On the Northern California tourism scene, "Lodi Wine Country" is emerging as a popular wine destination. With a spectacular new wine center and a flurry of winery openings, the region is finally attracting the attention it deserves.
Located just 90 minutes from San Francisco and 60 minutes from Napa, Lodi enjoys a similar climate and growing conditions to its coastal neighbors. Lodi produces more wine than Napa and Sonoma combined, yet is only now becoming known in the consumer world.
Some of America's most popular wines are made here, from Mondavi "Woodbridge" to Gallo "Turning Leaf" and Sebastiani "Vendange." Glen Ellen, Sutter Home, Forest Glen, Beringer and Fetzer wines are among the other wines produced in Lodi. Many consumers may not have heard of Lodi before because most of the wine from the region bore the broad "California" label. A decade ago, only a few labels were produced under the "Lodi" name; now there are over 250. Visitors to the region will be delighted to discover the 70 boutique wineries that dot the landscape, offering a friendly welcome, a relaxing atmosphere and award-winning wines.
Early explorers to the area discovered a region teeming with wildlife and lush vegetation. The valley floor was covered with towering oaks, grasses, and wildflowers. The rivers were filled with salmon, the skies with migratory birds and the lands rich with deer. Grizzly bears rumbled through the foothills, vast herds of antelope and elk roamed the valley floors and Miwok Indians inhabited the region, hunting and gathering along the rivers.
Grapes were always part of the local landscape, growing wild and dangling from the trees along the riverbanks. Early trappers called one stream "Wine Creek" because of its bounty of wild vines. That river was later renamed the Calaveras River and flows through the southern part of the Lodi-Woodbridge region.
In 1850, Captain Charles Weber, founder of Stockton, was the first in the region to plant grapes around his home. Two years later, George West of Massachusetts, who first came to California to mine gold, saw those flourishing vines. West got some cuttings from Weber, and established the first major vineyard in the region just north of Stockton at the southern edge of the Lodi-Woodbridge region.
A good businessman, West could see that California had very few wineries but did have a rapidly growing and thirsty population. In 1858, he built the El Pinal Winery and became the region's first commercial vintner. While West was expanding his vineyards and planting different varieties, growers in the heart of Lodi prospered, farming grain and watermelons.
By the late 1880s, the market for grains and watermelons went flat. Farmers began focusing on other crops, but none excelled like grapes. Several different varieties did well in Lodi, but Zinfandel and Tokay stood out above the rest. Farmers especially embraced the Tokay, a versatile table grape with an eye-catching flame color. It was only in Lodi (with its sandy soils and cool delta breezes) that the Tokay would develop its distinctive flame color, laying the foundation for what would eventually become the Lodi Appellation (established 1986).
The Tokay was a delicious table grape that held up well during the long rail trip across country to eastern markets. It could also be fermented into wine, distilled into brandy or fortified into ports and sherries.
Just after the turn of the century, vineyard development thrived, shipping companies emerged and wineries slowly began sprouting up in the Lodi area. The once struggling farmers prospered, and, in 1901, the local newspaper declared that wine production was "the coming industry for this part of the state."
The enactment of Prohibition in 1919 posed a real threat to Lodi wine grape growers. Although some wineries did close and some farmers prematurely tore out their vines, it turned out that Prohibition became a very prosperous time for Lodi growers. The business changed from making wine to shipping fresh grapes. Since home winemaking was allowed under the Volstead Act, the demand for wine grapes actually increased during Prohibition. Thousands of railcars left Lodi each harvest, full of Zinfandels, Tokays, Alicantes and many other wine grapes.
The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 signaled the rebirth of the Lodi wine industry. Some new co-operatives were formed, many new wineries were built and Lodi wines were once again finding their way across the country. Dessert wines — such as sherry, port and sparkling wines — were the consumer's preference at the time.
Throughout the 1940s and '50s, Lodi prospered with their Tokays, Zinfandels and dessert wines. However, consumer tastes began to change in the 1960s, with table wines and then quality varietal wines preferred. The Tokay, no longer favored by wineries, was dealt another serious blow with the development of the seedless table grape that flourished in the warmer climates south of Lodi. The table grape market completely disappeared, and Lodi growers began focusing on producing quality varietal wine grapes for the blossoming table wine market.
The transition — which began in the late 1960s and climaxed in the mid 90s — saw thousands of acres of grapes converted into premium varietal wine grapes. Buoyed by the reported health benefits of moderate wine consumption and a strong U.S. economy, wineries throughout the state turned to Lodi to supply the growing demand for delicious, affordable table wines.
The area's transition to premium wines got a credibility boost when the Lodi Appellation (American Viticulture Area) was approved in 1986. Wineries were now able to label their wines with Lodi listed as the grapes' origin.
Lodi was no longer the wine industry's best-kept secret as awareness slowly began to build for the distinctive quality of Lodi wines. At first, only a handful of small local vintners produced a "Lodi" designated wine, but as the quality and the reputation spread, wineries across the state proudly proclaimed "Lodi" on their wine label.
The wines of Lodi are definitely worth seeking out, especially Zinfandel. Full-bodied, fleshy, fruit-forward and flavorful are words that come to mind to describe these gems. The wines feature soft silky tannins, and invite early drinking or will reward a few years aging. Along with its flagship Zinfandel, Lodi's Rhone-style varieties — such as Viognier and Syrah — are showing tremendous promise. Lodi is also the nation's leading producer of popular varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Today, Lodi is home to 70 wineries, hundreds of "Lodi" labeled wines and over 90,000 acres of premium wine grapes. Its growers and vintners combine the best of tradition with the most modern advances of science and technology. It leads the industry in sustainable viticultural practices, preserving the land for generations to come. It is a region where a new generation of growers are rediscovering their rich heritage and setting out to produce world-class wines that rival the best that California has to offer.
As a capstone to the region's rise in popularity, Lodi proudly sports a new 7,000-square-foot Wine and Visitor Center. Visitors will enjoy a myriad of interactive exhibits and displays that are both educational and entertaining, as well as a wine tasting room that features all the region's offerings. Visitors particularly enjoy the relaxed, uncrowded atmosphere of Lodi Wine Country. For more information contact the Lodi Wine Grape Commission (209) 367-4727.