Michael David Winery and the Emergence of Lodi
Until recently, and even now, many enophiles think of Lodi, if at all, as the place where Sutter Home made its White Zinfandel and Robert Mondavi started its Woodbridge line, both of which were commercially successful, but neither causing much more than a yawn.
The fact that Lodi is in the San Joaquin Valley also creates the impression that there are hot days, warm nights, and that top varietals produce less than average wines. The fact is that being situated east of San Francisco at the northern tip of the valley, and more importantly being directly west of the Carquinez Straits — a gap in the coastal mountain range — Lodi is the beneficiary of cool Pacific winds that blow through the gap and over the bay. Temperatures at night go down into the high 50s even in the summer — at least in a 10-mile or so corridor north to south — making western Lodi a very special place for grape growing. In fact, the weather in this area has been compared favorably to Calistoga in Napa Valley and Paso Robles in the Central Coast.
There are some 800 families farming grapes in Lodi — mostly fourth and fifth generation. The most positive offshoot of the Sutter Home and Woodbridge massive grape-buying sprees in Lodi is that numerous old-vine vineyards — mostly Zinfandel — were not ripped out. So today, there are large quantities of old-vine Zins (read, low yield, high quality) there producing excellent wines.
The Phillips family has been farming in Lodi for six generations. In fact, current vineyard manager Kevin Phillips’ great, great, great grandfather homesteaded 160 acres, which the family still owns on Woodbridge Road. Originally, watermelon and wheat were the staples, and at one time Tokay grapes abounded (big berry table grapes now almost extinct). Around 1900, Zinfandel, Carignan, Grenache and Cinsault were planted. There is one still-operating Cinsault vineyard that was planted in the 1880s.
Phillips Farms Winery started in 1984. The name was changed to Michael David Winery shortly thereafter because of the conflict with R.H. Phillip Winery. Until 1994, the 2,000 or so cases a year were sold at their store (mainly groceries and a restaurant about 4 miles west of downtown Lodi). Prices for grapes tanked in 1994-95, so brothers Michael and David Phillips decided to get serious about making wine from all of their grapes — more than 700 acres of vineyards — and hired the best consultants, increased technology, etc., and by 2000, annual production increased significantly in quality and quantity (12,000 cases). About that time, 7 Deadly Zins and Incognito came into production, and in a dream scenario, production has almost doubled every year, and is now at 300,000 cases annually, 200,000 being 7 Deadly Zins.
The goal for the Phillips is to continue to grow as the market expands as long as there is no drop in quality. In fact, another goal is to keep increasing the quality.
The Phillips brothers are very pleased with the whole scene in Lodi. They see many local grape farmers starting wineries, and they do everything they can to help them avoid the mistakes they made. “A rising tide lifts all boats” seems to be one of their mottos. It doesn’t hurt that most of these farmers are people they grew up with and know well. In addition to their vast holdings, the Phillips work with 65 growers, the smallest vineyard being around 2 acres. Each year, they ferment each grower’s grapes separately, and at the appropriate time, let each grower taste the other growers’ wines and even vote on which is the best. Since many of the growers have more grapes to sell, each is given six bottles of his/her own wine for use in marketing their own grapes!
The Phillips are also proud to tout the tourism aspects of Lodi, as it is the perfect central site for a multi-faceted vacation. It’s an hour from Napa, two hours from both Lake Tahoe and Yosemite, and very close to Amador County, Livermore Valley (Wente and Concannon) and the Sierra Foothills wineries — not to mention only an hour from San Francisco.
It’s incredible for one winery to explode on the scene with so many winners in such a short time. At Michael David, great wines don’t come from luck, they come from dedication and hard work, and are well-deserved. Here we go:
The first line of current vintages in the $14 to $16 range are 7 Heavenly Chardonnay 2009, 7 Deadly Zins 2007 and 6th Sense Syrah 2007. They are all great bargains with the Zin, a Robert Parker 90, being a gorgeous all-purpose red for burgers, meat pizzas, etc., and the 6th Sense Syrah winning a double gold, best of class at the 2010 California State Fair Competition. It was also named one of the top 10 Syrahs in the world in the 2010 Syrah du Monde.
The next step up at $18 are the Incognito White 2009 and Red, 2008, two of my favorite labels and wines. The White is a blend of 58 percent Viognier, 19 percent Chardonnay, 9 percent Malvasia Bianca, 7 percent Roussanne, 4 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 3 percent Symphony. The Red is 21 percent Syrah, 18 percent Carignan, 18 percent Cinsault, 13 percent Tannat, 11 percent Souzau, 10 percent Cabernet Franc, 6 percent Mourvedre and 3 percent Petite Sirah. So much for the idea that one must have a wine that expresses the terroir of a specific vineyard to be excellent. The White is packed with apricot and melon flavors and is unoaked. The Red exhibits ripe blackberries and spice and goes down as smooth as silk. Another great all-purpose red. It’s totally unfair, but it would be fun to serve the Red blind to a wine geek (like me) and ask him to name the grape.
Next come the Earthquake wines — all red. Current releases are the 2006 Syrah, 2006 Petite Sirah, 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2007 Zinfandel, priced at $28 each. The Zin won a gold, best of class at the 2010 California State Fair and the Petite Sirah got a 90 from Parker. The bottles and labels are stunning.
Next on the ever-upward ladder are 2007 Lust, 2007 Sloth and 2006 Rapture — each priced at $59. Lust is an amazing 16.9 percent alcohol, so don’t serve it to the crowd who doesn’t like wines with more than 14 percent alcohol. This wine is Lodi’s most decadent (read, huge, opulent, spicy and hedonistic), and the addition of some Petite Sirah to the Zinfandel base rounds it out gorgeously. Sloth is the high-end Zin from Mendocino County. Also containing some Petite Sirah, it is toned down to 15 percent alcohol, aged in French oak and exhibits spice along with mixed berries and chocolate covered cherries. And at 14.9 percent alcohol and bursting with ripe, dark cherries, blackberries, new leather and an intriguing persistence, is Rapture, a Cabernet Sauvignon with Petite Sirah and Merlot to perfect the blend. Rapture is aged in 100 percent new French oak and Lust in 100 percent new American oak.
The progression in the ultimate quality of Michael David Zins is explained by Kevin Phillips:
“With our own vineyards and our carefully-selected grower vineyards, we get about the top 10 percent of Lodi Zinfandel fruit. Ninety percent of that goes into 7 Deadly Zins. The top 10 percent of that 10 percent goes into Earthquake Zin and the top one-half of 1 percent of that 10 percent goes into Lust!”
By Denman Moody