Michael Klouda is a newcomer to the Lodi wine scene.
But he’s become enamored with Lodi’s glorious past and believes it must survive.
The gnarly, single-head trained zinfandel vines, some dating to the 1800s that are synonymous with Lodi, are disappearing, perhaps not in alarming numbers but enough so that Klouda is concerned.
“It’s going away because of the cost of labor,” Klouda said on a recent misty morning standing in Roland Hatterle’s head-trained zinfandel vineyard off Turner Road. “People are ripping out old vines and planting stuff for either high wire, which can be mechanically pruned or other systems that can be machined more efficiently.”
Head-trained vines resemble bushes. Harvesting must be done by hand. It’s hard work to keep them going. But when done right, old vines produce lower yields of intense, complex fruit — the kind Klouda likes to work with for his outstanding wines.
“It’s like a true expression of zinfandel,” Klouda said as he thinned burgeoning shoots from a head-trained vine showing tremendous vigor from the heavy winter rains. “On sandy loam soil, this is Lodi.”Klouda didn’t know Lodi existed until he accepted an interview with Michael David Winery in 2009. Klouda, then 22 years old, left behind his life in agriculture and as a chef in Ohio to chase his dream of making it in the wine business. He flew to Los Angeles and bought a baby-blue 1982 Subaru hatchback that leaked oil whenever he made a left-hand turn.
“The car had survived four earthquakes, the owner told me,” Klouda said. “I drove up Highway 99. If I went up I-5, I don’t think I ever would have made it. There are fewer places to stop on I-5.”
Klouda made it to Lodi and he’s made his mark at Michael David, where he now is the viticulturist and northwest grower relations representative. And he’s making critically acclaimed wines for his own label, Michael Klouda Wines, a brand showing solid growth in its infancy.
“I’m very grateful people like my product and it’s selling and it’s moving,” said the 30-year-old Klouda, who’s married (Katie) and has two children: daughter Juniper, 7, and son Logan, 4. “I’m starting to get a lot of traction.”
Klouda has developed relationships with Lodi growers and winemakers such as Hatterle, who has farmed a 90-year-old, own-rooted plot of head-trained zinfandel behind his home for nearly 50 years, Bob Schulenburg, who has a 60-year-old zinfandel vineyard, Ron Silva in the Alta Mesa sub-AVA, Layne Montgomery at m2 Winery, and of course, Kevin Phillips with Michael David Winery. Klouda’s style is down to earth, not pretentious in any way.
“He really is an up-and-coming superstar in Lodi,” said Lodi winemaker Chad Joseph during a recent Facebook Live virtual tasting showcasing Lodi Rules sustainable wines including Klouda’s Broken Vine Zinfandel from Schulenburg’s vineyard. “He’s definitely an up-and-coming great winemaker in this area showcasing Lodi wines.”
In addition to the Hatterle and Broken Vine zinfandels, Klouda’s lineup includes Stem Theory (a blend of cab, cab franc and petit verdot), carignane and mourvedre to name a few. Nugget Stores in Elk Grove, the Lodi Wine and Visitor Center and select restaurants carry Michael Klouda Wines. If traveling to England, Klouda’s wine is on celebrity chef and restaurateur Jamie Oliver’s list.
Klouda’s pretty excited about that. But mostly, he’s excited to be in Lodi working with its grand old vines, a passion he wants to continue pursuing for a long time.
“Hopefully with buyers like me, winemakers like me who are willing to pay a little bit extra,” said Klouda, “these vines can stay in the ground a little bit longer and we will be getting some heritage wines out of them.”