For a decade there has been a standoff in Northern California’s wine world. On one side, critics and coinsurers argue that the best Zinfandel in the U.S. comes from Amador County; on the other, those who make the same big claim for the vineyards around Lodi. Though these appellations are less than 40 miles apart, the difference between the sunlit, rolling hills of Plymouth and the hot valley floor between Woodbridge and Acampo is huge, and it is reflected in the flavor profiles each conjures from the great Croatian grape.
The Amador-versus-Lodi dispute is a nuanced one, since both regions tend to dominate the awards presented to Zinfandel vintages. While each winemaker brings his or her own touches to the Zin made from their region, the influence of earth and sunlight is fairly specific: Zins from Lodi are usually deliciously jammy and fruit-forward, while Amador Zins often have spice and an electric quality. Of course, there are plenty of devotees to this vine from the Dalmatian Coast who enjoy both styles. But which is generally better? Which is the best Zin-producing spot in California, if not North America?
As wine writers, vintners and diehard vino fans continue argue about the question, a number of rhetorical gems have made their way into the conventional conversation. If you’re at a winery in Lodi that specializes in Zinfandel, and someone at the bar happens to bring up Amador County, it’s not uncommon to hear the sommelier say something like, “Amador makes great Zin. I don’t know why it hasn’t caught on yet, maybe because the magazines focus way too much on us.”
Similarly, if you’re at a winery in Amador that specializes in Zin, and someone at the bar mentions Lodi, the sommelier often throws out something like, “Lodi makes really good Zin, too. I just don’t think people enjoy the tasting experience there as much because the views are so ugly.”
Divisive? Yes. Passive aggressive? Just a little.
Now, after a decade of backhanded compliments and creative qualifiers flying between the heart of the Gold Country and the edge of the Central Valley, the California Zinfandel debate has become so entrenched that it runs the risk of steering people new to wine tasting away from one location or the other. And that’s too bad, because Amador and San Joaquin counties border each other, and the picture of what their winemakers have done together for Zinfandel is an international story that should equal international pride.
In that spirit, I’ve decided to highlight some of the common ground between Amador and Lodi.
The first nexus point involves the oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard in the world, the Original Grandpere Vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley. The amazing, 150-year-old Eastern European roots here survived the phylloxera epidemic, thanks to a rare decomposed granite soil. These thick, burly, contorted vines produce a gold ingredient for wine every year, and there are only four wineries that share the annual yield. Three of them are in Amador, but one, Macchia, is a stellar Lodi operation. The old-vine Zins that this small business makes from O.G.P. grapes have wowed culinary writers since at least 2003. Owned by the Holderner family, Macchia embodies the best elements of the Lodi wine scene: high quality, an easy atmosphere and unbeatable price points. Moreover, the Holderners know a grape treasure when they taste one, and in the case of the O.G.P. vintages, that treasure comes straight from Plymouth.
Macchia isn’t limiting its Amador connection to the O.G.P. vineyard, either. Its 2016 Adventurous Zinfandel is a single-source vintage made from grapes on the 140-year-old Linsteadt Vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley. The result is a Zin with a gently crisp raspberry front, a body sprinkled with tiny bursts of brown sugar and an aftertaste that’s traced by sour notes and simmering brightness. It has the fresh-fruit sensibility of a Lodi Zin. It has the dynamic spark of an Amador Zin. Sometimes when two styles collide, you end up with the best of both appellations.
For Macchia, making Zinfandel is not about regional competition; it’s about regional achievement.
There’s a similar mentality at Lodi’s St. Amant Winery. Anyone who has driven through the Jackson Valley in western Ione is bound to have noticed that there’s an array of sprawling vineyards but no wineries or tasting rooms in sight. In summertime, the valley is a great place for watching Swainson’s hawks, red-winged blackbirds and fluttering kestrels, but it’s a bad place to search for a wine-related experience. So where do all those gorgeous grapes go? Many of the Portuguese varietals grown in the Jackson Valley go into St. Amant’s award-winning Bootleg Port. In terms of a dessert wine, this vintage is a masterclass: Each sip is infused with melting strawberry molasses, cascading hints of vanilla and a smooth bottom of sweet, velvety fire. It’s one of those rare evening daydreams in a glass.
Operating in Lodi since the late 1970s, St. Amant is one of that region’s founding wineries, a flagship for the appellation. It has a towering reputation and its Ports and Barberas are served in some of California’s up-and-coming restaurants and gastropubs. Yet when it comes to finding the best grapes for the specific bottle it’s working on, St. Amant has no problem reaching across the county line and tapping Amador County.
Leo Tolstoy once said, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth.” And when it comes to the Amador vs. Lodi wine debate, the truth is that goodness and simplicity are the ongoing bridges that link their shared greatness.
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