Travels in Wine / California

Travels in Wine California: Budburst in the Rain!


Louisa Peskett Louisa Peskett / 25 June 2019
I'm smiling as it has finally stopped raining! Lodi is home to some almost statuesque old vines
Lodi is home to some almost statuesque old vines

Our buyer for the US, Sarah Knowles MW being otherwise engaged, I was lucky enough to take her place and accompany 17 other wine-trade professionals on a week-long, whistle-stop tour exploring the Californian regions of Lodi, Napa and Sonoma. As Merchandising Manager at The Wine Society, I don't often get to leave my desk, so rare opportunities like this not only help me to increase my wine knowledge and professional development, but are also a great opportunity to meet with people in similar roles from across the wine world.

A wet spring in California spells the end of the drought

Budburst on an old zinfandel vine in Lodi (Delicato – Gnarley Head/Brazin)
Budburst on an old zinfandel vine in Lodi

We arrived as budburst started in the vineyards. For most of the week the weather was overcast; not great for photos, but good news for growers! At last the drought status under which the region has existed for the past couple of years, has ended. Water-wise the regions are now all in a good position; the wet winter replenished reserves and with large snow-caps in the Sierra Nevada hills, water-supplies in 2019 should not be an issue.

Lodi – grape growers becoming winemakers

Lodi AVA Overview
Lodi AVA Overview

East of San Francisco and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is the Lodi wine region. Traditionally this is a land of grape-farmers but increasingly they are making their own wines instead of selling their grapes to the larger producers. Land is cheaper here than in the more famous near-by regions of Napa and Sonoma and so this has become a hotbed for experimentation. Though the region is famous for its old-vine zinfandel, growers are finding that the Mediterranean climate suits Spanish and Italian grapes well too and in the cooler parts even Germanic varietals like kerner and dornfelder are being grown with some success.

It never rains but it pours!

Beavers – nature's master engineers might offer some solutions for containing precious water supplies, but their presence isn't always welcomed by farmers
Nature's great builders can pose a threat to vines!

This year the weather brought flooding to the region and with that beaver damage to the vineyards. Yes! When the vineyards flood these large rodents often move in and gnaw on the vines. The vineyard owners are often unaware of the damage taking place until they get a chance to inspect the vines closely. What to do about the wildlife is a controversial subject as you might imagine!

Most of the vineyards in this neck of the woods have been farmed for generations by the same families who have a deep connection to and passion for their environment. The Lodi Rules sustainable winegrowing program has been adopted across almost half the region (and even across the wider California area and abroad). This is one of the few areas in America with ancient vines, so understandably, the people that farm them wanted to look after their inheritance and their land. The Rules encourage responsible farming and includes practices that help maintain biodiversity. I found out that they encourage the adoption of owl boxes to attract these birds having discovered they have no sense of smell, something which definitely helps in their role of reducing the local skunk population!

Gnarly Head, Old Vine Zinfandel, 2017 (Lodi, California)
Gnarly Head, Old Vine Zinfandel, 2017 (Lodi, California)

One of the standout wines from the trip was the Gnarly Head Zinfandel which we will be selling shortly (I love it when our buyers come up trumps!). I found it to be softer and plumper in style than the Brazin which also hails from Lodi). One to watch out for!

Lodi, for me, (with my short arms and long pockets), is a region to watch.

Fine Wine Focus in Napa

Napa surely is the best-known fine wine region in the USA. Here cabernet is king. Its place on the world stage was assured following the famous win at the so-called Judgement of Paris Tasting in 1976 when Stag's Leap Cabernet and Château Montelena Chardonnay beat the best of French wines in a blind tasting. Since then the region has flourished; so too have land prices.

Napa Valley: famous wine-growing region in California
Napa Valley: famous wine-growing region in California

Gawk-worthy Highway 29!

If you're ever in the area a leisurely cruise down Highway 29 is truly gawk-worthy. There are a multitude of cellar door facilities to drop in on with classy tasting rooms and wines to try. Strangely, the county laws forbid the wineries to offer meals with the wine but you will find delicious-looking cheese and charcuterie plates to soak up the wine.

Highway 29: one of the world's priciest pub crawls!

Highway 29: one of the world's priciest pub crawls!
Highway 29: one of the world's priciest pub crawls!

Or you could let the train take the strain!

Napa Valley Wine Train
Napa Valley Wine Train

To truly get to grips with the region we were treated to a masterclass on different styles of Napa cabernet from a Master Sommelier Matt Stamp who owns a local wine bar.

Napa Valley Cabernet Masterclass
Napa Valley Cabernet Masterclass

Mountain or Valley fruit – this is a key style factor

Matt pointed out the principal differences which derive from whether the vines are planted either in the Valley or in the Mountain AVA's (American Viticulture Areas). The Valley vines (St Helena, Rutherglen, Oakville and Yountville regions) are grown in 'cooler' conditions and are more lush and voluptuous in style with softer tannins, for example Frog's Leap based in Rutherglen who make our Exhibition wines, Corison and Dominus. The Mountain wines get more sunlight, rain and a wider diurnal temperature range, producing more colour, tannin and acidity in the wines. (Smith Madrone and Stony Hill are prime examples).

Old-school v new – a stylistic choice

Layered onto the geographical influence are the choices made by the winemaker whether to grow, harvest and vinify the grapes into the more savoury 'old school' style or the plusher, riper 'new school' approach, where the use of oak plays a large part. Of the wines we tried we felt the Inglenook and Frog's Leap wines were more in the savoury realm and Silver Oak, Buchephalus from Black Stallion fell more into the latter camp.

Again, Ms Knowles came up trumps and I was delighted to find that she has sourced probably the best-value wines we found from this famous region. The First Press Cabernet and Chardonnay made by Delicato are excellent, and under £20.

Where to go next?

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