Joseph Smith isn’t your typical wine guy and you can tell that from his first words and hearing an accent that to untrained ears might sound somewhat Caribbean. In fact, Smith is from Belize, a small country on the Caribbean Sea just south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and east of Guatemala in Central America. His non-traditional country-of-origin, however, has had little effect on his success in the wine industry and Smith has been instrumental in helping to put central California’s Lodi American Viticultural Area (AVA) on the wine map for the world. He’s clever, affable and a pretty good winemaker to boot.
Rum and Coke
Smith jokes openly about being from a country where wine wasn’t ever served while he was growing up. He said his first drink was rum and Coke and he’d never even had a glass of wine until after he moved to the United States. That happened in 1997 when he was nineteen. California was where he landed and with the help of a relative, he secured a temporary job in the construction industry. By this point, Smith still wasn’t drinking wine, but a construction project to renovate a winery put him in contact with winery owners and winemakers.
The key was meeting Lodi wine legend Barry Gnekow, who would eventually become Smith’s mentor. Gnekow had been a winemaker and wine consultant for several wineries in the Lodi region, as well as other parts of California. Smith says that he learned a great deal from Gnekow who still consults not only in Lodi but also for small wineries in the Ukiah area, the Central Coast and Napa Valley.
Putting Lodi on the Map
Lodi’s history is a fascinating one of regional pride and sensible economics. For decades, large wineries in California’s more famous regions such as Napa Valley and parts of Sonoma County have used grapes grown in Lodi to make wine. Federal wine laws mandated that at least 85 percent of the wine in the bottle must come from the AVA named on the label, which meant wineries could fill the remaining 15 with grapes sourced from other less expensive AVAs. If a winery sourced more than 15 of the grapes from another region, such as Lodi, the winery could simply put “California” on the label. This was happening a lot with grapes that were grown in Lodi – people loved the wines, but didn’t know the region that the grapes came from.
Smith says that things began to change and a movement in Lodi was started to put “Lodi” on the label for wines produced there. Lodi had been developing over all of these years and the more regions such as Napa came asking for their grapes, the more people in Lodi began to realize that their grapes were special. A transformation was occurring and as Smith puts it, this “turned farmers into winemakers.” So not only did Lodi realize that it had unique, quality grapes, but the farmers growing the grapes wanted to keep more of the profit and make their own wine.
Wine Business Sense
Smith has a strong intuition for good business, especially with wine, although his training was not formal. He didn’t begin as a viticulture and enology student at the University of California, Davis at California State University at Fresno, two of the leading viticulture and enology programs in the United States. Instead, Smith started by assisting Gnekow in what was more like an old-fashioned apprenticeship. He learned the trade from the ground up and learned not only winemaking but also wine business from the inside-out.
“Napa has cab and that humongous architecture.” I smile at that since I’m a huge fan of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and apparently I’m not alone. Napa cabs can demand very high prices and have made Napa Valley one of the world’s top five wine regions. But in my private time, I visit Lodi as much as Napa and there are reasons for that.
“The vineyards and the people of Lodi. That’s what makes us unique. I have vineyards over 100 years old…people are hesitant to pull them out,” says Smith. 100-year-old vines don’t produce as many grapes as younger vines and they can be a little harder to work with in terms of consistency, but the legacy is worth it. As far as the people are concerned, Smith says, “It’s not odd to find the [winery] owner serving you wine. That’s pretty damn interesting! The owners can give you a whole history of Lodi.” The people of Lodi care about how guests are treated and want to see the reactions on their faces when they try the wine. They know then that they’ve created a quality product.
Making His Mark in the Industry
Currently, Smith is the winemaker for Klinker Brick Winery, known for its amazing zinfandel. Cuisine Noir covered Klinker Brick’s two zinfandels, the Old Vine Zinfandel and the flagship, Old Ghost Zinfandel in a past online issue. The term, “old vine” isn’t formally defined and while many wineries make an old vine from much younger vines, Klinker Brick’s vineyards are some of the oldest in the state of California. Klinker Brick’s current wines, in addition to the two zinfandels, include a syrah and a Rhône varietal rosé. But I’m curious as to what Smith wants to do next. He says that he really wants to try some Spanish grapes like tempranillo, which does well in the Lodi region. He’d also like to push into Klinker Brick’s first white wine – but we’ll keep that a secret for now.