Wine Tasting in Lodi

We hit the road at 6:00am, in an effort to avoid the typical Southern California commuter traffic. While we still got stuck in some traffic, we were soon out of the urban area, and headed up Hwy 5 and eventually Hwy 99. For those of you not familiar with California, these interstates run through the center of California, and one of the largest agricultural areas in the country. We were headed to Lodi. Most of you will automatically start singing the Creedence Clearwater Revival  song in your head at this point, “I set out on the road/ Seekin' my fame and fortune / Lookin' for a pot of gold / Thing got bad and things got worse / I guess you know the tune / Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again.”

When I moved from Northern California, Lodi was this little farming town that we drove through on our way to the Sierras. My how things have changed!  Lodi has always been a farming town, and grape growing dates back to the 1800’s. The California goldrush hit the mountain communities in 1849, and the demand for wine switched from Southern California, to Northern California. Vines were planted in the Lodi area as early as 1850, but it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the area started to take off. The most popular grape varieties planted were Zinfandel and Tokay.

Fast forward to 1986, and the region was established as the Lodi AVA. It was recognized for the Mediterranean climate with warm days and cool nights. The delta breezes, coming off the San Francisco Bay, create a natural air conditioning. The alluvial soils are sandy, mixed with granite, due to ancient river flows from the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In some areas, the soil is so sandy, that the vines are not grafted on to protective root stock (to avoid phylloxera).

Wine and Roses Hotel
Before we had left, many people joked about taking a 4-day vacation to Lodi, and I half wondered myself, if this was a mistake. This wine tasting weekend came at the recommendation of David Phillips, one of the brothers/owners at Michael David Winery. We had met at a wine pairing dinner a couple years back, and he had encouraged me to take our wine club up to the area. At his recommendation, we booked rooms at the Wine & Roses Hotel. To say we were pleasantly surprised with the accommodations would be an understatement. The hotel is an oasis in the middle of farm country. Large trees, and buildings covered with climbing ivy are just part of the charm. Each room has a fireplace, and very nicely furnished. Two weddings were taking place on the weekend we were there, and the grounds are perfect for such events.

On this wine trip, I had arranged for 22 people to attend. Everything is focused on our Saturday tasting trip, but I also schedule some type of event on Friday. This Friday, we were scheduled to do a tasting at Michael David Winery, at 3:30. Since my wife and I arrived early, we headed out to a winery just down the street from the hotel, named Jessie’s Grove. I chose this winery because it is one of the oldest in the area, and claims to have some of the oldest vines still producing grapes.

Jessie’s Grove has 265 acres of vineyards planted.  Of these, the oldest vines are Zinfandel and Cinsault. The Zinfandel, Carignane and Tokay vines date back to 1889, and the oldest vines are Cinsault, planted in 1886. Only a small portion of the harvest is used for estate wines. Much is sold off to other wineries in the area. 

The tasting room is located in what appears to be an old farm building. Around the tasting room are numerous photos and memorabilia showing the history of the property. Wine tasting fees are only $5, and between the two of us, we tasted most everything on the tasting sheet. We came here for the Zinfandel, and that is what we bought. Unfortunately, the oldest vine Zinfandel was sold out already, mostly to club members. We did also pick up the old vine Cinsault. All the wines were fruit forward, and deep, reflecting the vines effort to produce limited grape clusters. The production is small, maybe only 6,000 cases, but this historic property is worth a visit.

Michael David Winery
From the tiny historic property, we left to meet up with the rest of our wine tasting group at Michael David Winery. When I lived in the Bay Area, and drove through Lodi on Hwy 12, The Phillips Fruit stand was along side the road. Now the fruit stand is still there, but behind it is the large production winery.  Michael David Winery produces over 800,000 cases of wine. 300,000 of that is Zinfandel. They are the largest Zinfandel producer in the world.

Dave Phillips pouring for our group
Dave Phillips met our group on the outdoor patio, and took us on a tour of the facility. We started at the colorful “freak show” fermentation tanks, and continued on to the destemmer and presses, tasting freshly pressed juice, as well as fermented juice still in the fermenter. Dave was a great host, and allowed us to taste anything we wanted in the tasting room. Something has to be said here…in many instances, I find that the larger producers lose touch with the quality of their wines. Not at Michael David. They produce consistent quality, even with high production numbers. Their tasting staff is attentive, and you feel like this is a family operation, even with the behemoth size. Since many of the Michael David wines can be found in local retail outlets (including Costco), my purchases were focused on the higher end, and unusual wines. I purchased the Rage Zinfandel, and some of the Inkblot wines. Whatever you do, don’t skip this large producer, just because they are large.

We had dinner planned at Pietro’s Trattoria, in Lodi. Dave Phillips suggested that we go with the family dinner. Great suggestion. We had eight people at our table, and had  two appetizers, salad, garlic bread (the best), pasta course, and main entrée, as well as two local wines (St Amant Barbera  and Bokisch Tempranillo). With tip and tax, the total bill was only $100/couple, and we had leftovers. The place was packed on a Friday night. The perfect end to our first day in the area.

Saturday would present us with another adventure. This day we would be heading up to the Sierra Foothills, and another AVA. Check out our trip to Calaveras County

Wine Dinner Takeover

Richard Krumweide, Jim, Nytasha Mealer, Elizabeth Krumweide
What happens when a winemaker, a chef, and a venue, which was once reputedly owned by Bugsy Siegel, come together? Of course, the answer is a 6-course wine pairing dinner.

I have known the winemaker, Richard Krumweide for years. He and his wife, Elizabeth, own the recently bonded Sycamore Ranch Vineyard &Winery. They are located in Dart Canyon, high up on the San Bernardino Mountains, in the town of Crestline. They are one of the highest altitude wineries in California. Sitting on 3.5 acres, they produce Zinfandel, Syrah and Hard Cider from their own vineyards and orchards. The remaining grape varieties are sourced from the Central Coast, and Sierra Foothills. All wines are produced at the winery. As an amateur winemaker, their wines have been winning numerous awards at tasting events throughout California. The first vintages for sale to the public will be the 2015 vintage. Since this event was a private dinner for Arrowhead Wine Enthusiast members, we were happy to help rid them of some of their older vintages.

I met Chef Nytasha Mealer at Sycamore Ranch Vineyards. She currently runs an organic food market in the town of Crestline, but has an extensive cooking background, which has her catering numerous events. She went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu, and has cooked with Bobby Flay, and Wolfgang Puck. She was the chef of Fig and Olive in Los Angeles. Needless to say, she has some “street cred”.

The Tudor House had approached us, and asked if our wine club would be interested in creating a wine pairing dinner. We agreed to do the dinner, as long as we could “takeover” their kitchen with Nytasha creating the menu, their staff doing the serving, and Sycamore Ranch providing the wine and cider for each course. Nytasha and I met at Sycamore Ranch, and had the “painful” job (someone has to do it) of tasting numerous Sycamore Ranch wines, along with Richard and Elizabeth. For over two hours, we tasted, and share our tasting notes, and ideas for what would pair best with each wine. Nytahsa took most of the notes, and used those to pick which wines to pair, and ultimately create the wine pairing meal that follows.

At 6:30, on the evening of the dinner, we gathered outside the Tudor House for the Amuse-Bouche. This course was a delicately seared albacore and red snapper tataki, enveloped around baby herbs atop handmade wonton drizzled in a kumquat ponzu, finished with flavored tobiko. This was paired with the Big Moon Hard Apple Cider. This was one of my favorite pairings of the evening, and a great way to start things off. The kumquat ponzu really worked well with the tartness of the apple cider. The effervescence of the cider awakened the palate, and prepared us for the coming courses.

We next moved inside. The historic Tudor House was set for four couples at each table. A large screen above the performance stage, had a slide show highlighting Sycamore Ranch. We had a small crowd of only about 45 people, but that wasn’t too bad, considering the entire event was put together in less than three weeks.

Our first sit down course was “brown butter pan-seared scallops, fixed upon a Meyer lemon Marcona almond pesto, dotted with cilantro coulis and feathered parsnip chips”. This was paired with the 2014 Sycamore Ranch Rousanne. This white wine has a certain richness to it, with honey and pear notes. The acidity of the wine was matched with the acidity of the Meyer lemon pesto. The pesto itself was not only Meyer lemon, but Marcona almonds. This added a richness that mirrored the wine.

The next course was “roasted organic raised quail and golden beet salad on a bed of wilted tatsoi, graciously dressed with raspberry white balsamic vinaigrette”. This was paired with the 2014 Sycamore Ranch Grenache.  This is a very nice Grenache, with notes of raspberry, strawberry, cherry and white pepper. For many, this was their favorite pairing of the evening. I am not a big beet fan, so for me, they over-powered the wine.

The third course (or fourth depending on how you count) was a Moroccan carrot ginger veloute, dolloped with crème fraiche”. This was my favorite pairing of the evening, being served with the 2014 Sycamore Ranch Rhone Ranger. When a pairing comes together, the food changes the taste of the wine, pulling out flavor notes that weren’t there without the food. This course did that. The ginger and carrot greens made the fruit pop in this wine. For me, this was the best pairing of the night.

After a palate cleanser of apricot lemon sorbet, we moved on to the main course of a “richly marinated, then flash seared venison tenderloin, nested against a forest mushroom risotto, aged parmesan Reggiano, bathed in a luxurious fig and wine reduction”. This course was served with the 2013 Sycamore Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon. What can I say? Cabernet and venison…they just go together. Add to that Parmesan and figs, and you have a rich course.

We ended the evening with “the deepest darkest Belgium flourless chocolate cake, draped in a violet lavender ganache”. This was paired with the 2014 Sycamore Ranch Primitivo.  This was a challenging pairing. Since Sycamore Ranch does not make a dessert wine, and we needed to end the evening with a dessert…the options were limited. The Primitivo is probably their most fruit forward wine variety, but it is not sweet. In this case, the dessert was sweet, and made the wine seem a bit flat. The ganache, with its’ flowery notes did play off similar notes in the wine. Individually, both were delicious.

This was a fun evening of experimenting with wine and food. Learning what works and what doesn’t, and to see how a chef interprets the wine, to create an experience for the participants. At the end of the evening, the owner of the Tudor House was encouraged to try this again, and I made some recommendations of wineries to try. That means more wine pairing notes in the future.