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Loving Lodi - A Wine Of The Month Club Favorite

Sep 16, 2008
Located directly east of San Francisco at the edge of the Sacramento River Delta, the Lodi wine region is one of the oldest in California. Lodi vines didn't wait for humans to transport and cultivate them. They were indigenous to the area, dangling from trees along the riverbanks. An ideal climate for premium wine grapes, warm days are followed by cool nights, when marine air from the San Francisco Bay tunnels up through the Carquinez Straits and blows across the land.

In the past, grape farmers sold most of their prolific harvests to a handful of giant commercial wineries, among them Mondavi Woodbridge, Turner Road Vintners, and Sutter Home Winery. But in the last ten years small premium wineries have quadrupled to over 60. Dating back to the 1800s, Zinfandel has been Lodi's pride and a wine of the month club favorite.

The region claims some of the oldest Zinfandel vineyards in California, whose fruit is purchased by the likes of Turley and Robert Biale of Napa. The phylloxera root louse, which destroyed vineyards throughout California in the early 1990s, could not exist in Lodi's sandy soils and spared heritage vineyards as old as 100 years.

Vino Con Brio

Vino Con Brio, as much as any other Lodi winery, exemplifies the history of the region that includes giant commercial wineries and now a growing swarm of small premium producers who also produce wine of the month club selections. Anne Matson's father Mike Matson and her grandfather had been farming cherries and grapes since the 1970s and eventually owned 650 acres of cherries and 400 acres of commercially farmed vineyards that produced Chardonnay and Merlot, which they sold to wineries.

The market has been saturated with these two varietals, and someone made an offer that her grandfather couldn't refuse, Anne says. After the sale, her father purchased 53 acres on the cooler east side of the Lodi appellation, and the family began its foray into premium grape growing and wine making for the commercial, retail, and wine of the month club market. Planted in 1942, the Locust Tree vineyard is home to their old-vine Zinfandel.

The Amorosa Vineyard is planted to 13 different warm-region varietals, mainly Italian and the South African Pinotage. Their tasting room is located here along with the Amorosa Inn and Gardens, which Anne's mother, Renae, runs. The family continues to farm its cherry ranch.

Anne Matson graduated from the University of California, Davis, including a year in Italy in 1989, where the Matson family had vacationed several times. "I always had such an affinity for Italy. I studied the language and the arts, poked my nose around a few cellars, and had a wonderful experience. That's when I started to really enjoy red wine. I wasn't quite 21 at the time, but the Italians don't care. It's a beautiful thing."

After graduating with a double major in political science and communications, she worked in San Francisco in the financial field and five years ago joined the new winery, working in sales and marketing for all markets, including wine of the month club lists. Last year she became General Manager of Vino Con Brio.

Anne explains that the winery got its name from the musical term brio. "My dad has always been really into music. On sheet music, brio means that the music needs to be played with liveliness, with passion or vigor. We thought that Vino con Brio had a certain ring, and we ran with a subtle Italian theme throughout the winery, although we are not one bit Italian." But she explains that her maternal aunt married into an Italian family, with whom the Matsons have a close relationship because, along with being part of the family, her Italian uncle farms the cherry orchards.

Vino Con Brio now produces 5,000 cases of wine per year, and Anne says that they might go as high as 9,000 cases with wine of the month club distribution. But they want to keep their production small, concentrate on quality, and continue to sell most of their wines direct to customers in the tasting room, in local Lodi wine shops, and to wine of the month club members, although Anne has given some of their wines to various small distributors in Maryland, Virginia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Minnesota.

The family has chosen to make wines that others are not making, she says. "We don't want to have the 213th Chardonnay on a supermarket shelf. That's not us. We strive for the unique and for what is absolutely best suited for the exact spot where we're planting it in Lodi."

Lodi Vines

Lodi has always been well known for its premium Zinfandel, especially from old vineyards. So Zinfandel was part of the plan from the beginning. Their vines are 40 years-old, which Anne says are merely middle age in Lodi. "I can think of a couple of vineyards in the area that are over one hundred years-old."

Along with Zinfandel, the Matsons focus on southern European varietals and South African Pinotage, because these regions have warm climates that are similar to Lodi. Anne says that they're doing very well with white Muscat Canelli, Viognier, and Pinot Grigio and with reds like Grenache, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Sangiovese, and Pinotage, all wine of the month club favorites. Some experimental Aglianico from southern Italy is looking promising, she says.

A cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, South African Pinotage, which Anne calls "Pinot Noir
on steroids" is the surprise element in the Vino Con Brio portfolio. "It has a lot of the flavor pro-
file that you might find in Pinot Noir, but it's a little bigger, a little bolder, more in your face. With the government changes and the sanctions lifted in South Africa in the last 20 years, there's been an influx of South African wines that were previously not available, and I think over time they've peaked the curiosity of California growers."

My grandparents went to South Africa a little over a decade ago and brought back a bottle of Pinotage to my father because it was the heritage grape of South Africa. That got him researching the varietal, and he later realized that Lodi and Cape Town have exactly the same number on heat summation tables. And both areas have the same sandy-based soil, so that's what prompted us to experiment with the varietal here. It's done quite well."

Highly capable, Anne Matson is proving to be a formidable steward of Vino Con Brio. Soon to
be married, she anticipates changing some of her obligations at the winery. "When I eventually have children, I'm sure they will prevent me from working the 60-hour plus workweek that I'm doing now. But I always see myself definitely involved with the winery in some way."
About the Author
Kent Campbell is a co-author for Celebrations Wine Club in collaboration with Anna Maria Knapp. Celebrations Wine Club is a wine of the month club delivering the best wines of California and Italy for over 18 years.
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