Lodi’s Hidden Gem
By: Nan McCreary
When wine aficionados think of Lodi, California, Zinfandel comes to mind. Yet, in this sea of red, is Acquiesce Winery, a hidden gem that makes nothing but white Rhône wines.
When Rodney and Susan Tipton purchased an 18-acre plot of land near Lodi with a hundred-year-old barn and 12 acres of Zinfandel, grape growing was the last thing on their minds. They named the property “Acquiesce” after a k.d. lang song with the same name, which reminds one to acquiesce, or surrender to nature and enjoy the quiet. This was in 2000, and Lodi was buzzing with vineyards and wineries. Inevitably, the Tiptons developed an interest in the local wine trade.
“We started making wine as home winemakers and, at the time, I just happened to taste a Grenache Blanc from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and thought it was the best wine I’d ever had,” Susan Tipton said. “I tried to buy two cases, but the store owner said, ‘You are holding the last bottle in California.’ This is where we began our journey.”
Susan, who managed various enterprises while she and Rodney raised three boys, describes herself as a worker-bee, so she set out to learn all she could about white Rhône grapes. She discovered that only 6% of grapes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are white, and most don‘t make it to the U.S. When they do, they are usually oaked and expensive.
Winemakers in Lodi discouraged her from making white wines, saying she’d need red wines to stay in business, but Susan remained undaunted. “I fell in love with the Rhône wines, especially the whites in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape grouping,” Tipton said. “I always thought white wine was treated as a second class citizen—you never see a 100-point white wine—so I wanted to do white wines, and I wanted to do them right.”
Research on the Lodi terroir encouraged Susan to pursue her passion. The climate was similar to the Southern Rhône, with warm, sunny days to ripen the grapes and the delta breeze from the Pacific Ocean to cool the grapes at night. Plus, the sandy soil on their property was perfect for nourishing the grapes. She was convinced they could grow Rhône grapes, and grow them well.
In 2005, with Susan as the winemaker and Rodney as operations manager, the two planted their first grapes–clones of Grenache Blanc from Tablas Creek Vineyards’ cuttings, which originated from the famed Château de Beaucastel in southern Rhône. The success of these wines led the Tiptons to plant Roussanne, Viognier, Picpoul Blanc and more Grenache Blanc in 2009.
“At the time, we were making so much wine that we had more than we could give to friends,” she said, “so we decided to open a tasting room in the old barn. We started a wine club too, and when it developed a significant waitlist, our members encouraged us to plant more grapes.”
In 2015, the Tiptons planted more Picpoul Blanc, Roussanne and Grenache Noir, along with new varietal Clairette Blanche. In 2016, Acquiesce Winery was the first vineyard in the U.S. to plant Bourboulenc. All Acquiesce vines are cuttings from Château de Beaucastel.
Early in this journey, Tipton hired winemaker Heather Pyle Lucas, one of the founding winemakers at Opus One Winery, to guide her through the winemaking process. Lucas, with 30 years in the industry and owner and winemaker at Lucas Winery in Lodi, assured Tipton that she could make world-class wines.
“I was super excited about this,” Tipton said. “I was always the winemaker, but she worked with us for over 10 years as a little bird on my shoulder who was giving me helpful hints and instruction as we went along. She really helped us to create our vision.”
That vision has come to fruition. Today, Acquiesce is truly a jewel in the crown of Lodi, the largest grape region in the world. As a one-of-a-kind vineyard, creating white wines exclusively, Acquiesce wines sell out every year, and its wine club is the hot ticket in town. The winery is also introducing people to the white wines of the Southern Rhône, which are extremely rare in the U.S. According to Tipton, their signature wine is the Grenache Blanc, the grape that “sold” her on Rhône wines.
“Grenache Blanc is a one-off of red Grenache and has a big mid-palate like a red wine,” Tipton said. “People who think they don’t like white wines come to our tasting room and try the wine and say, ‘Wow, I’ve never had a wine like this before.’”
Tipton attributes their success to a passion for the grapes and strict attention to detail. Grapes are estate-grown, hand-picked, whole-cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel – no oak. “Our whole goal is to bring what’s in the vineyard into the bottle without interference.”
The Tiptons farm their grapes according to the area’s “Lodi Rules”: over 120 farming standard practices that help farmers manage their vineyards sustainably. The rules are divided into six categories: ecosystem management, water management, soil management, pest management, business management and human resources. “Our vineyard manager certifies us every year,” Tipton said. “We live on the property, so it behooves us to make sure we’re doing what’s best for us and our customers.”
In the cellar, Tipton carefully “babysits” the grapes during fermentation. “I’d made big reds—Zinfandels—on the property and thought it was pretty easy, but making white wines and rosés is very challenging,” she said. “I’ve talked to people in France who’ve said the same thing. It’s all a timing issue. I have to make sure the wine maintains a certain temperature during fermentation, I limit its exposure to oxygen, and I take care to fine and filter it properly. During this process, if you do one little thing incorrectly, the whole batch can turn out wrong.”
Rosés, she said, are particularly sensitive if the temperature and yeast are not quite right. Acquiesce produces a Provence-style rosé from Grenache, using the direct press method. According to Tipton, the grapes for direct press are picked at lower brix and higher acids than grapes harvested for the saignée method. This keeps the alcohol levels down and brings up the acidity, resulting in grapes with more perfumed aromatics and delicate flavors.
Acquiesce wines are all of premium quality and single variety, with the exception of two blends: Belle Blanc, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Viognier; and Ingénue, a unique blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc and Picpoul Blanc. The winery also produces a méthode champenoise Grenache Blanc that Tipton describes as “mineral-driven and crisp, a lush and elegant representation of Lodi’s terroir that pairs well with everything.” Tipton believes she makes the only méthode champenoise sparkling Grenache Blanc in the world, and she knows of only two other wineries in the U.S. making Clairette Blanche.
Many of Acquiesce’s wines have won multiple national and international awards, with numerous Double Gold, Gold and Best of Class awards. In 2016, Tipton’s Viognier was awarded Best in the State at the California State Fair.
While the Acquiesce tasting room is temporarily closed because of the coronavirus, the winery, like many others, is “pivoting” by offering virtual tasting experiences that include food pairings specially matched for each wine. These experiences are similar to what Tipton offers when the tasting room is open to customers.
“We up our game and try to have conversations– whether live or online–about why these wines are special,” Tipton said. “When you pair them with the right foods, it can be life-changing.” Wines for the tastings can be ordered online at discounted shipping rates or picked up at the winery.
As the Tiptons look to the future, they are content to stay where they are, producing 4,000 cases a year and selling their wines only out of the tasting room. Since they sell out of their annual production, they close the tasting room four months out of the year.
“It’s basically just my husband and me, and we have two guys who help us during pressing, so we have no interest in growing,” Tipton told The Grapevine Magazine. “We called our property Acquiesce because we really wanted to surrender, but, in fact, we haven’t really acquiesced because we’ve been working so hard. But it’s been fun, and we have acquiesced to the grapes. That is our mantra: to submit to nature, to yield to the vineyard, to acquiesce to the grapes, so they present their own true character.”
For more information on Acquiesce Winery and their virtual tastings, visit their website at https://www.acquiescevineyards.com/.