Dunne on Wine

February 10, 2014

Dunne on Wine: Michael David Winery in Lodi

The Lodi vintners have a popular new attraction, the more affordable Lodi cabernet Freakshow.

Mike Dunne on Wine

What's new, good and vintage from California vineyards

Brothers Michael and David Phillips have a problem. They’re looking around their crowded tasting room, produce stand, coffee counter, bakery and cafe, wondering where they’ll squeeze in the saddle.

Officials of the 2014 Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo International Wine Competition last fall designated Michael David Winery the “Top All Around Winery,” based on its overall impressive showing. The winery will pick up the custom-made trophy saddle in a couple of weeks when the livestock show and rodeo gets underway.

“I’ve been wanting to get my hands on that saddle for years,” says David Phillips.

Michael David racked up a slew of awards, including four class champions and enough gold medals to call for another pair of oxen to be hitched to the delivery wagon.

Somewhere in the tasting room the saddle will join other high awards won at earlier Houston competitions – a framed pair of chaps and five shiny belt buckles, all of which could come in handy if only they still ran cattle.

Michael and David Phillips, however, gave up raising cattle as they got increasingly busy growing grapes and making wine. Today, they produce about 500,000 cases annually, tend 750 acres of grapes and buy fruit from about 60 other Lodi farmers, as well as growers farther afield.

This year marks the family’s 30th anniversary as Lodi vintners. They’ve long grown wine grapes, among other crops, but founded their winery only in 1984, adding a tasting room to the roadside produce stand they’d built in 1975.

Early on, wines were released under the label Phillips Vineyards, but then the family ran into a trademark dispute with a similarly named liquor-distribution company in Minnesota and agreed, however reluctantly, to switch the name of their brand to Michael David Winery.

From the outset, Michael David’s enthusiastic following has been built on wines that are husky, concentrated and effusive, their flavors running to fully ripe fruit with substantial oak. By their heft, they stand out at blind wine competitions, and consumers flock to them for their juiciness, sweetness and accessibility. Alcohol levels are on the high side. Even the proprietary names the brothers apply to several of their wines signal their intensity: Earthquake, Gluttony, Rapture, Inkblot, Sloth, Lust.

“We strive for concentration. We want to make wines that taste like Lodi, not France or someplace else,” says David Phillips. If the wines are warm with alcohol, well, that’s the consequence of Lodi’s rich soils, abundant sunshine and hot days. “We’re picking what nature gives us.”

That said, the Phillips family has stuck to farming for more than a century through flexibility and adaptability, such as transitioning from canning tomatoes to heirloom tomatoes. Thus, they sense a shift in consumer interest to less intense wines and are responding with more balance and refinement in some of their releases, in part by dialing back on the use of barrel fermentation.

They recognize, however, that big wines such as their rich and blustery 7 Deadly Zins, their inky and juicy Petite Petit, and their complicated and warm Lust Zinfandel have avid fans.

Those aggressive California cousins share the tasting counter with wines with a leaner, crisper, drier, more reserved European styling, making the Michael David portfolio more varied today than it’s ever been. Michael David Winery clearly isn’t a one-pony show.

The portfolio includes such slick releases as the dry and frothy Bear Ranch 2011 Sparkling Wine ($35), possibly the first methode-champenoise bubbly to be made in Lodi; the creamy and complex yet snappy Michael David 2012 Lodi Chardonnay ($16); and the rich, spicy and broad yet accessible Michael David 2011 Lodi Bechthold Vineyard Ancient Vine Cinsault ($25), a California rarity, grown in Lodi’s oldest vineyard, dating from 1885.

At the outset, the Phillips family gambled on a grape virtually unrecognized in California – syrah – largely at the urging of Michael Phillips, then studying viticulture and enology at UC Davis. He simply liked the wine, and he took to heart, at least at first, warnings that cabernet sauvignon just wouldn’t show well at Lodi.

Since then, the meaty and layered Michael David 6th Sense Syrah has become a steady seller and consistent medal winner, even though syrah generally has struggled in California.

The Phillips brothers also have shown that cabernet sauvignon does indeed deserve a place in Lodi. One of their two most expensive wines is their Rapture cabernet sauvignon ($59), the jammy yet spirited 2011 version of which scored a rare double-gold medal at last fall’s Houston competition.

Their confidence in Lodi cabernet sauvignon is so secure that they’re scaling up dramatically production of their more affordable Lodi cabernet, the relaxed and graceful Freakshow ($20), whose bright, lively and entertaining label – by Lodi artist Ben Moreno – was inspired by vintage Barnum & Bailey circus posters. The brothers made 20,000 cases of the Freakshow cabernet off the 2011 vintage, but with the 2012 harvest they’re boosting production to 100,000 cases.

“It will be our next big hit,” predicts David Phillips. “It will be bigger than 7 Deadly Zins.” That zinfandel is their single most popular wine, accounting for 300,000 cases a year.

The Phillips brothers don’t brag of their success, though they’re proud of what they’ve accomplished. When they reflect on the role they’ve played in the rising profile of the Lodi wine trade over the past three decades, they don’t talk in terms of cases, medals, acres or saddles, but of the 150 people they employ and of the opportunities in agriculture they’ve helped cultivate. Lodi has been growing grapes for more than a century, but the industry looks more stable and prosperous than ever.

“Thirty years ago, there was no wine industry here for them to come back to,” says David Phillips of young, aspiring farmers who went off to find education or work elsewhere. “We have that now for today’s kids.”

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