Uncorked: Lodi winemakers conjure old vine magic

True Lodi winemakers have developed their own lingo, passed down through generations.

Tegan Passalacqua noticed the tell when a prospective buyer wanted to buy some old vine carignan. The winemaker at Turley and owner of Sandlands didn’t get too picky, but he knew he was doing business with someone from out of town.

In Lodi, carignan, normally pronounced with a soft G that sounds more like a Y and a long A on its last syllable, has a hard G. Sure, it’s a rough-sounding pronunciation, but it fits the scrappy nature of the AVA. There are no rock-star winemakers, no cult bottles that fetch six-figure prices at the auction house, just a vast collection of old vines, planted on their own rootstocks, grown in sandy soils, and on the shelf at incredibly reasonable prices.

Lodi is an homage to the first immigrants who came to California and planted head-trained vines that aren’t supported by any trellising. They’ve since stood the test of time, and for buyers willing to make a purchase, Passalacqua doesn’t get picky about pronunciation.

“[It’s] some of [the] better carignan in the world – supple, real pretty, dark-colored wines with good acidity,” Passalacqua said. “At first, a guy came in and his pronunciation was right. He wanted to pay $500 for a ton. Then it was $800 they wanted to pay. Then someone came in and found out how old the vineyard was and wanted to pay $1,000. At that point, you can call it whatever you want. If you’re going to tell an old grower his family has grown grapes for 100 years, but his pronunciation is wrong, you’re the one that’s wrong. That’s the cool thing in California, we have our own name for carignan.”

At a Tuesday night Zoom tasting, Passalacqua was joined by Kevin Phillips of Michael David Winery, Stuart Spencer of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, and Jeff Peregos, the owner of Stampede Vineyard. They are guardians of Lodi’s old vines, a link to California’s wine history, while moving into the future with incredibly tasty and affordable wines.

With his beard reaching a point below his chin and more salt in it than pepper, Phillips sported a white trucker hat with his winery’s orange logo in the middle. Wearing a black vest, he looked like he could step in for Queens of the Stone Age and play lead guitar.

To the best of Phillips’ knowledge, Bechthold Vineyard cinsault is the only planting in Lodi. Moments later he took it a step further and postulated it might be the only cinsault vineyard in the state and could be the oldest in the world.

Which set off a debate as the winemakers attempted to recall another cinsault vineyard. There might be one in Sonoma or the Russian River Valley, no one was quite sure as the elusive cinsault vineyard became a MacGuffin they tried to track down.

Such is the passion for old vines shared by the trio.

“These vineyards are becoming rare, and once they are gone they are gone,” Peregos said. “I try to spend my wine dollars on people whose effort I value and old vines. I try to pass that back to support those efforts.”

It’s a Herculean task because old vines are worked harder at harvest time. There’s no trellising system where the fruit can hang in a similar spot on every vine. There are head-trained vines that are 7 feet tall, affectionately dubbed the “Lodi Ladder,” they bear a resemblance to a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. There are also others that are only a few feet off the ground with thick, knotty trunks and shoots that look like arthritic knuckles jutting skyward.

There’s times when Peregos doesn’t want to lean on a vine in fear it might tip over in Lodi’s sandy soil. He’s also wary that a tractor might nick a vine by accident on a pass through the vineyard. While old vine farming is a labor of love, Passalacqua wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Vines do it more naturally,” Passalacqua said. “You don’t have to prune or sucker them. They just look natural. There’s more care in old vines, but there are more manipulations in trellised vineyards. Old vines just sit back and you say, ‘What do you need?’ A little shoot thinning, and it’ll look perfect.”

While Phillips dry farms his Bechthold Vineyard, he does give the vines a drink one time per year. Once harvest is done, the vineyard is doused with 4 acre feet of water. He said the vineyard “is a complete and total sand pit” but is so well drained that a day later, he can walk through Bechthold and not get his boots muddy.

Whether it’s zinfandel, carignan, cinsault or some other varietal from another era, the AVA is in good hands with the quartet from the Zoom tasting.

“Lodi is a special place with a lot of old vines,” Passalacqua said. “But, unfortunately, they are shrinking. We have enough fruit where every winery could make an old vine Lodi wine. But we need the consumer to buy in, to understand it. We have living history here that’s a really cool thing. We need to do all we can to preserve it. You can’t get wines like this anywhere else in the world. To taste what California is, go get an old vine zinfandel. It captures California sunshine, the breeze, and you can drink it at an affordable price. There are truly world-class individual wines that are reasonably priced.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.