Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Lodi Native Project garners attention for zinfandel

Lodi Native Project’s zinfandels.
Lodi Native Project’s zinfandels. Lodi Winegrape Commission

More than a third of the zinfandel grown in California is grown at Lodi. Of the 355,000 tons of zinfandel crushed in California during the 2014 harvest, 125,000 tons came off Lodi vineyards. That translates to more than 90 million bottles, though not all of it is released as traditionally red zinfandel; much of it is bottled as white zinfandel, and some of it plays an anonymous role in blends.

Nevertheless, with that kind of footprint Lodi’s standing for fine zinfandel would seem to be secure, but Lodi’s winemaking community isn’t growing complacent. If anything, it’s become more assertive and imaginative in promoting the standing of both zinfandel and Lodi.

A decade ago, Lodi vintners, recognizing that the world’s more esteemed wine regions are identified by ever more specific plots of land, subdivided the sprawling area into seven smaller sub-appellations, such as the Mokelumne River, Alta Mesa and Sloughhouse American Viticultural Areas.

And as the harvest of 2012 neared, they refined that concept further, launching the Lodi Native Project to highlight the area’s more enduring and respected vineyards.

Here’s how it works: Six Lodi winemakers each make a zinfandel following practices meant to showcase the distinctive character of an heirloom vineyard.

In its effort to represent faithfully the soils, exposures and so forth of each vineyard, the protocols adopted for the project by the Lodi Winegrape Commission are more traditionally and rigidly European than the progressive and libertarian practices usually associated with California winemaking.

A sampling: The wines must be zinfandel only, unless a few vines of another variety or two were planted indiscriminately in the same vineyard, contrary to the common practice of blending into zinfandel a bit of petite sirah or other varietal wine; fermentations are to be with native yeasts only; the wines can’t be acidified; no new oak barrels, innerstaves, wood chips or other amendments are allowed; de-alcoholizing measures and the addition of water are banned; the use of Mega-Purple or other concentrates also is prohibited; the wines aren’t to be fined or filtered.

In short, the hand of the winemaker isn’t to be obvious in the finished wine; this project is intended to be all about the nature of the chosen vineyards. Ego is downplayed; all the wines share the same brand, Lodi Native Project, with the role of the individual winemakers relegated to the smaller typeface.

The latest six-pack of zinfandel made under the auspices of the Lodi Native Project is from the 2013 vintage. All are from older vineyards – the youngest dates from 1958 – and most are in the Mokelumne River appellation, nearly 86,000 flat acres of loamy sandy soils in the heart of the Lodi region.

While Lodi’s zinfandels might be popularly seen as casting one monolithic shadow – dark, rich, warm, hefty, heavily timbered – the 2013 Lodi Native Project wines show that the area is quite capable of yielding interpretations much more rangy than that in their expression.

As a group, they were fresh and brisk, with brighter berry fruit, less tannin and more snap than commonly found in Lodi zinfandels. My notes, in order of preference:

▪ Lodi Native Project 2013 McCay Cellars Mokelumne River TruLux Vineyard Zinfandel: In a sense, this is just what is expected in a Lodi zinfandel – boldness, luxuriousness, sweet berry fruit, notes of spice and a persevering finish. At the same time, it is uncommonly graceful for a Lodi zinfandel, combining its voluptuousness with an athleticism that bounds across the palate with equal measures of equilibrium and authority. The TruLux stand of old head-trained vines tower 6 feet tall and more, dating from the 1940s.

▪ Lodi Native Project 2013 Maley Brothers Mokelumne River Wegat Vineyard Zinfandel: Wegat Vineyard is similarly old, and the wine it yielded in this instance is similarly plush with sunny fruit, mostly from the raspberry and blackberry family. It is one elegant zinfandel, complicated with dashes of clove and refreshing for the pop of its acidity.

▪ Lodi Native Project 2013 St. Amant Winery Mokelumne River Marian’s Vineyard Zinfandel: The Marian’s stood out for its invitingly fresh and clean aroma – all late-summer berry patch – and the zestiness of its fruit on the palate. Marian’s is an 8.3-acre vineyard just south of Lodi, planted in 1901 on what today is known as the Mohr-Fry Ranch. The vineyard often yields fewer than two tons of grapes per acre.

▪ Lodi Native Project 2013 Fields Family Clements Hills Stampede Vineyard Zinfandel: At 13.9 percent alcohol, the Stampede is the most restrained member of the portfolio; most of the others are around the standard 14.5 percent. It also is the only wine in the lineup from the Clements Hills American Viticultural Area, off in the southeastern corner of the Lodi appellation. It’s the leanest and most delicate zinfandel in the lineup, but it doesn’t lack for charm and vibrancy in its sunny berry fruit and angular build.

▪ Lodi Native Project 2013 m2Wines Mokelumne River Soucie Vineyard Zinfandel: This is Lodi at its most audacious, all rich concentrated berry fruit that swells and glides as it crosses the palate. It’s also the most complex representative from the project, at times suggesting briar patch, root beer, earthiness and chocolate, rare for a wine without aging in new oak.

▪ Lodi Native Project 2013 Macchia Wines Mokelumne River Schmiedt Ranch Zinfandel: Macchia is celebrated for producing exceptionally powerful wines, and the Schmiedt Ranch is the most forceful in the project, and not just for its alcohol, close to 16 percent. The wine is fat and sweet, but neither hot nor pruney.

Randy Caparoso, editor of the commission’s website and the person responsible for instigating the project, says feedback from consumers and vintners alike after just two vintages has been positive, gratifying and surprising. “A lot of media and winery customers have been surprised by the clarity of zinfandel qualities revealed by the Lodi Native protocols. Picking for better pH, the use of native yeast and the use of neutral wood gives more floral and less ‘jammy’ qualities on top of more evident earthiness, and people are intrigued,” Caparoso says.

This encouraging reaction, he adds, is prompting participating winemakers to rethink their customary approach to zinfandel, and by adapting at least some of the protocols to their mainstream commercial releases is resulting in “crisper, more gentle and more fruit- and terroir-focused wines than ever before.”

The set is sold in a wooden box for $180 directly from the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center or online at lodiwine.com. Individual bottles, however, can be found at some wine shops, usually for around $35. Corti Brothers, however, stocks the Fields Family Stampede Vineyard for $25.

Editor’s note: This story was changed at 12:30 p.m. March 16 to correct the tonnage of zinfandel crushed in California.

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.