Thursday, January 11, 2024

Lodi: "There's Something Happening Here"


In the late 1990s, Lodi was not a name high on my list of wine regions to visit. There was a reference to Lodi in a bluesey song that bounced around in my head, but nothing much about Lodi and wine. 

Then, one day, in early 1998, I got a call from Mark Chandler, then executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, asking if I would be interested in serving as chairman of the Wine Industry Integrity Awards, a new program devised by the commission.  The annual program would recognize individuals in the U.S. wine industry who have conducted their careers with integrity, while making significant contributions to the world of wine.

Later renamed the Wine Integrity Award, the program brought me to Lodi for the award presentations, while providing me with an in-depth look at the vineyards, wines and people that make up this dynamic and diverse wine region.  

For me, Lodi was no longer just a name in a song.

The cool end of the Central Valley

California's Central Valley is best known for fruits and vegetables, but not so much for wine grapes.  There is Gallo, of course, but the top Gallo wines come from another part of the state, northwest of the Central Valley. 

Rising in the distant Sierras, the Consumnes and Mokelumne rivers flow through Lodi, on their way to the Pacific Ocean. The river waters are an ample source of irrigation for the grapes, and a recreational diversion on those balmy evenings when a casual float with a glass of wine brings a busy day to a relaxing close.

Drive east from the sprawling San Joaquin Delta and you arrive at Lodi, the cool north end of the Central Valley.  Daily breezes off the delta, give Lodi a tempering boost for the more than 100 wine grapes, in seven sub-AVAs: Alta Mesa, Borden Ranch, Clements Hills, Consumnes River, Jahant, Mokelumne River and Sloughhouse.

Lodi has a standing reputation for making distinctive Zinfandel, much of it made from old-vine grapes.  Alluvial loamy and sandy soils from the Sierras form the perfect medium for phylloxera-free grapes grown on un-grafted roots. 

Head pruned old-vine Zinfandel

Many of the Zin vines are 160 years old and still producing clusters of small concentrated berries. And, despite their contemporary standing as viticulture icons, these old gnarly vines continue to yield distinctive concentrated Zinfandel. A few Lodi wineries, drawing from aged vines of other varieties, make Old Vine Carignan and Cinsault.

The most planted wine grape in Lodi, though, is not Zinfandel but Cabernet Sauvignon. And, while other wine regions have pulled Alicante Bouschet and Carignane (Carignan in France), Lodi continues to value both grapes as varietals and components in popular field blends.

An aside: Grape names can be confusing, especially on wine labels. Alicante Bouschet is known variously as Alicante and Alicante Henri.  And Alicante is a synonym for Garnacha Tintoera and even Grenache. What's more, Alicante is both a city in Spain and a Spanish wine appellation.

Other red grapes that help Lodi maintain it's admirable reputation as a grape grower include Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Nebbiolo, Monastrell, Grenache, Counoise, Tempranillo, the five Bordeaux varieties, Teroldego, Cinsault and Zweigelt, a popular Austrian red grape. All of these are available in wines costing less than $30. Wine drinkers thirsting for a taste of California's past might seek out Monte Rio Cellars Mission wine.

Lodi has a well-deserved reputation for red wine, but there are some unusual whites that should be of interest to the adventurous wine consumer, like Vermentino, Picpoul, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Albarino, Muscat and the usual Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. 

The main mission of any wine region is to make and sell wine. In 2005, Lodi introduced "Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing," a program that went nationwide and helped Lodi to become recognized for its wine.

"There's something happening here" is the motto of the Lodi wine community.  Try a Lodi wine and discover for yourself what that something is.


Next blog: The lighter side of wine 

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