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Lodi, Calif.: New Wine Country

Long known to winemakers for its good grapes, the Central Valley town has re-created itself—as a locale for lovers of fine wines.

Lodi, Calif., arch at night
Photo caption
A landmark arch has greeted visitors ever since the tokay grape celebration of 1907.

Lodi, that farming town just north of Stockton in California’s San Joaquin Valley, doesn’t exactly conjure up images of sophisticates sipping wine. No, you tend to think of it more as the sort of burg where the Joads might have holed up for a spell. Or the kind of place where George Bailey would run the local savings and loan. Well, all that means is that you haven’t been there lately.Lodi may not be the new Bordeaux, but these days, face-lifted, spruced up, and tapping into its enormous viticultural resources, it is thriving as never before and aspiring to assume a rightful place alongside Sonoma and Napa as one of the state’s—and the nation’s—favorite wine destinations. Lodi has actually been in the grape–growing business since the mid-19th century, and Lodi High’s mascot is the Flames (for flame tokay grape). The area now produces more wine grapes than Napa and Sonoma counties combined. With 100,000 acres farmed by about 750 growers, Lodi leads all California wine districts in the production of the top five premium wine varieties: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and zinfandel. It’s a $350 million business.

And it’s a far cry from what it once was when, as Joe Berghold of Berghold Vineyards says, "Lodi had grape growers and winemakers and never the twain would meet." That is to say Lodi farmers were too busy selling grapes to vintners elsewhere to spend time making fine wine, rather than the jug variety, of their own.

But Lodi growers are now turning out their own high–quality wines in happy abundance. "Instead of a commodity, we now have a creation," says David Akiyoshi, winemaker at LangeTwins Wine Estates. The Phillips brothers’ Michael–David Vineyards annually produces 200,000 cases of wine including such wittily named varieties as 7 Deadly Zins and 6th Sense Syrah.

"Sure, corporations still buy our grapes," says Michael Phillips, "but there are a lot of grapes to go around in Lodi."

And there’s a lot of wine. As recently as 1991 there were just eight functioning wineries in and around Lodi, according to Mark Chandler, the executive director of the Lodi–Woodbridge Winegrape Commission. Now there are 65, and the number is growing. The wineries themselves look more like farmhouses than the villas and châteaus that adorn the Sonoma and Napa countryside, but the server in the tasting room is likely to be the winemaker in person, not a corporate hired hand. This isn’t to say that Lodi is lacking in decorative tasting rooms. Berghold’s, for example, is filled with antique furniture and statuary. You drive to it through a vine–lined corridor reminiscent of the fabled Magnolia Lane of Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Club.

Jonathan Wetmore, founder and owner with his wife, Cathy, of the Grands Amis Winery, was born and reared in Lodi. But unlike the Phillips brothers, who’ve been in the business all their lives, he came late to winemaking. Not that he’s a stranger to farming, though.

"The first job I ever had was working for a girlfriend’s father," he recalls. "He put me behind a hoe to see how long I’d stay there."

"And he’s been there ever since," Cathy chimes in. For 30 years, to be exact, but it took a vacation to France in 1999 to convince him that his real calling was wine. "It came as an inspiration," Jonathan says. "Cathy and I realized then that we had all the grapes we saw in France back home in Lodi." So, combining a newfound Gallic sensibility with his own common sense as a farmer, he started Grands Amis (great friends), a "boutique" winery, and situated it right downtown on School Street.

John Van Ruiten, on the other hand, planted his first vineyard in Lodi more than half a century ago. Originally a dairy farmer, the Dutch–born Van Ruiten eventually made the switch to grape growing, but the family did not get into the premium winemaking game until a few years ago. Now, under the Van Ruitens and winemaker Ryan Leeman, the Van Ruiten Family Winery annually produces some 20,000 cases of quality wine.

Berghold traces the region’s change from merely growing grapes to making fine wine to the decline in popularity of the seeded flame tokay grape, a Lodi staple, in favor of seedless grapes. He also cites the rise of wine to rival beer as the nation’s adult drink of choice as a factor. "As soon as somebody said a little wine was good for you," says Berghold, "wine drinking took off. Tell Americans it’s healthy and they’ll buy it."

In something of a meteorological stretch, Lodians claim their scorching summers are every bit as hospitable to the growing of quality wine grapes as, for example, the balmier climate of the Rhône Valley in France. Area temperatures often might rise to 100 de– grees or more during the day, Lodi growers say, but the cool nighttime breezes from the Mokulmne River and the Sacramento Delta both rescue vines from withering in the heat and stimulate the tastiness of their produce.

George Aknin, a French wine expert who is an instructor at the California Culinary Academy as well as the former manager of the Washington Square Bar & Grill in San Francisco, doesn’t completely agree. He believes that Lodi wines gain their character from both the climate and the rich soil. But they tend to be heavier and fruitier than either the French or the Napa–Sonoma products. "It’s certainly interesting what they’re doing there," says Aknin. "I sometimes think of wines as if they were human. A wine from the Rhône Valley, for example, would be, if it were a man, a mountain climber, moving strongly up to the summit. A Lodi wine, in comparison, might be a contented gentleman reclining on a chaise longue with a cool drink in his hand."

It was not until 1986 that Lodi was granted its own appellation by the federal government, thereby giving vintners the right to label their wine as originating in Lodi. Growers and the city government soon reached the happy conclusion that this newfound recognition meant that tourism, long ignored by both, was just around the corner.

It was no coincidence then that in the 1990s the city embarked on a multimillion–dollar beautification project, still ongoing, that has transformed much of its downtown into a fashionable destination with specialty shops, chic restaurants, art galleries, and other amenities that would not embarrass Carmel or Santa Barbara. City officials shrink from such comparisons, though."

It would be presumptuous to describe us as a new Carmel," says City Manager Blair King. "We just want to be Lodi. We are what we are. At the same time, I don’t think you can say we’re the typical town you’ll find off Highway 99."

Hardly. Taking a stroll down School Street in the heart of downtown can be a rewarding experience. Tall sycamore trees line the thoroughfare. The sidewalks are painted gold and have bricks in the center—forming an actual yellow brick road. You can pause for refreshment, for example, at the cavernous Lodi Beer Company restaurant, where the waitresses will call you "honey." Only a short drive away is the romantic Wine & Roses, once an estate and now a hotel, restaurant, and spa, with lavish grounds and capacious rooms. Up Turner Road a few blocks is Lodi Lake Park, a large and lovely urban sanctuary.

And Lodi has a level of chic not necessarily common to Central Valley cities. You can hear decent jazz played live in the better restaurants, most notably the Rosewood Bar & Grill. And the 789–seat Charlene Powers Lange Performing Arts Theatre in the 10–acre Hutchins Street Square complex hosts concerts, as well as Broadway theater productions, lectures, and other live performances by everyone from Creedence Clearwater Revisited to Mickey Rooney.

The Wine and Visitor Center next door to the Wine & Roses spread offers maps showing the locations of the wineries and has an extensive tasting room of its own. Above all, Lodi, with its tree–shaded streets and manicured lawns, is a pretty town, both "livable," say the locals, and "lovable."

Photography by Robert Holmes


This article was first published in September 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.