Smith said. “We like Zinfandel but we also like Rose, Cabernet, Cab Franc, Albariño and many others. I like all these wines and it depends on the occasion and where I am at as to what I want to drink.

“Kicker Brick has been very successful in creating world-class Zinfandels but I (we) wanted more,” Smith continued. “Five years ago, I knew I made a great white wine and Rose, and even though we started little by little, people have applauded our efforts. The wines have done very well in the tasting room. While this makes good business sense, it has been the love of our product that has grown the Klinker Brick brand.”

Klinker Brick concentrated on wine distribution first and then built up their tasting room. While they distributed a core three wines nationally, they used tried and true Lodi varieties  that had been forgotten by some. Consider their Carignane vineyard is over 108 years old and their Old Vine Zinfandel is harvested from an 90-year-old vineyard.

klinkerbrickinterview2-800
Klinker Brick Winery owner Steve Felton (middle left) and Farrah Felton-Jolley (right) are now six generation grape growers in Lodi, California. Winemaker Joseph Smith (middle right) has led the winery’s production since 2008.

With the help of their daughter, Farrah Felton-Jolley and her husband, Stefan, the family now moves to the six generation of grape growers. Farrah joined the winery in 2009 after graduating from the University of the Pacific with a degree in Business Administration. With a passion for grape growing, organic gardening, cooking and a love for wine, she travels and promotes the family winery and wine as VP of marketing & sales. Stefan is the most recent addition to the Klinker Brick Family, managing winery operations, compliance, website and information technology.

“We are making wine that we love and believe in,” Smith said. “We don’t short change ourselves or the consumer. When we decided to make a Rose, it had to captivate me–a Rose from start to finish. We grow our grapes for Rose with all Rhone varietals (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Carignane). That’s our style of Rose. We are serious producers of a classic dry, crisp Rose.”

klinkerrose800
Wine Enthusiast gave Klinker Brick Rose blend 90 points and a “Best Buy” designation for their 2015 version. It is a dry blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignane.

The winery distributes their Bricks Rosé nationally, producing 4,500 cases. The blend has is crisp, light with citrus aromas and flavors of ripe strawberries, grapefruit and subtle watermelon.

However, the winemaker believes they still produce an award-winning Rose because they do not shortchange the vineyard. They grow the grapes, cultivate the vineyards and are managed from beginning to end.

“The process is quality driven,” Klinker Brick owner Steve Felton says. This starts in the vineyard. We’ve got to have the highest quality right there. And that’s the tough part of growing grapes–maintaining the quality. Fortunately for us, not only are we a winery but we are also growers and we’ve been doing that for six generations. I guess you could say, we have a handle on growing grapes.”

Over the years, Steve has been growing grapes for some of the best producers in the State, so that keeps them in close to the heart beat of the land and the expectation high quality demands.

“We always over deliver wines for the price and that starts in the vineyard,” Felton said. “And of course our winemaking staff is outstanding. Joe is very hands on. He still makes sure he is there each step of the way.”

With a large winemaking staff, Smith’s challenge is to keep quality high despite a high case count with so many different varietals. And he definitely is the one behind what’s in the bottle.

“While I am in charge, and then collectively, nothing goes in the glass without the round table,” Smith said. “I am the guy in the cellar making the protocols. I haven’t changed how I make these wines from day one. I am physically in the winery and in the vineyard, making sure the wines are made the way we want it done.”

klinkerbricktacodinner800
The 2013 Farrah Syrah has ripe plum, blackberry, anise, pepper, exotic spices and earthy notes. Serve it with grilled meats, spicy tacos or mushroom risotto.

Of course the Klinker Brick is still widely known as a top shelf Zinfandel producer. Their  Old Ghost Old Vine Zinfandel ($37) is created with standout fruit, sourced from the best Lodi vineyards. Taste the blackberry, anise and exotic spices. Pair with your prime porterhouse or grilled lamb.

The winery owns or manages 18 Zinfandel-vineyard blocks that range from 50-125 years old in the Mokelumne River sub-appellation of Lodi. Wines from this warm climate and sandy loam soil create yields from gnarly, old vines with intense color and flavor. This region produces exceptional Zinfandel and Syrah.

Klinker Brick has access to Syrah vineyards over 125 years old in the same Mokelumne River region. Their award-winning Farrah Syrah and Farrah Syrah Grand Reserve are rich, vibrant and full of black fruit and spice flavors.  These are first class wines created for foodies and hearty wine drinkers. Both have amazing structure and balance with long, lingering finishes.

The 2013 Farrah Syrah exhibits aromas of ripe plum, cacao, and smoky oak with subtle earthy floral notes. The palate is greeted with bright and vibrant flavors of blackberry, anise and exotic spices. Supple tannins and superb balance lend structure to this full-bodied Syrah with a long, lingering finish. Enjoy with grilled meats, spicy tacos and Mexican dishes or mushroom risotto ($20).

oldghostdinner
The Old Ghost Old Vine Zinfandel paired so well with the rich, herbed  earthy sauce of the beef stew.

Their Old Vine Zinfandel is their flagship and still their most popular wine. Wilfred Wong, Wine.com gave the latest release 94 points. It is a blend from 16 different vineyards with an average of 85 years. Taste these beauties as the dark fruit, spice and tannins with just a hint of pepper and anise will tantalize you ($19). This is a go to Zin for burgers, BBQ, hearty pizza or by itself.

While the farming aspect has long been a part of the Felton family’s history, an expanded Klinker Brick Winery from its modest beginnings is now an internationally-distributed brand of world class wines. And as Wine Enthusiast named the Lodi region their 2015 winner, isn’t it time you booked your next wine tasting trip to Lodi, California? There are 88 wineries to explore but be sure to put Klinker Brick Winery on your list.

For more information on the wines of Lodi, California, read Lodi Wine Country: Boutique winery innovation and learn more about the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center (LoCA).

Kinker Brick Winery is located at 15887 N. Alpine Road, Lodi, California 95240. They can be reached via phone: (209) 333-1845 or through email: info@klinkerbrickwinery.com. Their wines can be ordered online or find a retail outlet via the Klinker Brick website.

Be sure to read TalesoftheCork’s previous blog post, “Old Fig Wine Cellars: A Central Valley urban dream.” And if winemakers, wineries or restaurants are interested in a TalesoftheCork wine and/or food review on the blog, InstagramTwitter and/or Facebook, please send us a request via email: talesofthecork@gmail.com or use DM on social media. TalesoftheCork also offers social media seminars for businesses.

klinkercarignane800
The Klinker Brick Carignane is easy to drink and fresh with black cherry and black tea aromas. I love hints of leather and earthy dried sage notes. caption
klinkerpetitsyrah800
The Petite Sirah is rich and brooding with flavors of espresso, dark chocolate and blueberries that linger long on the palate.

 

Lodi Wine Country: Boutique winery innovation

Lodi Wine & Visitor Center offers in-depth winery information

locavisitorsign
While Lodi is the self-proclaimed Zinfandel capital of the world, over 85 boutique wineries offer a broad range of varieties, including 200-300 wines in the Lodi Wine & Visitor’s Center.

While I did not grow up in the San Joaquin Valley, I have lived close to its vineyards, crops, orchards and beneath the shadows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains for over 35 years. However, for the first time since I began sipping, then collecting wine, I visited Lodi Wine Country in mid November.

Sheepish. Or maybe a little red-faced. That’s how I felt when both Lodi Wine & Visitor Center (LoCA) and Snooth reached out to me during the past summer. I have to admit my knowledge of Lodi wines was pretty much  limited to a few boutique wineries and the historic, well-known wine houses like Sutter Home, Gallo, Louis Martini and Robert Mondavi.

But I could only name a couple of boutique wineries who had already made a name for themselves.

I’d hear of Lodi’s wine history, even after it was named the 2015 Wine Region of the Year Star Award by Wine Enthusiast; however, the lure of Paso Robles, Sonoma and Napa distracted me from exploring the rural landscape of farms and wineries, even those run by its 4th and 5th generation families.

With wine tasting trips to their big brothers to the West and wineries in France and Italy, I totally misjudged the growth and subsequent evolution of Lodi’s 85 plus boutique wineries and now established premium wine grape varieties.

Well, I’m not claiming ignorance now. Bring on LoCA and the wines of Lodi, California.

One visit to the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center and chat with Stuart Spencer, Program Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, last week changed everything. I had to check out for myself why people from all over the world visit the Lodi wine region.

locaspencerstobbe3
I spent a couple of hours chatting with Stuart Spencer, (right), Lodi Winegrape Commission, program manager, at the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center in mid November.

From the repeal of prohibition in 1933, Lodi has seen its planted acreage change from a source of fruit for blends of “red” and “Chablis” to premium varietals. The 1940s-1960s produced sought-after Lodi dessert wines and a source of Zinfandel. The Lodi American Viticultural Area has transitioned to premium grape varietals and also has its own AVA since 1986 as well as adding seven smaller AVAs in 2005.

That same year the “Lodi Rules” certified sustainable wine growing program was formed, demonstrating leadership in sustainable agriculture, energy management, soil conservation, water quality and disease management and is a model for many other wine regions. Today over 20 wineries farm bearing “Lodi Rules” on the label.

Spencer attributed the growth of the wine region to the establishment of the Lodi Winegrape Commission in 1991. Today over 750 growers in the Lodi area belong to and tax themselves much like a milk board might. This forms the base source of money to support the organization. In fact, the Lodi Winegrape Commission just celebrated its 25th year! The primary goals of the Winegrape Commission are to educate the region’s winegrowers, conduct grape-growing research, and raise awareness of the quality of Lodi grapes and wines through innovative marketing and public relations campaigns.

“Many of the winegrowers and wineries wanted someone to tell their story,” Spencer said. “A lot of our guys wanted someone to share the Lodi story. They also created an extensive grower education, which became the sustainable viticultural program in 1992. This provides day-to-day promotional and educational opportunities to improve famers.”

locavisitorbldg
The Lodi Appellation is about 100 miles directly east of San Francisco at the north end of the San Joaquin Valley. The Mediterranean climate allows Lodi winegrowers to craft a diverse set of full-flavored varietals.

I love it that so much leading research has been done to improve farming in Lodi. Deficit irrigation and management to mechanization, canopy management, rootstock and trellising, and a host of other innovations have given famers the tools to excel and craft world-class wines in vineyard specific sites.

“Our commission provides information in real time to help farmers,” Spencer said. “We then shared the research story along with our growers’ story. This research not only helps our famers improve but it also gets more buyers to the area, marketing Lodi grapes to the North Coast and the big players and buyers in the industry.”

Spencer went on to say that Lodi has created a real culture of sustainable wine growing program. From the growers to the winemakers to the consumers, Lodi on the label now brings prestige. The farmers are innovative, respond to consumer needs for diversity (they lead the state in alternative or experimental plantings) with over 75 varieties in commercial production and 25-30 experimental varieties.

But I guess what impressed me the most about my visit was listening to Spencer talk about the collaboration of winegrowers who have struck a balance between creating wine of place, tradition, independence, balancing modern science with traditional methods and support of each other. They place a high value on Lodi as a region–a destination–a favored place; they value its history, heritage and pioneering spirit. Most growers are working together, in many cases as fourth and fifth generation winegrowers, to provide leadership in education and research for those in their AVA and beyond.

As I walked around the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center and tasting room, I marveled at over 200 different selections of Lodi’s wines beautifully displayed from over 60 wineries. While it opened in 2000 with far fewer selections, Spencer said today there are between 200-300 selections are available over the course of the year, depending on the calendar and recent releases.

For those who still have doubts, the Lodi Wine & Visitors Centers now has over 700 wine club members, further solidifying its status. Four times a year, 3-4 local Lodi wines are sent to members for about $80.  I for one, will be looking to find my favorites amongst the wineries represented.

And as Claudia Angelillo wrote in her Oct. 13, 2016, article, “Lodi is changing the way we think about wine,” I too have become convinced Lodi wines need and will be a part of my wine cellar and table wine pairing.

Take the time to return and/or bookmark TalesoftheCork for future posts on Lodi area wineries on my subsequent visits to the AVA. While my time was short on this day, I plan on returning to visit and taste some of Lodi’s favored wines.

Pencil in Lodi Wine’s next event on your calendar as they gear up for spring. The 20th annual Lodi Wine & Chocolate Weekend is slated for Feb. 11-12, 2017. Over 50 wineries will provides tastes and a chocolate snack for visitors. Tickets are $55 advance and $65 after Feb. 10. They will go on sale the first week of December 2016.

The Lodi Wine & Visitors Center is conveniently located just two miles from Highway 99 on 2545 Turner Rd., Lodi, CA 95242. LoCA is open daily from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. They can be reached at 209.365.0621 or via their website: lodiwine.com. They are also on social media as well.

Be sure to read TalesoftheCork’s previous blog post, “Five Thanksgiving sparkling wines.” And if winemakers, wineries or restaurants are interested in a TalesoftheCork wine and/or food review on the blog, InstagramTwitter and/or Facebook, please send us a request via email: talesofthecork@gmail.com or use DM on social media. TalesoftheCork also offers social media seminars for businesses.