The Lodi Wine Region, located in the heart of the vast Central Valley that produces the majority of California’s bulk wine, has slowly been differentiating itself by producing some extremely elegant high-quality wines from ancient vineyards. Indeed, Lodi has the largest number of century old vineyards of any wine region in America.
“Many wine regions pulled out their old vines years ago,” explains Randy Caparoso, with the Lodi Winegrape Commission, “because as they age, they produce less wine. On the flipside, however, they often produce more intense complex flavors with beautiful natural balance of acidity, fruit, and tannins. Fortunately, Lodi was founded by many German and Italian families returning from the Gold Rush, and they planted vineyards in the 1880’s through the early 1900’s, and decided to keep them in the family.”
Transforming from a Bulk to Ultra-Premium Wine Strategy
Today, the legacy of these old vines is allowing Lodi to transform itself from what was once considered a great place to produce bulk wine for boxes and jugs, to a place that produces elegant and rare wines from ancient vineyards. Examples are included in Table 1. The current count of vineyards over 100 years old is 22, with an additional 27 vineyards that are documented to be 50 to 99 years old, according to Caparoso. However, this is a work in progress, because not all ancient vineyards in Lodi have been counted yet.
Table 1: Examples of Lodi Wines Crafted from Ancient Vines
A more robust listing of old and ancient vineyards may be found at savetheold.com/vineyards.
Challenges of Pursuing an Ultra-Premium Wine Strategy
In the wine industry it is always challenging to move from a low-cost strategy to one of ultra-premium wines, because changing consumer perception takes time. Another issue is that many wine consumers only consider classical grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, to fit high quality strategies, whereas the majority of Lodi’s ancient vines are the original varieties first planted by early California vineyard owners – Zinfandel, Carignan, Cinsault and field blends of mixed varietals.
However, Randy Caparoso has an answer for this as well. “If you look at ancient vineyards in other countries, such as Spain, Australia and South Africa, you will see that they were also planted to other varieties, including Grenache, Syrah and Semillon, along with old vine Cinsault and Carignan. Interestingly enough, all of these varieties not only age in the bottle very well, but ancient vines tend to produce exceptionally high-quality wines with a clear ‘sense of place’.”
Here, Randy is referring to the French concept of “terroir,” which can allow a specific vineyard or wine region to differentiate itself from others, based on the taste and unique characteristics found in the wine. This level of distinction is necessary to pursue a higher quality strategy, and when these types of vineyards are rare, with low production yields, and require all hand-tending, this is fertile ground for moving into ultra-premium wines.
Changing Consumer Perception Requires Time and Perseverance
Despite the exceptional wines that are now being produced in Lodi, it will still take time, perseverance and communication before consumers recognize how special this region is. One issue is that Lodi is still one of the largest winegrowing regions in California, with over 100,000 acres of vineyards. The ancient vineyards only make up a small portion of this vast size, and owners of the more commercial vineyards are still focused on making a living by producing large crops and selling for low prices to large corporate wineries.
However, there are now over 80 small family run wineries in Lodi, and most produce very high quality wines in different varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Albariño, Tempranillo, Barbera and many others. They have beautiful tasting rooms, large wine clubs, and host great events for consumers. One such producer, Dan Panella of Oak Farm Vineyards, described how before the pandemic, they hosted many weddings with hundreds of guests. Liz Bokisch of Bokisch Vineyards said they had to expand their tasting room and parking lot to have room for the hundreds of visitors who came from Sacramento and the Bay Area on the weekends. Susan Tipton of Acquiesce Winery reported that her small production of white Rhone varietals consistently sold out every year.
Winemakers, especially, are excited about producing wines from the ancient vineyards. “They have exceptional balance,” explained Greg La Follette of Marchelle Wines, a brand dedicated solely to old vines. “The fruit, acids and tannins seem to magically come together in the wines with perfect harmony and lower alcohol levels, plus they express such unique personality and taste.”
Indeed, the lower alcohol level in some of the wines is a surprise to many wine lovers that believe Lodi only produces hot, high alcohol wines. Yet most of the wines coming from the Bechthold Cinsault vineyard planted in 1886, have alcohol levels of 12.5 to 13 percent. Even the higher alcohol wines, such as those produced by Turley, still have good balance.
“Lodi is such a unique place,” explains Tegan Passalacqua, winemaker for Turley and his own brand, Sandlands. “It is the only place in the US with such a large number of ancient vineyards. The old-timers recognized that the unique sandy soils of the Delta, plus the cooling afternoon breezes in the summer, made this an ideal place to plant vineyards, orchards and other crops. It is also one of the few places in California where you can still make a decent living in the wine industry.”
Saving Lodi’s Ancient Vineyards
As Lodi progresses in its goal to distinguish itself with the assistance of its heritage vineyards, another threat looms on the horizon. “Lodi has always been a farming community, where the majority of growers sell their grapes to the large corporate wineries” said Caparoso. “Some growers are tempted to tear out the ancient vines and replace them with young vines that can produce more grapes, thus more revenue. However, the sad truth is that, once these old vineyards are destroyed, they are gone forever, along with their original roots and distinctive character.”
Due to this threat, the Save the Old Vines campaign – launched in October 2020 by the Lodi Winegrape Commission – has been established to raise awareness of the high-quality wine produced from old vines. Another group, the Historic Vineyard Society, is also trying to help by certifying old vineyards to bring recognition to their importance. It is hoped that these types of efforts will save these special heritage vineyards of California, and that wine consumers will soon recognize the unique viticulture treasure that exists in Lodi and the exceptional wines they produce.
Dr. Liz Thach, MW is a wine writer, educator, and consultant. She enjoys writing and teaching about wine, food, travel, and lifestyle industries. She is also the Distinguished Professor of Wine & Management at Sonoma State University, where she teaches part-time. Liz can be contacted at Liz@lizthach.com.