Exploring Lodi’s Unpretentious Yet Sophisticated Side

Cheese Central Lodi California
Cheese Central in Lodi / Photo by Meg Baggott

“Cows and grapes, wine and steak—that’s Lodi,” says Kathryn Siddle, a local cycling enthusiast, as she pedals past the dairy farms and vineyards that dot the banks of the Mokelumne River, which runs through her hometown. Lodi is as unpretentious as this unofficial motto suggests, even though the wines produced here have begun to win national and international competitions.

That contrast is on display downtown. By day, you can buy fencing, fertilizer and steel-toed cowboy boots, but come evening, Lodi goes fancy. The white lights wrapped around the tall sycamores on the city’s main drag, School Street, lend a nice glow to the dressed-up folks that head to its sophisticated restaurants, tasting rooms and bars.

Great Outdoors 

A cyclist illustration
Illustration by Trisha Krauss

Siddle, a retired social worker, helps run Bike Lodi, a local group that leads occasional tours. It now offers a set of maps that highlight routes through the main winegrowing areas, with tasting rooms and other sites marked. The bike itineraries generally aren’t strenuous, since they pass over relatively flat riverside land. Gather gear for your ride at Downtown Bicycles, which offers good rentals. A few doors down, pick up the makings of a deluxe picnic at Cheese Central.

On this flood plain, the Mokelumne meanders gently, which makes it easy to explore by kayak. The passion project of local outdoorsman Dan Arbuckle, Headwaters Kayak Shop rents single and tandem boats. It also organizes tours of the river and Lodi Lake, which includes popular full-moon paddles in summer.

The Mokelumne is no river wild, but kayakers often relish close encounters it affords with black cormorants, white egrets, otters, beavers, turtles and even sandhill cranes. These big, graceful birds are such local favorites that Lodi throws a Sandhill Crane Festival each autumn after they return from their arctic breeding grounds. During the cranes’ six-month residency here, fans assemble in the early evenings on a viewing platform to watch them fly in, socialize and do their mid-air dances.

Scientific Methods 

Lodi’s downtown has suffered from the general decline of retail, as many of its old department stores are now just memories. One long-empty space has found new life as a small but engaging science museum, World of Wonders. Here, you can examine tornado generators, a wall of rainbow-casting prisms and flip over old-school pinball machines.

Liquid Gold

Illustration from Olive Oil
Illustration by Trisha Krauss

Lodi native Mike Coldani recently encouraged his fourth-generation Italian-American farming family to shift some of their acreage from vegetable plantings to olive trees. Good call: In the prestigious New York International Olive Oil Competition their Calivirgin Arbequina oil was a winner and deemed among the world’s best. Taste this winner, along with various infused oils, vinegars and bread-dipping sauces, at sleek new digs in their groves.

Where to Stay

Illustration of a Hotel Sign
Illustration by Trisha Krauss

History awaits at the Inn at Locke House, the renovated home of a Harvard-educated doctor, Dean Locke, who came to California to get rich quick in the Gold Rush. That didn’t happen, but he stayed anyway. His portrait in the parlor shows him later in life with white whiskers and curiously black hair. Current innkeeper Lani Eklund says, “He went back east to get a wig and wife. He came back with both.” Choose the Tower Suite.

The local boutique hotel Wine & Roses takes its name from a famed Victorian poem by Ernest Dowson, but it’s a thoroughly modern property with a state-of-the-art spa and stylish, minimalist decor. Against this clean backdrop come welcome dashes of color and quirk. Two boisterous Macaw parrots live in the courtyard, while one otherwise sober suite has a headboard adorned with cavorting green frogs.

Where to Eat

Rosewood Bar & Grill Lodi
Photo courtesy of Rosewood Bar & Grill

The red dining room of the Rosewood Bar & Grill in downtown Lodi gets lively, but Peter DiCorti’s food can stop tongues wagging—briefly. Savory pork osso buco might be followed by a moist Meyer-lemon pudding cake. A short wine list goes long on local Zinfandels like Klinker Brick’s notable old-vine offering.

Pork Chops at the Towne House Restaurant Lodi
Photo courtesy of the Towne House Restaurant

At the Towne House Restaurant housed in a spa hotel, John Hitchcock dishes out clean, artful cuisine with only a few sinful touches. A lean chicken breast, cooked sous vide in its juices, gets a dollop of brown sauce supreme, while roasted beets team with creamy goat-cheese panna cotta. The encyclopedic wine list stars local vintner Bokisch and its buttery Albariño and peppery Tempranillo.

The Farm Café, a casual lunch place at Michael David Winery, brings together a congenial mix of farm wives who trade escaped cow stories and hipsters who exchange tasting notes on their glasses of Symphony. Soups (tortilla) and sandwiches (the tri-tip) are the order of the day here, followed by the The Farm Café’s calling card, its fruit pies. —Alec Scott 

Winemaker Markus Niggli pouring wine
Markus Niggli / Photo by Stian Rasmussen

Tips From Local Experts

Markus Niggli, Winemaker, Borra Vineyards

Swiss-born Markus Niggli came to Lodi and Borra Vineyards in 2006. He stays because of the “little benefits” that the region offers, like fresh produce that’s available eight months a year and the reasonable cost of living. “If you come here for wine tasting, you’ll see the open minds in our community, and there’s a good chance you’ll meet the winemakers.”

In addition to crafting Borra’s hearty red wines, he has launched a new line of nervy Markus-brand whites from unusual varieties like Kerner, Vermentino and Gewürztraminer.

He guides guests to the Towne House, Fenix and Thai Spices restaurants, recommends The Serpentarium reptile museum for families, and says, “There’s a whole new spirit here for cycling due to the Amgen Tour of California coming through town.” Water sports are another great option. “I take friends kayaking or paddleboarding up the Mokelumne River, which can go on for hours.”

Susan Tipton, Owner/winemaker, Acquiesce Winery

Susan Tipton, who moved to Lodi in 2000, specializes in Rhône-style white wines at the Acquiesce Winery. “We’re newbies, but the people here are great, and the downtown area is as cute as can be, like something off The Andy Griffith Show,” she says. Lodi Airport, famous for skydivers, has one of her favorite places to eat, the Airport Café.

Kendra Altnow,  Marketing manager, LangeTwins Family Winery

A member of the Lange family, Kendra Altnow, of the LangeTwins Family Winery, returned to Lodi after she worked for Napa-based Beringer Blass. “To watch the transformation in Lodi the past 10 years has been amazing,” says Altnow. She loves the Thursday night farmers’ market and the Dust Bowl Brewing Co. taproom. For accommodations, she recommends the burgeoning Airbnb and VRBO options.—Jim Gordon 

Published on June 14, 2017