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Lodi Winegrowers Go for Zinfandel

Barefoot's runaway sales, new grape clones highlight Lodi Grape Day

by Jon Tourney
lodi zinfandel
San Joaquin County extension viticulture advisor Paul Verdegaal and Barefoot winemaker Jennifer Wall focus on Lodi Zinfandel during presentations at Lodi Grape Day.
Lodi, Calif.—Zinfandel took center stage at the 60th annual Lodi Grape Day on Feb. 7. Lodi grapegrowers were encouraged by news of plans to increase production of E. & J. Gallo’s Barefoot Lodi-appellation Zinfandel, and they learned about a new heritage Zinfandel clonal trial planned in the Lodi American Viticultural Area (AVA).

Barefoot runs with Lodi
As the luncheon keynote speaker, Barefoot Wine & Bubbly winemaker Jennifer Wall gave an overview of the history of Barefoot wine, which has become one of the top-selling, most award-winning brands in the United States. Barefoot was listed as the No.1 wine brand in retail sales in November 2011, based on Symphony IRI data for off-premise sales at major food and drug stores. Barefoot is the most-awarded wine brand in U.S. competitions for wines priced under $15.

Based on her experience working with Lodi Zinfandel and consumer response, Wall indicated that Lodi grapes will be playing a larger role in the Barefoot portfolio. “One of my goals is to increase awareness and recognition of the Lodi region across the country,” Wall said.

Wall said Barefoot Lodi Zinfandel is the No. 1 selling varietal Zinfandel in the $6-$8 price range. She believes the Lodi designation has helped increase sales. “It’s been great for our Zinfandel program, and it’s been a benefit when we’re talking to wine buyers,” she said.

Citing the fact that Barefoot Lodi Zinfandel received 23 medals in wine competitions in 2011, Wall told the grower audience, “We’re making quality wines from your quality grapes coming out of Lodi.” She said Barefoot plans to sell 210,000 cases of Lodi Zinfandel worldwide in 2012—140,000 in the U.S., and 70,000 cases internationally.

Wall has played a major role in the history and growth of the Barefoot brand. She joined Barefoot Cellars Winery as winemaker in 1995, when the company was based in Sonoma County and owned by Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey. At the time, Barefoot was producing four varietal wines with sales of 140,000 cases. Wall gradually increased the number of varietal labels and introduced a line of Barefoot Bubbly sparkling wine 18 months prior to the millennium celebration.

When E. & J. Gallo Winery acquired the Barefoot brand in 2005, it had annual sales of 600,000 cases. Today, Barefoot produces 13 still wines, six sparkling wines, and in 2010 it sold about 10 million cases. In addition to winemaking, Wall has a significant public relations presence as a spokesperson for Barefoot, prominently featured on the winery website and social media.

The Gallo acquisition gave Wall access to a significant amount of Lodi- appellation Zinfandel under contract to Gallo from Lodi growers. When she realized 85% of Barefoot Zin was being sourced from Lodi, Wall lobbied management to label Barefoot Zinfandel as a Lodi appellation wine. Beginning with the 2009 vintage, it became—and remains—the only Barefoot wine labeled with an appellation more precise than “California.”

Wall also announced the company’s plans to convert Barefoot Bubbly Brut to a Lodi appellation label this year. She invited growers to call Gallo’s Lodi Grower Relations office to discuss new grape contracts.

Zin clonal trials planned
San Joaquin County University of California cooperative extension viticulture advisor Paul Verdegaal, who organized the Grape Day educational sessions, discussed plans to begin Zinfandel heritage clonal trials in Lodi. Citing statistics showing the importance of Zinfandel in the Lodi AVA; increasing demand for the variety, and interest in new planting, Verdegaal said a trial to evaluate new clones will provide growers more information for future planting decisions.

Zinfandel has been an important grape variety in the Lodi area since the late 1800s, and it is the dominant winegrape in acreage and production, with 19,600 acres planted and as many as 142,000 tons crushed in recent vintages. Lodi accounts for about 40% of Zinfandel production in California, although a significant portion is destined for White Zinfandel. Lodi has significant acreage of old-vine Zinfandel: More than 10,000 acres are older than 20 years, and Verdegaal estimated 5,000 acres are older than 30 years.

The clonal trials will focus on 18 current selections of heritage clones that have emerged from the Oakville Experimental Station’s Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard project funded by Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) and coordinated by UC Davis viticulture extension specialist Dr. Jim Wolpert. The Lodi trials will likely incorporate additional selections available from UC Davis’ Foundation Plant Services (FPS), including standards such as Zinfandel FPS 03 and Primitivo FPS 03.

Two Lodi sites have been selected for trials, both on Tokay fine sandy loam soils. A 1-acre site near Victor, owned by Bill Bechtold of Bechtold Vineyards, was prepared and planted in 2011 with St. George rootstock. It will be budded with clonal scion wood this year.

Vines will be head-trained and spur-pruned as are traditional old vine Zin, and this site will use traditional furrow irrigation. This site will be used initially only to evaluate viticultural data, with the possibility of winemaking trials later depending on time and resources.

The second site planned is a 2-3 acre block at Harney Lane Winery and Vineyard to be planted in cooperation with owner Kyle Lerner. Site prep work has begun and rootstock is expected to be planted in 2013. This site will use a more modern roostock—Kober 5BB, and be drip irrigated. Wi ne will be produced in barrel-size lots from this trial.

Although the Lodi study is not being funded by ZAP, it is expected to complement the ZAP project and will utilize some of the traditional old vine Zinfandel production protocols at the Victor site. As Verdegaal explains, “It will be nice to have a comparison with old style practices, but we also want to respond to more modern viticultural practices for Zinfandel used in the Lodi district.”

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