Age is a tricky thing, even for a grapevine. There is no universally agreed upon definition of old for a vineyard. To be listed among California’s historic vineyards by the Historic Vineyard Society a vineyard must have been planted in 1960 or before, be in production currently as a wine vineyard and at least 1/3 of the vineyard must be of the original planting. Those seem like reasonable criteria to use in designating a historic vineyard and probably an old vineyard as well.
I recently had the opportunity to tour six vineyards in the Lodi AVA planted many decades before 1960, definitely qualifying them as old vines. The tour was hosted by the Lodi Winegrape Commission (LoCA) and we not only toured the vineyards, we met the winemakers and farmers who tend them. As we listened we sipped wine made from that vineyard. It was a remarkable experience.
The Lodi AVA was established in February 1986 and received approval for expansion in 2002. In 2006 the Lodi AVA was divided into seven sub-AVAs to recognize the historic heart of the region, which is flat and sandy, and to distinguish it from more hilly areas with distinctly different soil types.
The historic heart of the Lodi region, the Mokelumne River AVA, surrounds the city of Lodi and is the area we visited during our tour. It is home to a good many of the oldest vineyards in the AVA. Vineyards located east of Highway 99 are considered east side Lodi and those on the west side of the highway are west side Lodi.
The Mokelumne River AVA is characterized by Tokay sandy loam soil. It is very well-drained, often very deep and essentially devoid of rocks. It can be powdery-fine in appearance. A good deal of it worked its way into my shoes.
These very old vineyards are planted on their own rootstock and are head trained, rather than trellised. That means the vines stand on their own, often in a 10-foot by 10-foot spacing. These vineyards are very distinctive in their appearance and no two vines in a vineyard look alike. Below are the stories of these very special, very old vineyards.
Bechthold Vineyard Cinsault
The Bechthold vineyard is 25 acres of Cinsault planted in 1886. When the market for wheat and then watermelons became unprofitable, Joseph Spenker looked for another crop to plant. At the suggestion of the West brothers, of Stockton’s El Pinal Winery, Spenker planted a grape variety called Black Malvoisie. The vineyard was farmed through the generations and demand for the variety remained strong enough until the early 2000s by which time it began to wane. Al and Wanda Bechthold (Joseph Spenker was Wanda’s great-grandfather), were the current stewards of the vineyard at that time and made the decision to pull out the vineyard.
That was until leaf samples were collected and identified by U.C. Davis as Cinsault. It turns out the future of this vineyard hinged on the well-known name of Cinsault rather than the unfamiliar Black Malvoisie. The demand for Cinsault was, and still is, very strong and this historic vineyard has gone on to have an important second life.
Phillips Farms, the farming branch of Michael David Winery, now farms the vineyard, though the Bechtholds still own it. And there are winemakers standing in line to purchase the grapes. Kevin Phillips farms this gem of a vineyard with love and does so organically (though it is not certified as such). Dry farming is possible because the vines are extremely deep-rooted.
We visited the Bechthold Vineyard two weeks after harvest. There were only a few small clusters remaining on the vines and compost had been spread in the vineyard. Whew, the vineyard was stinky, but it did not diminish my enjoyment of the lovely Cinsault made by Michael David Winery. If that’s not a positive wine review, I don’t know what is.
The 2016 Michael David Rosé of Cinsault (sold out) is a dry rose that is bright, flavorful and refreshing. The red Cinsault is a gorgeous translucent ruby color with generous aromatics, red fruit flavors and spice. It’s complex and light on its feet at the same time. This has been my experience with Bechthold Vineyard Cinsault made by other winemakers as well. Cinsault from this vineyard is one of my favorite Lodi wines and the Michael David Cinsault will be part of our Thanksgiving celebration this year. I’m so happy this vineyard was saved.
Bishofberger Vineyard Carignane
This 12-acre block of Carignane (the US spelling of Carignan) was planted in 1936 and is owned and farmed by Bob Bishofberger. Bob and Michael Phillips (of Michael David Winery) are cousins. That’s important. It means this vineyard is also part of Michael’s family history and preserving that family history important to Michael.
When Bob told Michael he planned to rip out the vineyard, Michael said, “Stop!” Michael David winery now purchases all of the Carignane from this vineyard. Michael is intent on preserving these old vineyards that are part of his family heritage.
Carignane is a late-ripening variety known for its acidity and tannins. This vineyard was several weeks away from harvest when we visited on the 18th of September. In response to a question about the brix of the grapes, Michael Phillips responded, “About 23. I just tasted a few.” That’s vineyard experience for you, in a nutshell.
The 2014 Michael David Carignane showcases the fruit with tart red fruit flavors, brilliant acidity and great structure. Another delightful wine that will pair with all kinds of food.
Marian’s Vineyard Zinfandel
The story of Marian’s Vineyard is also intertwined with several of Lodi’s multi-generation farming families. Marian’s vineyard is owned and farmed by Jerry Fry and his son Bruce of Mohr-Fry Ranches. The Fry family purchased the Zinfandel vineyard, which is now part of a 220-acre ranch located on Lodi’s west side, in 1965 from the Mettler family who planted the vineyard in 1901. Marian’s Vineyard is named for Bruce’s grandmother, Marian Mohr.
Jerry and Bruce Fry are highly-respected grape growers and farm about 600 acres in the Lodi area. They do not make wine under their own label, but you will see Mohr-Fry Ranches noted on the wine labels of many wineries who purchase their grapes.
The 8-acre Marian’s Vineyard Zinfandel is characterized by long, open grape clusters that ripen earlier than the adjacent, younger blocks planted in the early 1940s. In a good year, the vineyard still produces 4 tons per acre. In 2017 the yield was closer to 2.5 tons per acre thanks to wild swings in the weather.
Bruce explained to us that one of the keys to this vineyard’s longevity is the Tokay sandy loam soil. This sandy soil has excellent drainage and is inhospitable to phylloxera, thereby protecting these ancient vines from the pest. The second key factor is proper pruning. The vines are head trained, rather than trellised, which naturally produces an open canopy. An open canopy allows for air flow, even sun exposure and even ripening of the Zinfandel.
Stuart Spencer, Program Director for Lodi Winegrape Commission and winemaker for St. Amant Winery, his family’s winery, brought the winemaker’s perspective to our discussion. His family has 21 years of experience with Marian’s Vineyard and the adjacent old vine Zinfandel that began when his family’s vineyards were dying of phylloxera in 1996.
In particular, Stuart talked about the challenges of making single-vineyard wine. Stewart spoke of the signature flavor profile of Marian’s Vineyard Zinfandel and he noted the 2017 vintage will be a more fruit-forward style than he might like. Thanks to hot weather near harvest, the crop ripened suddenly. So, vintage variation is on full display with with the St. Amant Marian’s Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel. This bottling is extremely popular, it sells out every vintage, and this popularity will be instrumental in saving these old vineyards from being replaced with more en vogue varieties.
We tasted Stuart’s 2015 St. Amant Mohr-Fry Ranch Old Vine Zinfandel made from the younger Zinfandel blocks on the Mohr-Fry Ranches. To my palate, it is a quintessential Lodi Zinfandel made in a less opulent style with judicious use of new oak. It is reliably delicious. This wine was first made by Stuart’s father in 1996 and has become St. Amant’s largest bottling.
Lot 13 Vineyard – A Tale of Zinfandel and Tempranillo
According to Mike McCay, owner and winemaker at McCay Cellars, the Victor Triangle on Lodi’s east side has the largest concentration of truly old vine Zinfandel in the Mokelumne River AVA. The Victor Triangle is an informal name for a “peninsula” of land formed by a sweeping bend in the Mokelumne River. The climate and soils are greatly influenced by the river.
When Mike noticed the vineyard was for sale, he pulled up the For Sale sign, approached the seller and said, “I’ll take it!” Mc Cay named the vineyard Lot 13 from the original lot number on the 1906 Colonial Green Track plot map.
The own-rooted Zinfandel was planted in 1915 and is in very good shape for its age. The clone, of course is unknown, but over 90% of the vines are original. There is the odd Alicante Bouschet, Mission and Tokay vine mixed in. He keeps tractor work in the vineyard to a minimum to reduce the potential for pest such as mites and mealy bugs. He insists, “This is not farming by neglect.” And the vineyard received only about 30 hours of water (one watering) this vintage. The crop is limited to just 3 tons per acre.
Mike’s style of winemaking follows his approach in the vineyard: hand-off. He is a proponent of native yeast fermentations. He believes the first few hours of a native yeast fermentation lends flavor complexity not possible with commercial yeast. He picks on the early side, using primarily pH as an indicator, and uses French oak judiciously. Pristine fruit makes for reliable native fermentations and easy cellaring according to Mike.
We tasted the McCay Cellars 2012 Lot 13 Zinfandel, which was perfumed and aromatic. The color was nearly translucent and tending toward garnet but the flavors are still very fresh. The current release of the Lot 13 Zinfandel is the 2015 vintage. Don’t ever let Mike hear you say that Lodi Zinfandel doesn’t age well. This bottling is 100% Zinfandel. Mike refuses to darken the delicate color with another variety because he insists this wine be an accurate reflection of the vineyard and the variety.
Also part of the Lot 13 Vineyard is a small Tempranillo vineyard planted in the early 1990s by winemaker Mitch Cosentino. Mike cringes at the thought of Mitch having pulled out some of the ancient Zinfandel to make way for Tempranillo, but believes these vines are likely the oldest Tempranillo in the Lodi AVA. So that’s the silver lining.
Just as with the Lot 13 Zinfandel, the flavors of the McCay Cellars 2014 Lot 13 Tempranillo are pure, leading with red and dark fruit, alfalfa and spice. What a lovely wine.
To round out our tasting in the vineyard we sipped McCay Cellars Grenache sourced from the Abba Vineyard (planted only about 25 years ago.) As with the prior wines, this is 100% Grenache and a pure expression of the vineyard.
As a contrast we finished with McCay Cellars Red Blend, which is a chewy, big blend of roughly equal parts Tempranillo, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.
I left the Lot 13 impressed by the vineyard and Mike McCay’s winemaking style.
Rauser Vineyard Carignane
We were met at the Rauser Vineyard by Steve Felten, owner of Klinker Brick Winery. This own-rooted Carignane was planted in 1907 and is owned by Jean Rauser. Steve Felten is now responsible for farming this ancient Carignane vineyard. Using what he called Lodi farmer’s talk, Steve referred to the variety as Ker-eh-gan.
This vineyard is also located in the Victor Triangle and is very close to the Mokelumne River. Soil, once again, is very sandy and Steve talked about the now-familiar protection this porous soil provides the vines from root pests. Steve is in the process of rehabilitating this vineyard from what he jokingly called tractor blight (damage to the head-trained basket vines caused by tractors.) Just last year drip irrigation was added to the vineyard to support the new inter-plantings of Carignane.
Klinker Brick’s first bottling of Carignane as a red wine came out of the need for an additional wine for their wine club members. The fruit from this vineyard had previously been part of their rosé production only. That first vintage of Carignane was a big hit and as a result production has continued and increased.
Steve estimated that the Rauser Vineyard was still several week away from harvest. He noted the grapes were at about 22º brix and he would wait for 25 to 26 to pick. In Steve’s experience this vineyard is always slow to ripen, but if you have the patience (and good weather) to wait, the reward will be fruit with great color and concentration. As with the Bishofberger Vineyard Carignane we toured the day before, the crop is characteristically generous. And this vineyard is 110 years old!
Our vineyard tasting included a Klinker Brick Rosé made of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Carignane that was perfumed and earthy with bright berry flavors. Steve surprised us with a Klinker Brick 2014 Dolcetto that was very easy drinking. The Klinker Brick 2014 Carignane from the Rauser Vineyard was dark ruby with cherry aromas, a medium body and nice tannins.
Lizzie James Vineyard Zinfandel
My final, and best, opportunity to get Tokay sandy loam in my shoes came at the Lizzie James Vineyard. Harney Lane Winery owner and farmer, Kyle Lerner, met us in the vineyard leaning on a shovel and holding a glass of Zinfandel. The shovel wasn’t just a prop, although it was very effective as one, he placed it in the soil to demonstrate just how sandy the soil in the Lizzie James Vineyard is. It’s fine like powder and he told us it reaches to a depth of more than 90 feet. When I grabbed a handful it just fell through my fingers like beach sand, only it’s much finer.
Kyle mentioned his father-in-law, George Mettler, as his mentor in farming. The site of the Harney Lane Winery and tasting room was purchased by Kyle’s wife’s great-grandfather in 1900. The family purchased a vineyard just next to the Lizzie James Vineyard in the late 1960s and then purchased Lizzie James in 2001. The Lerners reached for family names (also the middle names of their children) to name the Zinfandel vineyard, which was planted in 1904.
Kyle told us the 2017 growing season was one of the most challenging he can remember. The growing season started with an extremely wet winter, followed by hail and then came heat spikes. The wet weather meant extra work trying to balance canopy growth with grape cluster load. An interesting benefit of the extremely wet winter, though, is an increased complexity in the flavor of the Zinfandel grapes this year. Kyle was quite excited about the potential for the 2017 vintage.
After our tour of Lizzie James we visited the Harney Lane Winery where the 2017 Lizzie James Zinfandel had completed fermentation and was being pressed. Oh, I wish you could smell those amazing aromas. Now I’m looking forward to the 2017 vintage of Harney Lane Winery Lizzie James Zinfandel!
What I Learned in Lodi’s Old Vineyards
- I came away from these vineyard visits with a new understanding of the importance and value of these very old vineyards. They make Lodi unique and the gnarled, old vines are beautiful. I also gained an appreciation for the hard work Lodi farmers and winemakers are investing in these often low-production vineyards.
- All of these head-trained bush vines must be harvested by hand, an especially expensive prospect during the current labor shortage.
- The wines made from these very old vineyards were uniformly delicious and complex. These are wines with character.
- I was pleasantly surprised to find many of the wines made from these old vineyards are priced in the mid-$20 range. They are an excellent value.
- Drink old vine wines to save the old vines. Demand for the wines made from these beautiful old vineyards will save them from being replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon and other in-demand varieties. Drink Old Vine Wines…I think it should be a bumper sticker.
Thank you to the Lodi Winegrape Commission for sponsoring this very interesting tour. Thanks to Randy Caparoso, historian and champion of the Lodi AVA. You bring the history of Lodi and its vineyards alive.