Tom Hoffman wasn’t always a winemaker. He used to teach, in South America. But, eventually he was drawn back to the family farm, to manage the vineyards. For a while he was a home winemaker. His interest in winemaking eventually became Heritage Oak Winery, located within the Mokelumne River AVA of the Lodi appellation. The winery opened in 2007.
Tom’s family have owned the property where the winery is located since the 1860s, when Tom’s great-great-grandfather homesteaded some 400 acres near the Mokelumne River.
The vineyards and winery are located on a portion of that land which was given to Tom’s great-grandmother by her parents in 1892, when she married. The large blue oak which stands adjacent to the winery building today, has been there since before that time. The family can only speculate as to its actual age.
Tom greeted us just outside the winery building that contains the tasting room and barrel room. Just then his mother, Joanne, arrived. At 86 years young, she runs the tasting room, which is open Friday through Sunday. She’s a delight, you will enjoy tasting wine with her.
Seven covered macro bins of crushed, fermenting Petite Sirah stood outside the winery, having been moved there from inside the winery to “warm them up”. Tom presses the fruit directly into the macro bins, then punches-down and stirs them three times a day…with a canoe paddle. He told us rather than using a punch-down tool, he prefers the paddle. It’s much more efficient at getting oxygen into the fermenting grapes. Along the building were rows of recently filled barrels, going through the process of malolactic fermentation.
When we asked Tom about his winemaking style, he said, “the wine should not be about the oak.” He continued, “I like the fruit expression. That’s important to me.” Fruit is harvested ripe enough to produce the flavors he prefers, but not too ripe. Tom buys new oak barrels every year and uses a combination of new and old French and Ameircan oak, very judiciously.
Our visit to the winery was prompted by an online tasting we were part of in June. That tasting was organized by Charles Communications Associates and LoCA and featured Rosé from Lodi. Among the wines we tasted was the 2012 Heritage Oak Grenache Rosé. We were favorably impressed with the clean fruit flavors of the Rosé and made a note to visit the winery. Turns out there is a lot to like about the rest of the wines from Heritage Oak Winery as well.
There are 14 wines on the winery’s current tasting list. We tasted through them with Tom and discovered a group of flavorful, well-made wines with a variable amount of wood influence.
The two white wines, 2012 Heritage Oak Winery Sauvignon Blanc and 2012 Heritage Oak Winery Chardonnay were crisp and flavorful, delivering all of the fruit flavors of each grape variety. The Chardonnay does not go through malolactic fermentation, and of course no wood aging.
The two blended red wines are both aged in neutral oak. The 2011 Heritage Oak Winery Zinjo, a 50/50 blend of Zinfandel and Sangiovese, is peppery and exhibits dark fruit, excellent acidity and a light body. The 2011 Heritage Oak Vino Tino is a blend of Zinflandel, Syrah and Petite Syrah. It’s complex, with great structure and juicy acidity. Tom explained the name comes from his time in South America when they drank two kinds of wine, Vino Blanco and Vino Tinto. Priced at $18, it’s an excellent everyday wine.
The Zinfandel line-up, which of course we were particularly interesting in tasting, showcases the unique characteristics of each vineyard along with the choice of oak aging. It was the most instructive part of the tasting.
2011 Heritage Oak Winery Block 14 Zinfandel exhibits peppery, dark fruit flavors and ample tannins. This zinfandel vineyard was planted in 1991 and is dry-farmed and hand-harvested. The wine is aged in neutral oak, and the lovely fruit flavors of the Zinfandel are not covered over with wood.
2011 Heritage Oak Winery Block 5 Zinfandel has concentrated berry and dark fruit flavors with a bit of complex spice flavor in the background. The American oak aging increases the complexity of this wine, but does not over-run the fruit flavors. This block of Zinfandel was planted in 1967, and the age of the vines is reflected in the complex fruit flavors.
2011 Heritage Oak Winery Bartlam Zinfandel is a richer, riper fruit style with good spiciness and wood influences from American oak aging in the background. This vineyard is dry-farmed as well.
2011 Heritage Oak Winery Zinhead is harvested “late” from Block 14 and Tom adds 25% Petite Sirah. It is not a “late harvest” however, the fruit is just left longer than for the Block 14 Zinfandel. It is aged two years in partially new oak. This Zinfandel is the richest of the group. Fruit flavors are ripe and complex and the wood influence stays in the background.
Not one of these Zinfandels is over-ripe, jammy or overly alcoholic. They are a flavorful representation of what the Zinfandel grape has to offer, at its best. Each one is unique.
The Block 14, Block 5 and Bartlam vineyards have been “Certified Green” through Lodi Rules TM. Beginning in 2015 wines from these vineyards will carry the Lodi Rules TM Sustainable Winegrowing seal.
Tom also makes other red varietal wines. 2011 Heritage Oak Winery Heritage Oak Shinn Vineyard Tempranillo is made from grapes harvested from a friend’s vineyard. Berries and plums, great tannin structure and juicy acidity. This Tempranillo is seriously delicious.
2010 Heritage Oak Winery Petit Verdot shows perfume on the nose, deep red fruit flavors and firm tannins. A bit of Petite Sirah and Grenache are added as well.
2010 Heritage Oak Winery Cabernet Sauvignon is rich and complex with spice flavors in the background. This wine spent three years in a combination of American and French oak.
2010 Heritage Oak Winery Charbono has aromas and flavors of dark fruit and perfume. Wood aging is in neutral barrels. The fruit came from a small, 71 vine, vineyard. Developing enough sugar can be a challenge with this late-ripening variety. Tom is very excited about the 2013 vintage, which came from a different vineyard. Something to look forward to in a few years.
2012 production was about 2700 cases, that will increase to perhaps 3000 cases for 2013. Most of Heritage Oak’s production is sold through the tasting room. Joanne noted that their Sauvignon Blanc is the best seller. But, she was quick to add that the comment she most often hears from tasters about the wines is that they liked every wine on the list.
Wine tasting, though the main attraction, is not the only thing that will draw you to Heritage Oak Winery. The Heritage Oak Trail, which will take you through the vineyards and on a levee walk along the Mokelumne River, is spectacular.
As you walk through the vineyards you will notice the many bird boxes. Tom has been building them for years. The large oak trees and shrubbery along the riverbank were filled with birds on the October afternoon we walked the circuit.
The number of bird species that have seen sighted on the property is surprising, over 120. A bird list is available at the winery. There is also a series of Bird Walks scheduled thorough December with local birding expert David Yee.
Truly, Heritage Oak Winery is a gem. It is a wine-experience that should not be missed. After you have tasted the wines, spend the time to walk the Heritage Oak Trail. It is about 2 miles if you walk the entire trail. It is a great combination of a vineyard tour and an exploration of riparian habitat. Tasting room hours and directions are on the Heritage Oak Winery website.
As we walked back through the vineyards from our walk, I couldn’t help but think how satisfying it must feel to be the steward of the land that has been in your family for more than 150 years. Witnessing the easy conversation between Tom and his mother in the tasting room was heartwarming. Tom and his wife Carmela live in the renovated farmhouse that was built by Tom’s great-grandparents. How special is that?