By Mary Ann Anderson, Tribune News Service
The first time I visited Lodi was out of curiosity. The second time, though, was for better reasons, for old vines and wine.
When I find myself in California, maybe every two or three years or so, I like to ramble. That first time was a healing journey after my little sister died in a car crash. My cousin, a fellow Georgia girl who was a travelling nurse, at the time lived in Sacramento, so off I went clear across the country to spend time with her. She always made me laugh, and laughter was definitely what I needed.
Deloras and I struck out of Sacramento along Highway 99 to Lodi, about a half-hour’s drive south from California’s capital. It was spring, and the one memory from that trip that rises above others is the untold numbers of fruit and nut trees in bloom, a riot of pastel blossoms in bursts of soft pink, light lavender and pure white. Lodi’s elevation is only 50 feet, and orchards line the nearly flat two-lane country roads like sentries, rows and rows of peaches and plums and cherries and apricots. Until then, I had never seen an almond tree, its gnarled limbs reminding me of our plum trees back in Georgia.
The allure of Lodi today is its wineries and vineyards, and even during that trip there so long ago, I thought the miles of vineyards added only to the serenity of this quiet sliver of California countryside. We spent only a half day bouncing around Lodi’s back roads before cutting across to the Pacific Coast Highway and drifting down to Big Sur and San Simeon. Driving toward the coast, I never dreamed I would return years later for the wine.
Like most who visit California for its wine, I had already travelled on several occasions to Napa Valley and Sonoma County and sampled the vinos there. Lodi would be something different, off the beaten track, for a group of friends and me who came just for its wine experience. In several publications, I read Lodi is called the “new Napa,” but I would have to disagree, as after traipsing down its back roads and visiting a few wineries, I realize that Lodi stands on its own and certainly doesn’t need to rely on comparisons to other wine regions.
To understand Lodi wine, you should understand its geography. On a map of California, it’s almost in the middle of the state. If you were to draw a clockwise ring around Lodi, it would roughly be encircled on the north by Sacramento, on the east toward Nevada by farmlands and tiny towns and beyond that the Sierra Nevada Mountains, on the south by the larger city of Stockton and on the west and southwest by San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland.
Lodi officially is in California’s Central Valley, a horn of plenty, if you will, because of its Mediterranean-like climate and rich, loamy soil that is the genesis of all those fruit and nut orchards, great vineyards and, subsequently, great wines.
The Lodi Appellation was recognized in 1986, although regional winemaking goes back way before that, to the mid-1800s when the first settlers of European descent discovered the low fertile valley between the Sierra Nevadas and the Pacific coast.
Here’s Lodi wine by the numbers. The cards in its Rolodex of wineries number 85, with some family wineries tracing back to five generations. About 110,000 acres of Lodi’s soil is in wine production. Count about 100 different varieties, among them cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot and sauvignon blanc, much of it cobbled with Old World vinifera from Spain, Italy, Portugal and Germany. A glass of wine is never far away with Lodi’s 70 tasting rooms scattered around downtown and at dozens of its wineries.
But Lodi’s darling is Old Vine Zinfandel. Lodi is, after all, known as the Zinfandel Capital of the World. Some of the old growth zinfandel vines, all gnarled and dark with age, are more than 100 years old. Lodi has the unusual distinction of having the largest collection of old growth vines in North America, plus its vineyards produce about 40 per cent of premium zinfandel grapes in California.
I was reminded of Lodi when I was looking at our local spirits shop for a special wine for Christmas dinner and came upon a display of Seven Deadly Zins from Michael David Winery. Seven Deadly Zins — you have to love the name — is the No. 1 selling zinfandel in the U.S. since 2015. Because I had visited the winery and sipped enough of the garnet-red Seven Deadly Zins to know its big, bold taste was perfect for the holidays and way beyond, it happily ended up in my basket.
Other noteworthy wineries that have wonderful tasting rooms are the Lucas Winery, one of the first small wineries in Lodi, and Klinker Brick Winery with its old vine zinfandels. Mettler Family Vineyard’s sunny tasting room looks out over flower-filled gardens, while St. Jorge Winery is a beautiful Mediterranean-style estate. The views of the vineyards from Bokisch Vineyards are among the most scenic in Lodi.
For the romantics, Lodi is a lovely getaway, not only for its wine culture, but also for its small, and dare I say charming, downtown that is easily walkable. See it from underneath its iconic mission arch — it was built in 1907 to provide a formal entrance to the grounds of the Tokay Carnival, the first Lodi Grape Festival — to its shaded brick pathways and cobblestone streets. Downtown is filled with historic buildings, some original and some repurposed into boutiques, microbreweries and taprooms, tasting rooms, restaurants and art galleries.
What you won’t find in Lodi is traffic. The population is around 68,000, by most standards a small city, so it’s nice and quiet and without the big mess of traffic of its nearby sister cities.
And when it comes to romance, where you stay matters as much as the destination. Lodi’s newest lodging is Hacienda Maldona with its four vineyard rental cottages. The historic Wine and Roses, once a country farm and now a 66-room resort with lush botanical gardens and venerable trees, has the ambiance of a much smaller inn. The fabulous Towne House Restaurant with its seasonal menu that often changes daily and full-service spa round out the offerings at Wine and Roses. For the ultimate wine country getaway, Lodi’s bed and breakfasts — Bella Vino, Poppy Sister Inn, Cabo Wabo, Lodi Hill House and Bordeaux Inn Lodi — are cozy and intimate.
There is a song called “Lodi” that singer and songwriter John Fogerty wrote a long time ago and that Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded for their 1969 album Green River. Among its most memorable lyrics is this: “Oh, Lord, I’m stuck in Lodi again,” sort of referring to it as a sleepy farm town. Turned out, at the time, Fogerty had never been to Lodi, but wrote it because “it was the coolest sounding name.”
Lodi’s name might be the “coolest,” but Lodi itself is pretty cool, too. And when you combine romance with wine, it’s certainly not a bad place at all to be stuck.
If you go
- For more details on Lodi’s wineries, restaurants, accommodations, annual events and things to do, Visit Lodi has an excellent website at visitlodi.com.
- The closest airport is Sacramento International Airport (SMF), about a 40-minute drive north of Lodi. Other nearby airports are San Francisco (SFO), Oakland (OAK) and San Jose (SJC).
- Amtrak’s San Joaquin line stops in Lodi and is also directly accessible on this scenic Northern California route from Sacramento. For scheduling, visit www.Amtrak.com.
- In case you’re wondering, John Fogerty is still touring, with dates found at www.johnfogerty.com. Ask him to sing “Lodi.”
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