A Spokesman for Lodi's Grape Diversity

New commission leader aims to tout quality, value of Lodi's vineyards to global audience

by Stacy Briscoe
Stuart Spencer is the new executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission and winemaker and owner of St. Amant Winery. Credit: Randy Caparoso Photography.

Lodi, Calif.—Last week the Lodi Winegrape Commission (LWC) appointed program manager Stuart Spencer as the organization’s new executive director, after its former leader, Wendy Brannen, resigned from the post during the LWC’s January board of directors meeting.

Taking over this new leadership position, Spencer said his primary goals are two-fold. First, to streamline the marketing, promotional and educational programs already in place within the Lodi wine grape industry; secondly to “double down on PR efforts” to expand the region’s already increasing grape and wine buying clientele.

Spencer brings experience not only as an LWC board member, but as a member of the Lodi wine community. He’s the owner and winemaker for St. Amant Winery, founded by his parents Barbara and the late Tim Spencer in 1979.

Working from within
Spencer spent the last 19 years as the commission’s program manager, during which time he played an integral role in the development of the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Growing — a program he looks forward to continuing to nurture. Grape growers certified under Lodi Rules are held to strict standards regarding everything from soil management to business management; water regulation to pest control. Since its launch in 2005, membership has grown from six local growers and 1,500 acres of vineyards to more than 150 growers and 46,000 acres across nine California crush districts, according to Spencer.

The initiative continues to grow both within and beyond the state of California: “There are over 60 growers outside of Lodi, including Israel, that are now getting their vineyards certified under the Lodi Rules,” Spencer said in an interview with Wines & Vines.

Spencer said he also plans to address the increasing vineyard labor difficulties by establishing outreach programs for local Lodi growers and assisting in the education of alternative, cost-efficient farming methods.

Another “big project” he mentioned is educating the Lodi grape growing community about recent vineyard virus epidemics throughout the state — namely red blotch and leafroll — and providing farmers with comprehensive strategies on how to detect virus signs and symptoms. While he says these programs won’t technically fall within the Lodi Rules these two issues are still “very much about vineyard sustainability.”

Expanding outward
“We need to diversify the market for our grape growers. Lodi has a lot to offer other wine regions,” said Spencer, referring to potential partnerships between Lodi farmers and winemakers outside of the AVA. The benefits to those winemakers, he says, come in the form of grape variety and cost-efficiency.

“Zinfandel and Lodi will always be synonymous,” but he adds that there are now more than 100 varieties grown within the region. This includes many “obscure for California” varieties like Albariño or Teroldego that, according to Spencer, are well-suited to Lodi’s classically Mediterranean climate.

He notes that just within the past 10 years the wine market has become increasingly more diverse: winemakers across California are looking to work with alternative varieties; the new generation of wine drinkers is becoming more experimental in wine tasting; and veteran tasters have become more accepting of discovering something new. He said this is a testament to “the willingness and innovative spirit of the Lodi growers that are exploring these lesser-known varieties and finding success with them.”

What Lodi has to offer winemakers who are more interested in common California varieties are more attractive prices than grapes purchased elsewhere in the state. According to the state crush report, Cabernet Sauvignon can average $2,000 to more than $7,000 per ton from North Coast counties but the average price for District 11 (Lodi) grapes is $700. “We’re also seeing vintners that are willing to pay above district average pricing to work more closely with growers,” Spencer said.

This translates to an expanded reach and positive response from consumers. “We are seeing a lot of success with Lodi-appellated brands in the marketplace,” Spencer said. “Historically, this success was primarily with Zinfandel, but over the past couple of years we’re seeing success with other varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.”

Hit the wine road
“It’s clear that the number of wineries in Lodi have grown,” Spencer said. “We need to nurture that and get our wineries a greater market presence.” According to the WinesVines Analytics winery database, San Joaquin County and Lodi are home to 108 wineries. Spencer said he plans to make a push to get Lodi winemakers out on the road to make personal connections with wine buyers not just across the country, but around the world as well.

Last month, Lodi Vintners hosted the first “Lodi in London” tasting event at the popular Noble Rot Wine Bar, attended by over 30 members of the UK wine industry. Following that event, the group then traveled to Germany to represent their region at ProWein. “We’ve had interest from many places,” Spencer said, “but in particular northern European countries seem to be very excited about Lodi Zinfandel.”

Next month, a group of Lodi wineries are planning to attend Vin Expo in Hong Kong to create a footprint in the Asian wine market.

“What am I trying to accomplish?” Spencer asked. “To foster an environment that’s dedicated to making quality wines, to go out and tell that story and to embrace that energy.”

Posted on 04.13.2018 - 11:23:40 PST
Give'em hell Stuart! It's your time and Lodi's time...congrats!
Mark Chandler