August 21, 2006
Lodi's State Fair

Another weekend, another lost opportunity to visit the California State Fair. Instead, we ended up in Lodi, where, now that I think of it, a stop at the roadside produce stand of Phillips Farms amounted to a kind of mini-version of the State Fair. There were more types of melons than we'll likely find at Cal Expo when we finally get there. There were chickens and rabbits to see. There were ducks on a pond. There was a working windmill, all kinds of seasonal pies, and a huge flower garden where visitors can pick blooms and fill a basket; just try that at Cal Expo.

And just like at the State Fair, there was a chance to taste award-winning wines, given that Phillips Farms also is home to Michael David Vineyards, one of Lodi's faster growing wineries. Members of the Phillips family have been farming at Lodi since shortly after the Civil War, their agricultural practices changing with the times, from alfalfa and canning tomatoes in the past to heirloom tomatoes and lavender today.

Brothers Michael and David Phillips established the winery in 1984, initially calling it Phillips Vineyards, changing the name to Michael David Vineyards in 2001. Since then, it's become a nationally recognized brand, notable for its robust red wines, value pricing and savvy marketing, which includes such memorable proprietary labels as Incognito, 7 Heavenly Chards and 6th Sense Syrah.

Their biggest success, however, is a hearty Lodi zinfandel called 7 Deadly Zins. Their first release of the wine four years ago amounted to just 1,000 cases. This year they expect to make more than 100,000 cases of the wine, which will account for about a third of their total production.

Not only is the name catchy, the wine is a broadly juicy interpretation of zinfandel, fleshy with ripe berry fruit and easy to drink despite its firm tannins. We tasted both the 2004, currently in release, and the 2005, due to start arriving on the market later this fall. The 2004 is a traditionally muscular and mature take on zinfandel, with overtones of chocolate and port. The 2005 is a fresher, leaner, spicier interpretation of Lodi zinfandel. It's also big - both have around 15 percent alcohol - but it tastes livelier and has a longer finish. If the brothers Phillips thought 7 Deadly Zins already was popular, just wait until the 2005 goes into circulation. The wine customarily sells for around $17.

Michael David Vineyards is apt to turn heads for another reason this fall. The brothers' confidence in Lodi grapes is about to be tested in the release of a couple of super-premium wines. One is a 2004 zinfandel to be called Lust. While assertive, it shows an elegance heretofore not associated with the winery. Big and juicy, with rounded tannins, exquisite balance and a gravelly underpinning to its berry fruitiness, the wine is expected to sell for between $45 and $60, making it one of the more expensive wines ever to come out of Lodi.

The brothers also are about to take a riskier gamble with cabernet sauvignon, a varietal whose reputation in Lodi isn't as established as zinfandel. The high-end 2004 cabernet sauvignon they are about to release will be called Rapture. It's an aromatic and luscious wine whose complex flavors mostly evoke visions of chocolate-dipped cherries. It also is expected to sell in the $45 to $60 range.

For the brothers, at least, those two wines must be the equivalent of the thrill rides on the State Fair midway.

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