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The Innovative Spirit of Bay Delta Wine

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An explanatory series focusing on one of the most complex issues facing California: water sharing. And at its core is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. Stay with kcet.org/baydelta for all the project's stories.

Hear the phrase "California wine," and some may immediately think of the famed wine regions of Sonoma and Napa. The area not only holds the distinction of being the site of the state's first commercial winery (Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma was founded in 1857), but also produces some of the finest grapes around. However, saying that's all there is to California wine is like saying all you need to do to experience Los Angeles is to go to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In reality, there's a good case to be made that the Delta's wine-producing region is the most exciting in the state at the moment.

 

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A spirit of innovation and brashness has been a part of the region's industry since the its earliest days. In 1850, Charles Weber -- the gold-mining German immigrant, and founder of Stockton -- planted the Delta's first grapes. A few years later, a gold miner by the name of George West followed suit; West eventually opened the region's first commercial winery. The expansion even continued during Prohibition, when the area took advantage of the law's fine print allowing for "home winemaking" by focusing on shipping out crates of grapes. In 1986, the area received an official AVA designation, allowing wineries to print "Lodi" on their labels. (Sub-regional AVAs include Clarksburg, Merritt Island, Cosumnes River, Alta Mesa, Sloughouse, Borden Ranch, Jahant, Mokelumne River, and Clements Hills.)

"Every area tries to differentiate itself in some way, and the way that most do is based on climate and culture," said Dr. Jim Lapsley, a UC Davis researcher on the economics of wine production, marketing, and the history of California wine. For the Delta, the Central Valley climate is an ideal mixture of a dry growing season, sandy loam soil, fresh water from tributaries, huge amounts of sunlight, and cool breezes from the Delta. "It literally and figuratively straddles two worlds with the coast and the valley," said Paul Verdegaal, UC Cooperative Extension's Farm Advisor for San Joaquin County.

But the area's culture is where it sets itself apart. "What's happened over the last 10-15 years, with the growth of the number of small wineries using different techniques, is that it's allowed for more interesting wines," Lapsley said. While 66 percent of the region's vineyards are dedicated to red varietals -- Zinfandel still being of particular popularity, with some coming from "old vines" that date back to the 1880s -- the abundance of grape yield that the area allows gives the region's winemakers the freedom and ability to experiment.

"In Sonoma or Napa, the land is really expensive," said Lapsley. "They're not going to screw around with oddball varieties. Whereas in Lodi, it's less expensive and people can try experimentation."

Think of the Delta's wine-making region as one of those hip areas of a city where artists live because the rent's so cheap. (Before, you know, they boost the value and the long arm of gentrification takes over.) Since they don't have the stressors of high rents, they're afforded opportunities to mess around, work on their art, and cultivate their various visions. "Farmers have 100 acres and are willing to put in five acres to grow something new and see what happens," Lapsley said. "It creates a nucleus of experimentation and also marketing cache."

Consider this: The vast majority of California grape-growing acreage is used to produce eight different kinds of grapes. Yet, there are over 10,000 varieties of wine grapes in existence. As Michael Cervin from IntoWine.com puts it, the Delta offers a climate and culture that can act as a "line of defense against the abyss of sameness."

So, sure. The Delta produces all your classic favorites, like Cabernet, Chardonnay, Syrah, and of course Zinfandel. (Lodi considers itself the "Zinfandel Capital of the World," a bold yet understandable claim, since it produces over 40 percent of the state's premium Zinfandel.) But it also allows room for many, many other varietals to be produced. Wines like the Clay Station Vineyard's 2013 Bokisch, or the Jessie's Grove Winery's 2012 Ancient Vine Lodi Carignane. (For a decent list of Lodi's most "adventurous wines," head this way.)

"There's something different about the Lodi area in terms of growers," Verdegaal said. "It's a closed community, but also very open to new people who come in and are willing to contribute, and also willing to support experimentation. Growers like to work together, and like to be innovative." Verdegaal believes that might possibly be because of how far back the industry's roots go. "It probably has the most multi-generational growers here than anywhere in the state," he said. "A lot of them are third, fourth, or fifth generation, so we see a history not only of production but also growers who are committed to the area."

All of which means that the same bold sense of innovation and exploration that first brought gruff miners through the Delta looking for riches is alive and well. And, thankfully for the rest of us, it's purchasable in bottle form.

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