Let me begin with total honesty. I fell out of love with Zinfandel. When I first got into wine, I loved the carefree jubilation that spilled out of every bottle of Zinfandel I opened. Zinfandel is a wine that makes no apologies for its exuberant fruit. Like a gay man flying his queer flag in full flaming glory, if it does nothing else, Zinfandel gives good fruit.
As authentic as this personality can be, Zinfandel all too easily strays into the realm of caricature. If its boisterous blackberry, black pepper, and blueberry essence is good, surely a bit more of that is even better, right?
Wrong. As much criticism as California Cabernet receives for a shift towards bigger, better, richer, and riper in the last 20 years, in some ways Zinfandel’s shift has been even more egregious.
Zinfandel probably started off riper than Cabernet to begin with, as it easily strays into the high 14% and low 15% range while continuing to develop those rich flavors that so many seek from the grape. But in addition to being left longer and longer on the vine beginning in the late 1990s, winemakers in California began to apply increasingly higher levels of new oak to the wines, resulting in bigger, richer, jammier, and sweeter versions of the grape.
After a while I just got tired of it. Apparently I do have a threshold for fruit overload, especially when that fruit is offered almost in singularity, with few other dimensions of interest. And this is precisely what became of California Zinfandel until recently. Many, many of these wines left behind nuance for power of fruit, and as a result, became less interesting to me.
I stopped being as excited to go to the annual ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) tasting in San Francisco (though I continued to attend and find wines I enjoyed). Perhaps more tellingly, I stopped buying Zinfandel to drink at home.
But then recently…
“I met my old lover on the street last night
She seemed so glad to see me, I just smiled
And we talked about some old times and we drank ourselves some beer
Still crazy after all these years”
Two years ago I happened to have a bottle of Turley’s 2011 Judge Bell Vineyard Zinfandel and had my mind blown by the shift that wine represented (at least to my sensibility) in their approach to the grape.
And around the same time I also received in the mail a box of six Zinfandels from Lodi, California, all bearing the same label, but from different producers.
My first taste of the wines from the Lodi Native Project were equally transformative, not only for my vision of what California Zinfandel had become, but also for my opinion of what Lodi was all about.
I was back in bed with Zinfandel. I wasn’t quite sure how I ended up there, but I realized I was very happy about it.
But wait. There’s more.
The Lodi Native project not only significantly redeemed my dissatisfaction with Lodi Zinfandel, it also inspired my faith in the future of California wine.
By way of illustration, here’s a joke I made up:
Q: How many wine critics does it take to convince a winemaker’s to change the way they make wine?
A: Insert irrational number here.
The modern literature of wine (i.e. all the stuff we read in the news, magazines, blogs, etc.) is peppered only occasionally by stories of winemakers who have completely transformed the way they approach wine, such as making the transition from making big industrial wines to small artisan operations. These stories are noted and notable if only because they represent very uncommon occurrences.
In my experience most winemakers learn how to make wine and settle into the way they think it should be made, and stick with that approach. Sure they experiment a little each year in an attempt to improve their rendition of a particular vintage, vineyard, or blend–reducing maceration time here, changing the barrel regime there–but rarely do they fundamentally change their approach to making wine.
This is especially true of two of the most important decisions in winemaking: the pick date and the yeasts used in fermentation. In other words, the philosophy of what ripeness is, and how much control the winemaker wants over the transformation of fruit to wine. Most winemakers in the world are very self-assured about both. They know what ripeness means to them, and they stick to it; and they are either comfortable with and desirous of what ambient yeasts do to their wines, or they believe firmly in the qualities of inoculated yeast fermentations.
Enter the Lodi Native project, an experiment dreamed up by fellow wine writer and Lodi Wine ambassador Randy Caparoso along with several Lodi winemakers. In the course of seeking some way to express and promote the remarkably old Zinfandel vineyards of the region.
Here’s what they came up with:
Six wineries would make a Zinfandel from an historic vineyard exceeding 50 years of age. The wines would be picked on the early side, avoiding desiccated fruit, and fermented with native yeasts, and then see no wood other than neutral oak barrels, if any. No other common inputs to the winemaking would be allowed — no acid additions, no “watering back,” no fining, no filtration, etc.
To say that this represented a departure from how Lodi Zinfandel is usually made is something of an understatement. Not that Lodi Zinfandel represents some egregious example of manipulation, but few winemakers ever make Lodi Zinfandel without a bit of acid and commercial yeast at a minimum.
This was an experiment, however, and so six winemakers dove in, some with a great deal of trepidation, and made the first vintage of the Lodi Native wines in 2012.
The results were nothing short of remarkable, both for the wines and the winemakers. At least one winemaker who described himself as completely entrenched in the use of commercial yeast and acid additions was wholly converted to the use of natural yeasts. Another who would never have believed that he could get ripe fruit flavors by picking before the grapes tasted jammy has begun picking earlier and earlier each year with amazement at the results.
And the wines? They show two things brilliantly:
1. What Lodi Zinfandel actually tastes like (something that has been somewhat obscured by winemaking for decades)
2. The incredible diversity and complexity that different old-vine sites can lend to Zinfandel.
In short, the wines are a revelation. Are they the best Zinfandels made in California? Not by a long shot. But that’s not the point. Instead they may well be the among the most honest Zinfandels made in California.
Sure, there are other wine producers out there that have been making elegant, native fermented Zinfandels with little oak influence for years, but they are isolated producers. Drinking their wines in isolation provides great pleasure, but not a lot of perspective on either their regions or the Zinfandel grape, if only because none of their neighbors are making wine in the same way.
The Lodi Native project on the other hand provides a unique and crystal-clear window into the synergy of a place and a grape that is captured in the notion we call terroir.
Along the way, this experiment is changing the hearts and minds of winemakers, as well as wine writers like myself. I’m ready to start buying Zinfandel again, especially if it tastes like this.
Here are my notes on the most recent vintage of Lodi Native to be released (the 2013s) as well as new notes (I re-tasted these wines recently) on the 2012 vintage as it continues to develop in the bottle; as well as thoughts on a couple of barrel samples of the 2014 vintage, which had yet to be bottled at the time I tasted them.
Note that these wines are available in very minute quantities at the moment, and only as six-packs (one of each wine) from the Lodi Winegrape Commission. The 2013 vintage will be available to purchase starting November 12 at the project’s web site.
THE LATEST VINTAGE
2013 Fields Family Wines “Lodi Native – Stampede Vineyard” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Medium to dark purple in color, this wine smells of boysenberry and blackberry and blueberry with a hint of cocoa powder and nutmeg. In the mouth, juicy and bright raspberry and boysenberry flavors mix with dried blueberries and a hint of cedar. Great acidity and a very light aspect with a long aromatic finish. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2013 Maley Brothers “Lodi Native – Wegat Vineyard” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and blueberry with a hint of black pepper. In the mouth, plush blackberry and black cherry fruit flavors mix with a hint of leather and green herbs. 14.9% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.
2013 McCay Cellars “Lodi Native – Trulux Vineyard” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Medium to dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers and crushed herbs with dark boysenberry fruit underneath. In the mouth, the wine continues with its extremely aromatic qualities, as lifted flavors of black raspberry, boysenberry, and crushed green herbs soar across the palate. Great acidity keeps the wine bright and the barest hint of tannins caress the back of the mouth. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2013 St. Amant “Lodi Native – Marian’s Vineyard” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry bramble, and dried flowers. In the mouth, lilacs, a hint of minerality, and blackberry bramble flavors mix with a wonderful capsaicin spiciness that adds to the racy quality of this wine. Excellent acidity and very faint tannins round out a deliciously bright and juicy rendition of the grape. Very pretty. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2013 Macchia “Lodi Native – Schmiedt Ranch” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Very dark, opaque purple in the glass, this wine smells of rich and sweet blackberry and blueberry jam. In the mouth, rich blackberry and blueberry fruit has a lush, silky presence on the palate with perhaps slightly less acidity than I would like, but it’s hard to argue with the richness of fruit. There’s a touch of heat on the finish. 15.9% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2013 M2 Wines “Lodi Native – Soucie Vineyard” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of crushed green herbs and boysenberries. In the mouth, notes of caramel and toasted vanilla would make me swear that this wine had new oak on it, but this smoky espresso and vanilla quality is merely the product of yeast and grapes. Very good acidity still despite the ripe boysenberry fruit.15% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.
REVISITING THE 2012 VINTAGE
2012 Maley Brothers “Lodi Native – Wegat Vineyard” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of nutty boysenberry and dried herbs. In the mouth, juicy boysenberry and green herbs mix with a nicely savory earthiness and woody notes that linger in the long finish. Excellent. Score: around 9.
2012 M2 Wines “Lodi Native – Soucie Vineyard” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, lavender and very beautiful candied grape and sweet blueberry notes. In the mouth wonderfully silky flavors of blueberry and black cherry have a gorgeous savory nutmeg and carob quality that emerges in the long finish. Excellent acidity. Score: around 9.
2012 McCay Cellars “Lodi Native – Trulux Vineyard” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of wet wood, dried flowers and blackberry bramble. In the mouth gorgeously savory cinnamon and spice flavors are layered over blackberry and black cherry flavors that have a fantastic saline quality that lingers for a long time in the finish. Quite tasty. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2012 St. Amant “Lodi Native – Marian’s Vineyard” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cocoa powder and black cherry. In the mouth, silky, ripe flavors of blackberry and licorice have slightly less acidity than I would like. A very plush wine that would be more impressive with more brightness and lift. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2012 Fields Family Wines “Lodi Native – Century Block” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and boysenberry aromas that have a nice herbal snap. In the mouth, the wine has a silky texture that delivers gorgeous cherry and boysenberry flavors tinged with tobacco leaf to electrify the taste buds. Excellent acidity and length. Score: around 9.
2012 Macchia “Lodi Native – Noma Ranch” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet and jammy raisins and burnt brown sugar. In the mouth, blackberries and raisins mix with cocoa powder and licorice notes linger for a long finish. Toasty burnt brown sugar notes linger through the finish. A bit too ripe, and showing it as the wine ages. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
2014 Maley Brothers “Lodi Native – Wegat Vineyard – Barrel Sample” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Dark purple in color, this barrel sample smells of black tea and cola and blackberry. In the mouth, juicy bright blackberry fruit mixes with wonderful green herb flavors. The faintest of tannins linger in the mouth with a hint of beer, of all things. It will be very interesting to see what this wine ends up like once it is bottled. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2014 Fields Family Wines “Lodi Native – Stampede Vineyard – Barrel Sample” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Light to medium purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of cedar and bright violets and blackberry. In the mouth, thicker tannins wrap around a core of blackberry, crushed herbs, and licorice mixed with a touch of earth. Great acidity and length. Score: around 9.
2014 St. Amant “Lodi Native – Marian’s Vineyard – Barrel Sample” Zinfandel, Mokolumne River, Lodi, California
Medium to dark purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of flowers, blueberries and blackberries. In the mouth, gorgeously bright blackberry and blueberry fruit are bright with juicy acidity that makes the fruit mouthwatering. Great balance and poise. Extremely encouraging. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
Images by Randy Caparoso, courtesy of Randy, the Lodi Native project, and the Lodi Wine Commission.