Long known for big red wines, Lodi is a fertile winegrower’s paradise 100 miles east of San Francisco, near Sacramento. Its vineyards produce a bounty of wine grapes.
But Lodi is changing, as a burgeoning movement is afoot to produce wines of both substance and style. Vintners embrace Lodi’s vigor, pursuing varieties once never associated with California, let alone here.
Originally, Lodi grew Tokay table grapes. Then came Zinfandel—some of those vineyards date back to the late 1880s. Many winemakers and grape growers working in Lodi today can trace their family ties here up to five generations.
The area now has almost 100,000 acres devoted to wine grapes.—Virginie Boone
Shaking its mass production pedigree, Lodi is fast becoming a bastion of high-quality micro producers bent on making their mark in the wine world.
Stretched between low-lying Sacramento and Stockton, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta flushes itself across finger-like spreads of rivers and creeks.
It’s here that Lodi rules as a powerhouse wine region.
For generations, the area has made its mark selling grapes and making wines for dozens of big-name operations. Strikingly diverse, it’s also home to nearly 100 regional wineries.
Situated along the Mokelumne River, downtown Lodi supports a vibrant restaurant scene inspired by the area’s bounty of fresh produce.—Virginie Boone
From Alicante Bouschet to Zinfandel
Zinfandel is a huge part of Lodi’s history, as are several varieties important to the primarily Italian families who took up residence here, like Alicante Bouschet, Barbera, Petite Sirah and Primitivo.
With land relatively inexpensive, Lodi is a cost-effective place to farm, allowing both the popular and the adventurous to thrive.
Producers big and small are making intriguing styles of Lodi wines from both historic varietals and more adventurous grapes like Albariño and Monastrell.
A farming town since 1874, Lodi showed a knack for growing watermelons, grains and Tokay table grapes. It was first acknowledged as a unique wine-growing region in 1956, becoming an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1986.
What we universally call Lodi is actually a collection of seven appellations: Alta Mesa, Borden Ranch, Clements Hills, Cosumnes River, Jahant, Mokelumne River and Sloughhouse, each with slight variations in climate and geography.
Nearby Clarksburg, west of the official Lodi AVA, is sometimes lumped in as well. A cooler appellation influenced by its closeness to the Delta, Clarksburg is known for fine Chenin Blanc, once declared by Gerald Asher in Gourmet as “the right grape in the right place.” Clarksburg is home to Bogle Vineyards, a famed, family-owned brand with value in mind.
Agriculture—including many old vines—thrives in Lodi’s fine sandy-loam soil. Cooling Delta winds that flow off the Mokelumne River create a Mediterranean-type climate.
For decades, farmers grew table grapes that were used as a base for brandy, Sherry and Port-style wines. Third-generation grower Steve Borra began making wine for his family in 1967; after nearly a decade of success, Steve formally started Borra Vineyards. The winery, on 30 acres of what’s now a century-old farm, was bonded in 1975.
Borra became among the first Lodi vintners to establish himself with wine grapes after Prohibition. Then Robert Mondavi, who spent his formative years in Lodi, anointed the area in a much bigger way.
Having already established the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, Mondavi bought land and historic buildings on Woodbridge Road in 1979. Woodbridge Winery soon became the most recognized Lodi brand in the world.
It retains that distinction, even though Mondavi the man has long since passed and the mega-winery is now owned by Constellation Brands. Other large producers nearby include Delicato Vineyards and Michael David Winery.
History and Invention
The area’s illustrious history would not be complete without mentioning locals Michael Crete and Stuart Bewley. In 1980, they introduced the world’s first wine cooler, Bartles & Jaymes.
Lodi holds more than 100,000 acres of wine grapes, much of which goes into large-scale wines. However, the region increasingly showcases innovative micro-producers like Bokisch, Borra, Fields Family Wines, McCay Cellars, m2 Wines and Macchia.
Generations Now Regenerate
Many of these small producers have roots here that span generations, and now aim to show the world what Lodi can do.
Even with Zinfandel, changes are afoot. Small producers, like Fields Family, make vineyard-designated wines. They’re hands-on in the field and hands-off in the cellar.
They produce small lots, go light on the new oak (mostly French) and rely on native fermentation as much as possible.
The resulting Zins have pretty aromatics, character and complexity without being overblown or heavy. Exhibiting structure, balanced acidity and well-integrated tannins, they present a nice interplay of red fruit with darker fruit components. They overdeliver on quality relative to price.
Napa-based winemaker Jim Moore spent much of his career at Robert Mondavi Winery and Bonny Doon. Under his label Uvaggio, he makes a Moscato Secco from Lodi-grown Moscato Giallo grapes that’s low in alcohol and priced under $20.
He also produces a Vermentino that he calls “the thinking man’s Pinot Grigio.”
Moore says he sources from Lodi because it’s more affordable than Napa, and no one there would gamble with him on these kinds of adventurous, esoteric grapes.
He thinks his wines interest consumers who seek to experiment. Moreover, Moore wants to help Lodi break out as a region identified with small, specialty winemakers.
A Knack with Niche
Silvaspoons Vineyard in Lodi’s Alta Mesa AVA is another well-known and respected name. It specializes in unusual (for California) varieties like Verdelho and Torrontés, a light, exotic grape native to Argentina.
No one may be more niche than Barbara Huecksteadt of Hux Vineyards in the Mokelumne River AVA.
She farms extremely rare Marzemino, a Northern Italian grape that produces big, black wines that are thick and fleshy, similar to Tannat. She devotes two lonely rows to Marzemino, the last grapes to ripen on her 3½-acre property.
She makes very few bottles, but the wine is worth finding. It’s resplendent in raspberry, strawberry and violet, and bright, intense fruit.
Since Marzemino is not officially recognized as a grape variety in the United States, it’s labeled simply “red wine.”
Old Vines, New Tricks
Lodi’s young winemakers get creative with the region’s heritage grapes.
Winemakers have found gold in the century-old Bechthold Vineyard, the oldest continuously farmed vineyard in Lodi.
Originally planted in 1886, it encompasses 25 acres of gnarled, head-trained vines once thought to be Black Malvoisie.
The variety turned out to be Cinsault, an obscure, lightly colored, softly perfumed red grape native to Languedoc-Roussillon, typically used as a blending component.
Planted by the same family that founded Lodi’s Jessie’s Grove Winery, it may be the oldest Cinsault vineyard in the world. Dusty and deep-rooted, the low-yielding block is dry-farmed.
Once the planting was discovered to be Cinsault, Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Randall Grahm started sniffing around. Before long, Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars, Gideon Beinstock of Clos Saron and others were making flowery, raspberry-delicious Bechthold Vineyard wines.
One of the first young, Napa-based winemakers to discover the old vines, Jillian Johnson makes a Bechthold Cinsault under her label, Onesta.
Crafted using grapes from the lowest-yielding section of the vineyard, the wine carries a waft of rhubarb, cherry and cardamom spice, with moderate tannins and a velvety midpalate.
Lodi's Top Varieties:
Generally speaking, east-side Zinfandels are deep and rich with flavors of black tea and dusty chocolate; west-side Zinfandels are round, lush and earthy with good acidity.
Widely planted along Lodi’s cooler western side, the grape takes on a variety of characters like elsewhere in California, from green apple and citrus to more voluptuous tropical flavors.
Often blended with Zinfandel, Lodi Petite Sirah is rich in spicy, brooding blackberry and blueberry flavors, with a deep, rich structure of coarse tannin.
From very old vines, Lodi’s Cinsault is light in weight and alcohol, soft yet structured, extremely perfumed with strong notes of rhubarb, strawberry and raspberry.
Dry Clarksburg Chenin Blanc has vibrant tropical fruit and melon aromas with ample texture and bright acidity. Some producers make it in a Vouvray style, with a hint of residual sugar.
The Restaurant: Towne House
Stone Fruit Salad
½ cup Champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup grape seed oil
Whisk vinegar, vanilla bean paste and extract together. Whisk in the oil.
3 cups sugar
3 cups seasoned rice wine vinegar
4 red onions, cut into ¼-inch-thick rings
Bring the sugar and vinegar to a boil. Place the onion rings into bowl, pour vinegar mixture over onions and cover with plastic wrap. Let cool to room temperature and then place in refrigerator.
1 sliced peach
1 sliced apricot
1 sliced nectarine
10 pitted cherries
3 cups arugula
8 ounces vanilla bean vinaigrette
6–8 ounces crumbled goat cheese
10 pickled onion rings
Toss the fruits and the arugula with the vinaigrette. Divide the mixture evenly among four plates. Place the crumbled goat cheese on top of each salad, and garnish with the onions. Serves 4.
Bokisch Vineyards Vista Luna Vineyard Garnacha Blanca (Borden Ranch)
The Chef: John Hitchcock, Towne House
In addition to growing a wide variety of wine grapes, Lodi has long been a chef’s dream—a breadbasket of wonderful fruit, produce and meats, with working farms within easy reach of the town center.
The Wine & Roses Hotel’s Towne House Restaurant serves as Lodi’s hub for local vintners and hosts many events from poolside barbecues to comedy shows. Farming runs deep in its soul, and the restaurant nurtures its own trees and gardens, taking a farm-to-table approach to breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Once referred to as “The Towne Corner,” after original farm owners Burt and Alice Towne, Towne House proprietors Russ and Kathryn Munson do their best to maintain the spot’s sense of community. Chef John Hitchcock and his culinary team offer cooking classes for all levels of expertise. Sessions range from Cooking 101 for College Students to demonstrations on braising and holiday baking.
For Hitchcock’s signature Stone Fruit Salad, a deliciously colorful display of Lodi’s prowess with fruit, the chef sources his ingredients from The Fruit Bowl, a local fruit stand.
In downtown Lodi, tempting eating establishments abound. For foreign intrigue, several serve fine Chinese, Thai and Mexican fare. Crush Kitchen & Bar is known for organic salads and its impressive wine and beer list, with some choices only available here.
As its name implies, Dancing Fox Winery and Bakery is a destination for both Dancing Fox wines (including one made entirely from local Bing cherries) and brick-oven bread.
Fiori’s Butcher Shoppe and Deli offers marinated cuts of local meats, including tri-tip and lamb and its own line of seasonings. Joe and Barbara Fiori also cure pastrami and corned beef, prepare smoked salmon and homemade bratwurst and make Chinese pork and beef jerky.
Favorite Farm-to-Table Finds
Blueberries: Many Lodi farms invite visitors to pick their own during the May through July season. Giusto Farms [Acampo] fields 15 different types of blueberries. The Lodi Farmers Market holds a Black and Blue Pie Contest to determine the area’s best blackberry-blueberry pie.
Cherries: A superfood, cherries are high in iron, vitamin C and antioxidants. A fourth-generation farmer, Dean Devine has grown cherries for almost four decades. He’s got mostly Bings as well as Rainier, Chelan, Brooks, Garnets and the delightfully named Coral Champagne.
Flame Tokays: Called Lodi’s forgotten fruit, this seeded table grape was widely desired until supplanted by a seedless variety. Look for these rare, tasty grapes at roadside fruit stands between August and December.
Ostriches: Country Lake Ostriches [Linden] raises ostriches for local restaurants and runs farm stays at its ranch house among the birds. It also carries fresh ostrich eggs: one giant equals two dozen chicken eggs. —Virginie Boone
A River Runs Through It
An inland delta and estuary, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta encompasses more than 1,000 miles of waterways centered in and around Lodi.
Assuming you didn’t bring your own boat, a great way to unwind after a busy day is Headwaters Kayak Shop’s sunset paddle trips that start at Lake Lodi and cruise the Mokelumne River on every Wednesday during spring and summer.—Virginie Boone
Birds of a Feather
September through early March, flocks of Sandhill Cranes, each with a 7-foot wingspan, congregate in Lodi’s wetlands, some of which have been officially turned into a Sandhill Crane Reserve. The locals-favorite Sandhill Crane Festival is the first weekend of November.
The Cosumnes River Preserve holds 45,859 acres of wildlife habitat open for hiking alongside vernal pools and seasonal wetlands, or paddling by canoe or kayak through free-flowing sloughs.
Flying High-Touching Down
For the true thrill seekers who seek a birdseye view of the region, be sure to grab your helmet and head to Lodi’s Parachute Center. A key sky-diving and parachute destination, it’s one of the biggest and oldest in the country. The facility serves first timers and pros alike.
Recipe courtesy Woodbridge Crossing, Lodi, CA
In her 20-plus years of bartending, Woodbridge Crossing’s Veronica Agnew has learned it’s best to keep things simple. It allows her region’s ripe local bounty—in this case, blueberries—to shine on their own tasty merits.
In a shaker, combine 1½ ounces of vodka, 1½ ounces of sweet-and-sour mix and a splash of triple sec. Add ice, shake and strain into a sugar-rimmed martini glass. Garnish with fresh blueberries and a slice of lemon. —Brandon Hernandez
And Don't Miss…
Owned by brothers Michael and David Phillips, the guys behind Michael David Winery, Phillips Farms is a wide-reaching Lodi farming operation. Sourcing from what they grow, they also run a popular farm café and bakery just outside of town. Locals and visitors flock in for the insanely fresh and delicious fruit pies, breads and cookies. Next to the café, a fruit stand brims with seasonal delights.
Look also for Rhythm and Blueberries’ blueberries, pomegranates and pears in Galt and local farmers markets, as well as cherries from Gotelli Farms and olive oil from Cecchetti Olive Oil. —Virginie Boone
For the Bokisches, tapas is tops
Liz and Markus Bokisch came to Lodi to be growers after traveling through Markus’s native Spain in a classic Volkswagen bus (which they still have) and falling in love with the wines of Portugal and Spain.
A viticulturalist by training who worked many years in the Napa Valley, Markus honed in on Lodi as an ideal place to do something different. From their rural Victor backyard, just outside of Lodi, they grow grapes for their own Bokisch Albariño, Tempranillo and Graciano wines.
Their time in Spain inspires their meals and a style of entertaining that is casual, friendly and family-oriented. The moment guests walk in, they’re handed a glass of wine or sangria and put to work around the tableside paella pan.
“We’re so in the Wine Country, when friends come over, they bring a bottle of wine,” Liz says. “We start with wine, and when we’re cooking, we’ll have some wine, too.”
Recreate the Region:
Markus loves to preside over a huge pan of paella tableside, making a version traditional to his hometown of Sant Carles de la Ràpita that includes both seafood and chicken. He enlists guests to help stir.
Since paella can take some time to perfect, everyone first enjoys wine and almonds in the garden. Liz prepares plenty of tapas, and Markus pulls out choice bits of fried chorizo, prawns and chicken from the paella pan for everyone to savor until the main meal is ready.
House-marinated Marcona almonds with fresh rosemary
Pineapple, date and kumquat skewers
Manchego, Membrillo and Jamón Serrano rolls
Tableside Paella Mixta
Plat Miró (dipping plate of olives, boquerones, tapenade and olive oil)
Crusty, warm French bread
Cold Sangria terrine in Rosado gelée
The Bokisches decorate with personal items, many of them either from Spain or inspired by their time there.
Meals are served on hand-painted ceramic plates from Spain selected for specific dishes, the food as artistic as the designs on the plates. They have green and yellow plates with their names inscribed that were made for their wedding, and Liz likes to stack other hand-painted, custom-made tapas plates on top of those.
The big wooden table in their garden is oft accented with a collection of shells from Markus’s hometown or distressed fishing nets, and Liz also likes to use simple things such as olive branches for the centerpieces and napkin decoration. Mason jars full of sunflowers and zinnias from her garden round out this fun thrown-together look.
The glassware is typically standard size and embossed with their winery logo. For sangria, they have a collection of large, squat-bottomed Margarita-style glasses. Liz also likes to keep a large supply of shawls and wraps on hand for when the sun goes down and the temperature drops, so that guests can linger longer outdoors.
For parties, the couple’s outdoor speakers broadcast a mix of Spanish, Brazilian and Cuban tunes, including the soundtrack from the
Buena Vista Social Club.
Bokisch Terra Alta Vineyard Albariño (Clements Hills)
Bokisch Terra Alta Vineyard Garnacha (Clements Hills)
Vall Llach Priorat
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