The region of Lodi is situated about 100 miles east of San Francisco in the vast plains of California’s Central Valley. This area enjoys warm Mediterranean climate with low levels of rains which is a big factor suited for vine cultivation. But what makes Lodi stand out is its combination of sandy, loam, granitic and alluvial soils brought down by the two rivers that cut across the region making inland irrigation possible here. These are Mokelumne and Cosumnes. The California Gold Rush of the 1850s brought in waves of immigrants, who then planted vines such as Zinfandel which to date are the masterpieces emerging out of this hitherto unknown region (wines made from vines anywhere between 50-80 years old is not uncommon). What also worked in their favour is the notorious phylloxera epidemic (the aphid that attacked and devastated vines throughout Europe at the end of 19th century) that remained off limits here, thanks to the sandy nature of the soils that prevented them from multiplying. As a result, the vines here have since been reverently treasured and are since, exploding in value. Throughout the Prohibition period of the 1920s some of the vine owners continued making wines at home through a special legal sanction obtained for home consumption. These old vines that have survived epidemics, relentless American history and politics, have given birth to this now astronomically flourishing wine region of California.

Since 2000 the area has seen an explosive growth in volumes thanks to many incentives granted to the wine growers to self-start their wineries instead of selling grapes to Napa wines that have resulted in many boutique wineries being opened up. The Lodi Winegrape Commission was instituted in 1991 and funded by the wine makers to boost the wine tourism, awareness and promote the works of the Lodi region and its 750 plus producers who now work with 100 different grape varieties spread across 100,000 acres. The exponential growth in volumes has been accompanied by consistently better quality, styles and blends of wines.

There is no winemaking without a good harvest, according to Sierra (Courtesy: Oak Farm Vineyards)
Winery (Credit: Oak Farm Winery)

Oak Farm was started in 1864 by William DeVries for planting oak trees and his son Marion added yet another feather to his cap by planting 60 acres of vineyards around the property while still retaining some of the oldest oak trees, to keep alive his father’s passions. At a recent Lodi Wine Tasting in Lodi, I met the young, confident and determined Assistant Winemaker, Sierra Zeiter who had joined the team a year ago.

Sierra has been credited for creating the first batch of Rosé 2017 for the Vineyard that I had the opportunity to taste and savour. During my talks with Sierra, she highlighted the importance of keeping wines clean and pure as a very important part of winemaker’s responsibility. A procedure that never gets enough credit… yet if not done, can and will result in grubby and unfavourable wines. Sierra is by far one of the younger winemakers I have interviewed. With the gender pay gap that has been the talk of the recent times, it was very comforting to hear what she, as the next generation of upcoming wine professionals, feels and thinks about women, wine and wine making…

SUMILIER: Share with your journey from schooling into winemaking.

Sierra: I grew up in Lodi, CA, which is now an amazing wine region. Growing up, I had a passion for science in school and cooking at home. When deciding what I wanted to major in, in college, I blended my two passions together and came up with Winemaking. After a detailed search, I narrowed in and applied to one of the top Winemaking schools in California. This is “California Polytechnic State University” in San Luis Obispo. It was a four-year college that focused on Enology (Winemaking) but also taught me viticulture and wine marketing. During college, I did four internships (one every summer/fall). Upon graduating I decided to move back to my hometown and work at Oak Farm Vineyards which is one of the most prestigious wineries in Lodi. I started here in July 2017 and have loved it ever since.

SUMILIER: Which part of your training was most challenging (maybe even unexpected) and what was joyful?

Sierra: The most challenging part of my training in school was learning on paper, how to rack a barrel or clean a tank without being able to see it with my own eyes. This is a very important process but not one, that is usually ever shown in any visually. After my first internship, however, the class became easier when I actually witnessed the whole winemaking process in person. I realised that it is very different actually performing a process than just reading about it.

The most joyful part of my college career in Winemaking was in the Senior year when we got to make a barrel of wine ourselves. Upon bottling, I shared it with my family and friends. Seeing the proud look on their face on creating my own wine, was simply priceless. Today that is the most memorable part of my learning and the journey to becoming a winemaker and it is something I relish when I describe the process to my consumers.

Winery (Courtesy: Oak Farm Vineyards)

Winery (Courtesy: Oak Farm Vineyards)

SUMILIER: Your contribution since you joined Oak Farm Vineyards.

Sierra: I am the Assistant Winemaker at Oak Farm Vineyards. I am in charge of every laboratory analysis including Volatile acidity, Titratable acidity, Brix, pH, Residual Sugar, Alcohol, and Free Sulphur Dioxide. The cellar procedures require me to calibrate the machines and I have to make sure all of my numbers are accurate. The process is mathematical and quite detailed as well. Then I also work every day with the Winemaker to create the best blends possible for Oak Farm Vineyards. I also add some scientific calculations into the winemaking equation that I learned at Cal Poly to explain why things are happening in the wine.

SUMILIER: What is most important in winemaking according to you?

Sierra: To me the most important thing for winemaking is the harvest. As tired as everyone can get, it is crucial to stay strong and focused during the entire harvest because that is the core of making the wine. Picking the right ripeness and the best quality grapes yield best results in winemaking. After harvest it is hard to improve the quality of the wine, it is more of, just not letting the wine go bad or get oxidized.

SUMILIER: Who has been your role model in winemaking?

Sierra: My role model in winemaking is the Wine Consultant at Oak Farm Vineyards Chad Joseph. He has shown me all of his secrets to winemaking and taken me under his wing. He is the best winemaker in Lodi and has such a calm and confident demeanour. He has a unique winemaking style which I hope to develop someday.

SUMILIER: When not making wine….

Sierra: When I am not making wine, I am cooking gourmet dinners from Mexican fiestas to rich risottos and Italian dishes. You can also spot me snowboarding and hiking when I am not making wine. I do love outdoors.

SUMILIER: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Sierra: In ten years I see myself as a Female Winemaker either in Lodi or Napa. I love the Lodi region in that it is up and coming and I know I have the ability to help increase the overall wine quality here. I also see myself speaking on behalf of the female population and sharing my love for work and wine throughout the region. Every day, I strive to learn more about winemaking. I watch every seminar and go to every class that I can find. Winemaking is a career that changes and challenges winemakers every day and I believe no one can ever learn enough. I am always challenged and that is why I love this job.

The ladies with the iron hands for winemaking. The new generation of upcoming women in wine with Sierra- third from bottom left (Credit: Sierra Zeiter)

The ladies with the iron hands for winemaking. The new generation of upcoming women in wine with Sierra- third from bottom left (Credit: Sierra Zeiter)

SUMILIER: If not in winemaking…

Sierra: If I did not go into winemaking I would have probably gone to medical school. My dream growing up was to become a paediatrician. I picked winemaking because it is more creative and unique. I believe I can help just as many people be happy drinking the wines I make as a wine than as a paediatrician….(smiling)

SUMILIER: Were there many women whilst studying wines with you? What sort of careers have they chosen after graduation?

Sierra: All of my classes at Cal Poly were about 50% female and 50% male. A lot of the females are now in wine sales/marketing or winery event planning. There are however some that are doing exactly what I am doing and working towards becoming winemaker. I can see many women who are going into the wine business every year.

Sumi meeting Sierra in London at Lodi Tasting (Credit: Sumi Sarma)

Sumi meeting Sierra in London at Lodi Tasting (Credit: Sumi Sarma)