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Lodi Goes Native With Zinfandel

Winemaker Michael McCay hustles from one gnarled vine to another in a row of 101-year-old Zinfandel. He’s scrambling to detach superfluous young green shoots and poorly placed leaves. It’s early May on this plot in Lodi, California, and the vines are growing quickly.

As the owner of this land since 2011, McCay can’t resist thinning the greenery, allowing air and sunlight to reach the clusters that are about to bloom. We’re standing in Lot 13 of the Colonial Green Tract, the name on the property’s original deed.

Pointing to some other Zinfandel vines not far away, McCay says, “Those are my young puppies, just 80 years old.”

As a winemaker who uses estate fruit and buys grapes from several other growers, McCay says he sometimes feels like an archaeologist. He discovers long-lost treasures among the 100,000 acres of vines in the Lodi appellation and its subdistricts.

“One family I know sold all their grapes to Gallo for three generations, but now I get a piece,” he says. “Think of it. The wine had never been made on its own in all that time, so no one knew what that vineyard tasted like.”

Rules of the Game

What Native Is:

100 percent Zinfandel from single vineyards

Vines planted before 1962

Native yeast fermentation

All wines tasted and approved by the members

What Native Isn’t:

New oak barrels or barrel alternatives

Commercial yeasts or malolactic cultures

Water additions to reduce alcohol

Acid adjustment

Fining or filtration

Tannin additions or color enhancers

In many of the world’s wine regions, a pioneering winery or historic chateau is the archetype for the area’s wines. Château Lafite Rothschild showed how great red Bordeaux could be, while Inglenook did the same for Napa Valley. As these wines became famous for high quality, their reputations rubbed off on the other wines around them.

But it was different in Lodi. In this flat, sandy-soiled farming paradise in the Sacramento Delta region of inland Northern California, many crops thrived, including watermelons, rice, sugar beets and the once-famous Flame Tokay table grape. The wine grapes that were grown were routinely sold to big wineries that blended them with hundreds of tons of other grapes to make mass-appeal wines like E. & J. Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy. No one built a castle in Lodi and made wines that won judgments in Paris or, until recently, got onto wine lists in New York City.

Wineries like Michael David and Klinker Brick enjoyed popular success and good reviews, but sommeliers in Beverly Hills and wine critics in Manhattan did not have Lodi top of mind.

That void bothered McCay and a handful of other local winemakers. In early 2012, they learned about a small group of wineries in Mendocino that created a collective brand named Coro Mendocino in 2001. It featured high-end blends based on Zinfandel and other varieties traditionally grown in the area. They were produced by separate wineries according to agreed-upon rules and packaged alike.

Lodi Native bottles
Photo by Meg Baggott

Maley Brothers Vineyards 2014 Lodi Native Wegat Vineyard Zinfandel (Mokelumne River); $35, 93 points. A lightly earthy, mineral-like quality in the aroma and flavor gives a distinct personality to this subtle, complex wine made from vines planted in 1958. Hints of grilled herbs play off a core of ripe, delicious, concentrated berry flavors. Editors’ Choice.

St. Amant 2014 Lodi Native Marian’s Vineyard Zinfandel (Mokelumne River); $35, 93 points. This wine is produced from an 8-acre block of the Mohr-Fry Ranch planted in 1901. It has beautiful, soft, fruit and floral aromas, luxurious berry flavors and a layered texture that seems to melt in the mouth. Editors’ Choice.

McCay Cellars 2014 Lodi Native Lot 13 The Estate Vineyard Zinfandel (Mokelumne River); $35, 92 points. This wine’s aroma is ripe and jammy, and its flavor is like fresh blackberries. Made from a vineyard first planted in 1915, it’s about as close to pure, beautiful fruitiness as a wine gets. ­Editors’ Choice.

Lodi winemakers, including McCay, Stuart Spencer of St. Amant, Layne Montgomery of m2 Wines, Tim Holdener of Macchia, Ryan Sherman of Fields Family and Chad Joseph of Maley Brothers, began to taste the Coro wines and met monthly to discuss doing something similar. Since they felt that Lodi didn’t have an iconic wine, they decided to create one communally.

The group agreed to showcase Lodi’s old-vine Zinfandel vineyards. They would produce wines separately and market them jointly to promote the appellation. After lots of drinking, debating and dreaming, a plan took hold. The winemaking would be done under strict, noninterventionist standards to allow the character of the vineyards to show through in the wines.

The winemaking is done under strict, noninterventionist standards to allow the character of the vineyards to show through in the wines.

The winemakers agreed to wait for “native” yeast that clings to the grape skins or wafts in the cellar door to ferment the wine. Also, no new oak could be used for aging.

And since the grapes would come from vineyards largely owned by families native to the area for three or more generations, the project was named Lodi Native.

The Lodi Native protocols meant that some winemakers would be going where they had never gone before. Montgomery of m2 Wines says he was not convinced he could do it.

“Then Chad Joseph sort of challenged me, saying, ‘Maybe you’re not good enough,’ so then I had to go ahead,” Montgomery says.

Joseph says he had never made commercial wine intentionally with native yeast.

Lodi Native bottles
Photo by Meg Baggott

Fields Family 2014 Lodi Native Stampede Vineyard Zinfandel (Clements Hills); $35, 91 points. An aroma like cherry wood and big, ripe fruit flavors shape this full-bodied, bold-tasting wine, made from a property with vines dating from the 1920s. It has the concentration to age, so drink after 2018.

Macchia 2014 Lodi Native Maley’s Lucas Road Vineyard Zinfandel (Mokelumne River); $35, 89 points. Made from tall, untrellised old vines that look like ladders, this  has a spicy allure, with attractive nutmeg and cinnamon aromas backed by moderate fruit flavors and good tannic grip.

m2 2014 Lodi Native Soucie Vineyard Zinfandel (Mokelumne River); $35, 87 points. Sourced from own-rooted vines in a vineyard block planted in 1916, this is an untamed, boisterous wine that smells like herbs and cola. It leads to powerful grapy flavors and an assertive texture.

When it came time to pick the 2012 grapes, many of the winemakers needed to harvest at lower sugar ripeness than they were used to, as their standards dictated that they couldn’t add water to the wine later to reduce alcohol levels.

The harvest decisions were particularly tricky with Zinfandel. If harvested at a measured 25˚ Brix, the grapes can “soak up” several points higher a day or two after being crushed, which could result in alcohol levels of 17 percent or higher.

Waiting days for native fermentation to kick in, and later for the natural malolactic fermentation to complete, was a lesson in patience for the normally vigilant winemakers.

“I come from beer making, and I like yeast,” says Holdener of Macchia. “So I went into this kicking and screaming.”

But Holdener likes what he calls the layers of flavor that the native yeasts bring to the wine. He soon began to let some of his other wines go native, too.

If you’re looking for smoky and toasty, with spicy oak and 15 percent alcohol, you won’t find it here.

Most of the winemakers applied their learnings from the four vintages of Lodi Native wines to their other wines in some degree, like picking earlier for natural balance in the grapes and keeping interventions to a minimum. All say that their many discussions made them better winemakers.

The third vintage (2014) of Lodi Native will be available this fall for $180 per assorted six-pack from lodiwine.com, and also by the bottle from the member wineries. The wines were made in quantities from 75 to 225 cases.

Having reviewed basically the same set of wines from 2012, 2013 and 2014, even with the identical rules employed by the winemakers, the wines vary significantly in aromas and flavors. They are all dry, not oaky, smooth and attractive.

If you’re looking for smoky and toasty, with spicy oak and 15 percent alcohol, you won’t find it here.

As a group, the Lodi Native wines combine elegance with power, and add fruitiness so pure that it’s compelling. It’s shaded artfully by savory, mineral accents, and tannins that are robust, but not aggressive.