My favorite summer Zinfandel of the moment is by Watts Winery in Lodi, which may be the best Zin you’ve never had. I will admit that people who know my background — and that I’m a native of Lodi — may suspect that I’m being just a tad too supportive of the hometown juice. Personal bias is never out of the question, especially when it comes to wine.
But before my readers begin to roll their eyes at my glowing remarks, I should point out that I actually tasted wines from several Lodi wineries today, and Watts was the only one that was truly impressive to me. Their Zinfandels could easily stand alongside the handful of Napa and Sonoma Zins that I use as my benchmark.
Watts Winery actually houses its tasting room in Lockeford’s Vino Piazza, which is one of the most interesting tasting facilities I have ever visited. The building is the former home of the Lockeford Cooperative Winery, constructed in 1946 and abandoned in the 1970s. The tasting rooms at Vino Piazza, of which there are more than a dozen, are nestled into concrete rooms that were once 60,000-gallon fermentation tanks. These quaint tasting rooms do not have significant square footage in terms of their floor space, although they do have disproportionately tall 40-foot ceilings (imagine a stick of butter standing on its end, and that would just about be the shape of the rooms).
The Vino Piazza building is a glimpse into the past, and a vestige of an era when California wine was made with a lot less care. The site features 60 of the old concrete fermentation rooms, which still have traces of wax on the walls, originally applied to form a protective layer between the concrete and the wine. I’m not exactly sure what varietals the original Lockeford Cooperative produced more than 60 years ago, although I’m fairly certain that Zinfandel must have been one of them. I’m also fairly certain that these wines were not very good, and they were probably slightly sweet (that was the American palate of yesteryear).
The irony of now being able to purchase a decent bottle of wine from Vino Piazza should not be lost upon its visitors. To sip wine in the same room that was once filled with thousands of gallons of swill really demonstrates the progress we have made here in California. Lodi, in particualr, has made great strides in the last ten years. As a wine-growing region, Lodi has always been a leader in volume production, but the quality of San Joaquin Valley wines had been nearly nonexistant until the mid-1990s.
As a label, Watts Winery is less than a decade old, although it sources Zinfandel from family vineyards that were planted more than 70 years ago. I tasted a flight of reds at Watts, and really enjoyed their Zins and their Syrah. I purchased the 2003 Old Vine Zinfandel Pescador Vineyard ($18) and the 2005 Old Vine Zinfandel Pescador Vineyard ($18). The former wine had more of an earthy characteristic, while the more recent vintage exhibited more fruit. It was one of those instances when I bought both bottles because they were both quite different, and I couldn’t make a decision between the two.
Watts will occasionaly bottle a Zinfandel from its Iris Vineyard, which literally has irises planted among the rows of vines (helping to serve as a cover crop, allegedly). The 2002 Old Vine Zinfandel Iris Vineyard — their most recent Iris Vineyard bottling — was my favorite wine of the day. But the winery only had one bottle open for tasting, and had none of the 2002 left to sell. I would have loved to take a bottle home. Hopefully, the winery will be able to source fruit from this vineyard again soon. It was really exquisite stuff.