Categories
Wines & Vines

The lowdown on Lodi

The lowdown on Lodi – Lodi, California; wines

Tina Caputo

Twenty years ago, most people didn’t give Lodi wines a second glance–or even a first one. The grapes grown in the Central Valley region 100 miles east of San Francisco were used mainly for cheap jug wines or as a base for generic California appellation wines. Back then, wineries certainly wouldn’t have labeled their wines with the Lodi appellation–even if it had been an officially recognized winegrowing region. But the times they are a-changin’.

In the last decade, Lodi growers and vintners have made vast improvements in their farming and winemaking techniques, and the region’s reputation is on the rise.

The Path To Premium Wines

Lodi has been a major winegrowing region since the 1850s. Captain Charles Weber, founder of the city of Stockton, was the first to plant grapes in the region, and in 1852 a Massachusetts man named George West established the first major vineyard in the region. In 1858, West built the El Pinal Winery and became Lodi’s first commercial vintner.

In those days, Flame Tokay was Lodi’s star grape, with Zinfandel a close second. In addition to being a delicious table grape, Tokay could be used to make wine, brandy and port. Tokay remained king until the 1960s, when the development of newfangled seedless table grapes caused its popularity to plummet. When varietal table wines became more prevalent in the ’60s and ’70s, Lodi growers began to replace their Tokay with more marketable winegrapes.

The ’80s brought further changes, as the arrival of wineries like Glen Ellen and Mondavi touched off a dramatic shift toward quality winegrape growing. The Lodi appellation was officially recognized by the BATF in 1986, and in 1991 local growers voted to fund the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission (LWWC), a grower-run organization that conducts programs in marketing, grower education and viticultural research. All of these factors combined to produce a sharp upturn in the quality of Lodi grapes and wines.

How It Looks Today

In 1991 there were about 46,000 acres of winegrapes in the region, and crop value totaled about $75 million. In a little more than a decade, vineyard acreage increased by nearly 75% to 80,000 acres and crop value quadrupled to about $300 million.

Lodi leads the state in production of the top five premium varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Zinfandel) and according to LWWC statistics, Lodi’s production accounts for more than 20% of the state total of premium winegrapes–more than Napa and Sonoma combined. The Lodi area is now home to about 40 wineries and there are currently 125-150 different Lodi-labeled wines on the market.

According to LWWC program director Stuart Spencer, whose family owns the Sr. Amant winery in Lodi, one reason for the rise in Lodi-designated wines is the trend of local growers launching their own wine brands. “The feedback they’re getting from that is immeasurable in improving the quality of their whole operations,” Spencer says. “As they become more professional in marketing and selling their wines, they’ll create greater penetration and get more feedback and the quality will improve. So what we’re seeing is with each subsequent vintage the quality and recognition are rising.”

Climate And Varietals

Though Lodi is part of the sweltering Central Valley, Lodi enjoys a more moderate Mediterranean climate, with warm dry summers and cool wet winters. “It’s not as hot here as a lot of people think,” Spencer insists. “We sit directly east of the San Francisco Bay, so as the valley warms up it pulls air directly across the bay and the San Joaquin delta, where there’s a gap between the north and southern coastal regions. This creates a moderating effect here in the afternoons, and we have this cool breeze that picks up and keeps the temperature from rising. Many days it’s hotter in Napa than it is here.”

Lodi grows 38% of California’s total Zinfandel crop, and many view the varietal as the appellation’s ticket to wine stardom. “Zinfandel is our flagship varietal and it’s something that does really well here,” Spencer says. “Many of the Zinfandel vineyards that were first planted in the 1880s are still in production today, and those are some of the vineyards that wineries come looking for. We have more Lodi-labeled Zins on the market than any other variety.”

In addition to Zinfandel, Spencer says, Rhone varietals like Syrah and Viognier are showing promise in Lodi. As growers expand their vineyards to the outer reaches of the appellation, where soils and climatic conditions differ, opportunities arise for growing new varietals. The appellation itself is also expanding into new territory. In September of 2002, the BATF approved a proposal to add 11,500 vineyard acres onto the western and southern borders of the AVA.

Grower Education

One of the most important factors in the elevated quality of Lodi grapes has been grower education–in particular, LWWC’s pest management and integrated farming programs.

Launched in 1992, Lodi’s district-wide integrated pest management (1PM) program was created to reduce the amount of pesticides and herbicides used in the area’s winegrape production. Since its inception, the program’s focus has expanded to encompass the entire farm management system. Now known as the integrated farming program (IFP), this “whole farm” program integrates biological, cultural and chemical strategies to minimize economic and environmental risks.

The IFP is made up of two stages: grower outreach, emphasizing grower education; and field implementation, which entails working in vineyards with individual growers. “We knew that the best way to influence what growers do is to be out in the fields with them all the time,” explains Cliff Ohmart, director of the IFP program. “The chemical companies have had great influence on growers because they have the resources to do that. Since that’s not possible for us, we tried to create a mini version of that.”

With the help of a Biologically Integrated Farming System (BIFS) grant, Ohmart’s team began working one-on-one with 40 local growers who signed up for the program. They encouraged the growers to use specific sustainable practices, monitored for pests and entered the information into a database so assessments could be made at the end of the growing season. Since the program was implemented, more than 50% of LWWC growers have begun using the IFP strategies in their vineyards.

According to Ohmart, the Lodi growers were extremely receptive to the program. “It’s the kind of thing you can’t do cold,” he says. “You need to have a group that’s ready for it. I think that’s one of the things that sets Lodi apart from any place I’ve ever been- the level of acceptance is very high.”

Ohmart attributes this progressiveness to Lodi’s sense of community spirit. “I’ve worked with growers in other areas of California and outside the state, and I’ve never seen anything quite like (the communication) here. The level of comfort and the exchange of confidential information here is just not typical, and it builds on itself. There’s a real desire here to work for the greater good of the community.”

The Lodi Winegrowers’ Workbook, which served as model for the statewide workbook on sustainable wine-growing practices, is also a large part of the IFP. (The workbook is now available for viewing on the LWWC Web site: lodiwine.com/winegrowersworkbook1.shtml.)

In addition to the environmental benefits of using sustainable practices, Ohmart notes that Lodi growers are being rewarded for their efforts with better-quality grapes. “That makes my job a lot easier.”

Lodi Wineries And Wines

Of Lodi’s 40 wineries, five are considered major operations: Robert Mondavi Woodbridge, Turner Road Vintners (Talus), Sutter Home Winery, Bear Creek Winery and Oak Ridge Vineyards. Smaller “boutique” wineries are also gaining attention, including the likes of Lucas Winery, St. Amant, Spenker Vineyards, Jessie’s Grove and Michael-David Vineyards (formerly known as Phillips).

Though many of the local wineries have been in operation for years, some are releasing Lodi-labeled wines for the first time. In March of 2000, Talus introduced its first-ever Lodi appellation wine–the Talus 2000 Lodi Shiraz–and the winery plans to release a Lodi appellation Zinfandel later this year. Talus winemaker Todd Ziemann was the driving force behind the Lodi Shiraz. “As a fourth-generation native of Lodi, I’m particularly excited about the new direction we’re heading with Talus,” Ziemann says. “We’re committed to helping build and promote Lodi as a great wine producing area.” The Canandaigua-owned winery now sources about 60% of its grapes from Lodi.

More than 60 California wineries buy Lodi grapes, including E. & J. Gallo, Glen Ellen, Fetzer, Delicato, Ravenswood, Kenwood Vineyards and Beringer. Some of them are even starting to promote the fact that they’re using Lodi grapes, as evidenced by Ravenswood’s newly created Lodi appellation Zinfandel. According to the winery’s Web site (ravenswood-wine.com), winemaker Joel Peterson discovered Lodi while sourcing grapes for the Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel. “Those of us on the North Coast…always poohpoohed Lodi,” he admits. “For years and years, its primary users were large wineries like Gallo. But as usual, it turned out that Gallo knew more than the rest of us.” When Peterson tasted the grapes from Lodi growers Dewaine and Steve Perrin, he decided to create a Lodi appellation wine to showcase them.

Similarly, Delicato has just introduced a line of Lodi-designated wines named after their Clay Station vineyard in the foothills east of Lodi. The first Clay Station release outscored 57 other California Viogniers to win “Best of California” honors at the 2002 California State Fair.

Promotional Efforts

While growing better grapes and producing high-quality wines is crucial to an evolving appellation’s success, getting the word out to the masses is equally important. With this in mind, LWWC partnered with the city of Lodi four years ago to create the Lodi Conference and Visitors Bureau. Through the bureau LWWC launched a Lodi Wine Trail program and distributed wine trail maps to hotel racks throughout Northern California.

In 2000 the organization created the Discover Lodi! Wine & Visitor Center, which features a Lodi wine tasting room as well as educational exhibits on grape growing and winemaking. According to Spencer, the center has three goals: “to bring people to Lodi; to bring people to Lodi wines; and to bring people to wine in general.” Last year, an estimated 24,000 people stopped in.

Another local effort is the new Vino Piazza, a combination winery complex and tourist wine tasting center built at the site of the old Lockeford wine co-op. When Don and Karyn Litchfield purchased the property at an auction in 1998, they hadn’t yet decided what to do with it. Mark Chandler, executive director of LWWC, suggested they turn it into a wine village,” and it wasn’t long before the Litchfields sold out all 15 winery spaces–largely to Lodi growers who wanted to produce their own wines.

Don Litchfield converted the co-op’s giant concrete wine tanks into mini-wineries, complete with tasting areas. Tenants pay 75 cents per square foot for about 1,000 square feet of space, and they may choose to buy their own equipment or take advantage of the Piazza’s custom crush and mobile bottling services.

Though the Piazza resembles an industrial park more than a tourist center at the moment, Litchfield says he is working to change that. “Most of the wineries have been in place since last spring,” he says, “but we still have a lot of aesthetic work to do.” In addition to some basic landscaping, Litchfield plans to add a deli and a small micro-brewery to the site. The Piazza already features a pleasant Tuscan-style courtyard where events are held throughout the year.

Meanwhile on the national front, LWWC is running print ads (“Lights are Shining on Lodi”) to promote the Lodi appellation in wine trade magazines and ramping up its public relations program with the help of Napa-based Balzac Communications. This May, LWWC will host a media event called “The 12 Zins of Lodi,” which is best described as a single-varietal, single-appellation wine competition. Wine writers and industry experts will pick Lodi’s top 12 Zinfandels, which will later be sent Out to key press in a sample pack.

With all the effort the Lodi folks are putting into boosting the appellation’s image, it’s hard to imagine that they won’t succeed. Lodi skeptics beware: these folks are on a mission.

RELATED ARTICLE: A Taste Of Lodi

Tasting wine in Lodi is a bit different than a day in Napa Valley. For one thing, the wineries are more spread out, so you have to drive around more in between tastings. On the other hand, the owners and winemakers are usually on hand to chat about the wines, and you don’t have to elbow your way through hordes of tourists who lust spilled out of a 50-foot bus.

Here are a few highlights from my recent Lodi tasting experience.

Jessie’s Grove Winery

The wonderfully gnarly Zinfandel vines at this historic ranch date back to the 1880s, and the winery tasting room is full of fascinating old photos of Lodi. Nat surprisingly, the winery specializes in old-vine Zinfandels. The Jessie’s Grove 2000 Vintners Choice Zinfandel ($15) won a gold medal at the 2002 San Francisco International Wine Competition, as well as the “Best of Class” award at the L.A. County Fair–and it’s not difficult to see why. Made from a blend of grapes from all three of the winery’s old-vine Zinfandel vineyards, the wine is medium bodied and balanced, with lots of ripe red fruit. Annual production for the winery is about 6,000 cases.

Michael-David Vineyards

What began as a roadside produce stand has grown into a 15,000 case winery for fifth-generation Lodi farmers Mike and David Phillips. The brothers farm 350 acres, reserving 10% of the crop for their own wines. The winery itself is part production facility and part country market, with locally grown produce and homemade pies available. Formerly known as Phillips winery, Michael-David Vineyards is turning heads with its 7 Deadly Zins ($16), a yummy old-vine Zinfandel produced from the grapes of seven top Lodi growers (on the back label, each of the deadly sins is attributed to a different grower). The wine has earthy aromas, jammy (raspberry) fruit flavors and balanced tannins.

Grands Amis

After 28 years of growing and selling Lodi grapes to the likes of Robert Mondavi and Green & Red, Jonathan Wetmore decided to save a few grapes for himself. Now he keeps the best of the crap for his Grands Amis (translation: “great friends”) wines, which he produces at a tiny, well-appointed winery in Lodi’s Vino Piazza complex. Wetmore proudly displays the Lodi appellation name on two Zinfandels, along with a Syrah, a Carignane and a Petite Sirah. The 2001 “Griffigna Vineyard” Zinfandel ($18) is particularly good–ripe and juicy, with raspberry and pepper-spice flavors. The winery’s annual production is 600 cases.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Hiaring Company

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group