Welcome to “The Next Great Varietal” series, where we explore unique wines from unique grapes made by remarkable individuals. In the first installment, I am joined and aided by Jeff and John Perlegos of Perlegos Family Wines, the two brothers of Greek descent who are establishing the presence of the Assyrtiko grape in Lodi, California.
It is often said that Lodi grapes are known for one of two things;
- They are either sold in bulk to the Gallos and the Wine Groups and other mass producers or;
- They are made into hot, overblown Zinfandels that taste more like prune juice than wine.
But, of course, as near-all stereotypes tend to be, this is an over-exaggeration [if not a straight lie]. The Lodi Wine Region, east of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, is home to a variety of wine styles from 150+ grape varieties, with some of the oldest vines in the country.
Jeff and John Perlegos, the proprietors of Perlegos Family Wines, are challenging preconceptions of Lodi by producing traditional wines of elegance and [relatively] low alcohol that pay homage to their homeland of Greece. Their dive into Assyrtiko [and other Mediterranean varieties] is not an attempt to differentiate and be the “next trend” but a display of Lodi’s zenith of grape-growing potential.
After all, the root of all Perlegos wines is the ancient understanding that great wine starts in the vineyard.
Perlegos Family Origins
We caught the winemaking bug…We remember having Lodi Wine and thinking we are and can be much better than people give us [Lodi AVA] credit
John and Jeff are the children of Greek immigrants. Ever since they could remember, the brothers have been immersed in wine.
“Dad came to America, chasing the dream. At first, he didn’t speak English, so he had to work in the fields.”
Later, their father started a grocery store, eventually purchasing vineyards in the Lodi area in the late 60s. The brothers fondly remember growing up in their family’s store and later in the vineyard.
“We have had a harvest for every year of our lives,” Jeff jokes. “We had to do all our own punchdowns,” John adds, a reference to me doing harvest for a prominent Napa Valley winery.
Their time in the vineyard as kids helped the Perlegos brother hone their focus on farming. The seed of inception for the Perlegos Family Wines was first planted in the early-mid 2000s while the brothers were making wine [and tasting] wine with their relatives.
“We caught the winemaking bug…We remember having Lodi Wine and thinking we are and can be much better than people give us [Lodi AVA] credit. We saw and tasted what Lodi wine could become if planted and nurtured with love and care. And we thought we could do this at some point on our own.”
Planting the Seed
Upon realizing this desire and further diving into the winemaking side, John and Jeff realized that the vineyard is quintessential to producing great wine. “We decided to focus on farming,” says John. The Perlegos brothers started as vineyard managers and sold winegrapes to large mega-million case wineries like Gallo, where the bottom line was as important as the practices to achieve quality grapes. In 2012, however, as the first step to achieving their dream of quality winemaking, they acquired the Stampede Vineyard in the Clements Hills AVA of Lodi and began working with more high-end producers.
“Understanding the intent [and business considerations] of the mass producers [like the Gallos], while also the boutique artisan approach of the premium wine players was hugely important for our endeavors.”
John and Jeff work with high-end producers Bedrock Wine Company, Maitre de Chai, Fields Family Winery, Scholium Project and several others.
The Foundation: Lodi AVA
High price [Napa] Cabernet has created an opportunity for us [in Lodi] to focus on other things…. Our weather plays nicely for Mediterranean varieties because it resembles Greece and Southern Italy.
Soon, all the learning- both in the vineyards and the winery- and the business intelligence would lead the brothers to found Perlegos Family Wines, fulfilling Jeff and John’s desire to make wines that represent the best of Lodi’s terroir. But it wouldn’t be until 2020, the year of the COVID Pandemic, that the brothers would set their plan in motion. “As you progress, you become tied by other commitments; work, family, etc. So passions get left by the wayside. Covid gave us a chance to think and decide that we want to do this [make our wine].”
At the foundation of John and Jeff’s project are a few simple (but essential) tenets: low yields, minimal interventions in the vineyards and the winery, [where possible] own-rooted and old vines. But, of course, the most crucial aspect of The Perlegos approach is Lodi, where they were born and raised and perfected their winemaking approach.
“There is a lot of diversity of soils and in varieties of Lodi. The weather is also ideal for viticulture. It is warmer than in some regions, but the nights are still relatively cool. The climate allows for most grapes to grow well here and have great balance.” The Perlegos brothers are aware of the misconception about Lodi wines, but they are not here to emulate Napa, Sonoma, or Central Coast.
“High price [Napa] Cabernet has created an opportunity for us [in Lodi] to focus on other things…. Our weather plays nicely for Mediterranean varieties because it resembles Greece and Southern Italy. Assuming it is financially feasible if we -as a region- can focus on Mediterranean varieties, I think we could do very well.”
The Perlegos Family Assyrtiko
Assyrtiko, the grape hailing from the picturesque Island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea, has become somewhat of a media darling in the international wine community. The grape’s ability to achieve full ripeness and fruit expression while retaining high acidity even in the hot Greek climate (albeit with some moderation from the sea) could make the grape very attractive for warmer temperatures, such as those found in Lodi. We again turn to the Perlegos Brothers to understand the full capabilities of this grape in the Lodi wine region. The pair currently has 2 acres planted, both own-rooted and grafted vines.
Assyrtiko in the Vineyard
For John and Jeff, growing Assyrtiko has been equally challenging and rewarding.
“There are grapes you have experience with and grapes [like Assyrtiko] you don’t have experience. We understand Cabernet and Zinfandel, but with Assyrtiko, the main question to solve was how does it grow here? We know how it grows in Santorini, but how would that translate to Lodi.“
The first consideration is the trellising in the vineyards. If you have ever been to Santorini, you may notice that the growers there train vines in a “basket,” [called koulouri] with canes wrapping around each other in a weave. The idea behind this rather unique training/vine shaping method is to protect the shoots from the winds from the ocean. While Lodi is not nearly as windy as island Greece, the brothers still learned that some wind protection is necessary.
“Assyrtiko has very fragile shoots. We’ve noticed with planting the own-rooted Assyrtiko that the shoots would break off whenever there were big gusts of wind. We haven’t read this in any literature. We knew why they [the Greeks] say they do what they do [basket training], but it’s an entirely different learning experience to see it firsthand.”
Indeed, understanding the nature of Assyrtiko has been a great learning experience for the Perlegos brothers. And there are undoubtedly many positives taken away from four years of watching the vines develop.
On the subject of irrigation:
“We found that Assyrtiko thrives on little water. Our vines are still young, but as they age and dig deeper, there is excellent potential for dry farming. “This is hugely beneficial, as California is no stranger to droughts.
On the subject of the sun:
“We found that like many white [wine] grapes, Assyrtiko develops varietal character with modest sun exposure. If the grapes are totally shaded, [we found that] the grapes stay green, so it is good to have more dappled exposure.” Another benefit for a region with a high level of sunlight throughout the year.
While there is potential for Assyrtiko to thrive in Lodi, John and Jeff are mindful that their Assyrtiko will be unique to Lodi and not a carbon copy of the Greek varietal.
“[First] is the matter of the soil. In Lodi, we have very sandy soil (which is why they grew own-rooted Assyrtiko because sandy soils are resistant to phylloxera), while in Santorini, they are volcanic.”
The Lodi Flavor Profile
It is still unclear how the Lodi soil, sun, or terroir will fully impact John and Jeff’s wine. This vintage will be the first bottling, and there is no historical precedent for what to expect. However, brothers Perlegos are content with how their wine has shown and believe it is a strong representation of Assyrtiko’s varietal character.
“It is [in our opinion] varietally correct. Not like Santorini, but it still retains the signature Assyrtiko profile. However, it isn’t as full-bodied as what you’d expect [from the Greek version], mainly due to the age of the vine and earlier picking dates.”
Perlegos Family Assyrtiko ferments using ambient yeast (which is atypical, at least when compared to most Greek wineries). The wine is neutral barrel fermented partially (down to 10 Brix, for you wine nerds) and then moved into stainless steel tanks to finish fermentation.
“Since the grapes were picked early (and the vines are young), the barrel ferment adds a bit of weight to the palate.”
The wines finish aging in stainless steel. Sulfur additions are minimal and are meant to maintain the integrity of the wine.
The Future of Assyrtiko [And other Greek Grapes]
Given the history of Greek winemaking, it is somewhat surprising that their grapes- unlike their philosophers and politicians- have not [yet] become mainstay concepts in Western culture. But the Perlegos brothers, driven by heritage and knowledge of vine and wine, are confident in the future of Assyrtiko.
“A lot of attention has been given to Assyrtiko. A lot of awareness comes from tourism and restaurants. Winemakers across the globe are beginning to search out planting materials, taking into account global warming and the increasingly global reach of Greek grapes.”
The Perlegos brothers are fond of their Assyrtiko, but that is by no means the first Greek grape they planted, nor will it be the last. In addition, the brothers grow a little bit of Vidiano, a variety native to Crete. They have bottled it in minimal quantities, mainly for experimental purposes and to share with friends. Although I must interject to say I had the opportunity to sample some Vidiano, it was delicious. They have also pulled out some vines and are likely to replant them to Greek varieties.
“Of course, we are considering the [Greek] grapes, but we also understand that it is important to plant something that commercially makes sense.” I, for one, am very excited to see what John and Jeff have planned.
There is no reason why quality-driven Greek varieties like Xinomavo and Agiorgitiko could reach great commercial success.
Despite the rise in the appeal of Assyrtiko, very few of it is made outside of Greece. The Perlegos brothers are just one of a handful of producers to make it in the U.S. However, international producers from Australia and South Africa (two regions on the cutting edge of innovation in winemaking) are also stepping up to lead the way for this Greek variety.
The 2022 ‘Thera Block’ Clements Hills Assyrtiko is now officially released and available for purchase via the winery’s website and K&L. You may also join their mailing list to keep up with the new developments.
Click Here to purchase Perlegos Family wines from their portfolio.