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Lodi Harvest: Early, Big and Good

Wine grape growers in California's northern San Joaquin Valley impressed

by Paul Franson
harney lane winery
Harvest started several weeks early this year at Harney Lane Winery, where the first pick was Aug. 17.
Lodi, Calif.—Harvest in Lodi, as in most of California, is early this year. “We’re a couple weeks early on everything,” said Tom Hoffman of Acampo, Calif.-based Heritage Oak Winery in the Lodi-Woodbridge AVA.

Hoffman grows 180 acres of grapes on property his family has farmed for nearly 150 years. In the 1860s, his great-great-grandfather James Christian, born 1827, homesteaded a 400-acre farm along the Mokelumne River near Lockeford. Hoffman sells most of his grapes but keeps 40 tons for his own brand.

Wine grape harvest
Hoffman started harvesting Sauvignon Blanc two weeks ago, Chardonnay about 10 days ago and is now finished with the whites. He uses them, plus some Chenin Blanc he buys in Clarksburg, for his own wines.

He’s now picking early reds—Grenache and Sangiovese—but said that the sugars stalled a bit during the heat on the “stout” red varieties.

Hoffman said he’s especially impressed with the Zinfandel, Lodi’s signature grape. “The weather has been cool, and we’ve done some dry farming.” He’s also dropped crop on the blocks of Zinfandel he makes himself, and reports that sugar content on these vines is 3 points higher than what he delivers to Gallo and Bear Creek, which blocks are irrigated and not thinned.

He’s shooting for 26º Brix on the Cabernet Sauvignon by the end of October.

Chandler today
Mark Chandler is well known as the former head of the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission and now as executive director of WineAmerica, but his family also grows grapes. Chandler partners with his wife Jan and his brother-in-law David Burlington on the vineyard company Mokelumne River Partners.

Their original vineyard was 40 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 1997 on Highway 88 east of Lodi between Lockeford and Clements. The parcel was planted on a contract for Mondavi Woodbridge, but that contract expired and they now sell some of the fruit to Herzog for its Kosher wine program and the rest to Delicato Family Vineyards.

In 2004 the partners bought the Ja-Hut Ranch, 140 acres at the intersection of Peltier and Des Moines Roads north of Lodi. This historic property was developed in the 1800s by the Jahant and Hutchins families, both locally famed (Jahant is now an AVA; Hutchins Street Square is in Lodi).

“As with many local vineyards, it was originally Tokays, then in the 1980s they replaced them with Zinfandel, Cabernet and Chardonnay,” Chandler said. “We have replaced 30 acres of Zin with Malbec and will soon be replanting the Cabernet due to Eutypa damage.”

Chandler said that the Chardonnay and the rest of the Zinfandel are plugging along just fine. “We sell most of that ranch’s grapes to Delicato, and the Zin goes to Michael David for 7 Deadly Zins.”

He added, “We make a few barrels of wine per year just for fun, but (we) have no plans to launch a brand.”

Chandler said that the crop in Lodi is large—in his case, larger than last year. “The whites are all in: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Grigio, etc. Now we are starting on white Zin and Pinot Noir. We’ll pick Merlot and Malbec in about two weeks, then Zin.”

He noted that the Zin crop is very large, so growers are thinning heavily. “Wineries are only accepting exact contract tons, no overage,” he said. He added that the Cabernet crop looks fairly large also and is holding nicely with the moderate temperatures.

Fifth-generation farmer
Kyle Lerner’s family has also long farmed in Lodi, settling in 1907. He’s in the fifth generation. The family originally sold their crop, but in 2006 they vertically integrated with the Harney Lane Winery brand. Lerner farms 600 acres, using eight varieties in his own wines but selling most of the grapes.

Lerner has harvested all his whites, and they came in very early. He started Aug. 17; last year, another good year, he didn’t begin until Sept. 15. “The quality looks good,” he said.

He started harvesting Zin last week, and its quality looks good, too. The reds also were early, but not as early as the whites.

“Yields are solid considering the crop size last year,” he noted. “It’s rivaling 2012 in size and quality.” Unlike some wineries, Harney Lane has adequate tank space even for a second large crop in a row.

Lerner expects to be done by the middle of October; he typically harvests until the end of October or even into November.

Felten Lodi vineyard
Farrah Felten (left) works with her father Steve at the family's Klinker Brick Winery.
Old vines
Steve and Lori Felten, fifth-generation grapegrowers in the Lodi region, continue the tradition of cultivating old-vine Zinfandel vineyards that their ancestors planted in the early 1900s. Some of the vines date back 120 years, to the late 1800s.

The Feltens have 600 acres and were strictly growers until 1995, when some contracts expired and they started making wine and selling it to wineries. In 2000 they started Klinker Brick Winery. Their daughter Farrah (the sixth generation) also works at the winery.

Even wi th all that land, they don’t have enough fruit (yields are very low on some of the old vines) and have to buy to meet their demand. “We only get 1 ton per acre on some of those old vines, but we get 2, even 4 tons per acre on others.”

Felten grows Chardonnay and sells it, but he has planted Albariño and expects to offer that wine in 2015.

Felten began picking Chardonnay 2.5 weeks ago and has picked some Merlot but no Zinfandel yet. He does some custom harvesting for white Zinfandel, which is usually early, but he said it’s a bit slow this year.

“We had a heat spell that pushed the sugars up to 25º (Brix), but the grapes weren’t ripe. So we gave them a little water and that dropped the Brix 2º. That will give them time to catch up.”

“It’s a really good vintage,” Felten claimed. “It was two weeks early, but we’ll be able to let them hang to ripen.”

He expects to be finished in mid-October. “It doesn’t seem to matter when we start. We always end in mid October.

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