Pop open a wine labeled “California,” and you can be almost certain some of the grapes that went into that wine were grown in the Lodi region, which lies in California’s Central Valley east of San Francisco.
Lodi vineyards have been producing grapes for over a century, and for many years these grapes were the unsung heroes in many a California wine. But that’s changing, as Lodi is coming into its own as a wine-producing region and bottling wines under its own appellation. In the early 1990s there were eight wineries. Now there are 80.
For a totally different wine tourism experience, head east from Napa or Sonoma and spend a weekend here before growth brings inevitable change.
Don’t expect the glitz of Lodi’s swanky neighbors. These are farmers. They just happen to farm grapes. And they’re passionate about it. Take Annalisa Babich. When I met her she was digging an irrigation ditch in her family’s vineyard. She had recently left behind a glamorous Hollywood life to return home to help on the farm. That day she was covered up to her knees in muck, and she was happy as a pig in… well, muck.
While there are a few chain motels in town, the place for a luxury stay is Wine & Roses Hotel, Restaurant and Spa. Set on seven acres of lushly manicured grounds, its 79 rooms and suites offer serene accommodations with the option of a dip in the pool or a drink in the lounge. Dining here is top-notch, with dinner entrées like Olive Oil Poached Blue Nose Sea Bass with Orange Zest & Albariño Sauce, Parsnip Puree and Braised Greens. It would be tempting, in fact, never to leave the property. But in Lodi, there’s work to be done. And that involves lifting a glass.
Taste some wines
You don’t have to go far to get started. The Lodi Wine and Visitor Center is right next to Wine & Roses. There you can taste from a selection of local wines that change weekly. ($5 per person for four tastes; Wine & Roses guests get a reduced rate.) My favorite was 2006 Oak Ridge Winery Moss Roxx Ancient Vine Zinfandel – big, peppery and nicely balanced. The center also has a good inventory of bottles for sale.
Pick up a wine tasting guide and map on your way out and you’re off to the wineries. Many have weekend-only tasting hours, though some of the larger wineries are open daily. Don’t miss Michael David Winery, known for its massive wines in the “Earthquake” series. In addition to the tasting room, there’s a down-home-style café and bakery as well as a fruit stand.
Two cooperative tasting rooms in charming Downtown Lodi make it possible to taste wines from a number of different wineries. The Cellar Door offers gourmet munchies and wines by the flight, glass or bottle. This is the place to sample wines from Bokisch Vineyards. Owners Marcus and Liz Bokisch are breaking new ground with their Spanish varietals like Garnacha, Tempranillo and Albariño; the ones I tasted were all delicious.
A short walk away is Lodi Wine Cellars, which offers wines from a different group of wineries. Guests are welcome to bring picnic baskets and enjoy their wine al fresco on the patio.
Eat some food
You might want to pack that picnic basket with goodies from Cheese Central, also downtown. With over 100 varieties of cheese as well as local honey, chutneys olive oils and preserves, there’s plenty to choose from.
For sit-down, indoor dining, check out Crush Kitchen + Bar. The cozy lounge, with its cushy couches and low tables, is a perfect spot to sip one of the many local wines and enjoy an appetizer like corn cakes made with roasted local corn, peppers, herbs and breadcrumbs, lightly fried and served with piquillo pepper coulis.
Or head down the street to School Street Bistro, where owner David Akiyoshi doubles as winemaker at nearby Lange Twins Winery. You’ll find a wide selection of local wines – of course, Lange Twins is the house pour – and entrées like Jezebel Pork Chop, a cider-brined chop glazed with a spicy pineapple-apricot sauce and served with smoked Gouda mac ‘n’ cheese or smashed potatoes.
Enjoy some art
Walking around downtown, you’ll notice murals – nine of them – scattered throughout town. These are the work of the Walldogs, a group of 100 artists who gathered in Lodi for three days in 2006 to paint up the town in celebration of its centennial. Other public art includes sculpture, mosaics and even the town water tower. The Lodi Arts Commission also sponsors art hops the first Friday of every month, when artists open their gallery spaces to the public.
Wine, food and art – what better way to spend a weekend?
A Taste of Lodi: Five Favorites
*Van Ruiten Sauvignon Blanc: Bright sweet lemon aroma and crisp honeyed flavor.
Bokisch Vineyards Albariño, Terra Alta Vineyard: Bursting with floral notes and flavors of melon and minerals.
*Klinker Brick “Old Ghost” Old Vine Zinfandel: Intense, powerful, luscious and deep.
*Gnarly Head Authentic Red: Soft, juicy chocolate-covered cherries.
*337 Cabernet Sauvignon: Rich aroma, silky smoothness and lush flavor.
*available in Ohio