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Mokelumne Glen Vineyards: Once an experiment, now a Lodi landmark

Wine educator Julie Albin takes a trip to Mokelumne Glen Vineyards in Lodi and reveals why German-Austrian grape varieties have ended up in the Californian region, and why it’s no longer typecast as offering only high alcohol Zinfandel.

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards manager Brett Koth

It’s 9:34 on a sunny September morning in Lodi, California. Indian summer radiates over the landscape as a subtle breeze curbs the air’s warmth to a comfortable level. Mokelumne Glen Vineyards manager Brett Koth dips his arm into the bin filled with this morning’s pick. Joined by customers Markus Niggli and Jon Bjork of Markus Wine Co., together they inspect the quality of the fruit in agreement that 2018 looks to be a promising vintage. But their hands are not stained by the deep indigo skins of old vine Zinfandel. Instead, this bin is brimmed by a mosaic of pale green and blush shades from the Württemberg-born Kerner variety.

Typically associated with its cool climate origins, it’s fair to question how Kerner could find success in such a notably warm region. And, like always, terroir can be to thank. Rooted along the wormlike Mokelumne River, local winemakers refer to this bend as “The Peninsula” with its cooling influences and a diurnal range of 40 degrees fahrenheit. Tokay sandy loam soils span the terrain, consisting of finely crushed granite from the eastward Sierra Nevada mountain range. These porous soils feature a neutrality of both acidity and alkalinity with pH levels from 7.0 to 7.5, offering a nutrient balance suitable for plant growth that allows the fruit retain their natural acidity. Combined, these factors contribute to the hospitable conditions that make it possible for cool climate varieties to thrive in what would otherwise be considered too warm of a region.

While this certified sustainable vineyard is responsible for over 50% of Kerner plantings in the US, the obscurities don’t end there. Throughout the 15-acre vineyard is a wide collection of indigenous German and Austrian varieties such as Riesling (clone 90), Grüner Veltliner, Bacchus, Gewürztraminer, Dornfelder, Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, and the lesser known Regent. And that’s only what’s commercially sold.

A one-acre trial block of the vineyard is planted with another 50 some odd varieties. This experimental site includes eight different clones of Riesling, Affentaler, Rotgipfler, Räuschling, Ortega, Phoenix, Cabernet Dorsa, Domina, and Rondo. Scheduled for early spring of 2019 is yet another addition – this time, the dark-skinned Dunkelfelder.

But how did these German-Austrian grape varieties end up in Lodi, California?

Their initial arrival dates back to nearly 30 years ago when the long lost Flame Tokay variety was still the cash crop of Lodi viticulture. The Koth family had been local winemakers since the 1970s and Bob and his wife Mary Lou were the second generation to manage the vineyard. In the early 1990s, their daughter Ann-Marie accepted a scholarship to study in Germany and it was during their visits that they became enamoured by the local wines. With their German heritage, the Koths were inspired to bring these indigenous varieties back home to Lodi and it was this decision that would alter the course of history for Mokelumne Glen Vineyards.

Kerner grapes with Markus Niggli of Markus Wine Co.

For 11 vintages, the Koths grew, produced, and bottled these wines under their Mokelumne Glen Vineyards label. Then in 2009, the family decided to take a new direction and discontinued production under their own label. With their son Brett now managing the vineyard, the focus has switched to further expanding the diversity of varieties and selling their fruit to a small selection of winemakers. But not just any winemakers. Whether or not it was their original intent, this vineyard has attracted the likes of a rather specific league of winemakers with a shared passion for abstract wines and minimal intervention. While coincidence could certainly play a part, there is something to be said of the kindred connection between avant-garde varieties and the winemakers who gravitate toward them.

Customers have included artisan labels such as Forlorn Hope Wines, Markus Wine Co., LOCALISM, Sauvage Wines, Holman Cellars, Trail Marker Wine Company, Hatton Daniels, David Ramey’s Sidebar Cellars label, and more. In addition to an appreciation for German and Austrian varieties, a notable commonality of the wines from Mokelumne Glen Vineyards is their modest price range when compared to Napa and Sonoma. With retail prices ranging from $22 to $39, these boutique bottlings not only offer consumers an accessible alternative to classic varieties but also proves that one can no longer typecast Lodi as only high alcohol Zinfandel. In fact, red wines produced from this vineyard have as low as 11.3% alcohol. With freshness, elegance and complexity, these pioneering wines represent the exciting future that’s in store for Lodi wine country.

By now some might say this reads like a bit of California dreamin’ gone too far. In reality, the Koth family deals with the same level of damage control as any other commercial vineyard – whether it’s frost during budbreak, powdery mildew, hail, or destruction from furry neighbours like racoons, coyotes, and deer. And in early 2017, a devastating winter storm swept through the Lodi region, causing the Mokelumne River to flood. For several weeks, seven acres of the vineyard were submerged and only accessible by canoe, making winter pruning impossible for nearly half of the vines that year.

Bacchus grapes

“You could see catfish swimming in the vineyard,” Koth said.

The situation was looking grim for the beloved vineyard. But with perseverance and the spirit of community that exists throughout the region, Mokelumne Glen Vineyards has recovered and continues to be an advocate for quality in the Lodi wine industry. With others in the area beginning to follow suit on elegance, what began as a niche project is now a driving force behind the movement.

“We all work together and help each other out,” Koth added. “Even if it’s as simple as someone needing an extra set of bins.”

Markus Wine Co., 2016 Nativo White Wine, Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

A co-fermented medley of 69% Kerner, 21% Riesling, and 10% Bacchus, this wine exhibits poise with a grandiose aromatic profile. Notes of Meyer lemon, apricot, and a touch of jasmine adorn this crisp yet richly structured wine that suits any zesty dish or al fresco gathering.

Hatton Daniels, 2017 Zweigelt, Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

100% whole cluster fermented, this wine’s jubilance offers juicy expressions of forest berries and violet to pair with peppery tones and savoury rusticity. The powdery tannins and vibrant acidity make way for nuanced vegetal characters while it finishes with subtle hints of salinity.

Trail Marker Wine Co., 2016 Dornfelder, Mokelumne Glen Vineyards  

This deeply hued wine offers fragrances of cherry, rose, wet leaves, and spice. Its fresh acidity is met with concentrated flavours and velvety tannins. This is a prime example of a red wine with moderate alcohol – 11.3% in this case – that is both balanced and full of depth.

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