Wine, goats, culture: A natural mix
A couple of women shake Lodi from its slumber
Awhile ago, I wrote about women winemakers in Santa Barbara County, a talented, dedicated bunch who make fewer than five thousand cases of wine a year. I sensed in them a kindred spirit – women like myself creating art beloved of those who stop to notice.
Last month, I carried my tape recorder and camera to Lodi, a town about 100 miles east of where I live. Based in the County of San Joaquin, which derives its name from the eponymous river that flows through it, Lodi is a small farming town on flat land where straight roads cut each other at right angles.
It was my first trip there and I expected, no doubt influenced by the journey south to Santa Barbara, to drive along fields of artichokes and lettuce that gave way to vineyards. The reality was different: Different sized towns, defined more by the expanse of their malls and car dealerships than by any aspirations to quaintness. But around one bend I was struck by the vastness of the landscape. This was no Wordsworth country. Here wind turbines showed the incursion of humans into pristine land. But in an odd way, the beauty of grass turned a deep gold in the sun and the gentle rotation of the windmills left me breathless. Inroads, yes, but still somehow working with rather than against nature.
The warmth of a rural community.
Working close to the soil does something to people. Pretenses are shorn, leaving in their place only a human connection. Bettyann Spenker of Spenker Winery and Sue Tipton of Acquiesce Vineyards use grapes from their own vineyards. These are not executives several times removed from the farm workers who do all the work. As owners of small businesses, they get their nails dirty. Even more impressive is that both women came into winemaking later in life.
Bettyann, with her background in biology and plant pathology, taught extension classes at Washington State University, worked on small berries, and later traveled to the Dominican Republic because she had “no reason to be anywhere.” Then, when her father suffered a heart attack, she came back to the U.S. and settled in Lodi where she had accepted a job as a science teacher at the high school. She met her husband, Chuck, at a winemaking party at a friend’s place.
Sue’s marriage to her husband, Rodney, took her all over the country. With each promotion, her husband moved to a different city, sometimes for short periods of time. With three boys, Sue was always on her feet. This math major found jobs outside the home and worked at different times as office manager or sales representative. An avid cook, she developed a palate that helps in her current job.
Wine and goats.
Bettyann’s happily ever after took a turn when she realized that despite the birth of two daughters, she still had “a few live brain cells.” Chuck wanted to make wine for sale, which sent Bettyann to enology classes at UC Davis and landed her a job as winemaker at her own business. Although his family had owned and farmed the land since 1902, a portion of which Chuck and Bettyann had bought, no one had ever made wine commercially. That changed with the first vintage in 1994.
To hear Bettyann tell it with humor is to believe that goats are a natural extension of the wine business! With farming – all grapes — come animals. Welcome the goats. She now has more than 70 of them, including yearlings and babies.
The day before I visited Bettyann she had received a license to milk the goats and accumulate milk; the excitement was palpable. Now the County Health Department has given the Spenkers permission to go to the next step — process the milk for cheese.
The goats, meanwhile, are asserting themselves, luring bipeds to their pens. Bettyann plans to install a goat-gazing gazebo, so people can enjoy these bovidae before heading to the tasting room to enjoy newly available goat cheese to pair with the wine. For more goat exposure, check out their website: Every spring they offer goat yoga with the babies.
Wine and art.
A bottle of white from Chateauneuf du Pape changed Sue Tipton’s life. That was the type of wine she wanted to make. Realizing the difficulty of making white wines, she put all her grapes, so to speak, in that basket. “Whites are very delicate,” she says. “They need intensive babysitting.” As does her rosé of Grenache.
Little steps brought Sue and Rodney to this vineyard in Acampo, a little settlement a smidge north of Lodi. One day in Oregon, where they lived at the time, they were listening to a song, titled Acquiesce, by K.D. Lang. Rodney said they were going to own a place one day and call it Acquiesce, Sue recalls.
They fell in love with the beautiful 18-acre property on which sits their house, surrounded by vineyards. That was in 2003. The wine came several years later. The 100-year-old barn, a shelter for owls and the creatures they eat, was falling to pieces. It is now a beautiful tasting room, where she pairs her wines with bites.
When you enter, you see a board to the right. Before I Die, it says, with lines underneath the title for all the things visitors want to do. At first I thought of it as merely unusual. Over the course of our conversation, Sue mentioned its inspiration by artist Candy Chang, who has opened up murals in public places to participation by the population at large. Her work has inspired more than 5,000 Before I Die walls. Every week Sue’s board fills up as people express their aspirations. All strangely moving.
As for women in wine? Sue says women have a more delicate palate. She enjoys the International Women’s Wine Competition, judged by women, but open to all. “My wines do very well in that competition. They pick up on the delicate palate, aromatics…women are gifted with broader palates than men’s.”
Featured image: Shutterstock artist Chantarat: Sunset over a Lodi vineyard
Others: My camera at work