Introductory chapter to ‘Starstruck In Lodi Again’, set for release August, 2016
Miami bears the burden of an unfortunate nickname: ‘God’s Waiting Room—Where Old Folks Go to Die’.
If that’s the case, South School Street is where old folks go to Lodi. At any given moment, from about six in the morning to nine at night, there is a knot of pensioners mixing it up and mingling it down in front of the Lodi Hotel, directly across the street from the window in the apartment where I’m ensconced. The ‘LH’ was once the most significant hotel in San Joaquin County, playing host to major social events, important business meetings and large social club dinners. Today, it is a run-down-looking senior living community where rooms go for $400 a month. As a result, many of the LH residents look like they are on the downside of long lives; they can be seen coming and going with tattered backpacks and rickety walking canes throughout the day and smoking cigars and hobnobbing until well into the night. These are not particularly desperate-looking people—just oldsters doing their final, convivial nods to fate.
Demographically, the Lodi population over the age of 65 is considerably higher than the average in California, and a major part of the Lodi wine renaissance goal is to attract a younger, hipper crowd to this downtown area. But, we’ll get to that.
My first inkling that Lodi culture was a bit unique came on Superbowl Sunday, when I went in search of a sports bar to watch this over-hyped, over-rated, but still obligatory advertising fest. I had just landed in town, was a total stranger, but I assumed I could find a bar; this is Warriors country, and there is an almost rabid support of the local high school basketball team The Flames—a name I will explain shortly. But shockingly, the downtown brew pub was closed, nearly all the restaurants were closed, and when I finally tripped over Porter’s Pub with its eight wide-screen televisions, I found fewer customers than TVs.
The bartender explained it: “In Lodi, Superbowl Sunday is a family day, not a bar day. People are at home.”
Like the denizens gathered in front of the Lodi Hotel, the smattering of fans at Porter’s Pub were retired folks, probably (like me) with no families to descend upon. On a balmy Sunday afternoon in February, with nowhere else to go and the underdog kicking ass on the 50” Vizio overheads, we commiserated.
So, the Lodi Flames (a name you suspect subjected them to endless taunts from the troglodytes) took their handle from the Flame Tokay grape, such a significant part of Lodi’s economic history that reminders of it appear everywhere, on billboards, on store logos, on magazine covers. There’s Tokay High School, there’s Tokay Cold Storage, Tokay Heating & Air Conditioning, Tokay Medical Billing, Tokay Food & Liquor… et cetera.
Lodi is currently the epicenter of California’s Old Vine Zinfandel industry, and yet, in downtown Lodi, all the conspicuous homage is paid to the Flame Tokay, a grape that was not used in wine production at all, unless you count a few sparkling wines from years gone by, due more to abundance than advisability. Although it is a mutant version of the Algerian Vitis vinifera varietal Ahmeur Bou’Ahmeur, it has been almost universally marketed as a table grape.
At one time, Flame Tokay was Lodi’s dominant cash crop, critical to the agricultural economy.
The Flame Tokay draws its own name from the vibrant reddish hue it adopts in the iron rich soils of San Joaquin County, where hot days give over to cold nights—a terroir not precisely duplicated elsewhere. In Sacramento, for example, fifty miles north, Tokay does not flame. In many ways, the reverence Lodi displays for the Tokay grape—unrelated to Alsace Tokay, by the way, which is Pinot Gris, nor Hungarian Tokaji, which is a blend of grapes, primarily Furmint—is perfectly understandable: Lodi is the house that Tokay built, and vice versa.
The only problem is, they don’t grow it any more.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Flame Tokay was among the most popular table grapes on the American market, but it had one major drawback: Seeds. Demand dropped almost immediately when seedless grapes were developed in the 1970s, and today, the vast majority of table grapes grown in California are sin semilla—seed free—and the majority of those are Thompson, cultivated primarily as a raisin grape. Thompson does not require Lodi’s signature diurnal temperature shift to develop desirable qualities; wine grapes do to preserve acids and Flame Tokay does to make all the pretty colors. A seedless version of Tokay was quickly bred, and that’s what dropped the other shoe: It turned out that Flame Seedless could be grown more cheaply and more effectively in hot, dry Thompson terrain.
Today, there is such scant demand for Lodi-style Flame Tokay that San Joaquin County’s Agricultural Commissioner’s office doesn’t even track how many acres are left; with over a hundred thousand Lodi acres planted to vine, less than 500 of them are probably Flame Tokay. At it’s peak of production, acres to Flame Tokay were a hundred times more abundant.
Meanwhile, today more than 40% of California’s Zinfandel hails from Lodi, and with 20,000 acres currently dedicated to it; it is by far the dominant varietal. With vineyards averaging a hundred acres, a random drive through the agricultural spread of San Joaquin County reveals a seemingly endless expanse of Old Vine Zinfandel—field after field of gnarled, angry-looking stumps which by mid-February have been pruned to something resembling miniature Christmas trees after a forest fire. Without foliage, they are ugly and fascinating, twisted and savage, fierce enough to almost look like they’re in pain.
For all the word, these venerable vines look like the old dudes in wheel chairs killing hours outside the Lodi Hotel. And the incinerated-look analogy may be more apt than originally intended: If Satan has a vineyard, I imagine it looks a lot like OVZ.
The funny thing is, in the fly-over state where I live, ‘Old Vine Zinfandel’ sounds like something rare, unique and utterly exotic—some elixir arising from a handful of still-surviving vines that have been around so long they are producing small, concentrated clusters of sensational wine grapes. I suppose we are easy to impress. Here in Lodi, from a cursory glance, Old Vine Zinfandel is all there seems to be; at least, there doesn’t appear to be much New Vine Zinfandel. In field after field, farm after farm, vineyard after vineyard, I see three distinct stages of Zinfandel’s useful life: Old, older and Bernie Sanders.
There’s even an abandoned Old Zin vineyard in the middle of town, unkept, unharvested, but still very much alive.
And yet, cruise around the city itself, and know how many Zinfandel Cold Storage or Zinfandel Medical Billing storefronts you’ll see? Zero. Zip. Zilch.
It’s a slow, sleepy, hidebound ag town, very much the opposite of the place described in the opening line of Yeats’ poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’: Lodi—for now anyway—is very much a country for old men. And old vines.
Wine’s history here is also old; in fact, Lodi has been a paradise for vines since before Lodi was even Lodi. The first Europeans arrived in the area 1846 and named the settlement along the banks of the Mokelumne River exactly that: The Mokelumne Settlement. By 1874, confusion with the nearby communities of Mokelumne Hill and Mokelumne City became an issue, particularly with mail deliveries and shipped goods, and the founding fathers renamed the town ‘Lodi’, most likely in tribute to Napoleon’s Italian Waterloo: The battle of Lodi, 1796. The city was incorporated in 1904, and by that time, the wine grape industry was in full swing.
Flame Tokay was a big part of the original boom, but by the turn of the twentieth century, Zinfandel and Carignan were also thriving. In fact, 95% of the vines at Bechthold Vineyard today are from that era, and some even earlier. Prior to the century’s turn, San Joaquin Valley had followed various farmer’s markets as prices rose and fell; a consistent topography with 50 to 150-ft. elevation flats and less than 2% slopes—along with an enormous aquifer, ideal climate and fertile soil—saw virtually every crop they attempted flourish. It’s one of those ‘throw the seeds and run like hell’ agricultural Arcadias, and at one time, San Joaquin Valley produced the largest wheat crop on the planet. When the wheat prices fell, they tried watermelon, and suddenly, by 1900, San Joaquin was ‘Watermelon Capital of the World’.
Interestingly, the phylloxera blight in the late ninetieth century that was to California grapes what the Black Death was to European peasants skipped over Lodi like a stone across the Camanche Reservoir. That’s because the miserable little root louse that ate Napa and Sonoma does not proliferate in the sandy soils around Lodi, and although the Bechthold acres are the oldest Lodi vineyards still producing, there are plenty of vines in the vicinity that are still fecund on ungrafted root stock.
So these are old vines with an old history growing on old rootstock in an old community where the old folks hang out in front of an old hotel.
Notice a theme that dominates that observation?
Randy Caparoso does; he’s a major flag-waver for changes that are happening in the region. A long time wine journalist and sommelier, he was Sante Magazine’s first Wine & Spirits Professional of the Year (1998), and he has personally opened more than twenty upscale restaurants located from Honolulu to New York. Originally based in Orange County, he was convinced that something majestic was happening in Lodi following a series of mind-blowing wines he tasted from an AVA he considered, “Merely an extension of the hot, irrigated desert of the Central Valley.”
His watershed moment came during the late Jerry Mead’s New World Wine Competition, 2003, when he and the other judges unanimously awarded ‘Best of Show’ to a beautifully balanced, organeptically-extraordinary Syrah that wound up being a 2000 Delicato ‘Shiraz’. Randy was so impressed by it that he tried to get his hands on a quantity of unbottled wine from Delicato’s next vintage to blend with his own self-described ‘uninteresting’ cache of Cabernet Sauvignon, custom-crushed from Paso Robles fruit for his private label. The blend brightened up his wine, his day and his subsequent outlook, and the more he learned about the quality transition that was then beginning to envelop Lodi (largely through the efforts of the Lodi Winegrape Commission), the more impressed he became. He wound up moving to Lodi in 2010.
“The microclimate here is remarkable,” he maintains. “It’s almost like growing grapes on the east side of Sonoma or in the Napa Valley. Modesto is forty miles away, but it’s twice as hot. Lodi is in a whole different growing zone.”
Modesto may not be twice as hot, but Lodi is certainly cooled from steady breezes from the San Joaquin/Sacramento River Delta, leaving it with a classic Mediterranean climate. Annual rainfall is in the range of 17”, a fraction of that in Southern Rhône and Bordeaux, but it mostly comes during the winter months, so that the growing season is a Goldilocks set of viticultural conditions: Warm, dry days and cool nights, ideal for reducing pest and disease issues while allowing grapes to achieve a complete ripeness of tannins and phenolics with natural acidity remaining intact. Irrigation is key, and nobody around here even whispers the term ‘dry farmed’.
The demand for Lodi’s cash cow table grape evaporated at around the same time that Americans were discovering that there were a few superb wines made in California and floating in some obscurity buoy upon the sea of bulk that dominated the supermarkets of Middle America. So when Lodi growers were looking to replace the vast acres of Flame Tokay, many of them looked to the success stories in Napa and figured they had a shot at emulating them based on a terroir that was not dissimilar.
In fact, an inconvenient truth that the big names in Napa do not like advertised to this day is that many of their most sanctified selections have traditionally contained juice from Lodi—and in some cases, a lot of juice from Lodi. TBB law stipulates that to window-dress your label with an appellation name like Napa, or with an even tighter sub-appellation name like Howell Mountain, only 75% of that wine must originate there, leaving vintners with a whopping margin for blending richer, less expensive, often superior grapes from elsewhere… and plenty of times, that’s Lodi, where a ton of quality fruit may be ten times cheaper.
Naturally, the finished wine with the fancy ‘Napa’ on the label still commands a fancy Napa price.
Even Lodi people walk a thin line when admitting this, even though everybody knows it. Figure that a lot of Lodi growers owe their very existence to Napa/ Sonoma sales, and pissing off the boss is not always a good career move.
According to Randy, “It’s generally considered impolite to talk about certain things that might burst people’s bubble. Most of what is grown in Lodi supplies the big industrial producers, and business is successfully done with some degree of discretion. If your Aunt Agatha is crazy or your Uncle Bud is in a closet, why scream it out to the rest of the world just to show you know?”
Whereas I respect Randy’s ethics, the fact of the matter is that I am in the business of telling honest stories where chips may not always fall where the subjects like, and for me, the nuttier Aunt Agatha or Uncle Bud are, the better. Nothing about, say, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon or Eric Fischl to me seems more intriguing than the idea that the dynamism of their style may have actually been the work of apprentices and assistants operating in a factory-like setting.
In any case, when the bleak light of Life-After-Flame-Tokay shone on Lodi’s vineyards, the brave new world was not going to be found in bulk wine sales to Gallo or Constellation, where their own contribution—however indispensable—was drowned in a deluge of Napa names or Sonoma sobriquets:
It lay in pushing their own brand to the head of the class.
The first step to that end was seeing the appellation established, and in 1986, the northern edge of the San Joaquin Valley east of San Francisco Bay gained approval as a designated wine growing area, including 551,000 acres of land, of which 103,000 acres are currently planted with wine grapes. In 2002, the Lodi AVA was expanded by 93,500 acres along the southern and western portions of the original boundaries. This gave the Lodi Winegrape Commission something tangible to sink their promotional teeth into, and a starting point through which to develop a genuine commercial interest in the region that reflected the value of the crop.
The growers in Lodi were on board immediately. Many of them had been in the area for generations and intend to remain here for many more; thus, they look at mindset transitions and paradigm shifts in terms of decades, not years. The core of any sustainable agricultural philosophy is respect for the land, so when the Commission began to solicit ideas from farmers and wineries to improve the quality not only of Lodi wine, but the quality of Lodi life, an overview known as ‘The Lodi Rules’ was the outcome.
In a Cliff’s Notes version, The Lodi Rules are a series of standards designed to promote sustainable viticulture. There are 101 of them, covering such topics as business management, human resources, , ecosystems, soil management, water and pest management, and it lead to a rigorous science-based, voluntary and third-party-audited certification program.
Says Caparoso, “The Lodi Rules launched in 2006, and it quickly became a blueprint for sustainable ag programs all over California. You’ll find our book with a different cover and a few details changed to custom fit various other appellations, all over the place. The origins are right here. More than 26,000 winegrape acres have now been certified in California so far. “
Taking the idea up another notch, Caparoso calls himself ‘the den mother’ of a second forward leap within the Lodi quality scene: The Lodi Native Project. Launched as a wine label in 2012, the mission of six Lodi winemakers was to release collaborative wines that focused on individual vineyard terroirs, long a hallmark of quality in wine regions around the world. The spotlight is on heritage Zinfandel plantings, some from the 1880s, and the goal is to produce pure, unmanipulated Zinfandel that reflects the unique site upon which it is grown. Like the Lodi Rules, the Native project has its own set of protocols, including a mandate that only native yeast can be used in fermentation, that there can be no artificial adjustment of acid levels or any dilution or must concentration, Flash Détente or similar extraction measures, and the wine must be aged in neutral barrels in order to preserve the essence of the terroir.
Beside being a purist’s paradisiacal prototype, according to Caparoso, there’s a marketing angle to producing Old Vine Zin according to Lodi Native rules:
“Too much Old Vine Zinfandel is vinified in an over-the-top, bigger-is-better Parker style. They tend to rely on maximum extraction from ultra ripe fruit, and wind up being statement wines—not particularly elegant. Not particularly food-friendly, either, and in general, sommeliers and chefs don’t like them. San Francisco is one thing, but look at an upscale wine list from any high-market restaurant in Chicago or New York and if you see any Old Vine Zinfandel, it’s a place holder; a concession rather than a recommendation. So the intention of Lodi Native is to craft wines that a sommelier can love; a non-manipulated, un-doctored wine that shows off another side of the varietal—a nuanced side; the natural expression of the grape.”
Throughout my stay, I have engaged in my own Lodi Native Project, seeking out the non-manipulated and the un-doctored among Lodi’s citizens. I’ve chatted with the old guys sitting in the sun in front of the hotel, I’ve rubbed shoulders with up-by-the bootstraps dudes who at any given time have a million gallons of wine ready to bottle with another hundred thousand bottles on store shelves throughout the world. I’ve run with those who made their own fortunes and those who inherited them; I’ve dealt with Lodi boosters of all ages, all professions, all stripes.
The dudes at the top of the food chain are easy enough to track down—they’re rightly proud of their achievements and are more than willing to display it in a single encompassing overview from the cockpit of their private airplanes.
But the bottom of the food chain is equally accessible, equally open: In the alley behind my temporary apartment on S. School there’s a young man named Shawn. He’s been homeless for five years, living beneath a discarded-mattress-tent for the last two. He’s hardly the only indigent, but he’s one of the few African Americans of any social station—Lodi’s black population less than 1%. I bring Shawn cigarettes (my bad) and roast chickens (my good) and at least once a day, rap with him for a while about the state of the whole metaphysical scenario—he’s a little cosmic and spacy, which probably explains his living arrangements.
Nevertheless, he is as solidly entrenched in my story—Lodi’s story—as the dirt farmers who went from dirt poor to filthy rich overnight when (thanks to the White Zinfandel craze of the ’80s) the price of their crop skyrocketed from $200 per ton to $1200 per ton. Shawn is an example of the Lodites who, for a multitude of reasons as complex as the nose on a 2000 Delicato Shiraz, were left behind.
I spent a month with a special set of aggressive, determined Lodi folks who were not left behind; in fact, they built the railroad. It was a journey with a few bumps and handful of bruises, and the pages that follow are the chronicle of the best of them:
I encourage you hop on board and grab a berth.