The Perrin family's relationship with Ravenswood began one September day in 1996. "We'd already picked our first grapes," recalls 37-year-old Steve Perrin, "but the second crop had real flavor and intensity. It was almost like eating candy. I just didn't have the heart to send it off as white Zin."
Wait a second. White Zin? Second crop? Such terms aren't commonly uttered in connection with Ravenswood. Equally hush-hush (at least in Sonoma) is the name of Lodi, the flattish farming town between Sacramento and Stockton where the Perrins have lived for four generations – and which happens to grow more Zinfandel grapes than any other viticultural area in California. Historically, Lodi Zin has bolstered much of the bulk wine shipped by Central Valley megawineries; most recently, vast quantities of it have gone into white Zinfandel, the sodapoplike rose that allows growers to load their vines with tremendous tonnage (and their coffers with lucre), since white-Zin grapes don't require much in the way of color, flavor, or ripeness. Since the boutique wine rennaissance of the 1970s, most California connoisseurs have dismissed Lodi as too hot and fertile to produce fine wine, since top grapes require cool evenings to maintain acidity, and poor, leaky soil to shrink berries and concentrate flavor.
"Those of us on the North Coast who were so busy with our low tonnages and foie-gras varieties always pooh-poohed Lodi," Ravenswood winemaker Joel Peterson admits. "For years and years, its primary users were large wineries like Gallo. But as usual, it turned out that Gallo knew more than the rest of us. They knew that Lodi had a marine climate with winds coming through, and they knew you could get good grapes there, particularly if crops are managed properly. The disparity between good Lodi grapes and bad Lodi grapes is quite wide. You have to be very respectful of the crop you put on the vines."
Prime real estate…
Lodi is directly east of the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta, which draws breezes from the Carquinez Strait every morning and evening. "There are hardly three nights a year here where it's really hot," says Dewaine Perrin, Steve's 75-year-old father. "It's ten degrees cooler on the west side of town than it is on the east. My grandfather used to fly airplanes, and he said that when you flew north up the San Joaquin Valley, you had to change your heading at Stockton. Otherwise, the wind would blow you over to Clements and Lockeford." The west side is the Italian side, which is where we grow black wine grapes. The east side is German – they always grew Tokay grapes for eating."
"The soil is beautiful, sandy loam," Steve adds. "You can make a big puddle and still be able to work it the next day. That and the climate are ideal for Zinfandel. The Perrin family has had its property since 1904, when Henry Perrin emigrated from Quebec and procured 40 acres near the Mokelumne River. He started his own cement business – he made blocks, poured sidewalks, and built the Lodi jail – but he also planted almonds, cherries, and grapes: Alicante, Carignane, Tokay, and Zinfandel. "My grandfather always said that Zinfandel was the only wine grape that he liked to eat," says Dewaine.
Passing on traditions…
When Henry was 45 years old, he underwent an operation for a prostate condition. Convinced that he wasn't long for this world, he sold his cement business -- then went on living until the age of 93. Care of the farm eventually fell to his son Lloyd, who planted more Carignane because it was prized by big wineries for making port. During Prohibition, the Perrins shipped grapes east to home winemakers: "We had a grape-juice factory here for a few years, too," says Dewaine. "They had to be careful that it didn't turn into wine. Some of our neighbors did keep juice in their basements that didn't always stay 'fresh'."
By the time Dewaine took over, his main market was Lodi's Eastside Co-op, which crushed and brokered local fruit for bulk distribution. The family also ran a nursery, providing rootstock to local growers. One of their neighbors was Virgil Braghetta, who offered 70 acres of Zinfandel vines to the Perrins for a bargain price when he got too old to farm them. "We took a vote in the family," Steve remembers. "Buy Virgil's seventy acres, or add onto our house. We only had one bathroom for seven of us – and four of them were girls." Nevertheless, the family voted to buy Virgil's vineyard in 1979. "Virgil could've got more money for it," says Steve, "but he wanted it to stay with a caring family."
At that point the Perrins had more than 150 acres of grapes, including the old Tokay, Burgher, and Carignane. "Since we were in the nursery business, we saw sooner than most people how much land was going into wine grapes," says Steve. "Dad had the foresight to realize that those who would survive would be the ones that produced a quality product. Dad really stays on top of things – as long as I can remember, he's carried a little black book in his pocket. Every day he writes down who did what, where, and when."
"I could see the writing on the wall with white Zinfandel," says Dewaine. "I thought it would give us a better chance of staying in the market. I knew that overproduction wouldn't happen so fast with Zinfandel, because it doesn't produce as much [as some other varieties do]." Hence, between 1988 and 1992, he and Steve changed all of their varieties over to Zinfandel.
Growth and prosperity…
By the mid-1990s, the Perrins were selling their grapes to Bronco, a bulk-wine giant based in Ceres. They had a wild card in their deck, though. Zinfandel is noted for (among other things) its proclivity to set a second crop after the first one in the spring – the clusters are smaller and the grapes, which ripen late, are often left hanging on the vines. "But if your first crop is white Zin," Dewaine explains, "you can keep the vine in a growing state, since the first crop came off before it was mature. Most people take off the first crop and just leave the vine to produce the second, but we nurture it all the way through."
As a result, the Perrins were getting as many as two tons of mature second-crop grapes per acre. When Steve asked Bill Turrentine, a Lodi wine broker, for advice on what to do with it, he learned that Ravenswood was looking for Zinfandel to use in its Vintner's Blend. After Joel Peterson checked out the Perrins' second crop, he agreed to give it a try.
"They turned out to be very, very good grapes," Joel says. "They have bright, lively, spicy flavors and deep, dark color. When I blind-tasted samples from different vineyards, the Perrins' second crop always scored very highly." Eventually he decided that the grapes were worthy of an elevated status: Blended with fruit from the nearby 100-year-old Kettleman vineyard (which produces a "dense wine that's very pleasing, but not very complex"), it transcended the Vintner's Blend to be labelled Lodi Zinfandel. Commensurate with the cost of Lodi fruit, it's a delicious wine at a humble price.
The relationship with Ravenswood has been cause for considerable excitement among Lodi grapegrowers, at least if you judge by the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission. This organization, led by executive director Mark Chandler (and funded by "Crush District 11" growers at rates commensurate with each one's annual grape tonnage), has been sponsoring a broad range of programs aimed at upgrading Lodi's image and quality. "As a farmer, you tend to be in your own little world," Steve acknowledges. "But through the commission, we're learning more about what's going on in places like Australia. We're getting more information now about everything from irrigation to pest control."
Balancing Mother Nature…
"When pesticides originally came out, we were very skeptical," says Dewaine. "We used very little; Virgil used none. You never want to eliminate anything on Earth – you need to work with Mother Nature and find a balance. That's where Man screwed up back in the Forties and Fifties. When 24D was used in the islands west of here, it came in on the dust and really hurt the Tokays – inside three or four years, they had to be taken out.
"Somebody once said that the best fertilizer is the footprints of the farmer," says Dewaine. "Driving around in a pickup just doesn't do it. Every day here, we learn something new. Paying attention to what's going on around you is the difference between farming and working in an office."
"I'd go crazy working in an office," says Steve. "Every morning I make a plan for the whole day, but inside of the first hour it's changed a hundred times. Farming is a feeling – I go out every day to check what the plants are doing. We're small enough that we can take the time."
A bright future…
Pleased with the results of such commitment, Joel Peterson is now talking to the Perrins about buying their first-crop fruit. "It would come from ten acres of our older vines," says Dewaine. "Larger wineries can't give us the attention that Joel and Ravenswood do. Even if you have the best flavor in the world, a winemaker who doesn't know how to handle it won't make a good wine."
"Joel is the only one I've run across who appreciates what you're doing," says Steve. "If you give him quality, he'll pay an 'appreciated' price." That may have something to do with the fact that, twenty years after voting to buy Virgil's vineyard, the Perrins are finally adding onto their own house. As a matter fact, Steve just built a big, brand-new one for himself, his wife, and their three kids.
"Around here, farmers never used to care about houses," says Steve. "We were working too hard. But now that Lodi is getting recognition, people are making their houses look better – sort of like in Napa and Sonoma."
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