A TV news crew and lots of people with notepads and expensive cameras were on hand for last Tuesday's Blessing of the Grapes at Woodbridge Winery - the unofficial annual kick off for Lodi's harvest since Robert Mondavi purchased the winery in 1979.
Lodi winegrape grower Stanton Lange with his grandson at the wheel drove a blue Landini tractor delivering the first load of the season to Father Michael Kelly of St. Joachim Parish for the blessing.
Picked from Woodbridge's "A" block vineyard against the south side of the winery, the 4+ tons of 18˚ to 19˚ Brix Sauvignon blanc - that "eats well" per Stanton - became the symbol for Father Kelly's petition for a high-yielding, high-quality harvest.
While guests went on to a fine catered lunch by A Touch of Mesquite Catering on the tasting room lawn, I was off making more discoveries at the winery.
This year, Woodbridge Visitor Center Manager Larry Pilmaier headed up the establishment of a memorial to Robert Mondavi. 5 pine trees were planted in a circular commemorative grove within sight of Woodbridge Road against the north wall of the winery's massive, half-underground barrel warehouse.
Nearby is also a new community garden, which has already supplied 300 pounds of fresh vegetables to the Stockton Food Bank.
Father Kelly took time out to bless both of these new projects, giving the last pine tree an extra bucket-full helping of Holy water. (If one tree winds up a bit taller than the others, you'll know why.)
But the discovery that really excited this Lodi Wine Guy was what Director of Winemaking Todd Ziemann's team has achieved with handmade small lots of wine.
Woodbridge has rightly earned a popular reputation as being one of the largest wineries in the world. During the first real day of crush, last Wednesday, August 18, Chardonnay for sparkling wine and Pinot Grigio were brought in on 51 truck loads of 24 tons each, for a total of 1,224 tons crushed - more than what most of Lodi's wineries will crush in an entire year.
The facility is a truly winemaker's dream, a finely-tuned machine capable of doing anything with 50 million gallons of wine stored in a forest of barrels and 350 tanks, the largest tank alone holding 216,000 gallons.
The crush-high staff count of 300 working around the clock - except on Sundays - produces about 1,000 different batches of wine, including relatively new small lots of only 8 barrels each.
That leads to the name for these small lot bottlings: "Section 29" referring to the portion of Federal law that has remained with us since the start of Prohibition, back in 1919, allowing a family to legally produce up to 200 gallons of wine at home without a permit.
What is remarkable about these wines in a winery of this size, is that only a few rows of vines from choice vineyards scattered throughout Lodi are contracted and monitored to supply non-mainstream winegrapes, such as Alicante Bouschet, Vermentino and Roussanne.
Even more noteworthy and exciting is that these http://www.robertmondavi.com/wbrm/wines/winemakers_selection" target="_blank">Section 29 wines rank right up there with some of Lodi's finest, while keeping to a reasonable $18.99 a bottle.
Larry treated me to a private pouring of the 2008 Lodi Chardonnay - which would make any big, butter oak lover quite happy - followed by Todd's most memorable recent bottling, the 2008 Lodi Syrah, full of bacon, black fruits, chalky tannins and meaty oak, so good that I bought a bottle to cellar for a few months.
If you haven't been out to taste these micro-Woodbridge wines, it's time for another visit.