July is the month when we celebrate our independence—the time of year when we come together in sweltering heat to grill up hot dogs and wait patiently for the sky to illuminate with a dazzling display of color.
But not this year. Not this July.
Instead, most of us will be celebrating our freedom by staying home. Seems ironic.
Because this is the month when we look back at how this nation was founded, I thought we could celebrate the grape that is uniquely all-American, and the region where our winemaking roots (pardon the pun) were first established.
If I were to ask you what the most historically significant wine region in California was, you probably wouldn’t think of little old Lodi. Lodi wine country has this “red-headed stepchild,” undesirable-neighborhood reputation. I get it. The Central Valley of California does not exactly conjure up images of a bucolic, vine-terraced countryside. Anyone who’s driven up Interstate 5 can tell you that the areas surrounding Fresno and Modesto don’t inspire dreams of a wine-soaked holiday—but Lodi is an underestimated and overlooked gem.
This region offers its visitors an unpretentious, rustic charm with a unique chance to taste history—an opportunity to see what vines look like that are 160 years old, and to step on soil that was resistant to an insect that destroyed vines everywhere else on Earth. These are vines that are gnarled with fragile, twisted trunks, and fruit that is healthy and vibrant.
Taking the time to learn about Lodi, how it was created, what challenges it faced and how the farmers and families learned to overcome them makes this place all the more endearing.
This is a region that was destined to be agricultural. Grapes that were planted there in the 1800s were all but forgotten about, yet the area would become one of the most historically significant and culturally important wine regions, not only in all of California—but in all of the United States, and even the world.
In a little area called Mokelumne, a Miwok word loosely translated to mean “people of the river,” lies the Bechthold Vineyard. Planted in 1886, these 25 acres of gnarled, head-trained vines make up the oldest, continuously farmed vineyard in Lodi. These vines produce Cinsault grapes, and this little vineyard, planted 134 years ago, ungrafted on its original rootstock, is not only still producing fruit—but the vines are healthy and thriving. What’s more, this might be the oldest Cinsault vineyard in the world.
Let that sink in. Cinsault is a French varietal that has been grown in the southern Rhone for centuries, but the oldest producing vineyard might be right here in Lodi. Whoa.
Lodi can boast that it has more than 120 varietals planted in its sandy soils—grapes like Aglianico, Tanat, Nebbiolo, Vermentino and Picpoul—on vines planted by intrepid immigrants nearly two centuries ago. Germans and Italians who ventured into the Wild West in the hopes of discovering gold soon realized their future would rely on their skills as farmers and viticulturists. But of all the grapes planted and cared for in this vast expanse of farmland, one reigns supreme: zinfandel.
Lodi zinfandel is unapologetically hedonistic. Rich, concentrated and high in alcohol, these wines tend to have polarizing opinions surrounding them. Many sommeliers scoff at the over-the-top flavor profiles, while lovers of the bold California style can’t get enough. One thing is for certain: Whether you love or hate these Zinfandels, they are a fascinating piece of our wine history.
Zinfandel has been proven through DNA testing to be a Croatian grape called Crljenak Kastelanski. Now how in the world did a Croatian grape that no one has ever heard of make its way to California in the 1800s?! No one knows for sure, but the speculation is that it traveled from Croatia to Austria, where it was called Zierfandler. Once it arrived in Boston, like so many European names that were misspelled and mispronounced, Zierfandler became Zinfandel.
This little grape flourished in the Central Valley, and even during Prohibition, it was the grape of choice for the home winemakers. Fun fact: There was a loophole in the Volstead Act where families could produce 200 gallons per year of fruit juice. Soon, wineries in Lodi and the surrounding areas were selling bricks of concentrated Zinfandel with a warning on the top: “Caution! The addition of sugar and a gallon of water, left in a cool cupboard for 21 days, will result in alcohol.” But you didn’t hear that from me.
Fast-forward 100 years, it’s amazing that these old-vine Zinfandels still exist. While some wineries survived Prohibition, many did not. The threat of phylloxera was avoided due to the sandy soils in which the insect cannot proliferate. They also survived World Wars, the Great Depression and a bulk-wine industry that left many thinking of Lodi as nothing more than a place that makes cheap swill.
Old-vine Zinfandels were on the verge of being ripped out in favor of orchards or other cash crops when something miraculous happened: white Zin. That’s right … that sweet, pink, cheap wine saved the future of Zinfandel. When Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home tried to make a white version of Zinfandel, the fermentation got “stuck.” The result was a wine where there was still sugar present, and the skins had imparted a pale-pink hue to the juice. He made the decision to bottle and sell it anyway—and if you were born any time before 1980, you know that everyone, and I mean everyone, was drinking the stuff. Just like that, Zinfandel was in demand again. It wasn’t long before world-class Zinfandels were being made from these once-forgotten about vineyards.
Now, winemakers are experimenting with lighter, fresher styles that are lower in alcohol and downright refreshing. But the dark, brooding Zins with a silky texture and a powerful profile are still the style du jour.
So this month, I encourage you to take some time to do your own exploring of a region and a grape that defines what this country is all about—perseverance, dedication and a sense of adventure. Something surviving against all odds and coming out better for it.
The next time wine country calls, and you hit the open road, maybe you’ll stay on the 5.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with two decades in the wine industry. She can be reached at email@example.com.