Lodi’s Experiment with Going Small

Lodi's Experiment with Going Small
Photos by Mark Lund

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.

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 andMichael 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-oldBechthold 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.

Petite Sirah
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.

Chenin Blanc
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.

Published on November 24, 2015
Topics: California Travel GuideCalifornia Wines