A Lodi Old Vines with Abe Schoener

I’m not usually star struck when it comes to people in wine, but I have to admit that the wines of Abe Schoener’s Scholium Project had a big influence on me when I first came across them through The Sampler some years ago. It wasn’t only what they tasted like, it was also the philosophy behind them, ideas which helped shape the change in the way I began to think about wine.

This tasting at Sager + Wilde‘s Hackney Road venue was based around Abe’s home region (all but two of his wines now come from Lodi), showing some Scholium Project wines and some neighbours. For palate calibration (and the sheer joy of it) we also had some of Eben Sadie’s wines from South Africa (there’s a connection – I’ll come to that). The intention was to look at a region of old vines (old in a Californian context) and see what kind of wines are now being made in this long misunderstood part of the Sunshine State. Abe is just such a charismatic guy and it was fascinating spending the afternoon with him

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We’d better begin by explaining where Lodi (pronounced Low-dye, or Load-eye) is. The region sits at the head of the San Joaquin Valley, east of San Francisco and south of Sacramento. The area is quite warm, hot even, with soils in the main of a light alluvial nature, washed down from the Sierra Foothills, largely through the valley of the Mokelumne River.

Let’s face it, Lodi isn’t the first place that comes to mind when thinking about Californian winemaking, and there’s a reason. Historically, Lodi was planted with eating grapes, such as Flame Tokay, and smaller quantities of commercial wine varieties like Alicante Bouschet, Zinfandel and Carignanne. There’s even some Kerner and Dornfelder here, perhaps betraying the ethnic origin of the original settlers.

Because the region was seen as one producing dull, workmanlike, wines, these vines (some planted back in the 1920s in the Kirschenmann Vineyard, and even as long ago as 1886 in the case of Bechtold Ranch, where ancient Cinsault was planted by German immigrant Joseph Spenker) were left undisturbed, often on their own rootstocks because the soils here also contain a large percentage of phylloxera-resistant sand.

When I say “workmanlike”, the region was once one of the fruit sources for Mondavi’s lower level Woodbridge label, and the Zinfandel here was probably saved from being ripped out by the fashion for that frightening white version so beloved of the supermarkets at the end of the Twentieth Century. The renaissance was begun by Randall Grahm. He has since left Lodi, but his legacy has been the rediscovery of quite unique pockets of old vine material on equally cool pockets of land where the river meanders and creates ox-bows and horseshoes of cooling water on what is basically a flat river plain.

In fact the supposed heat of Lodi is not quite what the statistics, and the books, will have you believe. Of course, we are not talking cool climate, rather warm to hot (average temperature during the growing season is 20.4 Celsius, and annual rainfall is a meagre 483 mm), but the region does get some of the mists up from the San Joaquin river delta to the west. It’s cooler here than in the north of the Napa Valley, for sure. The region also benefits from reasonably good water supply, with many underground aquifers, something rare in the State.

The final piece in the jigsaw is the “Lodi Rules”, not a football or baseball variation, but a wine certification scheme based on sustainable farming, which was put in place by the super-effective Lodi Winegrape Commission. These rules not only help preserve the old vineyards, but also enhance the name of a region whose fruit was once anonymously blended into wines from more famous Californian wine producing areas.

A group of wine trade professionals tasted fifteen wines in a couple of hours at Sager + Wilde, and I don’t propose to provide detailed notes for them all. Some will only warrant contextual comment, but some of the wines tasted were pretty damned good, for sure. You will recall that I mentioned a connection with Eben Sadie in South Africa. That connection is Tegan Passalacqua. Tegan is Abe’s closest collaborator, he’s the winemaker at Turley Vineyards, and his own brand, Sandlands. Tegan trained partly in South Africa and, working with Sadie, and was strongly influenced by him, as indeed was Schoener himself.

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We began with an Eben Sadie wine, Sadie Family Mev Kirsten Chenin Blanc 2016, Stellenbosch. What a wine to start with. I’m quite familiar with the Sadie wines, but not this one, and boy was it amazing. It comes from the oldest Chenin vineyard in South Africa, situated now within the urban confines of the town. Mrs Kirsten was the owner, who passed away in 2014. Like all of Eben’s wines, it is unirrigated (Sadie is quoted as saying “to irrigate is to negate the vintage”), and the wine has the length and concentration of the finest Chenins in the world. It’s what you expect for £100/bottle, but still.

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We moved on to contrast it with a Lodi wine, one that was totally different. Acquiesce Picpoul Blanc 2017 was there to show how what is supposedly a hot region can produce light whites. This 12.5% white was quite commercial, but floral, fresh and pleasant, and a pointer towards some traits we might pick up on as we began to explore a couple of the individual vineyards of Lodi.

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The Kirschenmann Vineyard is planted not far from the town of Victor, just east of Lodi. The soils here are alluvial and less loamy than those in the west. They have a high quartz content, and go down about forty feet to a bed of limestone. The oldest rootstocks are from the 1920s, but most are 1970s plantings, some grafted quite recently.

Tegan’s Sandlands Kirschenmann Chenin Blanc 2015 contrasted deftly with the younger FTP-C Scholium Project Kirschenmann Chenin Blanc 2017. Sandlands showed sweet oak and freshness, Scholium a little reduction but with great zip. The latter wine was cloudy from no filtration, and it also had no sulphur added. Quite a lovely mineral wine at just 12.5% abv. A true wine of soul for me.

Bechtold Ranch, is now owned by Wanda Woock Bechtold, great granddaughter of the Joseph Spenker who we noted had planted the site back in 1886, twenty-five acres (just over ten hectares) of ancient Cinsault vines which are some of the the oldest in California. The fruit is renowned to give wines relatively light in alcohol, and the wines are usually noted to be highly refreshing.

This is pretty well exemplified by the Scholium Project Bechtold Ranch 1MN 2016, a funky and fruity light red made in the Scholium Project’s small wooden open fermenters, with foot treading and, where possible, a dry cap, unpunched. Between 60 to 70% whole clusters help give the wine lovely lifted, fresh, fruit. Some sensitive souls might find a touch of volatility offputting, but obviously not me. You have to be pretty sensitive to these things to let it spoil the wine’s pure drinkability. You need to think about what Abe and his team are aiming to achieve.

Michael David Winery is one of the bigger, more commercial, producers in Lodi. Their Bechtold Ranch Sinso Red 2016 is very different. This producer does maximise the use of Lodi old vines, but it’s a classic, straight wine, clean with good acidity and 14.5% alcohol. They have taken irrigated old Cinsault, fermented it in large tanks with pumpovers, used commercial yeasts, and almost certainly acidified. It may cost $50 a bottle but for me it is a very ordinary wine. Yet it still shows (or hides, perhaps) the quality of the fruit, or at least something is there under the simplicity.

The third Bechtold wine was our first look at Turley Wine Cellars. Larry Turley started this venture in 1993, having sold Frog’s Leap. His mission was to focus on old vines no matter their yields, nor even the vineyards’ state of health. Tegan Passalacqua came along as a harvest intern in 2003 and is now Director of Winemaking.

Turley Bechtold Ranch Cinsault 2016 comes from the middle of the vineyard, where the loam is deep and the grapes produce none of the dark and jammy wine for which Lodi was once associated. Early harvesting has produced a wine of only 12.5% abv, yet one which is concentrated and tastes stronger. It has a slight buttery, minty, note and no reduction. It’s impressive, in a totally different style to the Scholium wine.

It was paired with another South African from Eben, Sadie Family Soldaat Swartland Grenache 2016. This has dense fruit richness, characterised by big legs. There is also some evidence of whole bunches (a slight stemmy note), but in contrast to the Turley, this actually tastes less alcoholic than the 13.5% on the label suggests, doubtless on account of its incredible freshness.

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A couple of wines (A Klinker Brick Carignanne and a St Amant Zinfadel), both 2015, demonstrated a different side to Lodi, where fruit from the region is still going into pretty commercial wines of the type we’d see in the supermarket. Abe’s point is that they do fill a market need. People seem to want to drink big wines with oak chips or staves, or at least they are told that they should like them.

Why make wines like this? For sure it is trying to recreate the Napa model from lesser fruit without the investment, nor perhaps the skills? We had an interesting aside about viticulture. It’s not just the oak regime, but Abe told us that the commercial growers go for vertical shoot positioning. That’s fine in Bordeaux where the vines need air and sun, but in the Lodi climate the grapes see too much sun. Then they are left to hang until every bunch is ripe, so that the ripest bunches may have a potential alcohol of 18 degrees.

Michael David Freakshow Zinfandel 2016 was in the same stylistic mode, with a label to match. A $20 wine made in large quantity to give people what they think is a taste of something better. There is nothing intrinsically bad in this wine, although it appears to be highly manipulated to my less experienced palate, but I would say that the whole philosophy behind it is flawed…that is, from my perspective. I’d like to see cheaper wines be fruity and fresh, gluggable, without tannin and “oak”, which makes them near useless with food when all that is overdone.

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We returned to the Kirschenmann Vineyard with two reds. I have neglected to say that Tegan Passalacqua now owns this vineyard, and both of the reds here are made from one hundred year old Zinfandel. Turley Zinfandel 2016 is very classy for Zinfandel, showing old vine concentration, but with a touch of elegance you might not expect from the variety.

The Scholium wine, FTP-Z 2016, comes in at just over 15.1% abv. There are no punchdowns or pumpovers, yet the phenolics have extracted themselves and the wine has sweet fruit, yet it also has remarkably balanced acidity for the level of alcohol. Both wines were harvested on the same day.

To end this fascinating tasting we drank another two white wines…for palate calibration! One was another South African, the classic Testalonga El Bandito Cortez Chenin Blanc 2017 which I probably don’t need to introduce to many readers. The grapes come from Swartland bush vines planted in 1972 on decomposed granite, quartz and silica. The wine has a remarkable freshness to it, and is in the “natural wine” mould (I think they do add a tiny bit of sulphur at bottling).

Having drunk the “Baby Bandito Keep on Punching” Chenin recently, this wine is clearly a step up, and something a bit different to the Eben Sadie we drank at the beginning of the tasting. When Craig Hawkins says he just makes wines he and his wife Carla like to drink, he’s far from alone in that sentiment, but you do get the impression that he means it, and if you don’t like them, tough. Most people I know do like them…a lot.

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The final wine, a sort of added extra, was Scholium Project VLV Reserve, Bokisch Vista Luna Ranch White 2016. This is a Verdelho grown on the only Lodi site of the tasting which  is not flat and more or less at sea level. The soils are pushed down glacial deposits rich in quartz and iron. It carries 13.91% alcohol really well, being very mineral, as well as nursing a tight muscularity. The wine has a nice granular texture to it. Stunningly good, a Scholium wine I don’t recall drinking before, but one I’d like to buy (Shhh but it happens to be one of Abe’s cheaper wines!).

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What did I learn here? I learnt about a Californian wine region I’d only really read about (John Bonné is a recommended source, in his The New California Wine (Ten Speed Press, 2013)). Of course, I’d tried many Scholium wines but I’m not sure how much it had registered that they were largely from Lodi.

We did learn about the old vine material in Lodi, and we saw evidence of the different ways that old vine fruit is used – some for artisan wines and some for more commercial product. We learnt about soil complexities, and how that (as well as other factors such as earlier picking) can ameliorate a hot climate, and enable fresher and lighter wines, including whites, to be produced in a region more noted for monster reds.

We had it confirmed what world class wines are being made by Eben Sadie. I knew that, but the two wines tasted yesterday took my understanding to a new level. But in looking at Eben Sadie, Abe Schoener, Craig Hawkins and Tegan Passalacqua as well, we also learnt that in an age where the vineyard is now king, there is room for the winemaker as philosopher to impact the whole style of wine coming from a particular site.

This was a wonderful event, and very warm thanks must go to Abe for talking to us, and to Christina Rasmussen for organising it. The S+W staff hosted us with enthusiasm, so thanks go to them as well.

Hey Abe, I drank a glass of The Prince later on, raising it to you on 4th July. Cheers.

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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