Michael McCay and his winery, McCay Cellars, are something of an anomaly for Lodi, where the winemaking culture stresses old vines, old farming families and old viticultural and enological traditions.
While McCay appreciates Lodi's old zinfandel vineyards, he's relatively new to both farming and to Lodi, and his winemaking style represents a departure from the region's customary focus on richness and mass.
He isn't the only vintner to exploit Lodi without benefit of growing up in the region's grape-growing and winemaking milieu, but he just may be the one whose fresh approach to Lodi's flagship wine will be pivotal in recasting the area's image for producing zinfandels more of muscle than agility.
McCay established his winery only in 2007, but he's been growing grapes in the area since 1994, and he recognized early on that zinfandel is the variety that seems to have the most to say clearly and proudly of the region's topography and climate.
Zinfandel isn't the only wine he makes, but various interpretations of the varietal do constitute most of his lineup, and it's zinfandel that gets him most excited. Zinfandel is a grape that can astutely represent its place of origin, expressing that grounding in a wide range of smells and flavors, he's convinced.
Thus, in addition to his own vineyard, he gets grapes from seven other zinfandel vineyards at Lodi. Some are on the east side of town, some on the west. They range in age from 45 years to between 80 and 100 years.
The most impressive release in his current lineup is the McCay Cellars 2009 Lodi Truluck's Zinfandel, a take on the varietal that while deeply colored and rich with ripe fruit typical markers for Lodi zinfandel also is atypically smooth on the palate, with tannins more graciously supportive than obnoxiously astringent.
The flavor runs to prickly blackberries and raspberries more than oak, the acidity is in balance, and the finish lingers pleasantly. Overall, it's lighter and less dense than the sorts of zinfandel customarily associated with Lodi.
Truluck's is an 80-year-old vineyard on the west side of Lodi.
The origin of the vineyard's name can be traced to the phrase "even though things are true, it sometimes takes a little luck," McCay says. The head-trained vines stand unusually tall, topping out at about 6 feet, he notes. "I call them big old soldiers," he remarks.
Truluck's was one of the first zinfandel vineyards he found, liked and began to buy grapes from when he moved to Lodi.
"It provided the grapes for one of the first wines I made. I've been chewing on that fruit for almost 20 years. Today, it's my favorite zinfandel."
McCay's approach to zinfandel is driven by his desire to discover and unfold distinctive characteristics in each vineyard he uses and by his disdain for detectable residual sugar and high alcohol in the finished wine.
"I like to have the vineyard speak through the wine. When I enjoy a zinfandel I'm looking for different nuances of the vineyard. And I'm not a big residual-sugar fan or a high-octane fan. My wine is made in an Old World style layered, with a lot of nuances, and with subtle characteristics representative of the vineyard," McCay says.
His winemaking philosophy is summed up succinctly as "hands on hands off," by which he means being attentive to the vineyard but stepping back in the cellar to let the wine more or less develop on its own. Nevertheless, his cellar practices are attentive, precise and risky.
As to the latter, he starts to ferment the juice with indigenous yeasts those various wild strains that arrive with the grapes when they are delivered to the crush pad. How they will behave is unpredictable, and they can result in problematic fermentations.
When they cooperate, on the other hand, the resulting wine not only will be more complex, it will more truly represent the character of the vineyard, McCay is convinced.
"When you bring in wild yeasts from the vineyard, you get this battle for dominance going on among them. That struggle creates more layers and more characteristics in the wine. The terroir of the vineyard comes through," McCay says.
He doesn't rely solely on native yeasts, however. Once fermentation looks to be secure, he introduces a cultured yeast he has found to accentuate the raspberry notes in the finished wine.
Though McCay didn't grow up on a farm he was reared in the East Bay, where his family was in manufacturing he long has had a scientific orientation, which comes in handy with winemaking. He was studying marine biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, when he realized that "sitting on the ocean floor collecting specimens wasn't what I thought it would be."
After quitting school he moved to Lodi to try his hand as a first-generation farmer and winemaker, initially working with other vintners in the area. Acquaintances and friends liked his early homemade efforts so well that when they offered to pay for his wines he started to think of establishing his winery, but he didn't launch it until 2007.
Over the past five years his wines have gathered critical acclaim in large part for the refinement they bring to Lodi's generous and intense fruit.
In addition to three or four vineyard-designated zinfandels each vintage, McCay makes a white blend based on Rhone Valley varieties, a carignane rosé, a cabernet franc and a petite sirah. His wines are made in small lots, generally no more than 250 cases each, with total annual output no more than 3,000 cases, though he expects to increase production to 3,500 cases with this year's harvest.
McCay Cellars 2009 Lodi Truluck's Zinfandel
By the numbers: 14.6 percent alcohol, 179 cases, $32
Context: McCay likes to pour the Truluck's with rack of lamb marinated with rosemary and garlic, grilled medium rare, but the wine's easy approachability will make it an agreeable companion with the widely varied foods of the Thanksgiving table.
Availability: In Sacramento, the Truluck's is stocked by Selland's Market Cafe, and McCay wines also can be ordered online through the winery's website, www.mccaycellars.com.
More information: McCay Cellars maintains a space at the cooperative tasting room Lodi Wine Cellars, 112 Pine St., Lodi, open 2 p.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, noon-6 p.m. Friday through Sunday.