Making a wine with native yeast (instead of commercial yeast) fermentation takes a brass set of balls. Well, either that or a little madness. But I’ve always felt that a little madness keeps the big madness away…and it also keeps you on your toes. It’s one part speculation, one part faith, and two parts beer drinking as you hover diligently over your barrels. To quote Nietzsche, “One must still have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star.”
When you rely on native yeasts to initiate fermentation you know damned well it might take a week before it even starts, that it might get stuck at any given moment, and that you just might find yourself with a vat full of juice you have to sell off in bulk because your wild experiment failed and you’ve now just lost part of your production to a bunch of fickle yeasts. Some winemakers have found that the benefits outweigh the risks, while some hedge their bets by limiting native fermentation to only a small portion of what they produce in total. Either way, if native fermentation does in fact give birth to a “dancing star” you’ll know it by the distinct way in which it dances, for its nuances simply can’t be found anywhere else.
California has only begun to play with madness over the last couple of decades, with wineries like Ridge, Ravenswood, Sterling, Chalk Hill, Frog’s Leap and Franciscan all making it part of their lifeline. But now the playing has begun in a new sandbox—Lodi—where zinfandel is the gnarly, reigning heavyweight.
Lodi Native™ is the brainchild of six winegrowers that were looking to let their vineyards, their ancient vines and their zinfandel grapes speak for themselves as much as possible. That included the decision to use only native yeast fermentation, neutral oak, no additional water or acid, no filtration, and minimal SO2. The only winemaker influences were the decisions about when to pick, how long to oak, etc. Given that Lodi has absorbed a bit of Joan Jett’s bad reputation because it produces a lot of overoaked, high-octane, jammy wines, my cork-dork radar went up immediately. This was either gonna be the birth of a dancing star or it was going to be an epic shitstorm, but either way, I wanted to be there for it. Fortunately for us all, it was a glorious birth.
The six wineries’ winemakers who form Lodi Native™ are St. Amant, Macchia, m2, Fields, McCay and Maley Brothers. Each 2012 zinfandel was a single-vineyard bottling and only 50 cases of each were made, so don’t hate on me if you can’t get your hands on some, because as of right now they are only being sold at the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center ($180 for the set of 6). Musical references in abundance here, this gig definitely needs to go ZZ Top—Nationwide.
The best of the bunch were Fields’ Century Block Vineyard, which oozed character and complexity with just the faintest hint of funk, and St. Amant’s Marian’s Vineyard, which had lots of smoky tones and herbs in the background. It was easily the lithest zin I have ever had the pleasure of sipping…kinda like taking an Anna Nicole Smith-bodied wine and wringing it out until it became a J-Lo-bodied wine. Still curvy, still juicy, but lean. And while all of these zins clocked in at anywhere between 14.5% and 15.8% ABV, each was more balanced than the next, and each smelled, tasted and felt like a completely different wine which, in the world of Lodi zinfandels, is finally as it should be.