The afternoon sun is golden and warm, belying a morning that started off with touches of fog and low clouds sweeping in from the Pacific. The fall weather is near perfect with little humidity and brilliant blue skies. It seems I’ve found the ideal time to visit Lodi. In other words, when it comes to travel, I’ve struck the Mother Lodi.
Lodi is one of those off-the-map destinations that’s not on everyone’s radar. It’s in California’s Central Valley and ringed on the north by Sacramento, on the south by Stockton, on the west by Oakland and San Francisco, and then on the east by Stanislaus National Forest and just beyond that Yosemite.
There is, then, a curious if not splendid sense of isolation here. If you were inclined to be romantic, then you might even call it an oasis, not really close to anything else but never really far away, either. As an added plus, that means no crowds of tourists or crazy traffic that on some level seems to define California.
Don’t get me wrong. It is that isolation and its compadre of quietness that is a part of the draw of Lodi. But maybe Lodi’s biggest draw is that it is definitely California wine country, just on a different level from Napa and Sonoma, a couple of hours’ drive to the northwest.
Here’s the thing. If you’ve done Napa and Sonoma, and even Mendocino farther up the coast, then Lodi can give you a fresh perspective on California wine.
Here’s why you’ll love living la vida Lodi when it comes to the vino. One of the hallmarks of the Central Valley is its low, flat and ridiculously fertile soil that’s ideal for growing grapes. And Lodi, on the northern loop of San Joaquin County — the locals just call it Sanwa, as if it’s one word — is drenched in sunlight. Lodi’s 110,000 acres of wine grapes love the sun.
To compliment those vineyards flowing with wine grapes, vast orchards of fruit and nut trees — the rich-tasting ones such as cherries, almonds, walnuts, peaches, apples and olives — are honeycomb throughout the Lodi countryside. During harvest season, think of it as sort of a still life painting come to life.
Wine region accolades
The Lodi Appellation was recognized in 1986, although winemaking goes back to way before that. Today 85 wineries dot the region, producing such divine treasures of zinfandel, crisp whites and bold reds including cabernet sauvignon, merlot and even pilotage, South Africa’s signature grape that managed to find its way to California. With 70 tasting rooms scattered around Lodi, in the small downtown proper and also at most of the vineyards, a glass of wine is never far away.
And then there’s this. The folks at Wine Enthusiast named it their Wine Region of the Year in 2015. Pretty impressive, yes? Lodi is also known as the Zinfandel Capital of the World. About 40 percent of premium zinfandel grapes are grown in the Lodi Appellation, with old growth vines dating to more than a hundred years ago.
A long, devoid-of-crowds weekend in Lodi gives you just enough time to explore the local wine industry from the grape to the glass. If it’s quantity you’re after, you can easily ricochet from winery to winery since they are fairly close together. Each has a distinct character.
The Lucas Winery, for example, is one of the very first of the small wineries in Lodi. The Michael David Winery, the brainchild behind Seven Deadly Zins, the No. 1 selling zinfandel in the U.S. since 2015, originated in 1974 as a produce market, although the family has been farming Lodi land for generations. Klinker Brick Winery also features old vine zins, and its unusual name originates for the “clink!” sound when bricks are, well, clinked together.
I also stopped in at Mettler Family Vineyard, where I found the pilotage. Long my favorite wine after tasting and falling in love with it in South Africa, I had no idea it was grown in the U.S. until I came to Lodi. Mettler, with its flower-filled gardens and bright, airy tasting room, also produces a range of whites and reds.
For the next day or so, I visited several more wineries, among them Harney Lane Winery, which includes in its diverse portfolio petite syrah, tempranillo and albariño. I also sampled the grape at Bokisch Vineyards, best known for Spanish varietal wines, and then again at the newer, snazzy m2 Wines, where the focus is on artisanal wines.
To round out the wineries, I also went to Acquiesce Winery and Vineyards for a taste of ambrosial Rhone-inspired wines, followed by St. Jorge Winery, a gorgeous Mediterranean-style estate. My final wine stop was Oak Farm Vineyards, framed in a lovely setting by century-old oaks and highlighted by an 1876 Colonial Revival-style home and historic barn.
Olive oil, too
Where there is wine, usually there is olive oil, and Lodi is no exception. I simply cannot resist the romantic lure of an olive grove, and I found my way to Karen Chandler’s Olive Drop Olive Oil Farm. As is the case with most of the wineries of Lodi, Olive Drop has a tasting room, although you must call to make arrangements to visit ahead of time. After sampling several of the oils infused with delectable touches of garlic, basil, lemon and orange, I declared the fragrant and tasty garlic the clear winner. Olive Drop is sold at wineries and boutiques throughout Lodi.
If wine and olive oil aren’t enough to entice you to Lodi, then maybe a plethora of amazing restaurants will. California cuisine practically demands California wines, and the combination is done right at the Towne House Restaurant at Wine and Roses, a resort that’s also part spa.
The restaurant, under the direction of James Beard Award-winning culinary master Bradley Ogden, has an extensive wine list that includes dozens of wines from the Lodi Appellation. The menu, which changes frequently, relies on what is seasonal, local and fresh for wine pairings.
Another favorite among locals is the renowned Pietro’s with its stunning authentically Italian selections. I wisely chose the homemade ravioli paired with a glass of deeply fragrant cabernet sauvignon from Mettler. Every forkful of food, the spicy aromas, and even the music are reminiscent of an Italian mother’s kitchen.
The wine road less traveled begins in Lodi, and if you’re undeterred by the fact that it’s off the beaten path and may take a little longer to get there, it can certainly end with lots of swirling, sniffing and sipping of some really great wine.