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California in pictures: Napa and Lodi

The first stop on our California tour took us to Lodi, where we dined among ancient gnarly Zinfandel vines dating back to the early 1900s. While Napa and Sonoma steal a lot of the limelight, Lodi is the engine room of the California wine industry, accounting for 40% of all wine produced in the Golden State. There are over 110,000 acres of vines planted in Lodi and 750 producers operating in the region, which is carving a niche for experimentation with Italian varieties. Everything from Aglianico to Nero d’avila is in the ground here.

While touring Lodi, we got the lowdown on the region from Delicato’s vineyard manager Danny Lucchesi (centre) and director of grower relations Bud Bradley (right). Lodi has seven sub-regions and a plethora of soil types, from sandy granite and clay to Châteauneuf-du-Pape-like rock. One of the oldest plots in Lodi is a Cinsault vineyard dating back to 1886 – the grapes it yields are so popular there’s a waiting list for them.

Staying in a haunted cottage at Black Stallion Winery (previous guests have seen suitcases moved and sensed a strong smell of leather in the air), the following morning we were given a tour of the estate by winemaker Ralf Holdenried, who was born in the Rhienhessen in Germany. A longtime Napa resident, he revealed to db that Delicato is building a boutique winery for a new icon wine – Sam Jasper – an Anglicised nod to the company’s Sicilian founder, Gaspare Indelicato. Designed by an Italian architect, just one wine will be produced in the space – a small production Cabernet Sauvignon benefitting from consultancy from Thomas Rivers Brown.

That evening, Delicato’s ebullient operations director, Elizabeth Rice, talked us through the Delicato range, which includes Bucephalus, a red blend crafted from Cabernet, Petit Verdot and Syrah named after Alexander the Great’s horse; and Poseidon Chardonnay from Carneros.

Before dinner we enjoyed a mozzarella making demo from Italian-American chef Nash Cognetti, which piqued the interest of wine writer and cheese fiend Francis Percival, who recently authored an ode to fromage called Reinventing the Wheel.

Steve Matthiasson, one of the bright lights of the California wine industry pushing for lighter, more elegant reds and sprightly whites, talked us through his Napa white blend – a mash up of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano – during lunch at Silverado Vineyards.

Then it was on to a tour and tasting at Louis M. Martini’s shiny new winery and visitor centre in Napa. Originally build in 1933 and one of the first wineries to open after the end of Prohibition, the St. Helena-based winery has been redeveloped and restored to preserve Louis M. Martini’s heritage in Napa, and showcase its range of flagship Cabernets.

The new facility includes new tasting rooms, a study, outdoor area with an open fire, a space dedicated to food and wine pairing and a shop full of liquid treasures. The ten year restoration project was undertaken by architect Howard Backen and officially opened on 29 March.

Later that day, having made a pitstop at Napa’s legendary Stagecoach vineyard – the largest continuous vineyard in the world, which was snapped up by Gallo in 2017 – we headed to Trinchero in the Napa Valley for a grand tour that began with appetite-whetting Dirty Martinis.

Family owned since 1948, Trinchero Family Estates boasts over 50 wine and spirits brands and has a global presence in nearly 50 countries. The wine giant was founded by Italian Americans John and Mario Trinchero, who are best known for the soaring success of Sutter Home White Zinfandel, which was originally created by accident when a Zin ferment got stuck, leaving 2% residual sugar in the wine and a pale pink hue.

After our tour, Barry, our New Orleans-born guide, challenged us to a blind tasting of a wine so old it had to be opened by white-hot tongs.

While many of us thought its autumnal notes of leather, forest floor and cedar may make it an old Napa Cab, it was revealed to be a Château Haut-Brion 1966 – the first (and only) year England have won the World Cup.

During our California tour we got to try a couple of wines from renegade vintner Dave Phinney of Orin Swift, which Gallo cannily acquired in 2016. The first, a white called Mannequin, made from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat from Sonoma and Atlas Peak, boasts a slightly terrifying label of amputated shop dummies. The photo on the label, inspired by the Nicki Minaj song Mannequin Challenge, was shot by photographer Greg Gorman and took over 500 shots to get right.

No less spooky but equally delicious was Phinney’s Napa Valley red blend Palermo, made from Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec, which sports a label of a skeleton of a dead Capuchin priest taken by National Geographic photographer Vincent J. Musti in a 16th century catacomb in Sicily.

After a day among the vines, we headed to sparkling specialist J Winery, where we were given a tour and tasting by winemaker Nicole Hitchcock.

The estate in Healdsburg makes a variety of sparklers, including a brut, rosé, extra brut, demi-sec, a California cuvée and vintage expressions.

We then enjoyed a tasting menu paired to J’s sparklers, Chardonnays and Pinots created by exec chef Carl Shelton from seasonal ingredients.

Waitrose wine buyer Nick Room perfectly framed by a Riedel decanter

Among the highlights of the tasting menu was a dish of white asparagus, nasturtium leaves, Estero Gold cheese foam and egg yolk.

Equally divine was pan fried trout with crispy pig’s trotters.

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