Randy Caparoso considers himself a Lodi outsider.
But the accomplished restaurateur, award-winning wine professional, writer and editor, who has called Lodi home only since 2010, is an insider when it comes to the area’s wine scene.
The 58-year-old native of Hawaii probably could live and work in any wine region in the world, but he’s fallen hard for Lodi, which he believes is a well-kept secret worth sharing.
Randy Caparoso has decades of experience in the restaurant and wine industries that he has brought to Lodi as a writer and ambassador for the Lodi Wine Grape Commission.
Caparoso’s encyclopedic knowledge of Lodi eclipses many with generations invested in the area. In 2002, Caparoso said he “got turned around” and realized Lodi’s possibilities while judging the Jerry D. Mead New World Wine Competition in Claremont, where thousands of wines are blind-tasted by a panel of noted wine professionals and journalists. Caparoso and an ample majority of the judges were impressed by a Syrah and awarded it best in show. Turns out the wine came from Delicato Family Vineyards in Manteca and retailed at the time for about $10.
“When the judges like me saw that, it was very interesting,” Caparoso said. “Hey, good wine is good wine.”
Some years earlier, Caparoso became acquainted with Mark Chandler, then the executive director of the Lodi Wine Grape Commission. Chandler invited Caparoso to visit Lodi. In time, Caparoso made several visits and grew more entrenched in the area.
“I started coming out to Lodi and I loved it,” Caparoso said. “Mark showed me all of the vineyards and all of the primary people here.”
Caparoso studied Western Philosophy at the University of Hawaii between 1974-78 and developed his wine acumen as a server and later as the sommelier at the Cavalier restaurant in Honolulu. In 1988, he partnered with Asian-fusion chef Roy Yamaguchi and helped open 28 Roy’s restaurants around the world. Caparoso also ran Roy’s wine program and earned “Wine Marketer of the Year” by Restaurant Wine magazine in 1994 and 1999. In 1998, he was named “Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year” by Sante magazine.
In 2001, Caparoso left Roy’s as an active partner and went into the winemaking business. He produced three vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir for his own label. Caparoso had developed such an affinity for Lodi-area fruit that he purchased Syrah grapes from Delicato to add some life to what he said was his “boring” Cabernet Sauvignon.
The blend “was delicious,” Caparoso said. “I lost money doing it. It was not a labor of love. It was a labor of loss, so I have smartly retreated from that business.”
After leaving the winemarking business, Caparoso concentrated on restaurant consulting. In 2008, when the real estate and stock markets collapsed, restaurant consultants were not in high demand, so Caparoso turned his full-time attention to wine writing.
In 2010, Chandler invited Caparoso to move from Southern California to Lodi and write and handle social media for the grape commission’s website, Lodiwine.com.
“I told Mark I’m not going to be a shill and he said, ‘Fine. Write about anything you want,’” Caparoso said.
Caparoso continues to write for the website under current executive director, Camron King.
“He has a fantastic background,” King said. “He has a lot of experience and a lot of passion for this region. He knows the ins and outs of this region and the wine world in general. He has just a phenomenal wealth of knowledge.”
Caparoso believes Lodi should celebrate its sense of place much like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa and Sonoma — areas wine lovers and media consider to be of the highest quality.
“Lodi’s issue is it doesn’t get much respect,” Caparoso said. “It’s a Rodney Dangerfield. Most people think Lodi is a bad place to grow grapes.”
Caparoso said Lodi produces as many, if not more, grape varieties than any region in the world. But Lodi’s reputation for supplying bulk-wine still exists. To help improve Lodi’s image, Caparoso proposed the Lodi Native project to six winemakers who agreed to produce a single-vineyard Zinfandel under a strict protocol of non-intervention in an effort to express the vineyard, not the varietal or the winery’s brand. The rules included using only native yeast with no oak dust, no acidification or deacidification, and no malolactic fermentation.
“So I said, ‘We have to totally throw this whole idea of making a commercial wine where it’s all about your brands and individual styles,’” Caparoso said, paraphrasing his pitch to the winemakers. “’Let’s all work together to establish the place, and so therefore, let’s set up rules in which we’re going to pick the grapes and make the wine that would maximize the taste of the vineyard.’”
The Lodi Native wines, made from the 2012 vintage, exhibit distinct characteristics that reflect their place of origin. For example, the Zinfandels from vineyards on the west side of the Lodi American Viticultural Area: the Wegat Vineyard by Chad Joseph for Maley Brothers, the Soucie Vineyard by Layne Montgomery of M2 Wines, and the Trulux Vineyard made by Michael McCay of McCay Cellars, deliver more earthy qualities than those from the east side, which tend to be more fruit-forward: Century Block by Ryan Sherman for Fields Family Wines and Noma Ranch made by Tim Holdener for Macchia Wines. In central/east Lodi, the Lodi Native wine from Marian’s Vineyard made by Stuart Spencer of St. Amant Winery had fruity and earthy characteristics.
Generally, the project proved its point and was well-received by the media and consumers. Plans are in the works to continue the project.
Caparoso covers the west coast and is editor-at-large for The Somm Journal. He’s also the contributing editor for Tasting Panel magazine, and shows off Lodi to visiting wine professionals and journalists.
“I tell people Lodi is special, as special as any place in my mind,” he said. “There are a lot of interesting things. Just here, there are a lot of treasures. I love it.”
At the risk of offending some of his Lodi friends, Caparoso’s favorite wines include:
“I like Harney Lane’s Zinfandel because half of it is made from Primitivo and I happen to like that grape. Primitivo makes this nice, light style of Zinfandel.
“I’m crazy about just about anything Borra makes, especially, they make a Heritage Red. That’s one of the first wines I tasted when I first got here in 2010. They called it a field blend. It’s just grapes that they pick all at one time made from Carignan and Barbera and a little Petite Sirah and a little Alicante Bouchet and some Zinfandel. They just pick grapes around the winery all in one day and I tasted it and that wine had a real sense of place. It tasted like the place. There’s no wine exactly like it in the whole world.
“Almost any red wine that comes from the Bechthold vineyard. And there you’re talking about multiple producers, not a lot, but there are several both in and outside of Lodi, producing these fantastic wines from this vineyard that has survived since 1886. … By and large everyone makes a wine that’s pretty much natural, not a lot of new oak, so you can really taste the place. Now it stands as one of California’s most unique wines. It’s fantastic wine (made from the Cinsault grape). It tastes like strawberry-rhubarb pie. It’s just delicious, sort of plush, lush sort of flavor. There’s a little bit of earthiness, not too much. It’s mostly fruit-driven; it’s very soft.
“I like all of these wines from Lodi.”