MONDAY, JANUARY 8, 2024. BY RANDY CAPAROSO.
Featured Image: Drone-captured message sent to Airborne Visible/InfraRed Imaging Spectrometer, written among grapevines by Lodi growers who collaborated on pathogen-spotting research conducted in collaboration with NASA’s Applied Science Program. Aaron Lange (LangeTwins Family Winery) and Stephanie Bolton (Lodi Winegrape Commission).
Making things happen in the vineyard
The future of Lodi winegrowing lies in the recent past, which has been defined by two things:
It is a well-known fact that Lodi growers have essentially “written the book” on sustainable viticulture with LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing, a third-party certified program introduced to the industry in 2005, which has become the blueprint for sustainable programs throughout the U.S. and around the world.
But perhaps the least understood, yet probably most significant, step taken by Lodi’s growers in recent years has been the establishment, in 2006, of the seven official sub-appellations nested within the Lodi AVA. They include the historic Mokelumne River AVA.
Lodi’s Clements Hills appellation, is marked by shallow, reddish volcanic soil—conducive to the indigenous blue oaks in this photo—and the same mild Mediterranean climate typifying the entire Lodi Viticultural Area.
Why bother to add Cosumnes River, Jahant, Alta Mesa, Sloughhouse, Borden Ranch, and Clements Hills AVAs as well? Simple reason: Because all of the highest quality wines in the world are associated with vineyard sources. They are made from grapes.
Wine, that is to say, is an agricultural product. That means that as important as wineries and winemakers may be, the world’s most distinctive wines are grown in soil and shaped and formed by the elements. The best wines in the world are not cooked up in laboratories or concocted by marketing geniuses. They are associated with identifiable places that directly impact and define the sensory qualities of wines.
Most consumers and even professionals in the wine trade may not fully understand Lodi’s seven nested AVAs. But it matters a great deal to the growers and winemakers who are doing the work. It is the intellectual quality of that work that makes a difference in actual wines, which can transform a region’s reputation. In the case of Lodi, establishing the significance of that appellation as a place of origin on a label.
Lodi’s director of sustainability envisions the near-future
The future of Lodi is being made in the vineyard.
Aaron Lange giving a practicum on beneficial fauna hedgerow planting with his son Declan.
In fact, what makes Lodi different from other American wine regions is that it is more of a vineyard region, not a winery region. There are wineries in Lodi, but the primary business of the appellation is to grow and sell grapes to wineries, many of the latter based outside the region itself.
Thus, while other American wine regions may be better known for their wines and wine brands, Lodi has long been known for the talent and innovation of its grape growers.
Since 2016, no one has worked as closely with Lodi grape growers as Stephanie Bolton, a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. I asked Dr. Bolton about what she sees in the future of Lodi winegrowing based on her ongoing work in the field with the growers themselves.
August 2023 photo of Stephanie Bolton—Lodi Winegrape Commission’s Director of Grower Research & Education—taken by Wine Enthusiast Magazine who named Dr. Bolton one of their “Future 40” for her achievements in sustainable winegrowing and viticulture science. Wine Enthusiast.
According to Dr. Bolton…
Moving into Lodi’s viticultural future, I see:
- A need to consider increased farm biodiversity, to create healthier and more robust ecosystems, and also to reduce the financial risk of the grower.
- A need to find a way to have better, more balanced grower-wine grape buyer relationships that can withstand market swings and extreme weather events.
- Equipment innovations that reduce reliance on unstable and expensive labor costs (as simple as tie guns and as sophisticated as a driverless electric sprayer).
- Increased multi-tasking of equipment passes through the vineyard rows (to reduce fuel consumption, reduce operating costs, and reduce the potential for soil compaction).
- Robots in vineyards of all sizes and ages (not just new, modern vineyards but also older vineyards during hand picking).
Initial research on canine detection of vine mealybugs and leafroll virus in commercial vineyards was initiated this past spring of 2023 by Lodi Winegrape Commission’s Stephanie Bolton in collaboration with the University of California. Stephanie Bolton.
- Creative educational agritourism opportunities to connect people with agriculture in a positive way that brings in secondary income for the farming family.
- Dialed-in custom “Goldilocks” deficit irrigation schemes to make the best use of our available water while improving wine grape quality in a competitive market.
- Our region learning together about what vine health really means on a physiological level—boosting the health of the vine versus traditional integrated pest management (we are planning a fun educational series for 2024 called “Journey Into Vine Health” which will include not only what is happening above ground, but also what is happening underground with the root system, and our Lodi Grapevine Rootstock Research Focus Group is reading the book Entangled Life right now).
- Grapevines bred for drought tolerance, salt tolerance, and pest/disease resilience.
- Inter-generational innovations, where we connect students/youth with experienced farmers and scientists to solve our big challenges together in creative ways.
One reason (out of many) why I adore the Lodi winegrowing community is because the growers are always trying something new. There is no doubt in my mind that every single grower here has some sort of trial or experiment going on in their vineyard. We are extremely lucky to have a culture of lifelong learning here, and what is even cooler is that we share what we learn with each other.
There is a lot more that I have on my future Lodi grower innovation wish list. The number one thing I hope for our farming families is for them to feel confident and successful. They deserve to know how amazing they are and what a unique and special winegrowing community they have created here.
Woodbridge Irrigation Canal is fed by water carried down to the Lodi Viticultural Area from the Sierra Nevada by the Mokelumne River.
Just as their pioneering ancestors did, today’s Lodi growers and vintners are not leaving things to chance. If, for many consumers, trade, or media, “Lodi” still does not quite equate to the highest quality wine, Lodi vintners are forcing the issue by growing and producing for highest quality—or at the very least, wines that are innovative, of compelling value or unique to Lodi—while drawing more attention to the natural conditions that allow this to happen.
There are many other regions in the U.S. and elsewhere that are making significant advances. The world’s finest wines will always be defined by how true they are to their origins, and many, many regions are capable of fulfilling that.
Ultimately, the best Lodi wines will always be grown in Lodi, just as the best Napa Valley wines hail from Napa Valley, and the best French wines come from France. The important thing is that Lodi’s growers are carving out a distinctive identity of their own, one that is to be respected, once clarified and expanded upon.
If anything, Lodi has been making these things happen—not waiting for them to come around by themselves. In that sense, Lodi’s future is bound to be a true self-fulfilling history.
Contrasting grapevine training: Head trained/spur pruned viticulture (left) practiced for over 100 years vs. contemporary single high wire trellising (right) more conducive to machine pruning and harvesting.
Read the rest of the series below:
Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist who lives in Lodi, California. Randy puts bread (and wine) on the table as the Editor-at-Large and Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal, and currently blogs and does social media for Lodi Winegrape Commission’s lodiwine.com. He also contributes editorials to The Tasting Panel magazine, crafts authentic wine country experiences for sommeliers and media, and is the author of the new book “Lodi! A definitive Guide and History of America’s Largest Winegrowing Region.”
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