A rare California bargain, with quite a back story. Above, the Lohr family and winemaking team.
From $7.99, CA$19.99, 37.99 Barbadian dollars, £15.79
The cultivar Valdiguie, Valdiguié in French, arrived in California by a quirky accident slightly obscured now by history. It originated from south-western France in the 1880s, where it quickly waned in popularity due to its susceptibility to powdery mildew. But thanks to drier summer conditions, and historic interest in high-yielding varieties, Valdiguié found a home in California.
For decades the northern half of California enjoyed the medium weight, moderate alcohol, brambly spice and rustic tannins of Valdiguié under the misnomer Napa Gamay. It proliferated during Prohibition when selling fruit in crates or fruit-bricks by train for home winemaking actually increased vineyard acreage across the state. The variety gained unique prestige in the 1960s and 1970s when producers throughout Napa Valley, believing it to be Gamay Noir, bottled it as still, red Napa Gamay, or light and fruity Gamay Beaujolais.
Then in 1980, ampelographer Pierre Galet visited from Montpellier. While walking vineyards (as the story goes) he unwittingly pointed out the error, expressing surprise that California appeared to grow more Valdiguié than its native France. Even with the misnaming proven, it took until 1999 for the TTB to officially declare ‘Napa Gamay’ unacceptable on wine labels, and wineries continued to release the wine under its erroneous name, though in progressively smaller volumes. Its popularity steadily decreased, and it began to disappear from the vineyards of California too.
When I arrived in California in 2012, the confusion was still being cleared up. Some producers I’d visit knew what they had and celebrated it. Enormous old vines of Valdiguié planted in the 1970s in the highly coveted Pinot Noir vineyards of Rochioli constituted my initial introduction. Those vines have since fallen to age. A rush of small-production bottlings of the variety began appearing from other vineyards of Sonoma County. It was partially motivated by excitement for obscure varieties, and partially because the fruit was more affordable than any of the well-known grapes. But in the Central Coast some growers still thought they had old-vine Gamay Noir. I’d occasionally encounter winemakers excited about working with what they didn’t realise was a different variety.
(Incidentally, though actual Gamay Noir arrived in a nursery in California in 1973, no one commercially released an example until Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St John convinced legendary Sierra Foothills grower Ron Mansfield to establish the variety in a site at 2,800 ft elevation (850 m) in El Dorado County in the year 2000. Edmunds St John first harvested the fruit in 2002, and released the wine a couple of years later, thus making California’s first true Gamay wine. To the north, in Oregon, several growers were already experimenting with the variety though most winemakers were blending it with Pinot Noir until 1988, when Myron Redford bottled the first varietal wine from his estate vineyard Amity.)
So, with all the mishaps and erratic enthusiasm for one of the world’s more obscure varieties, it is a bit of a miracle that the Lohr family of Monterey has consistently made their own Wildflower Valdiguié since 1976. Grown in the original home of J Lohr vineyards, the Arroyo Seco Valley, Valdiguié has been a mainstay of the J Lohr portfolio for decades, though they too originally thought they had Gamay. The wine began winning accolades in the 1980s, regularly recognised in the California State Fair wine competition so popular with long-standing wine families of the state. But on top of that, founder Jerry Lohr just liked it. Today, the 30-plus acres (>12 ha) of Valdiguié the family farms near Greenfield are among the most substantial sources for the variety in California.
But what might be even more of a miracle is the wine’s price. In the United States it can easily be found for around $11. In the UK it sells for closer to £16.
It’s a common trope, after all, that California wine is too expensive. The few wines that might be found at lower prices are often overlooked with the assumption they must not be good. Yet the numerous wine writers and wine professionals I have introduced to J Lohr Valdiguié have consistently wanted more, and fallen in love with the wine, while also expressing shock at the price.
The J Lohr family started growing grapes in Monterey County in 1972. They were among the leaders experimenting with what fine-wine varieties could do well in the area. Over time they expanded into Paso Robles as well, where they maintain a foothold for Cabernet. Today, two generations lead the business.
Founder Jerry Lohr continued to be seen at wine events throughout the Central Coast up until those were shut down by the pandemic. After I nervously gave a keynote talk to a local event in Paso Robles early in my wine career, he generously introduced himself to me and reassured me my nerves had not affected my talk. He was already well into his eighties at the time and still wanted to stay up to date with the newest developments in winegrowing, winemaking and wine marketing.
Valdiguié was one of the first varieties the Lohr family established, and they’ve made it largely the same way ever since. It’s an ideal food wine with just enough tannin to be palate-cleansing, and plenty of mouth-watering acidity to make it easy to return for another sip. The wine delivers friendly, dark-skinned fruit notes while offering savoury, naturally spiced elements that keep it interesting. And it’s a good weight for handling a slight chill too. It would do well with any sort of grilled meats or outdoor cooking. You can think of it as serving the table in a similar way to something like a friendlier Dolcetto, a lighter and lightly structured Barbera, or a wine more sophisticated than a Beaujolais Nouveau though perhaps not as serious as cru Beaujolais.
With the 2021 vintage, just released in the US, J Lohr has introduced a new tier they call Roots, designed to highlight the heritage of the winery through two of its founding varieties – Riesling and Valdiguié – while also making the packaging consumer-friendly. The Valdiguié features a painting of regional wildflowers printed directly onto the bottle (see above). In the UK, the 2018 and 2019 vintages can be found under the wine’s previous Estates-tier packaging with the more traditional paper label (see below). The bottles are screwcapped.
The wine is available from countless US retailers and also in Barbados, Canada and the UK, where Village Wines, Q Wines and The Wine Centre stock it.
See the entry on Valdiguié in our online Oxford Companion to Wine.