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  • Courtesy of Tom Hoffman

    Wine ages in barrels at Heritage Oak, which in a given vintage may produce sauvignon blanc, zinfandels, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, tempranillo, carignane, syrah and a couple of blends

  • Courtesy of Tom Hoffman

    The huge oak tree at Heritage Oak Winery stands before the tasting room where the Hoffman family pours several varietals.

Dunne on Wine: Visitors enticed to linger at Heritage Oak Winery in Lodi

Published: Wednesday, May. 22, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

At Heritage Oak Winery of Lodi, the past isn't pickled and idly displayed, but continues to inspire, energize and contribute. The "heritage oak" itself is a tall blue oak wide enough to shade both the winery and the visitors who relax just outside the tasting room.

It has stood there maybe for three centuries, a sturdy and quiet witness to the farming that's gone on around it for about 150 years.

But the long-enduring rhythm of the place continues in several respects beyond the tree, including a picnic site and wildlife sanctuary along the nearby Mokelumne River, the adaptation of the land to shifts in economics and tastes, and even to music emanating from the tasting room or just outside.

Today, Tom and Carmela Hoffman and their two sons represent the fifth and sixth generations to work the land. Tom Hoffman's great-great-grandfather James Christian bought the original 400 acres in 1854, cultivated wheat and probably ran livestock.

The crops changed with ensuing generations, but the land remained in farming. Hoffman's great-grandfather George Robert Jack put in Tokay table grapes, planted fruit trees and added hogs. He and his wife, Lilla Jane, in 1913 built the farmhouse where Hoffman and his family live.

After Hoffman's father, Robert Hoffman, took over the spread in 1978, its transition to wine grapes got underway. Today, the Hoffmans farm 120 acres of wine grapes, mostly sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and zinfandel. In 2007 the family founded Heritage Oak Winery. With last year's bumper California crop, the Hoffmans produced 2,700 cases, their most yet.

On a hot summer day, the blessed shade provided by that blue oak is likely to be too soothing to give up for visitors checking out Lodi wines.

Then there's Tom Hoffman's love of music. When he and his siblings were youngsters, their mother, Joanne, insisted they take piano lessons. He continues to play daily, often entertaining visitors at the piano in the tasting room. His mother, incidentally, who also lives on the farm, often works the tasting room, where she is an amiable, knowing and informative presence.

Before or after a recital, visitors are apt to take a stroll, with or without the picnic basket provided by the winery ($20; wine sold separately), down to a wildlife sanctuary the Hoffmans have set aside.

Hikers cross through vineyards, skirt a bluff and amble past stands of oak before arriving at meadow and beach along the Mokelumne River.

During the vineyard stretch of the hike, the orderly rows of vines are punctuated here and there with high-rise boxes for western bluebirds, tree swallows and barn owls that help the Hoffmans control insects, gophers, moles and the like. Hoffman built the boxes and had a business going in providing them to other vineyardists until he established the winery.

"I enjoyed the bird boxes, but I had to quit. … I just didn't have the time," Hoffman said recently.

Before he joined the family farm in 1982, Hoffman, a graduate of California State University, Chico, taught at embassy schools in Santiago, Chile, and Lima, Peru. He met Carmela during his teaching stint in South America.

In his winemaking, Hoffman's philosophy is to back off more than impose a heavy hand. He looks for the fruit he harvests or buys from other growers to speak mostly of where it was grown. High sugar, high alcohol and high oak all obscure the freshness he wants in his wines.

"I want the fruit flavors to come out. That's what is most important to me," Hoffman said. "I don't push for high extraction. I treat the fruit pretty gently. We're not interested in making fruit bombs. We'll let some other wineries do that."

While his production is small, his portfolio is diverse. Any given harvest, he may make three or four zinfandels, a couple of blends, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, tempranillo, carignane and syrah.

Sauvignon blanc is his most popular varietal, the most recent release of which, the 2012, is laced with the sort of steel, stone and snap that make it more suggestive of the varietal from Sancerre, France, than New Zealand or California.

"I didn't expect to have a signature wine, but it has come to be the sauvignon blanc," Hoffman said.

He might not even have planted sauvignon blanc if it weren't for the late Robert Mondavi, whose brands included the nearby Woodbridge Winery.

As she pours tastes, Joanne Hoffman likes to reflect on Mondavi's contributions to the Lodi wine scene, including his efforts to persuade growers to supply sauvignon blanc.

"They didn't just buy your grapes, they gave you an education, so the grapes would be up to the standard for their wine," she said.

Her son credits one of Mondavi's winemakers, Craig Rous, as the mentor who impressed on him his fruit-forward style of wines.

Those lessons shine through in each of Hoffman's wines, which include the bright and lean 2010 Block 14 Zinfandel, whose wiry build and silken feel also make it seem more European than Californian; the sweetly fruity and persistent 2010 Block 5 Zinfandel; a conservatively aromatic but lushly fruity 2010 syrah; an unusually rich and complex 2010 tempranillo; a lean and delicately sweet 2012 grenache; and a graciously forward and expansive 2012 chardonnay.

The most unusual wine in his lineup is the Heritage Oak Winery 2010 Lodi Petit Verdot, slim and taut in build but fresh and spirited in aroma and flavor. It suggests roses and strawberries in the smell, and that inviting introduction carries through on the palate with bright red-fruit flavors.

Petit verdot traditionally is an understudy in Bordeaux, where it plays a minor but not insignificant role in adding backbone, tannin and color to the juice of the region's other black grapes.

In California, petit verdot is having some success as a standalone varietal, though interpretations often can be stiff and blunt.

Hoffman got around the varietal's customary rigidity by blending in 17 percent of softer grenache, yielding a petit verdot more openly fragrant and more accessibly fruity than the standard.

Hoffman got the grapes that went into the wine from nearby Lockeford grower John Bischoff.

"He encouraged me to try it," Hoffman said.

Farmers being good neighbords, why not?


Heritage Oak Winery 2010 Lodi Petit Verdot

By the numbers: 13.7 percent alcohol, 118 cases, $28

Context: Tom Hoffman recommends that the petit verdot be poured with any "full-flavored red meat." He's partial to filet mignon.

Availability: Heritage Oak wines are sold almost entirely at the winery, 10112 East Woodbridge Road, Acampo, where the tasting room is open 2-5 p.m. weekdays, and noon-5 p.m. weekends, though if a Hoffman is around they'll open up the place whenever someone happens by. Wines also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.heritageoakwinery.com.


Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at mikedunne@winegigs.com.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Mike Dunne



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