Hi-falutin’ British wine journalists know something about wine; I think we can all acquiesce to that observation. Likewise, we accept without protest the statement that Lodi has built a reputation on juicy, boldly flavored Zinfandel and soft, rich Cabernet Sauvignon—in fact, Lodi crushes more of each than Napa and Sonoma combined.
So what does one do when a famous British wine journalist rolls into town and announces that Lodi is better suited for white varietals than for Cabernet Sauvignon?
If you are Sue Tipton, you acquiesce.
Not that she wasn’t already well down the acquiescence turnpike before Oz Clarke showed up: Her favorite wine (other than her own) has always been white Châteauneuf-du-Pape and when she began planting vineyards in and around Acquiesce, she wanted to duplicate it—the original incarnation being, in her words, ‘a bit spendy’.
This is the Irish talking; she’s a County Cork-American who made it to California after following a meandering path from northwest Chicago to Kalamazoo, Michigan (where Concord vines on her property wound up in Welch’s grape jelly). From there, the road less traveled went to Sweden, then to Castlerock, Colorado, then to Dallas, Texas and then to Portland, Oregon where she discovered how exuberant wine at seven dollars a bottle could be. That was in the mid 1990s, when Willamette Pinot Noir was still in search of a place on the global wine stage and as such, was priced to move—that same bottle of wine today would likely sell for four or five times as much.
Ultimately, her husband’s job—designing revolutionary, automated warehouses for companies like Coca-Cola—brought them to California, and in 2003, they picked up a piece of property on Tretheway Road in Acampo, just northwest of Lodi. She was initially attracted to the old barn on the site, and then, to the twelve acres of Old Vine Zinfandel—a step up from Concord. But winemaking was not on her ‘Before I Die…’ list, at least not on a commercial scale. The Tiptons’ plan was to sell the Zinfandel grapes to local wineries, not vinify it, and that’s what they do to this day. It wasn’t until Sue planted a test plot of Grenache Blanc that did ‘exceptionally well’ that she began to consider that she might be able produce a white wine in the style of the Châteauneuf blends she loves on acres she already owned; wines that grandstand fruit and herb and flowers and spice in a complex cornucopia of lusciousness.
She planted as many CdP cultivars as as she could find, many from Jason Haas of Paso Robles’ Tablas Creek, who is the go-to dude for these kinds of cuttings. And she insists that Oz Clarke’s bombastic field trip to Lodi in 2011, during which he pronounced Lodi an ideal climate for the production of white grapes—certainly better than for Bordeaux-style reds—merely confirmed what she already suspected:
In Acquiesce, she had found a little slice of Rhône away from Rhône.
The Clarke pronouncement, outlined in an interview with the local Lodi News-Sentinel (which I quote frequently throughout this book), ran this way:
“In Europe, we get a lot of wine from further south in California, and frankly I don’t like that stuff very much. You get south of Stockton and Modesto and you start saying, “This stuff shouldn’t be made into wine.”
It’s high-yield, but it has a very low flavor. It’s all souped-up, sugared-up pretend wine with a huge marketing budget, and it does California no good whatsoever.
Lodi is different. There is something here. You go 20 or 30 miles south, and you’ve lost it. But it makes absolute sense. You look at the maps with the Delta and the hills and you see how the wind comes through the Carquenez straight and the first place it gets is here. And then it dissipates; south, north or wherever. But once the wind has been here, it’s going to lose its power as it travels on. But you in Lodi have this small area. That’s the great thing about wine; small areas matter. Napa and Carneros aren’t big.”
When grilled about Lodi’s limitations, the wizard called Oz continued:
“Lodi has very sandy loams. And loam basically means you can’t ripen Bordeaux. You can’t ripen Cabernet; you might ripen Merlot. But you should be making rosé and looking at white wines. It’s your place. It’s a place that should not say, “We should do what Napa does,” or, “We should do what Sonoma does.”
“You need to grow more whites, but I think there is too much Chardonnay here. Everyone else makes Chardonnay. You make good Chardonnay, but Clarksburg makes it better.”
It sounds like Oz was preaching to the choir—a choir composed of conductor Sue Tipton and her chorus of Grenache Blanc, Rousanne, Viognier and Picpoul, et al…
And, oh, that Viognier. Mmm, that Picpoul. When I stopped by the tasting room at Acquiesce, it was closed: According to the sign out front, Sue had sold all the wine and there was none left. That’s a good sign type of sign. People interested in tasting her wines, not just talking about her wine, will have to wait until mid-March, when the new vintage comes out. But I was fortunate enough to be tagging along with local wine legend Randy Caparoso that day, so I got to line jump.
The tasting room is within the old barn that first attracted Sue and her husband to the property; it used to be the storage area for a walnut farm and there is a filled-in pit in the original concrete that once held walnut shells.
There’s a fun chalkboard over the area where we sit—it is titled ‘Before I Die…’ (yeah, Sue’s now a commercial winemaker) and it leaves spaces blank for patrons to write down bucket list wishes. On the day I was there, ‘Golf Pebble Beach’ and ‘High-Five Sammy Hagar’ were prominent.
That morning, the headline of the Lodi Sentinel read ‘Napa Pioneer Peter Mondavi Dies’, and since Peter Mondavi was a Lodi grade-schooler before he was a Napa pioneer, I asked Sue if I could write ‘Meet Peter Mondavi’ on her chalkboard, then immediately cross it out. I thought it would make a good intro photo on the chapter I am now—because of his death while I was in town—sort of obligated to write.
Guess who’s a good sport?
Guess who’s also a world class winemaker? Without a degree from UC Davis or a resumé that includes multiple apprenticeships in established cellars? The woman with the grape jelly vines, that’s who—Sue Tipton.
The Acquiesce experience begins on the outside of the bottle, though: It’s a svelte Saverglass original called a ‘Sabine’ and it is designed with feminine flourishes and motile curves—a lot like Sue Tipton. She uses this shape to house all of her wares which are styled like the Saverglass and her: Rich and tactile, floral and feminine; entities with something to say.
The floral quality of Tipton’s wines, characterized across her entire portfolio, is the result of the sandy loam Oz Clarke spoke of in his Sentinel interview. This sort of soil drains well and produces softer wines with controlled acidity and pronounced aromatics. These qualities appear prominently in her Picpoul.
Picpoul is an interesting grape–one of the thirteen permitted varietals in white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, used primarily as a blending component, often for its crisp bite. In these sandy soils, it is capable of—and excels at—being a single varietal showcase. Directly translated, Picpout means ‘lip stinger’, but in Lodi the acids are held in check. Acquiesce’s 2015 Picpoul shows a rounded, juicy compass of tropical flavors, tangerine to banana and pineapple. Although Tipton currently cultivates less than a hundred vines, what comes out the business end is a wine to rival any French Picpoul I’ve tried—certainly, the Languedoc estate that produce Picpoul as a stand-alone make steely, mineral-driven wines with considerably less weight.
Acquiesce Viognier (2014) is a closer counterpart to its Northern Rhône paradigm in the tiny appellations of Condrieu—it is plush and fragrant, filled with exotic mango, papaya and grapefruit notes. The 2015 we opened, having recently been slipped into that stylish Sabine glassware, was dealing with a bit of bottle shock—it was lighter and less beguiling on the nose.
Belle Blanc (2104) is her pretty baby, her homage, her tribute to the great estates of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Vaucluse department of southeastern France. Like these rare and majestic wines, Belle Blanc bursts with fruit and perfume, bright tones of yellow, a sweet, honeyed nose resplendent with lemon and pear; a succulent mouthful that is viscous and creamy and crisp nonetheless. She has, in effect, created a work of art that might easily be mistaken for its prototype, and without anything more than an excellent palate, an exemplary vineyard and a determination to succeed.
Sue Tipton maintains that she and her husband thought of the name long before they thought of the winery—it is from the k.d. lang song, that, as far as I can figure out, is about strange sex.
But that doesn’t matter; here, Acquiesce is about glorious wine, superb pairings with local products (one of Sue Tipton’s most popular tasting room amenities) and fun conversation on the ground floor of the white wine revolution in Lodi.
If you must bring strange sex to the party, write on the wish board. k.d. will have to show up one of these afternoons.