Heritage Oak Winery: In Love with Lodi

Heritage Oak offered a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere at their lovely tasting room. The facility is elegantly appointed with wood paneling and stone floors. It was a little bit of a surprise in contrast to the somewhat plain appearance of the building that houses it.

Heritage Oak Winery
It was a lot more crowded before the Jersey Short Bus departed

When we first arrived the tasting room was a crowded sea of cologne, skinny jeans and popped collars. It wasn’t too long though before the Jersey Short Bus departed, making more room for the rest of us.

The tasting room is flanked by large doors on both ends, creating excellent flow out to the back patio which was set up with party tents and tables. A duo played blues on bass and bottleneck guitar, and I must congratulate them on finding the perfect volume to be heard without drowning out conversation.

Heritage Oak Winery
How many bass players does it take to screw in a light bulb? One. Five. One. Five.

The bar was staffed by a handful of folks who seemed quite relaxed despite the large number of people crowding the place when we first arrived.

One note for tasting room staff. This occurred elsewhere as well but was particularly severe in my experience at Heritage Oak. If your bar has room for 10 people and your tasting room is crowded with 40 or more, you need to manage your conversations with people at the bar so you don’t shut out people who are obviously waiting behind them for a pour. It’s not reasonable to expect the customers to realize they are monopolizing bar space and preventing others from getting a pour. If you make eye contact with someone waiting and you ignore them to continue chatting with the customers who want to discuss every sip with you, you’ve very quickly created a very negative impression.

The Wines

2009 Sauvignon Blanc: Subtle, even laid back, with a mineral flavor and an effervescent feel. Nikki adds: This had a minerality I associate with sparkling water. I’m a big fan of sparkling water, so this was a positive.

2007 Zinfandel “Zinfidelity”: Mellow, estery with a hint of spice. This is a real easy-drinker. Nikki adds: I got a hint of caramel and plum on this one.

2007 Vino Tinto: Tastes like a close cousin to the above Zin. A bit fruitier, a touch less estery and a greater presence of tannins in a well-balanced, accessible wine. Nikki adds: When you read Anne Rice’s “Interview With a Vampire,” you might imagine the blood tasting just like this.

2007 Carnivale: Starting to notice a signature style here. This has similar mellowness and warmth to the other reds, just a touch more acid for a brighter character.

2007 Estate Zinfandel: This falls pretty squarely between the Zinfidelity and the Carnivale. More acidic than the former, not as much as the latter. A very nice wine, but doesn’t separate itself much from what is turning out to be a pretty narrow range of flavors.

2008 Hoffman Vineyards Zinfandel: Again, just a slight variation from the preceding reds. This one is a bit fruitier. Nikki says: I tasted a hint of apple in this one as well as some oak.

2008 Heritage Oak Zinfandel: Same, but a little less fruity than the Hoffman Vineyards Zin.

The reds were all quite good, and I’d be happy serving any of them to friends, but I was a bit surprised at how similar they were to each other. The winemaker obviously has a strong preference for that flavor profile, but in a stable of six reds I’d hope to see a little more variety of expression.

Macchia: In Love with Lodi

As we approached Macchia we knew it was a happening place. Cars lined both sides of the country lane in front of the facility, and as we parked and got out of the car we heard the sounds of a live band playing rock and roll. We moseyed on in, and it turns out the band was not the main draw. Clearly people were there for the wines – the tasting room was packed!

Macchia Winery
This was taken during a rare lull in the tasting room action

Macchia’s main public venue is in a converted house. The tasting room looks like it was once the living room, with an adjacent dining room serving as overflow space. When we visited, the overflow room had a table with some very tasty meatballs in what we learned was a Zinfandel/habanero reduction. Wow, those were good! [Note: Nikki the vegetarian seethes with envy.] The tasting room maintains a sense of intimacy, but also has an elegant feel.

Macchia Winery
If you were taking this photo the meatballs [that you didn't get to eat because THE PHOTOGRAPHER IS A VEGETARIAN DAMN IT - Nikki, who is not bitter at all] would be just to your right.

The band was playing on a stage at one end of a large lawn outside. Between the house and lawn was a barrel-tasting station, and on the other side of the lawn Wine Club members were treated to their own tastings in a large outbuilding. There was also an artisan cupcake vendor tempting attendees with all manner of delicious baked goods, as well as a toffee vendor offering up succulent sweets.

The tasting room was filled with exuberant wine tasters which was gratifying to see, but it made getting to the bar to get a pour something of a challenge. We certainly don’t begrudge a winery for drawing a crowd, but if you attend an event like the Lodi Wine and Chocolate Weekend you should be prepared to be a little assertive to get a taste. Being shy will not cut it. [Fortunately for Mike and Kevin, no one will ever apply the adjective “shy” to Nikki or Carissa. They fought their way up to the bar against ridiculous odds and overwhelming numbers and held down a section like King Henry V’s troops at Agincourt. Only with fewer archers, less blood, and no awesome St. Crispin’s Day speech.]

The Wines

2009 Barbera “Infamous”: A medium-bodied wine full of fruit with a pleasant hint of tobacco to add some mystery and keep it from tasting jammy. Nikki adds: This savory wine had a flavor like marinade running off grilled meat. Says the vegetarian. And also, Amador County makes appellation number 3 for this trip! Wooooo!

2009 Zinfandel “Mischievous”: Another medium-bodied wine that opens with an evolving surge of fruit which expands until the tannins take over for the finish. Nikki: I tasted a candy-cherry beginning, with a bitter finish. Which makes this wine like all my relationships before Mike!

2009 Petite Sirah “Rebellious”: Is this a theme emerging? This wine also opens with a statement of fruit that then segues into a soft tannic finish.

2009 Zinfandel “Flirtatious”: This Zin was the jammiest, with a bit of ashiness to signal the close.

Barrel tastings:

2010 Sangiovese “Amorous”: Although this was obviously a young wine (it was after all a barrel tasting) it gave a good indication of where it would head in maturity. The tannins were present but not assertive, and it had a substantial fruit flavor that developed on the tongue over time. There was a slight almost effervescent quality that was really the only element that betrayed its youth. Of the wines I tasted at Macchia, this one had the most complexity. I’d be interested to try this in a couple of years. Nikki says: My notes say, “Almost a bloody-rich taste.” Mike either has a more sensitive palate than I, or a larger library of adjectives.

2010 Zinfandel “Prestigious”: We were told this came from the oldest Zinfandel vine in Lodi. Compared to the Sangiovese this was quite a bit more obviously a young wine. There was a fairly strong presence of grape skin flavor at the end which I expect would moderate as the wine ages. It seemed pretty consistent with the other Zins we sampled at Macchia and will undoubtedly make a fine addition to their offerings once it’s ready.

Macchia Winery clearly got into the spirit of the weekend and offered a fun, energetic setting to mingle and enjoy tasting. Our consensus was that Macchia wines would be lovely to share with friends and have with food, but overall the flavors didn’t seem to have the layers or complexity we look for in a special-occasion keeper.

Housley’s Century Oak Winery: In Love with Lodi

As we would rapidly discover over the course of our visit to Lodi during Wine and Chocolates weekend, the problem with visiting wineries during an event that attracts over 5,000 people is that you rarely have intimate tasting experiences. (No, not that kind of intimate. Get your head out of the gutter!) So many people are swarming the wineries that it’s often difficult to even get close enough to the wine bar to get a tasting, let alone some good conversation.

Housley's Century Oak Winery
Mike really thought his hair looked better than that when we left the cottage

Fortunately, Housley’s Century Oak Winery wasn’t like that. Though it may have gotten swarmed late in the day, you can see from our photograph above that we got a little personal attention from the tasting room staff. We also got a few winemaking insights, including…

2009 Chardonnay: “Chardonnay is a bitch,” our tasting room staffer said, then hastily apologized to the women in the group. As we sipped this lemony-smelling, textural, salted-grapefruit wine, he went on to explain that chardonnay is a very sensitive grape, likely to fail if it’s too wet, dry, sunny, cloudy, cold or warm. Sounds like the ficus we adopted from the trash area, but I digress.

2008 Zinfandel: “This is not a massive zin,” he said as he poured it to us. It’s true. The scent made me think of what a wine air freshener would smell like. As I tasted it, I detected delicate tannins and mellow fruit, with an almost tequila finish.

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon: Every member of the party said “mmmm” as we smelled this one. It had a very fruity nose, which made the flavor all the more surprising to me. You could really taste the grape skins in this one, more than I generally prefer.

2006 Adam Cabernet Sauvignon: This wine was a mix of the Reserve and Estate Cab. It smelled of caramel and fruit and had a strong overlay of oak on the tongue.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon: This wine has medalled at every competition it’s been entered in. For our purposes, it was also a medal, as it was a Mokelumne River appellation wine, making it the second appellation we tasted on the trip. (Hooray!)

Dancing Fox Winery: In Love with Lodi

The Dancing Fox
Winery, Bakery, Eatery
203 School Street, Lodi, CA 95240 (map link)
(209) 366-2634

When we walked up to Dancing Fox Winery, in the middle of lovely downtown Lodi, we were confused. The front room was packed with people eating. Was this really a winery?

Well, yes — but it’s also a bakery and a restaurant, and every table in the restaurant was full. Always a good sign. The intrepid Carissa walked in and asked if they were still pouring. They were, so we went back to the wine bar for a taste. Our tasting experience was as close to perfect as one can have.

Dancing Fox Bakery

The tasting room entryway. Notice the fox hidden in the wood.

The archway we walked under in order to enter the tasting room set the tone. Both the art and the general interior design give the impression of stepping sideways into a fantasy world, without hammering it home so hard that you feel like you’re at Disneyland. The art on the label, all designed around a fairy tale posted on the winery’s website, reinforces this sense. Just stepping through the doors is an escape from the everyday.

We were lucky enough to have our wine poured by owner/winemaker Gregg Lewis himself. Lewis is reserved yet utterly charming. He exudes a shy warmth that set the tone for our amazing tasting.

Dancing Fox Winery

Lewis is the good-looking one on the left. I’m the dorky one in the middle. Mike looks wary of my mobile phone camera’s bad handling of low light conditions.

Lewis has been making wines for many years. He started, as many in Lodi did, by growing grapes for the Big Three: Gallo, Mondavi and Delicato. As Lewis explained, each winery wanted him to grow his grapes in a specific way to bring out certain aspects for their wine. Lewis absorbed this information over many years; from the great wines he served us, it’s clear that this was a years-long master class in winemaking.

Lewis’ wife, Colleen, has studied baking for years, honing her craft in bakeries all around the Bay Area. For years she’d told him “Well, if you get to open a winery, I get to open a bakery.” Then a building became available in downtown Lodi that could house both, and Dancing Fox Winery and Bakery was born.

Gregg’s sons all work in the bakery/restaurant. “They prefer working here instead of in the vineyard because of all the girls that stop by,” Greg laughed.

We sampled some of Colleen’s amazing ciabatta while tasting our wine. It was the sort of bread that needs no butter, olive oil or any other garnish; it is simply delicious on its own. We have a lot more to say about the food, but that’s a topic for another post.

2010 Chenin Blanc: This had a tangy grapefruity taste with a higher alcohol finish than I was expecting.

2007 Chenin Blanc: Unlike the 2010, this was aged in oak. The oak served to soften the harsh edges of the grapefruit flavors, creating a well-rounded wine. Yum!

2007 Firedance: A girl could get into a lot of trouble with this wine…and enjoy every minute of it. This blend includes French colombard, a grape I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of before. One sip left me wondering why more wineries aren’t making wine out of this grape. This wine was sweet and tart and alarmingly drinkable.

Red Zorro: Lewis said this was a blend of temperanillo, grenache, merlot and “whatever else we got left around here.” It had big fruit in the front and a strong tannic finish. This wine could stand up to some food.

2008 Temperanillo: This wine is slow to reveal itself on the tongue, but when it does, boy is it yummy! It’s earthy and peppery and oh so drinkable.

2007 Zinfandel: The grapes for this wine come from 122-year-old vines in the Royalty vineyard at Jessie’s Grove. It smells of dark cherries and chocolate. On tasting, it had more tannins than I expected with some raisin and a hint of citrus zest.

2009 RumplestiltZin: This thick, plummy, delectable wine was so pleasant to drink.

2008 Merlot Reserve: There was a hint of vanilla to the flavor, but in general this was very fruity, with overtones of cherry and plum. It runs close to 16% alcohol.

2008 Reserve Cabernet Franc: It smelled of chocolate and cinnamon and tasted of cherries and spice. There was a little hint of something ashy at the end, but when I say that I mean yummy Humboldt Fog ashy, not OMG-Mount-St.-Helens-buried-my-car ashy.

Petite Sirah Port: It smelled like sugar encrusted fruit with chocolate drizzled on top and tasted like a chocolate lemon syrup. In other words, perfect with dessert.

Cherry Nectar Port: Lodi is a serious cherry-growing area; Lewis decided to work with the fruit on hand to make an unusual dessert wine. It smelled like chocolate covered cherries and tasted like a less-sweet version of the syrup that surrounds the cherries in chocolate-covered cherries.

Viaggio Estate and Winery: In Love with Lodi

Viaggio Estate and Winery
100 East Taddei Road, Acampo, CA 95220 (map link)
Phone: 209-368-1378

Since November, we’d planned this weekend trip to Lodi with our friends Kevin and Carissa. Nikki booked our lodgings, Carissa built up a list of wineries and plotted them on a map, and the boys made sure we were fully packed and stocked with food for the weekend.

We rolled into Lodi around 5pm on Friday. We thought we wouldn’t be able to visit any wineries, but the Lodi Conference and Visitors Bureau official guide informed us we were wrong! There’s a handful of tasting rooms open into the evening. Most are downtown. One, however, is located in the middle of vineyards and listed as “Viaggio Estate on the River.” It sounded far too glamorous to pass up.

Viaggio truly lives up to the “Estate” sobriquet. As we turned off the road onto their property, we drove past first one enormous building, then another. The light was low, the parking areas seemed abandoned, and we were worried. Had we entered onto private property after it was closed?

Then we rounded a corner and everything burst into light. A large gate opened on to a brick-paved pedestrian road (it’s far too large to call it a walkway) called “Main Street.” Perfectly groomed plants line both sides of the walkway, which leads after a substantial meander to the tasting room.

Viaggio Estate & Winery
Mr. Clock says "Time for wine!"

The light was low (as you can see by our terrible mobile phone photos) and the huge, elegant space was full of people eating lovely dinners as they were serenaded by a saxophonist. The room was large enough that the sax player actually required an amplifier. It was like entering a converted Italian manor house. The hallway was full of display cases packed with memorabilia and toys that the boys enjoyed.

Viaggio Estate & Winery
"Please don't touch?!?" Cruel, Viaggio. Cruel.

We thought for a moment we’d stumbled onto the wrong place. But no — at the other side of the huge room was a very, VERY long marble tasting bar.

As soon as we sat down, tasting room employee Nicole was on the case, moving quickly and efficiently through the array of wines available for tasting. In some ways she was a little too efficient; she poured and walked away so quickly that we could never get a solid look at the labels to get as much data as we wanted on the wines.

Pinot Grigio: Many Pinot Grigios qualify as “grapefruity” because of their acidity and because of a hit of bitterness at the back. This was grapefruity because of the acidity but also because of a tangy, fruity flavor. It was much more fruit than I would ever expect from a Pinot Grigio.

Chardonnay: The smell had a hint of caramel, and though the flavor profile was similar to the Pinot Grigio, the finish on this had a rich flavor, almost a hint of creme brulee.

Petite Sirah: This wine was my first “yum” of the night. It was loaded with figs, caramel and chocolate.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Kevin said, “The flavor is all in the front.” It’s true; this cab had fruit, a hint of pepper, a little wood and a little astringency, but all the flavors hit at the front of the mouth.

Ancient Vines Zinfandel: The vines this wine is made from are over 120 years old. I will admit, I was not knocked out by this wine. It felt like the vines had lost their potency with age. I tasted a little fruit at the beginning followed by a bitter, astringent flavor.

Zinfandel Dessert Wine: While many dessert wines are fortified with alcohol, Nicole assured us that this wine was 100% unfortified zin. Carissa said, “This reminds me of cheesecake.” I tasted chocolate and cream, but the finish had a bitter hit I did not enjoy.

Sparkling Wine: This was the find of the visit. Viaggio Winery makes their sparkling wine from chardonnay. Rather than turning overdry or cloyingly sweet, the light bubbles in this case just seemed to emphasize the fruity aspects of the chardonnay.

Mike said, “You couldn’t go wrong with any of these wines.” It’s true (except for that zin, but perhaps I had palate fatigue). If you brought any Viaggio wine to a party, you could be assured that everyone would enjoy your choice.