Lodi Wine Country: Boutique winery innovation

Lodi Wine & Visitor Center offers in-depth winery information

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Viticulture and Enology programs promote Fresno State research at Grape Day

My wife’s hospital co-worker asked me last week to chauffeur her son to daily chess and chef camps. Her 12-year old son needed something to pass the time, rather than sit home alone watching TV. At first I said no, but have since enjoyed learning about Fresno’s summer camps; this week, I am limo driver for the youngster’s canoe camp on the San Joaquin River.

The daily deliver and pick up routines last about 45 minutes, but the trip takes me by area vineyards both near the river and California State University, Fresno [FSU]. Ripening grape clusters along country roadways initially attracted my attention, so I took the time to stop and check on the status of the Thompson and Muscat vineyards.

Fresno State students grow many grape varietals and create award-winning bottles of Barbera, Petite Sirah, California Syrah, Chardonnay, Rosè and Pinot Gris.

As temperatures heat up in August, schools and universities are gearing up and the grape harvest is not far off. So it was no surprise to me the Fresno State Viticulture and Enology program is set to host Grape Day, Aug. 14.

According to their web site, “Grape Day is an informal field day and open house held at the Department of Viticulture and Enology at Fresno State for grape growers, pest control advisers, winemakers, and winery personnel. The event is designed to showcase the latest grape and wine research conducted at Fresno State and to provide an educational forum on current issues affecting the grape and wine industry.”

Senior enology major Kerry Fitzgerald is planning to attend Grape Day by helping out one of his viticulture professors, Kaan Kurtural, as he talks about mechanical management (machine harvest, pruning). Fitzgerald is excited to attend his first Grape Day.

“This is going to be a very good experience,” Fitzgerald said. “Not only will I be able to listen to my professors, but FSU enology alumni will be on hand to share why the program helped them graduate into successful careers.

Fitzgerald has kept tabs on FSU alumni and winemaker Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena. The Fresno State graduate is often referred to the winemaker of Bottle Shock fame. Fitzgerald met Barrett at the Fresno State Winery in March 2012 at the Home of Tomorrow’s Winemakers event.

Besides meeting Barrett, Fitzgerald also has worked at The Grape Tray, a Fresno wine cellar and sandwich shop, where he has been encouraged by another FSU graduate selling his bottles via the retail market.

Winemaker and FSU alumni Bo Barrett, right, is senior Kerry Fitzgerald’s winemaker hero because of his involvement with the “Judgement of Paris.” The Chateau Montelena Chardonnay Barrett and his dad entered in a 1976 Paris blind tasting showed the world Napa had come of age.

“Alumni Dave Scheidt sells his wines at The Grape Tray as Mastro Scheidt Family Cellars. It is really cool to have a guy who graduated from Fresno State selling his stuff in the retail market,” Fitzgerald said. “Fresno State enology students are successful upon leaving the program and I am excited to listen to them share their stories at the event as well.”

Fitzgerald went on to say how Fresno State is the only student-operated commercial winery in California. The students complete their book work but then learn how to grow the grapes to using winemaking equipment from harvest to bottling. They not only read about sorting, using the wine press, punching down, checking the sugars and racking the wine, but they can sell it via the Rue and Gwen Gibson Farm Market.

“I love being a Fresno State enology student because this is as close to real world experience as it gets and I’m still in school,” Fitzgerald said. “I can be in class one hour then spend hours in the vineyards or winery learning hands-on. You cannot get that anywhere else. We are student farmers becoming winemakers. We research and test as much or more than anyone else and we produce and sell our product. People should come to Grape Day to check us out and find out for yourself.”

Grape Day is a half-day event held every other year at the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology on Fresno State campus. There will be practical field and indoor presentation with viticulture and enology professors sharing the latest grape and wine research.

Fresno State is one of five campuses in California which have notable winemaking programs: Napa Valley College, California Polytechnic State University, Sonoma State University and University of California, Davis.

In 1997, the California State University, Fresno, became the first university in the United States to have a winery fully licensed to produce, bottle and sell wine.

Registration and exhibits open at 7:30 a.m. with the program running from 8 a.m. to noon in the shaded lawn west of the Viticulture building. A BBQ lunch is sponsored by American Vineyard Magazine and will be on the lawn near the Viticulture and Enology building, 2360 E. Barstow (between Cedar and Maple) on the north side of the street, surrounded by vineyards. To reserve a spot at Grape Day, visit the Viticulture and Enology web site. Tickets are $20 and $15 for current students. Be sure to bring a hat and sunscreen.

Tours of the unique facilities, refreshments, and lunch are included in the registration fee. Parking is available in the yellow or green lots with a courtesy parking code. Check for the code at registration. Without a code, parking at FSU is $3 per day.

A spokesperson for the program was not available to comment on the event and suggested interested students or community members refer to the July 31 Fresno State News press release.

According to the Fresno State web site, one of the focuses of the event will be to “learn about the latest research into crop forcing, nematodes, grape-rot measurement and mechanization. A complete list of presentations are listed.

“Dr. Sanliang Gu, holder of the Ricchiuti Chair of Viticulture, will discuss “Crop Forcing – Yield and Cultural Practices” and his work on introducing degree-hours to better interpret heat accumulation and thermal distribution of regions and vintages for wine grape production.”

Dr. Sanliang Gu briefly discusses crop forcing in this short YouTube video previously posted.

For those interested in checking out the Enology program at California State University, Fresno, and the Fresno State Winery, be sure to contact them at the winery. For Enology inquiries, call 559.278.2791 or call 559.278.9463 for winemaking inquiries. The campus farm, the Rue and Gwen Gibson Farm Market, has fresh produce for much of the spring through fall, including many of the California award-winning student produced wines. Their phone number is 559.278.4511. Be sure to also visit the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology web site on how to become involved as a Fresno State viticulture and enology student.

California Sierra Nevada Foothills Wine Region

Sierra Foothills Wine Region

While many rush to Napa Valley and its world-renown labels, the Sierra Foothill Wine Region has been quietly making wine since the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. Boom towns across the Sierra Nevada range popped up nearly overnight. Soon thereafter higher altitude vineyards were planted with Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Sirah, Viognier and even some Grenache grapes in granite and volcanic rock. The region is characterized by mining and lumber towns, four seasons, vineyard elevations of 1,500-3,000 ft. and art enthusiasts.

While Napa and Sonoma Wine Regions were approved as appellations years before, the Foothill region was accepted as a sub appellation in the 1970s. The area can be easily reached from Sacramento (1 hour) or even San Francisco (2 1/2 hours); restaurants and wineries in the Foothill area already provide a good alternative to the many nationally known super stars of Napa Valley.

Zinfandel grapes were first grown in the Shenandoah Valley since Gold Rush days. Over 100 wineries sprouted by the mid 1840-50s and operated until the mid 1880s when the destruction of old-growth forests and riverbeds brought legislation to end those practices. Shortly thereafter, as thirsty gold miners and forestry personal left the area, winemaking in the foothills declined.

While winemaking continued even through Prohibition, the region has been known for value-wines until the rebirth of the industry in the 1970s. However, the late 1990s brought new life to the region as cult and boutique wineries have sprouted bringing high quality wine to the region.

Sierra Nevada Foothills Wine Region is a wine and vacation destination just like the Napa Valley or Central Coast. The Foothill region spans from Sonora in the south to Jackson and Plymouth to Placerville and Auburn in the north. The quaint villages, their restaurants, hotels and bed and breakfast establishments are well suited to the historic trails. And the history of Gold Rush country is well worth revisiting.

This is one of three California focus wine regions for Tales of the Cork. The other two are Central Valley Wine Region and the Central Coast Wine Region. All are within a day trip of my home base of Fresno, Calif. and account for many of America’s most promising wineries and winemakers.

Explore Tales of the Cork with me. Read about the growth and influence of California’s winemakers, merchants and chefs. My goal is to find and develop relationships with them; my hope is to uncover and retell their untold stories. Be sure to leave a comment after each story; share your wine, winemaker or food experience.

Salut!

Welcome to Tales of the Cork

Welcome to Tales of the Cork. The vision of this blog is two-fold: 1) Introduce followers to inspiring stories as told by chefs, winemakers, sommeliers, and wine merchants in California and Burgundy, France. These tales are not meant to boast of their accomplishments but to share behind-the-scenes accounts of their journeys, both struggles and triumphs. 2) To provide travel tips, plans and opportunities for culinary food and wine adventures from California, including Paso Robles to Santa Barbara, and Burgundy, France.

At first, I will update the blog with bi-weekly posts on Tuesdays, beginning July 10, and Fridays, starting July 13, 2012. The vision is to move this to a five-time per week communication in the months to come. Future plans are to include Oregon wines and gastronomers as well as expanding into other regions of France. Tales of the Cork also welcomes comments, emails, tweets and suggestions for future stories and culinary adventures.

Thanks for visiting Tales of the Cork; I look forward to sharing wine, food and travel experiences with you.

Greg D. Stobbe

Tales of the cork

While the blog is still under construction, Tales of the Cork will uncover the stories behind the men and women of gastronomy and winemaking. The names may or may not be familiar but the behind the scenes anecdotes will be sure to inspire its readers. Along with the chefs and winemakers, this blog will also house restaurant and wine shop reviews.

This page will update as information becomes available.