"Lodi's Professor of Blends
By W. Peter Hoyne
I first traveled through Lodi, California about a decade ago in search of some Old Vine Zinfandel on my way to Stockton. Years earlier, I had journeyed through Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma on the same mission. I had envisioned Lodi to be a bustling metropolitan city surrounded by rolling hills interspersed with elaborate wineries and a lush landscape as is the case in Napa and Sonoma. Although not quite what I had expected, I found a new reverence for unconventional red blends and a renewed admiration for Old Vine Zinfandel. They are both an integral part of Lodi’s identity.
Located an hour east of San Francisco, near the San Joaquin River Delta of California’s Central Valley, Lodi has more of a small town feel within a quaint farming community. It is a region that was once recognized only for their grower cooperatives that produced bulk wine, but has since evolved into a collection of multigenerational families with wineries that craft artisan-styled wines and blends. The Central Valley has been the fertile agricultural hub of California while producing more than half of the state’s grapes for winemaking. It benefits from a warm Mediterranean climate, cool Delta breezes, sandy loam soils and a water supply from an underground aquifer.
Michael David Winery has become a landmark of Lodi, bonded in 1984 by brothers Michael and David Phillips. At that time, only seven wineries existed in Lodi. While I have followed Michael David Winery for more than a decade, this was the first time that I had an opportunity to meet virtually with David to discuss his avenue toward success. Now part of the fifth generation of winemakers, Michael and David Phillips’ roots date back 150 years to their great, great grandfather and the family’s farming history in growing vegetables and fruits. Even during Prohibition, they maintained a brisk business with people enjoying wine at home. The Phillips shipped grapes throughout the country with instructions on how to prevent fermentation and how to avoid the creation of wine, certainly advancing the concept of home winemaking.
Dave Phillips grew up in Lodi, but later moved to Sacramento to attend the University of California, Davis. In his college days, he went abroad to France and fell in love with the blended wines from the Rhone Valley. As fate would have it, in the end he would return to Lodi to help his father and brother with the family business. Dave sold produce at roadside fruit stands in the 70’s and at farmers markets in 80’s and early 90’s to pay his expenses.
He admits that the “main business was fruit and vegetables back then. We were always growing grapes and selling them to local cooperatives and later to bigger corporate wineries.” A blessing in disguise occurred, when one of the big wineries, whom they were selling their grapes to in the mid 90’s, decided that there was a glut and couldn’t buy their grapes that year. According to Dave “that was the time we decided to take matters into our own hands, crush our own grapes and go out and start selling it.”
In 1999, they hired Chicago-based Great Lakes as their first wine distributor outside of California. As Dave explains, he made his first sales call to Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant. Unexpectedly, Charlie Trotter bought a case of Michael David’s white wine blend called Symphony. At that point, Dave realized that “if I can sell wine to Charlie Trotter, I can sell wine anywhere.”
“We learned early on that blending can make any wine better, but at that time blends were not popular; single varietals is what were selling at the time. Regular red blends weren’t a big deal in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. We had a consulting winemaker that insisted we always put some Petite Sirah in just about every red wine we make and we still do today. Petite Sirah works in everything. Especially Lodi Old Vine Petite Sirah; it’s a treasure and adds depth, color, tannin and structure. Everything people were looking for.”
The winery had a breakout moment in 2002 when Dave and his brother Michael were tasting Zinfandel from seven separate vineyards. In the end, they decided to blend all of the lots together. At that point, Dave explains: “my Catholic education kicked in and 7 Deadly Zins was born.” This placed the winery on the map as sales rose to 300,000 cases annually. Two years ago, the brand was sold to The Wine Group.
After 7 Deadly Zins, the winery created stylish, eclectic Zinfandels labeled Lust, Sloth and Gluttony, along with a Cabernet Sauvignon named Rapture. They all had a much higher price point. “We came out with them at $50 a bottle and no one in Lodi ever sold a bottle for that $50, but the wines sold out every year. We got much better with our winemaking, won a lot of gold medals and started to get 90 point scores. We knew that we could put Lodi on the map as a premium winegrowing region. We pioneered improving quality in the vineyard, and I insisted on buying the best barrels, the best French Oak we could get, for our Cabernets and Syrah.” Along the way, they introduced Earthquake and Six Sense Syrah which became their most awarded wine.
The Phillips brothers designed cartoonish labels for some of their blends. Petite Petite has a circus label and Freakshow highlights circus freaks on the label. Freakshow has now become their number one brand. “My brother loved old circus posters and I like crazy, wild and colorful. I always wanted our wines to look different from everybody else out there. Consumers only buy it once for the label. Backing it up with really great juice in the bottle was a key to our success. Our wines today are really balanced, with Lodi juicy, upfront fruit. They’re always consumer friendly and ready drink the day you buy it, since the average American wine drinker ages their wine for about 2 hours.”
The Phillips brothers have a new facility in Northern Sonoma where they source North Coast grapes for blending into Lodi wines. Dave admits: “Lodi could always use a little more tannin and a little more backbone structure in order to fill in the flavor profile.” This month Michael David will release a wine named Outer Bound, a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, an Alexander Valley Cabernet and their first Russian River Pinot Noir. They have a grand total of 27 labels, with some exclusively for their wine club members. It has become the most successful wine club in the country, topping over 10,000 members. Their wines are sold in 35 countries including Russia, Vietnam, China, Sweden and others.
Dave has some personal wisdom to share with others. “Do what you love and be the best at what you do. Have fun with it. Our goal is to make wine fun and not to be afraid of it. You don’t have to be a snob to drink wine.”
Robert Mondavi’s efforts were influential to Dave. He always remembers a quote from Mondavi: “the more you give, the more you get. Robert Mondavi was always very charitable and we try to be the same way too. Go out there and let people see it.”
His future vision is to “keep promoting Lodi, improving the quality of our region and improve the way of life for our community. Get scholarships to kids that are the first generation to go to college. Make it a better place.”
In January, Michael David Winery was recognized by the Wine Enthusiast as the 2020 American Winery of the Year. It now seems obvious that the Phillips brothers have made an their indelible mark in wine history.