“There is no creation without tradition; the 'new' is an inflection on a preceding form; novelty is always a variation on the past.” ― Carlos Fuentes
I'm continually surprised by the things I believe to be true, about a particular wine region, like Lodi. This is especially true when it turns out to be completely different than my expectations. This is where perception walks up to meet reality. On this journey into the 'renewed' Lodi Wine Scene, my expectations about what I would find there was turned on its head more than once. Of the five other wine writers who had traveled with me, I was the only one who had been to the area before, and this time around I was happily surprised by what I found.
Moment of honesty; it was with a bit of hesitation, that I agreed to go on this trip in the first place. Especially knowing I had to put my preconceived ideas about the region on the back burner and approach the visit with an open mind and an open tasting notebook.
Frankly, I've become bit a more jaded [but, I think in a good way] about wine, then I ever imagined I would be, and I didn't see this coming at all. But I see my tastes, appreciation, and fascination in wine evolving toward the old world [France, Spain, and Italy] more and more. Hedonism is okay on occasion, but in wine, restraint is a far more valued commodity for me personally. I simply like to think of it as palate progression, you may want to think of it as evolution. But whatever you may wish to call it, I find the whole process pretty exciting.
I say this because as I eluded to earlier my first time through Lodi, I wasn't all too impressed after my visit back in 2009. Maybe I just didn't go to the right places, I certainly didn't visit Harney Lane or any of the other great wineries I encountered on my recent visit to Lodi. I'm so glad they were one of the very first places we visited, because it set the tone, for the rest of the week. Oh yes you heard me right, I spent an entire week in Lodi Wine Country, and I have a whole new level of respect for the region.
Tradition: "Since 1907, Harney Lane has been [and continues to be] proud stewards of the land, farming the vineyards in and around the surrounding areas."
One of the biggest surprises for me about Lodi was the diversity of the varietals planted in these dry sandy soils. The Chardonnay at Harney Lane, which you see in the glass above was in a word, outstanding. I'm giving this wine, a good swish, and I'm thinking, "oh, yes this how you do it" great balance between the fruit and acidity. Vibrant minerality, green apples, and pears, very crisp and refreshing, a nice homage to Chablis. As you see above this vineyard is not dry-farmed, but the introduction of water is used sparingly when prolonged heat spikes, strike the area, it's more of a precautionary measure.
I also tasted an Albarino, 100% estate and 75% stainless steel, sur-lie, wow one of the best I've had in some time. It's bright, clean and crisp, and very floral, pool-side summer sipping in a bottle. You can find it selling at Whole Pay-Check [foods], for $17, it's excellent. Again, folks, I'm impressed, the whole time I'm thinking, "uh, this is Lodi?" huh, who knew?". Their 2012 Albarino is their first wine to be released bearing the spiffy new 'Certified Green’ seal. According to the Lodi Rules "to be certified, as growers, they had to pass an independent audit of our viticultural practices, ensuring that their product [wines] qualifies." ~ Lodi Rules
No visit to Harney Lane is complete without saying hello to Ranger, who typically is found near the tasting room door greeting customers [aka vinosapiens] as they walk in and belly-up to the bar for a tasting. He followed us out to the vineyards, to keep an eye on us squirrely wine-bloggers. I just love exploring new regions and re-visiting those I've written off, time to time things can change and the changes I've seen here, are definitely for the better.
At Harney Lane, Kyle Lerner [seen above in the foreground] told us that they favor the simplicity of the process over complexity. In the picture above you see their simple and rather ordinary crush-pad, but I can assure you there is nothing simple about the wines they produce here. “Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.” ― Pete Seeger
In the red wines department, we sampled four different wines, each was unique and entirely different one from the other. There was a Petite Sirah, a Tempranillo, their Lizzy James Old Vine Zinfandel and then their everyday Zinfandel. While I didn't mention it at the time, I was pretty happy to not see a Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot anywhere in sight. Not because I didn't think they could do a great job with it, no it was because that's what so many folks who own wineries believe they need to have, to succeed and/or be taken seriously. Having tasted their wines, I'd have to say folks are taking Harney Lane very serious and the other writers who were with me on the trip agreed with that sentiment.
Seeing the bottles sitting on the table, where we had the most fantastic lunch among an old stand of trees, which must have been planted way back in the day, I said those labels appear to be a group of guys in tuxedos. Having worked in the formal wear business for more than a few years, I think my insight was dead on. The brilliant label designer, we came to find out was Jeremy Trettevik, who now is making his own wines and designing some very creative labels. But that's a story for another day.
"Farming is like legalized gambling with more variables." ~ Kyle Lerner
The 2011 Tempranillo: Normally, I don't appreciate the expression of this varietal grown domestically, I've run into a few I like, but most times I just roll my eyes. But the HL Tempranillo is a stunner, I kept pivoting back to it over and over. Yes, it has a new world flashiness, but it also has a refreshing brightness and a captivating minerality to it. This wine was aged for 19 months in European Oak when I wrote that down, I was thinking uh-okay, what does that mean. But on a follow-up question about the oak, I was told, actually, it's Hungarian and some not so-so European American oak mix, delivering some of those savory Riojan styled characteristics, underbrush, and wild licorice. The first thing, I wrote in my notebook, regarding this wine, was simply "wow." Personally, I'd lay this bad-boy down a bit, to let it shake off some its more flashy aspects. This wine sells for $25 and my score an eye-popping 93 points.
The 2011 HL Petite Sirah: Unfortunately this wine is sold out, so once their 2012 is released, I'd hop and pop to get a few bottles or as it's often said, snooze, you lose. A dense wine, nearly opaque in color, heading toward deep purple. Chunky, but not clunky. Ripe blackberries and blueberries dominate, the acid helps them both to play nice, and the vibe of minerality keeps things interesting. This wine also displays a good of amount of vanilla, no doubt picked up from resting 18 months in 100% American Oak barrels. It sells for $24, and I scored it 88 points.
The 2011 HL Lizzy James Old Vine Zinfandel: Many folks in the 'know' winch a bit when they hear "old vine" anything and especially concerning Zinfandel. To be honest, there is no legal definition governing its use on the label, and as a result, those two words are often suspect at best. But in Lodi, most of the vineyards there, really can make that claim and especially so when it comes to the Lizzy James vineyard, where vines planted on their own root-stock back in 1904. Does anyone really want to dispute their "Old Vine" claim? What's that? I didn't think so. Tasting note wise, lush, elegant and textured. Folks this Zinfandel is the "real deal," not a pretender to the throne like so many other so-called Old-Vines Zins. Oh my the layers of flavor, piped with excellent acidity, gives the abundant dark fruit a real pop. This is how you do it, not a jammy note in sight, this wine is seamless and the flavor sails on into the horizon.
The takeaway from the trip, the Lodi Wine scene is better than many wine writers have given it credit for [myself included] and collectively many of the smaller producers are coming together to make that point in spades. That point is that Lodi is far more than just big jammy, over-ripe, flabby monsters produced by many of the more significant commodity wine brands who also call Lodi home.
If you consider yourself a 'wine-nerd', a 'wine-geek' or what have you, then I can say unequivocally, you owe to yourself to check out this region and drill down beyond the surface. There's so much good going on, in terms of serious winemaking, and respect for the land, and the people who call Lodi home. I know you'll come away [as I did] with a whole new appreciation for the Lodi Wine Scene and by all means, you need to stop by and see the great folks at Harney Lane, they set the bar very high! Until next time folks remember life is short, so don't settle for plonkish garbanzo bean wines, sip long and prosper cheers!