The Wine Area In California With The Most Old Vines Makes Concentrated Reds But Also Unique White Wines
After a particularly grueling work trip of traveling through ten countries in ten days, Rodney Tipton told his wife that during the few minutes of downtime, he had the chance to listen to the song “Acquiesce” from singer K.D. Lang and that it inspired him to one day have a property and call it Acquiesce. His wife, Susan, asked where this property would be and he replied, “I don’t know, but we’ll be surrounded by land, watch the sunrise and sunset and we’ll be very happy there.”
Susan and Rodney had paid more than their fair share of dues after several years of working in the corporate world and raising three boys while having to relocate to five different states. They lived in Europe for a time and Susan fell in love with white Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine, although Châteauneuf-du-Pape has always been known for their red wines. And so, she thought their Acquiesce dream of finding a piece of paradise could also include growing grapes and making wine.
They ended up in Lodi, California, with its long grape-growing history – the first vineyard planted in 1850. Just like the region where Châteauneuf-du-Pape is tucked away, in the Southern Rhône in France, both places generally have a Mediterranean climate with warm days and cool nights. Still, there are differences within the sub-regions of Lodi as well. Lodi’s most famous sub-region is called Mokelumne River and has a cooler climate moderated by delta breezes; Mokelumne River AVA (American Viticultural Area) is where the Tiptons established their Acquiesce winegrowing and winemaking estate.
Lodi Wine Region
Lodi is nestled between the inland ports of Sacramento and Stockton and lies just east of San Francisco. As temperatures rise in the valleys, cool air comes from the San Francisco Bay, the delta region, creating a very distinctive climate for Lodi. And despite Lodi making their name as a red wine region, as they have the highest concentration of old vines in the U.S. with red grape varieties such as Carignan, Cinsault and Zinfandel, the several pockets of micro-climates as well as a diverse array of soils surprisingly has made Lodi a region that can grow a plethora of grape varieties with over 125 currently in production.
To delve more into Lodi, an extraordinary book has just been released that goes into depth about every aspect of this wine region. Lodi!: The definitive guide and history of America’s largest winegrowing region by Randy Caparoso is the reference book that Lodi has always needed and Randy, with his extraordinary photography, brings the region to life. Randy actually moved to Lodi in 2010 when he was invited to help the Lodi Winegrape Commission with its social media and blog pages. So Lodi has been part of the air he breathes every day for over a decade. As a very talented writer and well experienced wine professional, he does justice to many of these multi-generational growers in this gorgeous book.
But when Susan and Rodney Tipton wanted to plant unconventional white grapes from Southern France such as Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc, Viognier and Roussanne back in the early 2000s, it was shocking because it was before Lodi became the wonderful wine region for its wealth of grape diversity. But Lodi farmers turned vineyard management company, Round Valley Ranches, were completely game when it came to helping the Tiptons work with these obscure varieties. It became an exciting journey for both that has contributed to Lodi becoming one of the country’s most exciting grape-growing regions.
Stuart Spencer, executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission and winemaker and co-proprietor of St. Amant Winery, said they see many younger, talented winemakers who have full-time jobs at large wineries source grapes from Lodi for their personal passion project. The combination of unusual varieties, old vines and a relatively low price point are all factors that are extremely attractive to those who want to make great wine without having to answer to a corporation that is financially bankrolling a wine project. Lodi is also attracting legendary people in the wine business because of the treasures of old vines in their vineyards; Greg La Follette is one such person.
Nicknamed the “vine whisperer”, Greg has had a long history of helping to make high-quality wines starting with his mentorship under André Tchelistcheff, considered the godfather of California winemakers, at Napa’s Beaulieu Vineyards. Greg had an impressive education in Plant Biology and Chemistry as well as Food Science and Technology, but André taught Greg the “heart and soul” of wine. For the next 24 years, he worked with wine producers all over the U.S. as well as the world until he eventually started his award-winning project in California, focusing on single-vineyard wines, La Follette Wines, and then after that, he started another project called Marchelle Wines, focusing on old vines, and that is where Greg connected to Lodi.
The Marchelle bottling of ‘Old Vine Red’ comes from 120-year-old vines in Lodi. Over time, it has become vital for the Lodi Winegrape Commission to connect people like Greg to Lodi’s old vine vineyards because if they can’t find people who appreciate these vineyards and pay a little more for these grapes, the vineyards will not survive. However, even with a wine made from 120-year-old vines, the price of Marchelle’s wine is still criminally low at only $36, as Lodi doesn’t have the same name recognition and pricing power as other California wine regions. But Lodi is used to being underappreciated; for years, big wine companies in other regions that are much more highly regarded have been blending Lodi grapes into their high priced wines – it is part of how Lodi grape growers have been making a living. But, hopefully, with new interest from talented wine producers who use 100% Lodi grapes and proudly place Lodi on the label, things will change.
Outsiders are not the only ones keeping these old vines alive as there have been locals who have been champions of these vines for a long time. Wine producer Klinker Brick Winery, run by Steve and Lori Felten, fifth-generation Lodi grape growers, are protectors of old vine Zinfandels that their ancestors planted back in the early 1900s. They have been guarding and managing their ancestors’ old vines as well as buying other old vine vineyards in Lodi as they know they are at risk.
Increasing the Diversity
All those years ago, when Rodney talked to his wife Susan about their Acquiesce dream property, they could never imagine that they would become wine producers making only white wines from obscure white grape varieties in a red wine region. Susan has become quite the respected winemaker in her own right and their Acquiesce wines have opened the door to unlock a greater potential for the Lodi wine region. On top of that, they have been at the forefront of supporting organizations that increase diversity in the Lodi wine industry, so underrepresented minorities are provided financial support for education and resources for job placement.
The word “Acquiesce” means to surrender, to become quiet. And that is precisely what the Tiptons do, surrender to the vines and the world around them, where they can enjoy an inner silence that reveals to them what the vines are saying but also what people from all walks of life need. In a way, their Acquiesce dream has laid the groundwork for Lodi to take the region to the next level.
All of the three wines below come from the Mokelumne River AVA; below is a bit of information about this sub-region taken from Randy Caparoso’s book:
“The sandy component of the Mokelumne River area’s Tokay and Acampo soil series allows for ideal drainage, vine health, and naturally moderated grape yields. Since sand is one of the few mediums in which the root louse phylloxera is unable to proliferate, there are several thousand acres of ungrafted, healthy old vine plantings in the Mokelumne River appellation.”- excerpt from the book Lodi!: The definitive guide and history of America’s largest winegrowing region by Randy Caparoso
2020 Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards ‘Ingénue’ Mokelumne River AVA, Lodi, California: A blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc and Picpoul Blanc from estate fruit. A lovely floral nose with white peach flavors and hints of dried apricots with good weight on the body and a zingy citrus zest finish. $36
2019 Marchelle Wines ‘Old Vine Red’ Mokelumne River AVA, Lodi, California: 47% Carignan, 30% Cinsaut (a.k.a. Cinsault) and 23% Zinfandel from old vines in the Royal Tee Vineyard, the Bechthold Vineyard and from Spenker Ranch (120-year-old vines). This wine has so much vitality to it as well as a deep concentration with notes of baking spices, crushed rocks and tobacco leaf with juicy red cherry fruit on the palate with a long, expressive finish. $36
2019 Klinker Brick Winery, Marisa Vineyard, Mokelumne River AVA, Lodi, California: 94-year-old Zinfandel from the single vineyard called Marisa. A full-bodied, opulent wine that has plenty of verve to balance it out with rich blueberry pie flavors and notes of black pepper and gravel with soft tannins and a long flavorful finish. $28