Lodi rising: The region's wines are taking off and the world is watching

Lodi, located 90 miles east of San Francisco, was once viewed by some as producing wines with less character and lower quality when compared to those made in Napa and Sonoma.

But this is changing, and a new breed of winemakers and grape-growers have lifted Lodi wines to a whole new level. Unlike other regions that may be limited to a handful of viable different grape varieties, Lodi grows a plethora of different wine grapes — more than 100 — which has allowed vintners to explore, tinker and find unique niches for their brands.

Lodi’s rapid rise is largely due to three factors: 1) the cost of land is relatively low; 2) Lodi is large (over 110,000 planted acres, compared to Napa’s 45,000), displaying a wide diversity of microclimates that can grow everything from heat-loving Zinfandel and Cabernet to cooler-climate varietals such as Kerner and Gewürztraminer; and, 3) the culture encourages wine experimentation.

“Because the cost of land is more reasonable here, we are able to plant different varietals and really experiment,” said Swiss-born winemaker Markus Niggli, owner of Markus Wine Co. “People and grapes are shaped by their environments — both have a say in how a wine is made. When the cost of the land is very high a winemaker is often forced into making a wine that makes the greatest profit, which is not necessarily the same wine that they’re most passionate about or that the site is most appropriate to grow.”

The cost of prime vineyard land in the Napa Valley can be more than $400,000 per acre, whereas in Lodi an acre might cost $30,000 to $46,000, according to wine journalist and retired sommelier Randy Caparoso, who has been working with the Lodi Wine Grape Commission since 2010.

“In 2000, there were eight, nine or 10 wineries in Lodi, but today there are over 85,” Caparoso said. “[The] ‘new breed’ of Lodi wine producers are very cognizant of the fact that other regions (Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, etc.) have evolved out of ‘nothing’ within recent memory; and therefore, it is very possible for Lodi to establish itself as a legitimate, premium-wine region as well.”

Many of the newest Lodi wine producers are small, often making fewer than a couple of thousand cases a year. However, Lodi remains saddled with a history of producing jug and sweet wines, such as White Zinfandel. And the reputation is not without warrant. Until recently, Lodi and its seven sub AVAs were defined only by the mega-wine companies of Gallo, Trinchero, Delicato and Constellation, all of which mass-produced wines that often have little distinction. Even now, these four producers make two-thirds of the wine coming out of Lodi, with many of the remaining grapes shipped to other regions for processing, including some coming to the Napa Valley, statistics show.

Shaking off the recent past

In 1986, the Lodi AVA was established and now consists of seven sub AVAs that cover 861 square miles (more than 1.5 times the size of Los Angeles) that range from the border of the Sacramento River Delta to the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In 1991, the Lodi Winegrape Commission formed to help promote the region and encourage quality over mere quantity.

“From the beginning, it (the role of the commission) has been overcoming the stigma of being considered primarily a jug or dessert-wine region and the reputation for ‘hot climate’ viticulture that comes with it,” Caparoso said. “The stigma is such that much of the media still associates Lodi with Bakersfield or Fresno; however, Lodi is actually more similar to the upper Napa Valley (St. Helena northward), upper east side Sonoma County, Paso Robles, etc., and so the assumption that Lodi is the same as the south end of the Central Valley is simply erroneous.”

Lodi’s deep wine grapegrowing roots

Like many current grapegrowing California regions, Lodi can trace its roots back more than 150 years to when European settlers came to the area, bringing with them varieties of wine grapes. By the 1880s, Lodi was producing wines of distinction — often Zinfandel and Alicante — but with Prohibition that was soon followed by the Great Depression most of the region’s winemaking establishments languished with many of the old vineyards torn out and replaced with other crops or left fallow.

Years passed and many of the remaining old vineyards succumbed to intermittent blights of phylloxera (root louse) or were replaced with Flame Tokay table grapes that came to dominate the area in the mid 20th century. But some old vineyards survived.

“Our Cinsault comes from the Bechthold Vineyard, which was planted in 1886 and is believed to be the oldest surviving Cinsault vineyard in the world,” said Ryan Sherman, winemaker and partner of Fields Family Wines. “We also make a Zin from the Stampede Vineyard that was first planted in the 1920s. These vineyards have been cared for by local growers for generations, and they know their sites and how to grow the highest quality.”

Ryan is crafting wines that range from an ethereal whole-cluster Syrah (a rare and risky technique used on this varietal) to a briny, Sardinian-styled Vermentino.

Beyond red

Making wines from old-vine vineyards from anywhere is often a sure way to make interesting wines. In Lodi, these old vineyards are most often red varietals such as Zinfandel and Cinsault that have been used by cult-wine producers like Turley to produce complex, rich wines for years. But not everything good comes from old-red vines, and many of the new Lodi winemakers are exploring the range of white wines that grow in the region’s diverse soils.

“When I told people that we were going to make only white varietals like Picpoul Blanc and Grenache Blanc some locals looked at me and said, ‘What, are you crazy?’” said Susan Tipton, winemaker and co-owner of Acquiesce Winery and Vineyards. “But I love the white wines from the Rhône region of France — it’s what led me to winemaking in the first place.”

After purchasing 20 acres of land in 2000, Tipton and her husband planted vineyards using sourced material from vines from France’s Château de Beaucastel of Châteauneuf du Pape. They now make 2,400 cases of various white wines from grapevines that “grow perfectly well with Lodi’s sandy soils and Mediterranean climate,” according to Tipton.

One result of making only white wines in stainless is that Tipton’s business model does not incur the exuberant cost of oak barrels. Also the wine is not aged long, resulting in a more steady cash flow compared with vintners who age their wines longer. Many of the wines made at Acquiesce have an elegance and complexity that speaks directly to how well the grapevines grown at this site fit both the land and this particular winemaker.

Niggli, too, makes many white wines that defy the Lodi stigma of intense reds, producing a few wines from Kerner, a grape varietal widely grown in his native Switzerland.

“People think they know Lodi, but they really don’t,” he said. “The relatively cool Glen Mokelumne Vineyard in Lodi is the only source of the rare Kerner grape in California, but they work really, really well at that site, making wines that are bright and fresh, full of minearlity.”

Be them white or red, Niggli has a way of making lovely wines that often have earthy overtones and mouthwatering, food-friendly, bright-acid backgrounds that would make any sommelier standup and cheer.

Other winemakers are exploring other varietals — both red and white — such as winemaker Elyse Perry (Bokisch Vineyards), who makes good Tempranillo and the soon-to-be-released Sloughhouse-Lodi Monastrell (AKA, Mourvèdre) that would give any Bandol from France a run for its money. There are dozens of other pioneers who are also crafting stunning examples of more commonly known varietals such as winemaker Susana Rodriquez Vasques’s breathtaking version of the Peltier Winery and Vineyards’ Sauvignon Blanc.

Beyond the wide range of options, many of the best wines coming out of Lodi remain reasonably priced, with many artisanal reds ranging from $20 to $40, with the whites in the $18 to $30 range. And going to a tasting room is inexpensive, with many charging only $10 (some even $5), which is refunded if the customer purchases wine.

The world is watching

Lodi remains — largely — an under-the-radar California wine region, but that is changing. Are all the wines of Lodi as wonderful as those mentioned in this article? No, but with more and more quality winemakers producing a staggering array of different wines, consumers and vintners are taking Lodi more seriously. Money is beginning to flow into the area and prices for land, housing and labor are on the rise. Napa-ish wineries such as M2, Oak Farm Vineyards and others have built Architectural Digest-worthy properties and often focus on Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas others are bootstrapping things together, making wine in warehouses and garages and keeping things together by holding down day jobs as they build their wine brands.

As consumers’ inclination for more diverse wines at affordable prices continues to grow so, too, will Lodi’s appeal. That success will bring challenges, but Lodi is worth the trip. If you go, you might find yourself at the Wine and Roses Hotel having dinner at the Towne House Restaurant. There, you can find expert wine advice from Sommelier Scott Reesman and sample a menu overseen by Culinary Director Bradley Ogden, who has written cookbooks, won numerous culinary awards (e.g., Restaurant of the Year, James Beard Foundation, 2004) and been the executive chef at restaurants that include San Francisco’s Taj Campton Place Hotel and Bradley at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

“When I came here and learned more about this place I was blown away,” Ogden said. “The produce and farms are not just down the road, they’re right outside my door. The community is warm and friendly, and the wines compete with anything coming out of California. We’re seeing a lot more tourism, especially from outside the state and even the country. I expect that trend to continue. And when it does, we’ll be ready.”

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Originally published in the Napa Register, June 2018