Mokelumne Glen Vineyards — Meet the Winemakers

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards in Lodi is home to quite a collection of grape varieties, over 40 in all. No doubt the largest number of varieties on a single property in Lodi. It didn’t start out that way though. Pears eventually gave way to Chardonnay and Viognier. Then one corner of the property was planted with 30 German varieties, what the Koths call the German Collection. The Chardonnay and Viognier have yielded to Kerner and Riesling in addition to other varieties. It has been quite an evolution, one we wrote about after we visited Mokelumne Glen Vineyards in January. Riesling, Kerner and Dornfelder comprise the largest plantings along with the German Collection. The Koths believe these three varieties hold great promise.

Bob and Mary Lou Koth and their daughter and son (Ann-Marie and Brett) have worked the property as a family. Summer vacations and weekends have been spent tending the vines, harvesting and making wine until their final commercial vintage in 2009. The work in the vineyard has continued though. New vines are being planted, pruning experiments are being conducted and Bob is researching additional clones for planting. Though commercial winemaking by the Koths has ceased, it continues by a group of winemakers drawn to this unusual collection of grape varieties.

MGV gathering of winemakers
Recently Brett Koth organized a gathering of this adventuresome group of winemakers. Some winemakers are making wine commercially, some for personal consumption others with an eye toward possible commercial production in the future. They are a diverse group but all have a passion for making wine. Each winemaker brought samples of their wine, explained their winemaking process and a bit about what drew them to Mokelumne Glen Vineyards (MGV). Pete and I were happy to be invited to the gathering which took place on a warm afternoon in May. We gathered around picnic tables in the shade of ancient oak trees adjacent to the vineyards. We sipped wine and listened to winemakers talk about their wines. All the while, an amazing number of birds serenaded us in the background. It was a special afternoon.

Markus Niggli — Borra Vinyards

Markus Niggli - Borra VineyardsMarkus Niggli, winemaker at Borra Vineyards in Lodi since 2010, began making wine with MGV grapes in 2011. It was Brett who first suggested Markus consider using some of their Kerner. Markus started small, thinking it would be a good adventure to learn how to work with the variety. He produced 50 cases in 2011. That first vintage was 85% Kerner, 15% Riesling with Kerner bringing intense minerality and acidity and the Riesling adding fruit flavors.

This is exactly the style of wine Markus prefers, very dry, high acid wine. He uses a short all stainless steel 4-month production using native yeast fermentation, which can take several weeks to begin. Once fermentation begins, Markus adds a touch of nutrients for the yeast and fermentation finishes within a week. Temperature is maintained at 50º F and most vintages require no acid adjustment, a result of picking fruit early.

Since the 2011 vintage Bacchus has been added to the Kerner and Riesling. The blend varies every year. Because of crew availability and that fact that Bacchus is a late ripener, Markus has had to pick the Bacchus earlier than he would have preferred (it’s challenging to get a crew in to pick just a small amount of Bacchus at the same time Borra Vineyards’ red varieties are also demanding to be harvested). The earlier harvest has worked out very well and Markus is learning to work with these varieties. “I am not afraid! I am not afraid! I am not afraid!”, Markus repeated with a laugh.

Borra Vineyard labelsKnowing that most customers would be unfamiliar with the Kerner grape, Markus used the label to sell the wine initially. He was confident once consumers became familiar with Kerner they would like the variety. He contacted the Art Department at the University of the Pacific in Stockton to create the label. The result is the “zip code label” designed by a student at the University. The label actually contains the zip code of Markus’ home town in Switzerland. The marketing strategy worked well. Demand for the Kerner blend has been strong.

We tasted both the 2012 and 2013 Artist Series Kerner blend wines. Both were mineral driven with floral hints and tongue-tingling acidity. The 2013 vintage contains a bit more Riesling, and less Kerner, and as a result is a bit more floral. The aromas are typical Clone 90 Riesling aromas according to Bob Koth. Just the thing for a warm afternoon and food friendly too. Delicious.

Row 41 spur pruning the KernerMarkus and Brett are working on a Kerner pruning experiment involving transitioning from cane pruning to spur pruning. The experiment is based on Markus’ experience with Viognier at Borra Vineyards. Markus expects that spur pruning will produce a more even fruit set with uniform growth of fruit clusters. Early indications are that this will be the case, though it is still early in the growing season. He will be watching sugar and acid development and expects ripening to be earlier in the experimental row. All eyes are on row 41!

Markus also makes a dry Gewürztraminer from MGV fruit as well. Though sweet wines are not his style, he enjoys making this dry Gewürztraminer. Markus approached this project much as he did the Kerner blend. Make the wine, market it and see how it is received. Demand for the Nuvola has been strong as well.

He harvested two blocks of Gewürztraminer at MGV. The lower block at about 22.4 and the upper block at 24.5º Brix. Markus likes the combination of ripeness, it lends complexity. He ferments the wine to dryness with a RS .49 g/L and TA of 7.6 g/L.

Wine production is the same as the Kerner blend, whole cluster press, native yeast fermentation in stainless steel. “No magic.”, Markus states, “The magic happens in the vineyard.”

The 2013 Nuvola shows stone fruit, minerality and citrus flavors and aromas. It is light bodied and has a medium finish. Crisp, clean and flavorful.

Markus also makes a Kerner blend that is aged in oak called Intuition. The inspiration for this wine comes from Switzerland where a friend is making a similar wine, a Kerner blend aged in oak. Markus enjoys this wine when in Switzerland and wanted to make it here.

2011 was the first vintage for his Intuition white blend of 60% Kerner, 20% Rieslaner, 20% Gewürztraminer. Fermentation began in stainless steel and finished in oak barrels, 85% new French and American oak and 15% neutral barrels. Aging for 9 months was followed by bottling in June. This first production was only 48 cases due to limited fruit availability. 12.8% ABV.

Markus feels the wood flavors are now integrated nicely into the flavors of the 2011 vintage adding complexity to the spice contributed by the Gewürztraminer, the minerality from the Kerner and freshness from the Rieslaner. He’s right, it’s truly is delicious.

For the 2012 Intuition Markus increased production to 200 cases, being pleased with the 2011 vintage and having access to more MGV fruit. The 2012 blend is 60% Kerner, 20% Riesling, 20% Gewürztraminer. Fermentation and aging were essentially the same, with a bit less oak aging, 65% new oak for 2012. 13.7% ABV

The flavors of oak are still very evident in the 2012, as expected. Over time the oak flavors are expected to integrate into the flavors of the wine. Markus noted that the Intuition, though produced is a similar manner to that in Switzerland, is a different tasting wine — reflective of Lodi’s terroir.

Matthew Rorick — Forlorn Hope

Matthew Rorick - Forlorn HopeRare Creatures is how Matthew Rorick refers to his wines. They are made with minimal intervention in the winery with the goal of expressing just what the vineyard gives him. “All Forlorn Hope wines are produced from winegrapes. That’s it.” is how he puts it on his website. No yeast, enzymes or acid additions are made. No water is added and wood aging takes place in neutral oak barrels.

Matthew discovered Mokelumne Glen Vineyard during harvest in 2013 and was intrigued by the German Collection of over 30 varieties. They harvested what they could from the German Collection and added Bacchus to give them enough fruit to produce at least a barrel of wine. His intention was to make what Austrians call Gemischter Satz, a field blend. In this case the blend consisted of over 30 varieties!

We tasted a barrel sample from the 2013 harvest. Because Matt discovered the vineyard so late in the season (they picked late in September), the grapes were a bit riper than desirable — 25º Brix at harvest. The Bacchus measured 21.5º Brix at harvest, being a late ripener, which helped even out the total ripeness of the blend a bit.

Winemaking was straight forward — whole clusters were pressed manually into a neutral oak barrel. The wine was fermented dry in the barrel. ABV is 14.6%. Matthew believes this wine is an expression of the site, rather than the variety, as you would expect to be the case with this extreme a field blend.

This blend, which is yet to be named, is extremely floral with nice minerality and great acidity. It really leaps out of the glass. Matthew feel this is a really exciting first look at what the vineyard site has to offer and is looking forward to the 2014 harvest.

Matthew and his crew came back to do a late harvest at MGV on November 19. They harvested Weissburgunder, Kerner, Rieslaner and Bacchus — at an amazing 39.5º Brix. Matt was surprised how much intact fruit remained so late in the year.

Whole clusters were pressed into neutral barrels. Fermentation is still chugging along, though it has slowed considerably. ABV is at about 14%, TA at about 8 g/L and RS about 139 g/L. The flavors are complex, concentrated and reminiscent of botrytisized wines to me.

Matthew described making a late harvest sweet wine as a “whole different discipline.” He has had prior success and failure with “sweeties” and is continuing to learn with this wine.

Chad Hinds

Chad HindsChad Hinds sells others’ wine, working for a distributor selling mostly natural and organic wines, much in the style of his own wines. In his spare time he works evenings for an online wine application. He’s a busy guy and passionate about winemaking. His wine label, Sauvage, will debut later this year.

Chad found Mokelumne Glen Vineyards the modern way, by doing an Internet search for unusual grape varieties. He was astounded at the number of grape varieties planted at MGV, describing it as “the biggest estate of random grapes ever.” Chad appears to be attracted to the unusual. In addition to Kerner and Blaufränkisch from MGV, he has also made a Valdiguié from Mendocino and Syrah from El Dorado AVA.

The inspiration for Chad’s 2013 Kerner comes from wine made in the Alto Adige in northern Italy. He harvested the Kerner at about 22º Brix and began the winemaking process with a cold soak for a few days followed by pressed into neutral barrels. He used only native yeast fermentation. We tasted barrel samples, as Chad expects to bottle in June.

Chad’s 2013 Kerner is very aromatic, showing tropical fruit aromas, good minerality and nice texture. ABV is 13.5% and RS probably less than 1%, the final measurement has yet to be done. Total production was 3 barrels, an expected 60 cases. Marketing will be to small wine shops in the Bay Area initially.

For his 2013 Blaufränkisch, Chad picked at relatively low 20º Brix. He is looking to produce a light, acid-driven red wine in the style of a Loire Cabernet Franc. Because Chad wanted to do 100% whole cluster fermentation, he picked for pH rather than Brix. He used native yeast fermentation and pressed the juice into neutral oak barrels. ABV is 11.9% with bottling expected in June.

Both of Chad’s wines will be released young and are intended to be drunk when young. That’s the style of wine he likes, a delicious, low-alcohol food friendly wine. His Blaufränkisch has lots of fruit flavors, great acidity and significant tannins. A great warm weather red wine that will be a good partner for a variety of summer fare.

“It’s been a fun experiment.” says Chad of his winemaking from MGV Kerner and Blaufränkisch. He’s looking forward to the 2014 vintage at Mokelumne Glen Vineyards.

Andrew Yandell — Trumpet Wine

Matthew Yandell - Trumpet WineAndrew Yandell has recently established Trumpet Wine to import and distribute wine, specifically organically produced in Catalunya. His business is new, the Catalan wines are arriving in July and Andrew is building his business.

In addition to distribution, Andrew has an interest in making wine. He spent time in Würtzburg, Germany interning as a chef. The region has a strong wine culture tied to lower alcohol, light bodied wines that are easy to drink. This experience influenced his winemaking style.

Andrew shared with us his 2013 Zweigelt harvested from Mokelumne Glen Vineyards. Andrew found MGV through Chad, who also provided the “wine recipe”, as Andrew put it. He describes his winemaking as straight forward. Andrew crushed one-half of the harvest (the old-fashioned way, by foot) and did his version of carbonic maceration (involving plastic garbage bins, whole-cluster grapes, dry ice, plastic wrap and duct tape) on the other half. Both batches were pressed off to a single barrel where the wine fermented dry. Andrew just bottled the wine we tasted a few days earlier, without any addition of sulfur. ABV is 12.7%.

This wine is meant to be enjoyed while young. Chill it, drink it by itself or with food. This light red wine has lots of fruit flavor with a bit of earthiness.

Although Andrew’s 2013 Zweigelt is for his own consumption, but he plans to harvest at MGV this year in anticipation of making wines commercially. He plans to make both Zweigelt and Dornfelder in the same lighter, low alcohol style.

Todd Hafner

ToddTodd has known the Koth family for about 10 years. He and a friend have been making wine from Mokelumne Glen Vineyards grapes since 2008. That first fermentation took place in his garage, in a plastic barrel. He bottled his wine and sent it to the California State Fair homemaking wine competition. He received a Silver Medal and was off and running as a home winemaker.

Todd shared three of his wines with us. The 2011 Dornfelder was handled in two batches, one with commercial yeast, one with natural yeast. The natural fermentation started slowly and both fermentations were kept below 80º. After fermenting dry, the batches were pressed off and aged separately for a few months in French and Hungarian oak.

Todd bottled both batches separately and we were able to taste them side-by-side. The Dornfelder fermented with native yeast was much more lively with bright fruit flavors and a touch of earthiness.

Todd then poured his 2011 Lemberger. It is made in a similar manner, with similar oak treatment and showed bright acidity, red fruit and grippy tannins. A nice glass of juice. Todd includes some whole clusters in the fermentation because he believes it lends complexity to the flavor profile.

The afternoon would not have been complete without as taste of Mokelumne Glen Vineyards’ last commercially produced wines. The Koths shared two of their wine with us.

2009 Mokelumne Glen Vineyards Dornfelder — this five-year-old wine still tastes so young. It has lots of dark and red fruit flavors, the color is still very dark without a hint of brick. Tannins still have plenty of grip. Everyone agreed this is a wine to accompany BBQ. This wine has held its age very well. ABV is 13.7%.

We finished the afternoon with Mokelumne Glen Vineyards’ final bottling of their proprietary sweet wine 2009 Dreirebe Reserve Late Harvest. A combination of Weissburgunder, Rieslaner and Gewürztraminer was harvested at 31.5º Brix. This wine is sweet, full of lively flavor, round in the mouth and finishes with nice acidity. Delicious dessert in a glass.

In addition to a passion for making wine, all of these winemakers have a desire to produce wines with minimal intervention in the wine cellar that are reflective of the site and the variety. They are all learning about the Mokelumne Glen Vineyard site one vintage at a time. Getting to know the vineyard site is something I have heard several winemakers in the Lodi area talk about recently. It is an exciting time in the Lodi wine world.

While there is a place for all kinds of wine, from mass-produced wine that tastes the same year after year, to small boutique producers (and everything in between), it is this kind of small volumn, very passionate winemaker that makes wine appreciation so much fun — and so interesting.

So, thank you to this group of winemakers interested in working with these uncommon varieties. Keep doing what you love, we appreciate your efforts.

Bob and Mary Lou Koth - Mokelumne Glen VineyardsThank you to the Koth family as well. You have followed your passion for winemaking with these unusual varieties you love so much, marching to the beat of your own drum. Now others have heard the drumbeat and winemaking from your vineyard is moving in many exciting directions. Thank you for organizing this gathering and for inviting us.


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