On a day warmer than one would expect of late September in Northern California, the dusty streets of downtown Lodi are quiet. The shaded sidewalks from tree-lined streets are practically empty. The occasional sound from the train rumbling on tracks that originally brought adventurous here during the gold rush pierces the otherwise still air. Three-story brick buildings house a cheese shop, a used book store, a revived theater and a handful of antique stores, everything you would expect from small town America with one addition - a few of the state’s best tasting rooms. You wouldn't know it by looking around, but Wine Spectator named Lodi the “2015 Wine Region of the Year.”
The small agricultural town is in the middle of California’s Central Valley. Family-owned wineries dot the back country, two-lane roads. Winemakers pour $5 to $10 tastings of surprisingly good wines as they take the time to talk to guests about their process. It is what travelers envision Napa being before the reality of bumper-to-bumper traffic, $50 tastings and hedge-funded owned wineries smack them in the face.
Lodi has been growing wine grapes since the mid 1800s. Still it has flown under the radar, which is surprising since it is the largest grape growing area in California. If it is known at all, it is known for its old vine Zin, but Lodi is a treasure trove of forgotten varieties. With the ability to be more flexible than its neighbors to the west, winemakers 125 plus varietals
Along with Zinfandel, Rhone style wines and Spanish wines are hitting the mark among wine critics. The town has more than enough vineyards to spend a long weekend driving (or biking) from place to place, sipping some of California’s best wines along the way.
Michael David Winery
Michael David Winery put Lodi on the map with its 7 Deadly Zins in 2000. Since then it has become the number one selling Zinfandel in America. Followed up with Freakshow, a vintage carnival poster wrapped bottle outstanding Zinfandel. For a more intense wine, the Inkblot Cabernet Franc showcase black cherry and dark chocolate and coats the tongue with a velvety smooth tannins. Co-owners Michael and David Phillips’ family have grown grapes in Lodi for nearly a century.
Red is always the showcase of any winemaker’s line, so when Sue Tipton opened Acquiesce Winery, an all white wine winery, people told her it could not be done. “That is ok,” she said. “I will just drink whatever I do not sell.” But she proved those uppity red wine snobs wrong as she has sold out of her vintage every year.
Her white show all the complexity as any Bordeaux or Burgundy. Her signature wine, Belle Blanc, is a Chateaunefeuf-du-Pape style blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Viognier. It is crisper, less earthy and more flinty than traditional wines from Chateaunefeuf-du-Pape.
Oak Farms Vineyards
Visiting the Oak Farms tasting room is like stepping back into time. A grand white Colonial-style home dating back to 1876 sits in the middle of lush, green farmland. A historic barn, nostalgic farm equipment and magnificent old oaks litter the 70-acre wine estate. William DeVries raised cattle and grew wheat and grapes on the farm in the 1860s. He was one of the pioneer grape-growers and winemakers in Lodi. In 2000, the Panella family purchased the estate from the DeCries family to continue the grape-growing and wine making tradition. Today Oak Farm Vineyards produce three white varieties and eight red varietals. Barbara, an Italian red with full body and low tannins, is considered their flagship wine.
McCay Cellar’s tasting room is sandwiched in between Beer Works and the train station. In between pours Michael McCay calls his son to make sure he was on his way to the vineyard to help with that evenings work. The smaller urban tasting room with corrugated steel on the sides, a patio and live music feels more urban than the wineries on the farms.
Couples who make wine together, stay together. That is the philosophy of the winemaking couple Markus and Liz Bokish. Markus spent summers in Spain growing up and his family still resides there. He is a farmer with a passion for is Spanish heritage. It is only natural that they specialize in Spanish wines. They even make three styles of Albarino, which is almost unheard of for an American winery. Tempernillo, Garnacha and Old Vine Zin round out their wine portfolio.