Getting to Know Oak Farms Vineyards Through the Magic of Cheese

Lodi is one wine region in California that I’ve been wanting to get to know. I’ve never been there, but for an hour recently, I feel like I was there! Through the magic of Zoom, I got to spend an hour with Oak Farm Vineyards owners Dan and Heather Panella, tasting through four outstanding wines – paired with some sensational cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery’s Good Neighbors Victory Cheese Box.

First, what and where is Lodi? It’s about 70 miles east/southeast of Napa Valley and about 17 miles north of Stockton, CA. It’s in the center of California’s Central Valley, aka “America’s Food Basket,” because of all the agriculture in the area (produce, as well as wine grapes). Situated between the San Francisco Bay and the Sierra Madre Mountains, Lodi has a Mediterranean climate – which means HOT summer days, but nice cool-downs at night, which grapes love. (Lodi produces more wine grapes than any other California appellation!) It may not have the cachet of Napa Valley or Sonoma, but what it does have is passionate wine growers who are serious about making top-quality wines – like Dan and Heather from Oak Farm Vineyards.

The Panella family — originally from Campania, Italy (remember that – it factors in) — arrived in the Lodi region in 1936 and their agricultural adventure culminated in their purchase of the Oak Farm property in 2004. A third-generation California farmer, Dan replanted their 60 acres of vineyards in 2012. Dan is the head winemaker and wife Heather is responsible for the beautiful grounds, utilizing her landscape architecture skills. All their wines are estate-grown (meaning the the grapes come from vineyards over which Oak Farm has complete control) and bottled on-site. The Panellas grow 14 varietals (four white and 10 red), including several Italian varietals like Fiano, Barbera, Sangiovese and Primitivo (aka Zinfandel – but the Italians call it Primitivo.

Remember when I said the Panellas have Italian roots? Yeah, that comes through the the grapes planted on their property. Oak Farm Vineyards grows the only Fiano in all of Lodi, which is a white grape, native to Campania (I first fell in love with Fiano – or specifically Fiano d’Avelino – on a 2004 trip to Campania).

Oak Farm Vineyards 2019 Fiano ($26) is busting loose with ripe melon and apricot backed up with fresh green grass and a subtle but lush orange flower note. It’s fresh and crisp and I LOVE IT! This wine was aged in neutral oak, so has just a whisper of roundness from the oak – it’s no vanilla/oak bomb for sure. It’s refined and balanced and if you like Sauvignon Blanc or even Chardonnay (not the big buttery kind), you will like Oak Farms Fiano.

This wine was paired with Cowgirl Creamery’s famous Mount Tam cow’s milk triple cream cheese, which was a dream duo. The rich, buttery cheese cuts right through the grassy, floral notes of the wine for a symphony in your mouth!

Next was Oak Farm Vineyards 2019 Rosé of Grenache ($24), paired with Mendonca cow’s milk cheese from Bivalve Dairy in Point Reyes, CA. Dan Panella explained this was made in a classic Provençal style with fruit from the famous Silvaspoons Vineyard. What does “Provençal style” mean? It means it was fermented and aged in stainless steel (no oak whatsoever) and has a fresh, delicate taste redolent of strawberry, watermelon rind and pink grapefruit with a little bouquet of flowers in the background. Eminently drinkable, this rosé-and-cheese pairing was fun. The cheese is crafted after a famous Portuguese cheese and it’s medium-textured with fresh, grassy flavors. Really delicious and versatile, this cheese would be equally divine with almost any wine.

On to the reds! Oak Farm Vineyards 2017 Estate Barbera ($35) practically had a handful of dried violets poking out of the top of my glass. Like magic, ripe blueberries and strawberry compote emerged, backed up with some cherry cola. God, it’s good! The wine was fermented in stainless steel and aged for 20 months in French, American and Caucus oak barrels (24 percent new), so the oak influence is there, but it is finely balanced with all the components of the wine. Mmm MMMM!

For cheese, we cut into Estero Gold Reserve from Valley Ford Cheese Company. This wine is big and assertive, but it is also very elegant and bright and the cheese had the perfect amount of savory, mushroomy richness to make the wine positively shine on the palate.

And the finale was Oak Farm Vineyards 2017 Genevieve ($45). Named after Dorothy Panella’s French grandmother, this is a meritage, which is California’s version of a classic Bordeaux blend. While we’re at it, let’s learn how to say “meritage.” For some reason, people rhyme it with “hermeeet-aahge,” as in small hilly areas the Rhône Valley or that big museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. No. It is not “merit-aahge.” It is closer to the words “marriage” or “mortgage”. Got it? Good. Moving on.

The wine is heavenly. It’s a nice mish-mosh – or meritage – of 29 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 27 percent Malbec, 23 percent Merlot, and 21 percent Petit Verdot, resulting in a big “OMG.” It’s rich, deep and plummy with bright cassis notes and beautifully integrated tannins, accented with a touch of cigar box and leather. It’s gorgeous!

Now for true confessions, I hate bleu cheese. So I didn’t taste this cheese but it went to a deserving bleu cheese appreciator. Instead, I just savored this wine in all its glory.

To learn more about Oak Farm Vineyards, visit their website – or visit in person if you are in their neck of the woods. They are taking reservations for tasting flights – practicing smart protocols to make sure everyone stays safe and healthy. Their wines are available on their website for purchase and are widely distributed, so check Winesearcher for where to find them in your area.

I send my deepest thanks to Oak Farm Vineyards and Cowgirl Creamery for the generous samples, as well as the Colangelo team for orchestrating a really fun, delicious and fascinating tasting. And thank you, Dan and Heather Panella for taking the time to talk on Zoom. These Zoom tastings are really amazing, because how often do you get to talk to a winery owner / winemaker live in your own kitchen? Until we can travel again, Zoom tastings are the next big thing to being there!

I am now a devoted Lodi wine fan! And if you’ve read this far, I’ll spill it here: this experience dispelled my previous perceptions of Lodi wines as hot, jammy and cheap (sorry! I just hadn’t been drinking the right wines!). Now I know that Lodi wines can be glorious when made with grapes that grow well and are well-tended in the Lodi climate by a winemaker who cares about quality at every level. Cheers, everyone!

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