Michael David Winery Shows off Lodi’s Finery

spring-vines

spring-vines

All images courtesy of Michael David Winery. 

“The first time I heard of Lodi was on a bottle of wine,” I said to Michael Phillips, owner of Michael David Winery and fifth generation grape grower from Lodi, California. He understood completely. In fact, I think it made him proud that Lodi was becoming best known for one thing: good wine. It had been relatively unknown and an underdog in the California wine world for some time. No more. In fact, according to Wine Enthusiast Magazine, it is the reigning wine region of the year (the award for 2015 having been given out this past January). And that’s no small region. According to VisitLodi.com, Lodi is “the largest appellation in California with over 190,000 acres in production.”

owner Michael Phillips
owner Michael Phillips

Lodi, California can be found East of San Francisco, in the northern part of California’s Central Valley where the climate is described as “Mediterranean” with warm days and cool nights. Due to its ideal grape growing climate, wine has been produced there since the mid-19th century. It even counts among its home-grown talents one of the giants in the California wine world, Robert Mondavi who was senior class president at Lodi Union High School.

I was lucky enough to sit next to Phillips at a tasting of four of his wines at Michael Jordan’s The Steak House N.Y.C. While the food and wine were great, it was the insider’s perspective on Lodi’s wine heritage that was the star. Phillips was passionate about the past and present of his home appellation. He went from waxing about the venerable table grape flame tokay which once was widely grown in the region, to contrasting that with the current great variety of world class wines they produce there today. It was that variety that was on display at this event.

MICHAEL DAVID CHARDONNAY

French Onion Soup, gruyere cheese

We began with Phillips’s chardonnay, a good, clean, lightly acidic wine with a nice, fleeting bit of funkiness in the middle of the palate. He told us that the chardonnay was made from three different stages of picking grapes: The earliest grapes picked were fermented in stainless steel to “preserve the high acid fruit flavors”. The second stage of fruit was picked at peak ripeness and aged in new French oak barrels. The third stage was the ripest fruit – the last of the grapes off the vine. It was also put in oak and aged sur lie. Then, all three wines were blended for a balance of flavor.

freakshow-red-2014
freakshow-red-2014

The pairing with French onion soup worked fine, But the heaviness of the soup muted some of the lighter fruit-flavors of the wine.

MICHAEL DAVID ANCIENT VINE CINSAULT

Sesame Crusted Yellowfin Tuna, au poivre sauce

Next up was the Ancient Vine Cinsault - a real treat. For a deep, dark red wine, it was very light and dry without being dusty and absent of character. There were some very light wisps of tannins in the body, but they didn’t linger; it was like the wine was washed over an oak barrel rather than aged in it for 10 months. The grapes used for this wine were picked at the legendary Bechthold Vineyard from vines first planted in 1886! Since 2007, the vineyard has been run by Michael Phillips’s son, Kevin. This wine is the history of Lodi winemaking on stage.

The only disappointment I had with the Ancient Vine Cinsault was with the pairing. The tuna dish was ok – it was steak house tuna - but the au poivre sauce beat up the wine, making this once silky, cool red slightly bitter and acidic.

FREAKSHOW RED WINE

Seared Foie Gras, green apple salad, blackberry sauce

The good news was that the sadness from the off-taste left behind by the au poivre sauce did not linger long, because the Freak Show was coming to town. The third wine was a syrah blended with petite sirah and souzão dubbed Freakshow Red Wine. The colorful label of Freakshow which featured a cast of some of the most famous sideshow performers from carnival history, was inspired by vintage broadsides for sideshows Phillips had seen while antiquing with his wife. He said that the characters “jumped out at him from the posters” and their stories implied by their vibrant artwork fascinated him. When he arrived back at the vineyard, he got his marketing department working on the labels right away, instructing them to be as faithful as possible to the history of the performers from the real freak shows. The syrah we drank was the second iteration of the Freakshow label following a highly regarded Freakshow Cabernet.

This Freakshow was a big, juicy, fun red. Its smooth texture was full of tart, dark berries and toffee, but good tannins from its oak-aging dampened the sugars enough to not make the wine sticky. The event quickly went from a sipping to a sloshing as everyone grabbed this wine by the mouthful. And the pairing worked great this time. The creaminess of the foie gras was a great match for this lightly acidic wine. But it was the wine’s perfect pairing with the tart blackberry sauce that had us licking the back of our spoons before each next sip. Luckily there was a small lag before the next course came, because we were able to sample another full glass of Freakshow (just to be sure we liked it).

RAPTURE CABERNET SAUVIGNON

11-harvest78
11-harvest78

Sliced Strip Steak, potatoes romanoff, green beans, bordelaise sauce

It was fitting that after the pairing dinner was resurrected by Freakshow, the next wine that followed was Rapture. Per the winery, “Rapture represents the very best Cabernet Sauvignon - made from the top 1% of Cabernet grapes - by Michael David Winery.” This big, smooth red, poured a deep, Tyrian purple and was full of pleasantly bitter tones of dark chocolate and cassis balanced with sweet vanilla flavors gleaned from the oak barrels which also lent dry, toasty tannins to clean your palate and ready you for another sip. Phillips told me that they aged the 2013 Rapture for 24 months in hand-picked French oak barrels with tight grains.

It was the star of the evening and what everyone was waiting for. The finale was served with steak and potatoes, which was a natural fit for a big cab, but truth be told we were now just using the food as material support for the great wine. (We had to eat so we could drink more wine.) I finished my steak and resurrected the bottle of Rapture for another pour.

Lodi is most often associated with its zinfandel wines – they even go so far as calling themselves “Zinfandel Capital of the World?” - but the variety of quality grapes grown there was on display in the tasting with Michael David Winery. And Michael Phillips is a great ambassador not only for his winery, but also the entire region.