Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Randy Caparoso gets to the root of what distinguishes Lodi

Randy Caparoso’s points to Lodi’s rich wine industry, with wines made with grape varieties other than zinfandel, wines in styles other than still and rich.
Randy Caparoso’s points to Lodi’s rich wine industry, with wines made with grape varieties other than zinfandel, wines in styles other than still and rich.

To get a handle on the Lodi wine scene, you can wander from winery tasting room to winery tasting room, sampling what the area’s winemakers are up to these days.

Or, you could pull into a cul-de-sac just south of Lodi Lake on the city’s northern edge and ring the doorbell at Randy Caparoso’s house, which is what I did on a rainy weekday not long ago.

Caparoso – hirsute, natty and persistently imbued with the warm aloha spirit of his native Hawaii – answered the door and saw me to his dining room, where the table was set with 19 wines.

They were a surprise. I’d just expected to talk with Caparoso about where Lodi is and where it is going, wine-wise, but he wanted to illustrate the points he was about to make.

Here, try this, he urged, pouring a splash of the Acquiesce Winery 2016 Lodi Grenache Blanc Sparkling Wine ($55). It was dry, steely, sharp and evocative of apples and pears against a yeasty backdrop, just what a refined sparkling wine is supposed to be, even though made atypically – in Lodi and with the unusual grape grenache blanc.

That was Caparoso’s point: This is the direction Lodi is going – wines made with grape varieties other than zinfandel, wines in styles other than still and rich.

He pulled corks, unscrewed caps and with glass after glass drove home that point with such wines as the extremely fragrant and abidingly layered Bokisch Vineyards 2017 Lodi Clements Hills Terra Alta Vineyard Trencadis White ($23), a blend based on such Rhone Valley grape varieties as grenache blanc and marsanne, and the limey, zesty and surprisingly complex Peltier Winery 2017 Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($18).

It was as if I’d won a raffle for my own private sommelier for the day, which is what Caparoso was in an earlier life.

But going on 10 years now, he has been the freelance editor for the Lodi Winegrape Commission, representing the area’s growers and winemakers through photography, speeches, social media and a prolific stream of blog postings, all intended to educate wine enthusiasts about Lodi’s history, personality and potential.

He sees himself more as journalist than salesman, accounting for a tone respectful but frank and a perspective that while occasionally provocative also is consistently fair. His accumulated posts amount to a veritable book on Lodi wine – intelligent, sweeping, helpful and diverse – delivered in an encouraging and friendly voice.

A brief bio: Caparoso graduated from high school in Honolulu in 1974, and in short order studied philosophy at the University of Hawaii, married, fathered the first of his four children, and went to work in wine sales and the restaurant business, first as a waiter, then a sommelier. In 1988 he became a founding partner in Roy Yamaguchi’s nascent string of Roy’s restaurants. Caparoso oversaw the chain’s wine program and opened 28 branches across the U.S. He left in 2001 following a falling out with other partners over the philosophical direction of the chain’s wine program. For a short time, he made and distributed wine under his own eponymous brand, and more successfully expanded his writing of wine, which he began in 1981 with a column for the Honolulu Advertiser that he wrote for 23 years.

He made his first visit to Lodi in 2003, and by 2010, both smitten with the area and ready to settle into a regular writing gig, went to work with the Lodi Winegrape Commission, eager to beef up its website.

So, as he pours wines, let’s tap Caparoso for some candid insight about the Lodi wine scene:

Q: Lodi long has been perceived as producing solid, everyday, mainstream varietal wines at value prices, but not necessarily Saturday-night wines. Does that perception still hold today?

A: “That’s what Lodi does. When you go into a supermarket and want to spend $8 to $10 for wine, or $12 or $15 if you are splurging, where is that wine going to come from? It’s going to come from here. In the 1980s, the $7 to $12 wines on the shelves were the Martinis and the Mondavis. But they went away as the cost of producing wine in Napa and Sonoma went up. Lodi has taken the place of those wines on the shelves.”

(On the other hand, upscaling is well under way at Lodi. Among the wines he poured was the hearty and resonating Bokisch Vineyards Tizona 2014 Lodi Gran Reserva Tempranillo ($60), which won’t be released for another year as it continues to age and gather in traditional Spanish fashion.)

Q: When you are here or on the road representing Lodi wine, what’s the most irksome continuing misperception about the area that you run into?

A: “That it’s hot here. The heat is the big thing. It gives people the perception you can’t make a balanced wine, which is just not true, you can make very balanced wine. (Here Caparoso launches into a long and deep recitation of research to show that Lodi, Napa Valley and upper Sonoma County aren’t far apart in highs and lows during the growing season, the upshot being a surge in the production at Lodi of the sorts of fragrant and refreshing wines – whites especially – long associated with cool areas.)

Q: What have been the biggest changes you have seen in Lodi wine styles and quality in your time here?

A: “Winemakers are moving away from just commercial ideas of wine and more into wines that reflect place. What I found when I first started to come here was a lot of producers trying to make wine that tasted like they’d come from other regions, which is what happens when you are a new region and you think that this is what you’ve got to do. Now you can taste a grenache blanc or a mourvedre or a blend that only could be made in Lodi. This is the kind of attitude that didn’t exist 15 years ago. It’s only come about within the past 10 or 12 years. Lodi no longer is concerned about making a big, oaky, jammy zinfandel like they can do in Sonoma. Now we can make a more floral wine, one a little softer in tannin, because that’s more natural to zinfandel grown in Lodi.

(His Exhibit A: The brilliant, brambly and layered Alquimista Cellars 2016 Lodi Mokelumne River Jessie’s Grove Ancient Vine Zinfandel ($52), which despite its 15.1 percent alcohol comes off fresh, vibrant and youthful, thanks in part to its partial carbonic maceration, a method of fermentation meant to yield a more aromatic, more supple and less tannic wine.)

Q: Lodi isn’t recognized as a wine-tourism destination, largely because it doesn’t have much in the way of high-profile restaurants and accommodations, and doesn’t offer much to do other than taste wine and sky dive. What am I missing?

A: “When you visit wineries here they are still small wineries, they aren’t corporate owned, the owner doesn’t live in New York, the winemaker isn’t so celebrated that he’s not around. It’s like it was in Napa and Sonoma in the 1960s and 1970s, when winemakers had time for you. That time passed long ago for those places. There are some corporate wineries here, but by and large it’s small wineries in Lodi. We’re building more hotels, but this is an agricultural area, you can’t just build a big hotel. Only so much growth can happen. That’s the issue, how much growth can you have in an agricultural area?”

Q: The signature grape of Lodi has been old-vine zinfandel, but older zinfandel vineyards are being pulled out in favor of more fashionable varieties. Can anything be done about it? Should anything be done?

A: “What has to be done about it is to sell more zinfandel. That will increase the value of the old vines. The reality is that a lot of these guys with vineyards that are 50 years old don’t get a lot of money for their grapes. Head-trained, spur-pruned vines take so much hand labor that if you are selling the grapes for $600 a ton you aren’t making any money, you’re losing money, you might as well not pick the grapes. That is the issue. We lost more old vines this past year. The acreage is dwindling. The positive thing is that what’s left becomes more valuable, and it becomes profitable for what remains.”

Q: We’ve tasted a lot of “new wave” Lodi wines today. What do they share that says Lodi?

A: “A certain quality of the fruit. It’s very floral and very fresh. That goes for both the whites and the reds. We get a lot of fresh fruit in the whites. They’re very minerally, with good acid balance. They defy the preconceptions because the preconceptions are fundamentally wrong. This is not a desert here. Lodi is basically a coastal region that’s a little farther away from the coast. It’s sandwiched between Sacramento and Stockton, which are seaport towns. That explains the Lodi terroir. Lodi has less fog than regions right on the coast, but it has a Mediterranean climate and wide diurnal swings. Winemakers from all over the state understand that, that’s why they buy grapes here. They aren’t stupid.”

(Two whites that Caparoso poured to reinforce his point were the richly textured and uncommonly spicy Anaya Vineyards 2017 Lodi Pinot Gris ($32) and the novel Peltier Winery 2016 Lodi Estate Preeminence ($28), a forward, citric and mouth-filling blend of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and vermentino).

Q: Your columns and blog posts amount to a book about Lodi’s history, its strengths, challenges and evolution. What are the prospects for getting a book out of all this material?

A: “It’s never been brought up. I’ve never really thought of that. I should tell the commission.”

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. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.