Wine, Wine Blog

And the next generation keeps it going

Young women stood on tippy toes to peer into barrels

During my visit to Lodi I interviewed two women who represent the next generation of winemakers. They worked with their dads from an early age, but both sought experience outside the comfort of the family business before returning to it.

Most intriguing about the two is the variety of grapes with which they experiment. Unlike so many wineries I’ve visited that offer a few varietals and blends, these winemakers play with a range of grapes. What they serve up from year to year depends on their preference at the time – an enological variation on the ‘menu depends on the chef’s mood’ idea.

It is fortuitous that their playground is the vineyards of Lodi. Little known to the world-at-large for its grape-growing prowess, Lodi is home to more than a hundred varieties of grapevines. Some have exotic names, such as, Bacchus, Dornfelder, and Souzão. Bacchus is a white wine grape – surprising for a grape named after the god of revelry. Wouldn’t you assume red?

Born into it.

Susan Lambie of Ripken Vineyards and Winery works with one such exotic grape. Named Teroldego, it is a red grape from the northern part of Italy.

It’s all in the family for the Ripkens. Susan’s grandfather, Arthur Ripken, came to the United States in 1928 at the age of 21. Headed West, he eventually made his way to California, where he bought 200 acres of land in the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. This is now the family’s under-the-sea vineyard – 19 feet below sea level, enclosed within levies.

Over time, the Ripkens increased their holdings and became mainly grape growers, cultivating 50 different varieties.


Susan Ripken at her family’s vineyards. Picnics are allowed.

Learning the ropes (and grapes!).

Susan, now winemaker, made wine with her father as a little girl. After completing her degree in business management, she apprenticed with Kim Crawford and Michelle Richardson in New Zealand, bringing back with her a knowledge of a different hemisphere. The scale of those operations compared to the Ripkens’s was vastly different.

“We’re very small,” Susan said. “The winery is just a hobby… and makes our customers more involved.” Susan’s father, Richard “Rip,” passionate about planting unheard-of grape varieties, decided he would make wine in his ‘barn’ to take on his sales calls. Twenty years ago, when few knew Viognier, he offered winemakers a taste, expanding their palate and subsequently that of their customers .

The tradition continues. Although the barn is licensed to make a thousand cases, Susan said she makes far fewer. She has a list of 25 wines because she makes so many kinds.

“This year I have a couple of ideas. Usually we decide the day we bring the fruit in. We’re out in the field, it looks great. It’s kind of what we do for fun.”

The Frog Band.

The name is irresistible. Toasted Toad Cellars is the brainchild of Laura Ricca and her father, Jeff Werter. Of course, I asked how the winery came to be named so. Jeff, a drummer since he was 10, bought the frog band at a garage sale. Knowing his love of frogs, people brought him frog figurines. So a name was created, a winery born.

“It represented food, fun, and good times,” said Laura. “We wanted something playful.”


Laura Ricca checks the progress of her wine.

When Laura graduated from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif., with a major in business marketing and a minor in wine and viticulture, she and her father entered business together. Laura had been making wine with Jeff since she was a child, but with a degree and experience she brought her own ideas to the business. During her college years, she had worked at wineries, such as Eos Estate, J. Lohr, and Norman Vineyards, now closed.

In 2009, when Toasted Toad opened its doors for business, Laura, now the winemaker, made five varietals and 600 cases. That number has risen to 1,500 cases. And the number of varieties of grapes with which Laura experiments has risen to 30. In any given year, the winery offers about ten varietals with grapes sourced primarily from Lodi.

It has been a wild ride for Laura, but rewarding. Most of her varietals have won the Consumer Wine Awards at Lodi.

Although rosés are now in style throughout the year, I consider them one of the joys of summer. Except for Zindego, a red blend, all the Lodi wines I tasted with friends are rosés and very well made. These rosés, unlike so many, do not have an offputting farm smell: These are pleasantly aromatic. The flavor profile of each of the varietals from which the rosés were made is unfamiliar to me. However, I could taste an impressive difference among the rosés.

Acquiesce, Grenache Rosé, 2018. Wonderful wine with an aroma of watermelon. During one of our heat waves, we sipped this out on the porch with watermelon and feta skewers and an Indian-style sweet potato and chickpea salad.

Estate Crush, Rosé of Cinsault, 2017. This provided a reprieve from the blast of heat around us. A very light-bodied, lower alcohol wine that we paired with a beet, chickpea, and goat cheese salad. As for watermelon with feta, there’s no avoiding that in 100-degree weather.

Oak Farm Vineyards, Rosé of Grenache, 2017. At a restaurant in Lodi, I had this at end of a long day. Pale pink, so light, in fact, that had the room not been so well-lighted, it might have looked like a Chardonnay. It paired very well with an apple salad and fettuccine with grilled cruciferous-vegetables.

Ripken Vineyards and Winery, Zindego, 2016. Blend of Primitivo, Rip’s Black, and Teroldego. An accessible, medium-bodied wine with a light aroma of black currant and spice. On the palate, this was very peppery. Paired well with mild and spicy food. It will take you from aperitif to main course.

Toasted Toad Cellars, Barbera Rosé, 2015. An unexpected delight with strong tropical fruit aromas of banana and lychee. Secondary aroma of stone fruit. It was our first time trying a Barbera rosé and we enjoyed its fruity, distinctive flavor.

Top photo: Beginning of Grapes in a Vineyard, Shutterstock, Jana Milin.

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