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Lodi Rules!

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I received the assignment for an article on Lodi fruit sometime in early to mid August, and submitted my final draft in late September.  The editor and I had not been on the same wavelength as initially the assignment was for a harvest article with a Lodi fruit emphasis.  I sought out East Bay wineries that purchased Lodi fruit to bring the article closer to home.

In any event, the article will not be published in the upcoming issue, but may be slated for a future article once some specific, now-known questions have been answered.

I offer to you the unedited version of my article. Please bear with me as I had to finish it in a bit of hurry to make deadline, and it is more wordy than I expected it be when it was going to press.

I’m going to offer more photos as well.

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Many of us have a clouded perception of wine from the Lodi region.  We may have learned early on from our parents not to trust the grapes that went into the massive jug bottles on the supermarket shelves.  Perhaps we consumed a coveted bottle from a more prominent region and believed no other region’s fruit would be comparable.

Whatever our perception, it is time to elucidate beliefs that Lodi grapes are somehow inferior to fruit from other regions.

With continuous company consolidations and mergers today, we can be assured the wine we drink isn’t made necessarily with fruit from where the winery is located.  In fact, much of the fruit used in wine we consume was grown in Lodi.  This begs to ask more about the fruit that we don’t see that goes into our wine.

LANGE TWINS Winery and Vineyard, Lodi

Marissa Lange, winery operations manager at Lange Twins Winery and Vineyard and a member of a fifth generation family of Lodi farmers, represents lineage dedicated to grape farming and vineyard management for Napa wineries.

Her father and uncle, identical twins, formed the Lange Twins organization in the late 1970’s.  “It was originally a partnership between the two families, and they were going to farm 40 acres they purchased from my grandfather,” Marissa explains.  The 40-acre farm wasn’t enough to sustain two families.

The Lange Twins added vineyard management to their list of qualifications, and began offering vineyard management to third party property owners.  Third party owners are “essentially absentee owners that want to invest in the agricultural sector but don’t have the expertise or desire to actually tend to it,” Marissa describes.  This is where her family’s business found its niche.

In the early 1980’s, by farming estate fruit and absentee owner fruit, the Lange Twins went from farming 40 acres of now obsolete varietals, such as French Colombard, to evolving into a larger, more agile operation that manages 8,000 acres of vineyards.

Marissa attempts to put the numbers into perspective.  “8,000 acres yields approximately 60,000 tons of fruit a year.  We farm 21 different varietals, chardonnay, and cabernet sauvignon — all the usual suspects.  We also have other varietals not as well known such as malbec and cinsault.”

In addition to farm management, Lange Twins became exclusively contracted long-term grape growers.  “We sell grapes to wineries that want grapes, we sell bulk wine to wineries that want wine, and we can make wine to their specifications on a long term contract.”

While still miniscule compared to the gigantic E. & J. Gallo Winery, Lange Twins’ scale doesn’t seem far behind as much of its fruit and wine is provided to Robert Mondavi and Clos du Bois, both of which are owned by Constellation Brands, the world’s largest premium wine company.

Green Valley

Just like all other businesses, there is the social obligation for wineries to adhere to a sustainability program.

When asked what the motivation for such a program is at Lange Twins, Marissa again points out that the company is five generations strong.  “When you look at your business as a multi-generational business you realize that if you don’t do what you are doing better than the generation before you, the generation after you won’t have anything to work with.”

The charge to become sustainable began with Marissa’s father, Randy Lange, and his twin brother.  “In my grandfather’s day, you cleared the land, you leveled it, and you planted on it.  My grandfather’s generation didn’t have the same environmental concerns we do,” she added ruefully.

For the past few decades, the twins independently rehabilitated the natural habitats on their land. “Back then there was no marketing spin. They were doing it because it was the right thing to do.” Her father and uncle together set up a local committee to establish rules for sustainable farming.

The Lange Twins’ Mission in essence:

“We need to ensure sustainability on three levels.

1. To have a viable business perspective to provide to the next generation;

2.  To provide the next generation with an opportunity to farm the land; and

3. To remain sustainable for our workers.”

The Lodi Rules program, which the Lange Twins sought to develop for the community, incorporates those three points —  Environment, economics and employees.  “It’s the three-legged stool – if one of those elements isn’t working, it all comes tumbling down.”

Marissa puts it in plain words.  “What our family has done is the right thing.  It’s the right thing to do for the business, it’s the right thing for the land, and it’s the right thing for the environment.”

THOMAS COYNE WINERY, Livermore Valley

Thomas Coyne, whose background is in chemical engineering, was a former winemaker at Rosenblum Cellars.

In 1994, when Thomas and his wife, Emilie, began their winery at the historical Chateau Bellevue in Livermore, none of the local farmers had any of the varietals they wanted.  The majority of the local wineries were growing and pouring primarily Bordeaux varietals, and Thomas wanted to produce less popular varietals, such as Rhones.

“In 1994, there was no viognier (a Rhone varietal) in Livermore, and a lot of the other wine grapes I was interested in weren’t available in Livermore; no one was growing them,” he explains.

Thomas began buying fruit from small grape farmers in the Lodi region.  “I was buying syrah from a Lodi farmer for about three or four years, and finally we grafted some syrah to grow here.”

Thomas explains how the Livermore Valley landscape changed the past two decades.   “It used to be chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and a little merlot.  That’s all there was,”  Thomas clarifies.  “That’s the evolution of how it’s happened here at my winery.”

Lack of availability wasn’t the only reason he began looking outside the Livermore Valley for fruit — It was also to get out of the groupthink that existed in the Livermore Valley.  “The diversification wasn’t there.  When I contacted other people [outside of Livermore], they were interested in other things, and getting grapes out of the area gave me the opportunity to try different varieties that I didn’t have access to otherwise.”

His experimentation has created a niche for his winery.  Some of the varietals he’s blended and bottled include verdelho, terrantez, rousanne, grenache blanc, ugni blanc, mourvedre and carignane.

Strange Weather

In addition to the availability and variety of fruit available from the Lodi region, weather has also played a part in his decision to continue buying fruit from outside of the Livermore Valley AVA.

“It’s not just the cool summers; it’s also the way the spring has evolved [these past two years].  Normally, we get bud burst in April, and in May we are seeing good shoot growth. This summer we weren’t getting any shoots at all.”

“The year’s harvest is going to be set back about three weeks,” Thomas opines.  This statement applies to everywhere grapes are grown, not just the Livermore Valley or the Lodi region.

Norman Knoll

While at Rosenblum, Thomas met Norman Knoll, a grape farmer in the Lodi region who has well over 200 acres and specializes in small lots.

“The majority of his farm is zinfandel vines, which mostly goes to larger wineries. The small lots go to smaller wineries.  He has varietals you’ve never seen before,” Thomas says excitedly. Viognier and Grenache are two of the varietals Thomas regularly gets from Norman.

Thomas tells a story of an exceptional varietal Norman grows:  “Norman’s land is bordered by the Mokelumne River. One day, he found a vine growing in the middle of the river with white grapes on it.  He took some of the vine and planted it.  We bought the grapes from him one year and called it ‘vin sauvage,’ or “the wild vine.”

“He does things like that, nobody else would do that — he’s a great grower,” Thomas continues.  “He takes very good care of his vineyard.”  Not surprisingly, Norman farms his grapes organically.

“He’s very quality sensitive and understands that if you don’t have good grapes, you can’t make good wine with it; he understands that equation.”

NORMAN KNOLL

Norman Knoll, born in 1926, likes to say he was “born into” the wine business.   His mother kept him in a grape box while she worked packing Tokays, a one-time popular table grape.  When he was 8 or 9 years old, Norman was driving a tractor and helping tend grapes.  When he was 16 years old, he was working for his grandfather’s winery.

His grandfather, Jacob Knoll, was a Russian immigrant who came to America with nothing but a wife and three hungry children.  After homesteading 160 acres in North Dakota for five years, Norman’s grandfather grew weary of the bitter cold and moved west to California.  Upon arriving in Lodi, he purchased 40,000 acres of vineyards.

According to a Lodi News Sentinel article from September 18, 1937, the region already held a reputation as a prolific grape producer with a quarter of the nation’s wine grapes grown in Lodi.  The article also mentions Jacob Knoll’s winery and credits it for producing half a million gallons of wine a year.

Diversity

Norman’s varietals are diverse.  He has 40 acres of zinfandel, with the remaining acres of small lots of uncommon grapes such as viognier, chardonnay, early burgundy, and sangiovese.  He also has six acres of Tokays, a flavorful table grape.

Historically, Lodi was abundant in Tokays and had as many as 40,000 acres in the early to mid 1900’s. Today there are less than 500 acres left.

When asked about the wild vine found in the Mokelumne River, Norman is casual.  “I just planted the roots and they had grapes.  No body knows what it’s called.  I just call it a wild white grape,” he says.  “I still have a row of them, 64 vines.”

Organic Farming

When he first starting growing grapes, Norman said there was no organic movement yet. “At that time, we sprayed everything.” In the early 1970’s, he went to one of the first agricultural farm shows in Tulare.   “I talked to a fellow there who had a display of organic stuff.  That’s when I made the change.  You can farm organically.  You have to work at it, but it’s worth it –  it makes a better product.”

Conclusion

Lodi farmers are dedicated to preserving the natural resources they tend.  Growing fruit organically is no longer just hype; it is a necessity for many farmers.  How wine is created, from the deep dirt in the earth to the spreading leaves on the vine, is deep in the minds of Lodi farmers and producers.

For decades, the Lange Twins organization has fostered participation with local farmers and state representatives to advance sustainability in Lodi.  For over half his life, Norman Knoll has organically, painstakingly farmed his grapes because he knows the outcome is going to mirror his care.  The picture in Lodi is changing.

Wine is a personal thing.  It’s something we can share with friends, family, people we love.  To sip a good wine is akin to experiencing a faint breeze that causes autumn leaves to fall.  Sipping wine can invoke a reverie of the senses.  For some, it’s a spiritual connection to the earth, and the devotion for what goes into our wine is becoming as clear as the glass we hold.

~H

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About hkremer

San Francisco East Bay

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