From drink-now hostess gifts to long-cellarable gems, this seven-generation winery has your number

I guess it was a turn of fate that Michael Phillips popped into Vegas Seven’s headquarters with a case of wine for our meeting, fresh off the plane and headed to the Wine & Spirits Wholesaler’s Association’s 69th annual convention and exposition April 2-5. Neither of us had any idea when we sat down with glasses that morning how many interesting and unexpected appearances of the number seven would roll off his tongue. Doing our diligence as interviewer and interviewee, the coincidences did as much to break the ice between new friends as the good juice.

The fifth-generation grape grower’s family moved from the East Coast to the Lodi, Calif., area following the Civil War. Phillips’ great-great-grandparents homesteaded 160 acres, planting vegetables and later, fruit, including carignane vines. Eventually numbering 15 varietals, these grapes played an important role during Prohibition, as they were packaged as “grape bricks,” and sold with instructions on how not to make wine. Thanks in part to this creativity, while so many of America’s earliest grape growers and wine producers were shutting down, the Phillips are able to flourish today. In 1984, Phillips started making his own, one of seven original Lodi wineries existing at that time, and seven years before the creation of the Lodi Winegrape Commission. Today, along with his adult children (and perhaps someday with his grandchildren), Phillips and his brother David put out close to 400,000 cases of wine annually under the name Michael David Winery.

Our tasting commenced with the wine that put Michael David on the map in 2002. 7 Deadly Zins turns 10 this year, a wine that began with grapes from seven growers’ vineyards and has increased with its popularity to 60. The 2009 blend of zinfandel, petite sirah and petit verdot is best to drink right now, but could be cellared, Phillips said, for up to 10 years. Just $11 at Total Wine & More, it’s a steal and certainly accomplishes the brothers’ initial goal of crafting a zinfandel that would please every palate. They also make a companion white, 7 Heavenly Chards.

6th Sense—a Phillips favorite—comes from some of the oldest syrah vineyards in the country blended with a little petite sirah. This is a soft and gentle wine, as is the price—$14 at Total Wine & More.

With nearly 100,000 acres of grapes planted, Lodi is one of the largest appellations in California. Wines here, Phillips explained, exhibit more fruit flavor and less tannin. The juicy 2009 Freakshow cabernet sauvignon is a great example. Debuting just a couple of weeks ago, it also features a touch of petite sirah and petit verdot. Featuring dark berry flavors, a bubblegum nose and a little vanilla and cassis on the finish, it’s a crowd-pleaser priced at about $20 with a label that screams “Party!” The pinnacle of the Michael David cabs is Rapture, made in limited amounts and only in the best years. But, alas, he didn’t have that with him.

All of Michael David’s grape lots are vinified separately; it’s only decided later where they belong. When Phillips tasted the next wine’s components separately, he knew they were too good to blend with anything but each other, hence Petite Petit, a blend of petite sirah and petit verdot, the driest finish of any I had tasted of his portfolio thus far and the portfolio’s No. 2 seller ($16, Khoury’s Fine Wine & Spirits). The label, with all of its hidden innuendo (“What time is the clock set to? 4:20?”), still cracks me up.

Members of the Michael David wine club ( not only have access to some of the Phillips’ experiments with tannat, vermentino and the UC Davis-developed muscat hybrid, Symphony, but also to highly allocated wines that aren’t necessarily made every year. It was with that that I greedily went back twice to taste Phillips’ 2010 Earthquake ($25, Lee’s Discount Liquor) and 2009 Lust ($50, Total Wine & More), both zinfandels, and both expressive showplaces for the finest lots.

In all, Michael David’s offerings took me well beyond just the entry-level 7 Deadly Zins that I’ve enjoyed at many a wine-tasting event to show me the true nature of an area I’m just starting to explore. But I guess I’ll have to wait for the Rapture.

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