Old vine plantings going into Lodi's best known vineyard-designate wines

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

Why older is better in Lodi

What are the Lodi AVA's old vine plantings identified as vineyard-designate wines on highly regarded Lodi-grown bottlings, and why do they matter?

They matter because of the precedent set in European wine countries a long, long time ago: the simple fact that the finest wine regions have always been associated with vineyards known to produce great wines.

In Lodi, the top vineyard-designate wines are primarily associated with “old vine” plantings—a distinction organizations such as the Historic Vineyard Society identify as "historic vineyards" dominated by plants that are at least 50 years old.

Old vines, in fact, are almost a peculiarity of Lodi—there are more plantings over 50 years old in this AVA than in any other region in the U.S. The reason for this is that Lodi’s most distinctive wines have long been produced from grape varieties conducive to the region’s particular variation of Mediterranean climate. These particular grapes—especially Zinfandel and Carignan—also happen to be varieties known to benefit from vine age. The older the better!

In most of the wine world, however, vine age is neither here nor there when it comes to vineyard quality or prestige. Napa Valley, for instance, is one, big favorable site, replete with great vineyards. However, the average age of vineyards in Napa Valley—now dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, and smaller but significant amounts of Sauvignon blanc—is well less than 20 years. That's because these vineyards are all on trellises, and trellised vines are routinely pulled out and replaced every 25 to 35 years. Why? Because trellised vines do not produce better wine as they get old, but their productivity goes down. There's simply no reason to keep them in the ground to eventually attain "old vine" status.

Not so in a place like Lodi, where many of the best vineyards are associated with Zinfandel, Carignan or Cinsaut planted before the 1970s. These vines are planted in the old way: as free-standing vines, held up by a single stake, with no trellis wires.

Tegan Passalacqua, the winemaker of Turley Wine Cellars, which produces over 30 vineyard-designate Zinfandels from 12 counties in California each year, has pointed out that in regions like Lodi, the oldest plantings that have survived the ups and downs of the past 100 or more years happen to be free-standing, spur pruned vines located on the most ideal sites. They have endured because they've remained healthy and productive.

But there's more to it. Turley Wine Cellars, as it were, sources Zinfandel from vineyards of all ages—newly planted vines, vines 25 to 50 years old, 50- to 100-year years old vines, and a good number of vineyards first planted over 100 years ago. According to Passalacqua, in our interviews over the years:

We pick our vineyards separately and keep the wines separate. Even in older vineyards that have large percentages of young, replanted vines, we will pick the young vines separately. So we produce wines made from the old vines and wines from the younger vines. There are always differences, but one thing we always find, the best wines come from the oldest vines. We know this, and we can show you the chemistry to back it up.

East- vs. west-side Lodi plantings

Lodi growers and vintners have long known that there are differences in grape morphology and, ultimately, sensory qualities between old vine wines grown on the east side and old vine wines grown on the west side of the old Central Pacific Railroad tracks (now operated by Union Pacific Railroad) that run north-south, straight through Downtown Lodi, bisecting Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA. The distinctions are primarily soil-related, in this way:

  • The sandy loam soil on the west side of the Mokelumne River AVA is generally richer in loamy, organic content.

  • There is more sand content in east side soils, which increases drainage because of lower moisture-retaining capacity.

  • There is also a deeper consistency of sandy loam on the east side, together with lower water tables.

The most direct impact of lower water tables and sandier soil on the east side is on average cluster weight and berry size of grapes. Smaller berries and clusters mean higher skin-to-juice ratios as well as earlier ripening, and both factors can result in lower pH, higher total acidity, and increased phenolic content. Phenolic content derived from grape phenols and polyphenols affects color and tannin as well as aromatic compounds of resulting wines.

In plainer English, this means Zinfandels grown on Lodi's east side are generally zestier, more fragrant, and red fruit-scented than Zinfandels grown on the west side. Zinfandel grown on the west side are generally fuller, broader and rounder in feel, and replete with both red and dark fruit fragrances, as well as being earthier—with aromas tinged with loamy, occasionally mushroomy qualities—than east side Zinfandels.

It is not, however, a matter of one side's Zinfandel being "better" than the other. They're just different—something that a Lodi wine lover can judge for himself or herself by exploring the region's vineyard-designate bottlings.

Hence, our listing of Lodi's best known old vine plantings, which we divide in this way:

  1. West-side Mokelumne River AVA vineyards

  2. East-side Mokelumne River AVA vineyards

  3. East-side Clements Hills AVA vineyards

West-side Mokelumne River AVA growths

Bechthold Vineyard Cinsaut

Marian’s Vineyard Zinfandel

  • This revered 8.3-acre block of own-rooted, head-trained Zinfandel was originally planted by the Mettler family in 1901 south of the City of Lodi along West Lane, north of Armstrong Road. It is now part of Mohr-Fry Ranches, owned and farmed by the Fry family.

  • Stuart Spencer—owner/winemaker of St. Amant Winery, which has taken nearly the entire vineyard since 1999—has described these as Lodi's “mother of all vines,” an opinion with which few Lodi vintners would beg to differ.

  • The combination of meticulous, LODI RULES-driven viticulture, exceptionally sandy soil with limestone lenses, or streaks, and a unique clonal selection has resulted in enduring vine health and strikingly different vine and cluster morphology, compared to adjoining Mohr-Fry Ranches Zinfandel blocks planted between 1941 and 1945. These vines still yield 2.5 to 4 tons per acre and produce a distinctively bold, concentrated style of Zinfandel somewhere between the floral, delineated styles of Lodi’s east side and the lush, round, earthier styles of Lodi’s west side.

  • Vineyard-designate Marian’s Vineyard Zinfandels have been bottled under St. Amant since 1999 as well as Lodi Native labels.

Soucie Vineyard Zinfandel

  • This 100% own-rooted, head-trained Zinfandel—its oldest block dating back to 1916—has been owned, planted, and farmed by the Soucie family for three generations. Kevin Soucie is the current custodian.

  • Located on the far western edge of the Mokelumne River AVA, closest to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, this block is known for its extremely fine, talcum powder-like variant of the Tokay series sandy loam soil, sometimes identified as Acampo series sandy loam.

  • The growth and success of Lodi’s m2 Wines have been intertwined with Soucie Vineyard since the winery’s founding in 2002, although most of the Soucie Vineyard Zinfandel goes to Michael David Winery.

  • In years past, Soucie Vineyard played a major part in Michael David’s top-of-the-line Lust Zinfandel and was one of the original seven properties going into the first 7 Deadly Zins bottlings.

  • Soucie Vineyard has always produced one of Lodi’s most aromatic, fleshy, full-bodied yet well-balanced Zinfandels—think of the line by Bob Dylan about a “mattress balanced on a bottle of wine.” Its wines are pungent with red and black berried qualities tinged with unmistakably loamy/earthy, organic qualities.

  • Vineyard-designate Soucie Vineyard Zinfandels are bottled by m2 Wines as Soucie Vineyard and Select Block (the latter, a reserve cuvée culled from specific rows receiving more leaf pulling and fruit dropping), as well as under m2's Lodi Native label. There is also a vineyard-designate Soucie Vineyard Zinfandel produced by PRIE Winery.

Wegat Vineyard Zinfandel

  • This is the 21-acre “crown jewel” of the 330 acres farmed by the Maley family, close cousins of Michael David Winery’s Phillips family, and all descendants of Andrew Harshner, who began homesteading on Lodi’s west side in 1869. The Maleys were one of the seven growers comprising Lodi’s original 7 Deadly Zins.

  • Wegat Vineyard is farmed by Todd Maley, the son of Joseph Maley who first established the Maley Bros. wine brand with his late brother Louis Maley.

  • It consists primarily of spur pruned, layered vertical cordon trained vines planted in 1958 on St. George rootstock.

  • Plant material was originally taken from an Acampo vineyard, a selection now prized by wineries such as m2 Wines, Oak Farm Vineyards and Macchia Wines for its consistently loose, fairly uniform, small-berried clusters.

  • Wegat yields what is considered to be quintessential west-side Zinfandel, distinguished by flowery, red-towards-blue berried fruit qualities underlined by signature loamy/earthy undertones, and rounded, plush texturing.

  • Wegat Vineyard Zinfandel is now bottled each year under Maley Bros.’s iteration of Lodi Native Zinfandel.

ZinStar Vineyard Zinfandel

  • Zinstar was notably Lodi’s first single-vineyard estate bottling, starting with the 1978 vintage and bottled every year since by The Lucas Winery.

  • The 3.5-acre block consists of spur pruned, double-layered vertical cordon trained Zinfandel planted on its own roots in 1933. It is located in the heart of the Mokelumne River AVA’s west side, just east of the historic Spenker Ranch/Jessie’s Grove property, and north of West Turner Road.

  • It is certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).

  • This vineyard produces a medium-bodied style of Zinfandel of moderate alcohol, zesty natural acidity, and distinctively earth-toned, lush fruit qualities, which results as much from a stylistic choice originated by owner David Lucas and continued by his spouse, winemaker/vineyard manager Heather Pyle Lucas, as from intrinsic terroir.

TruLux Vineyard (Pescador Vineyard) Zinfandel

  • Another one of Lodi’s most distinctive west-side vineyards, TruLux's 30 acres of Zinfandel on St. George rootstock are located less than a quarter-mile south of West Kettleman Lane, behind Van Ruiten Family Winery. Half the vines were planted during the 1940s, with an inter-planting of younger vines put in during the 1970s.

  • The vineyard is owned and farmed by Keith Watts and has also been known as Pescador, the name of the Watts family’s late Filipino vineyard manager who originally planted and managed the vineyard.

  • The vineyard is distinguished by unusually tall—even by Lodi standards, topping 6-foot—vertical cordon trained vines with a "cake” layering of spurs. It produces atypically small, loose, elongated clusters prized by wineries such as McCay Cellars (bottled as TruLux Vineyard), Watts Winery (bottled as Pescador Vineyard), and Michael David Winery.

  • TruLux and Pescador vineyard-designate Zinfandels are distinguished by meaty, dark fruit qualities with smidgens of perceptible earthy/loam (but never herby or barnyardy) note almost reminiscent of Southern French garrigue, couched in a balanced, medium-full body.

Royal Tee Vineyard Zinfandel

  • The 5-acre Royal Tee Vineyard is Lodi’s oldest planting of Zinfandel. Planted on its own roots in 1889 by Joseph Spenker, it is still owned and farmed by one of Spenker's descendants, Greg Burns, who founded Jessie’s Grove Winery in the late 1990s.

  • Royal Tee Vineyard also represents Lodi’s oldest surviving example of the classic, California style “field mix” of approximately 84% Zinfandel, with a balance of Carignan, Mission, Flame Tokay, and Black Prince (Rose of Peru). All vines are head-trained and spur pruned.

  • Up until 2017, Jessie’s Grove produced Royal Tee Zinfandel exclusively from Zinfandel vines isolated in the vineyard, with the Royal Tee Carignan and Flame Tokay grapes going into Jessie’s Grove Ancient Vine Carignane and Ancient Vine Tokay.

  • In 2015 Alquimista Cellars, led by acclaimed winemaker/partner Greg La Follette, began harvesting and producing traditional “field crush” mixes of all five grapes, yielding exceptionally silken, zesty styles of Zinfandel with spiced floral notes almost suggesting white wine perfumes. In subsequent vintages, Jessie's Grove also began producing field-mix style Zinfandels from Royal Tee.

Jessie’s Grove Block 4 Carignan, estate Zinfandel, and Flame Tokay

  • An 8-acre block, called Block 4, of own-rooted Carignan originally planted along DeVries Road by Joseph Spenker in 1900, sitting on the western edge of the 320-acre (265 acres planted) Jessie’s Grove property.

  • This Carignan planting, which has also been called the 1900 Block, yields the majority of fruit going into Jessie’s Grove’s perennially award-winning Ancient Vine Carignane, as well as bottlings by Holman Cellars, Leaf and Vine, Markus Wine Co.'s Domo and Zeitlos blends, Precedent Wine, Sandlands and Alquimista.

  • At the center of the Jessie’s Grove estate is a second notable block of own-rooted, spur pruned Zinfandel planted in 1941 called Westwind Vineyard. It is bottled by Jessie's Grove as a vineyard-designate wine, producing a classic, full-bodied, dusty/earthy nuanced style of west-side Lodi Zinfandel. Most of Westwind's Zinfandel goes into Bogle Vineyards reds.

  • Behind the old Spenker home is a small stand (less than half an acre) of Flame Tokay planted on their own roots in 1889, which goes into Jessie’s Grove’s White Port-style Ancient Vine Tokay.

Bonnotto Vineyard Zinfandel

  • This own-rooted vineyard was planted in the 1930s by Ernie Spenker, a cousin of Joseph Spenker, and has been owned and farmed by the Bonnotto family since the 1950s.

  • Typical of the Zinfandel blocks planted by this branch of the Spenker family along DeVries Road and south of West Turner Road, these spur pruned vines are trained low to the ground (2- to 3-foot height) in a traditional goblet style.

  • Since 2014, a Bonnotto Vineyard Zinfandel has been produced by McCay Cellars. The wine exhibits a somewhat meaty yet rounded, medium-full body with black and red fruit qualities, with a tinge of the dusty/loamy/earthy notes typical of Zinfandels grown on Lodi’s west side.

Bishofberger Vineyard Carignan

  • This 12-acre block of own-rooted, vertical cordon Carignan was planted in 1936 just south of West Turner Road between DeVries and North Ray roads.

  • It is owned and farmed by Bob Bishofberger, a close cousin to the Phillips family of Michael David Winery.

  • Bishofberger Vineyard Carignan is occasionally bottled on its own by Michael David Winery, with the vineyard usually identified on the back label.

  • This Carignan is typically between medium- to full-bodied (about 13.5% alcohol), retaining zesty natural acidity, moderate tannin, and a classic red cherry varietal aroma with leafy/herby nuances.

Mohr-Fry Ranches Zinfandel

  • In addition to their venerated Marian’s Vineyard, the Fry family owns and farms another 8 blocks of own-rooted Zinfandel planted over several years during the early 1940s. All are registered with the Historic Vineyard Society.

  • The Fry family home ranch is located south of the City of Lodi, north of Armstrong Road, across West Lane from the Deshmesh Darbar Sikh Temple.

  • Mohr-Fry is dominated by slightly sandier variations of the Tokay series sandy loam defining the Mokelumne River AVA, with unusual (for Lodi) limestone layers in the subsoil.

  • Mohr-Fry Ranches’s Zinfandels are produced by St. Amant Winery, Oak Farm Vineyards, and several other wineries. They typically exhibit very “west-side” characteristics, with rounded, full-bodied, red and black fruit qualities, and tinges of dusty/loamy notes.

  • Besides being the leading exponents of LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing, Jerry Fry and vineyard manager/son Bruce Fry were honored by the California Association of Wine Grape Growers as their 2016 "Grower of the Year."

Mule Plane Vineyard Carignan

  • This 5-acre block of own-rooted Carignan, located on Davis Road less than a quarter-mile south of Peltier Road, was planted between 1927 and 1930 by the Shinn family. It is still owned by the same family and today is farmed by Shinn Ranch's sixth-generation managing partner John Shinn.

  • The vineyard is called Mule Plane because it was originally leveled by mule and plow.

  • These large spur pruned, vertical cordon trained vines—most reaching 6 feet—are historically high yielding, and still average more than 7 tons/acre.

  • The grapes go into vineyard-designate Carignans produced by a number of small specialty wineries (m2 Wines, Precedent Wines, Holman Cellars, Leaf and Vine Winery, Bokisch's Tizona label, and BIRICHINO Winery).

  • The vineyard is certified by LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing and registered with the Historic Vineyard Society.

Manassero Vineyard Zinfandel and Grenache

  • 30-acre block of head-trained Zinfandel and Grenache (the latter, just 1 acre) owned and farmed by M.B. Manassero & Sons, located on Armstrong Road east of North Lower Sacramento Road, south of the City of Lodi.

  • The original vines, all own-rooted, were planted in 1938-1939 by Joseph Manassero, who immigrated from Northern Italy in the early 1900s. Current vineyard manager Greg Manassero is a fourth-generation Lodi grower. Greg's father Leonard Manassero is a first cousin of the late Steve Borra, whose Borra Vineyards home vineyard is located just west of Manassero Vineyard.

  • The west and west-north quadrants of the vineyard consist of Zinfandel planted in 1962 (own-rooted) and 1990 (grafted) respectively, and there is an east-north quadrant of Primitivo planted after 2010.

  • Most of the Zinfandel goes to Bogle Vineyards and Michael David Winery. The old vine Grenache goes entirely to McCay Cellars.

  • Manassero M.B. & Sons also own and farms a separate 30-acre block of own-rooted 1961 Carignan and Zinfandel at Armstrong Road and North Ham Lane, and another 20 acres of own-rooted 1960 Carignan on Harney Lane at South Mills Avenue. All Manassero properties are cer