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Travel, Wine

Lodi: History, Hospitality and Heart

If you’ve ever visited Lodi, you know there’s a whole lot to love. Lodi is probably best known for its world-famous Old Vine Zinfandel, but this wine region is no one-trick pony.

Lodi

With seven distinct growing areas that foster over 100 different varieties, there’s undoubtedly something for every palate. What truly sets Lodi apart from other wine regions is the utter lack of pretense. These folks are farmers, first and foremost. They just happen to grow and produce some of the most sought-after winegrapes in the state, if not the world.  

 

Lodi arch
Photo courtesy of Randy Caparoso

History of Lodi: 

Rooted in the Gold Rush

Like much of California, Lodi’s history is rooted in the Gold Rush. As would-be miners flocked to find their fortune, settlements popped up in nearby areas. Lodi would have been less than a day’s ride from the action. Early settlers described Lodi as “a fertile grazing land, complete with wild grape clusters dangling from the trees”. Despite what could have been interpreted as a literal sign from above, winegrapes weren’t originally Lodi’s marquis crop.  

Winegrapes have always played an important role in Lodi’s rich agricultural history. However, there tends to be a lot of competition in a region where everything grows well. Farming itself is somewhat similar to a Gold Rush. As commodity prices rise and fall, growers try to capitalize on the boom and get out before the bust. Early growers initially gambled on wheat, then watermelons, before landing on one of Lodi’s most stable crops – grapes.  

By the 1880s, farmers had realized that Lodi was one of the few places where the nation’s most popular table grape, the Tokay Flame, would ripen properly.  At the same time, California’s fledgling wine industry had begun to take shape. As wineries popped up throughout the state, farmers planted Mission, Zinfandel and Cinsault vineyards as far as the eye could see.   

grapes
Photo courtesy of Randy Caparoso

From Quantity to Quality

After Prohibition was repealed, Lodi’s wine industry continued to grow and thrive. Lodi was always very good at growing a lot of wine grapes, but in the decades following, focus slowly began to shift from quantity to quality. By the 1970s, California’s wineries and winemakers were attracting a lot of attention. When two Napa wineries took top honors at the Judgement of Paris in 1976, this catapulted not just Napa but all of California onto the world stage. As the saying goes, a high tide lifts all boats. And Lodi winemakers were positioned to set sail.  

One visionary who played a pivotal role in the growth of the Lodi wine industry was Robert Mondavi. After a successful stint at his family’s Napa winery, he returned to his hometown in 1979 to form Woodbridge Winery. His state-of-the-art winemaking techniques cemented Lodi’s transition from making jug and fortified wines to creating quality wine at an affordable price.  

The Lodi AVA 

Lodi is one of the largest and most productive AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in California. Lodi grows around 20% of California’s winegrapes – more than Napa and Sonoma combined. Although often lumped in with warmer wine regions, Lodi’s climate is comparable to places like Paso Robles or Healdsburg. The region’s warm summer highs are tempered by the Delta Breeze – cool coastal air that glides through the Carquinez Strait during the hottest part of the day. 

Lodi’s Sub AVAs 

Back in 2005, Lodi winemakers realized that most world-class wines had one thing in common – a sense of place. The unique soil types and growing conditions of a region are reflected in its wines. For this reason, they decided to divide the mammoth Lodi AVA into seven nested AVAs – each with distinct differences in terroir. 

Alta Mesa
The Alta Mesa AVA is situated on a high table, or mesa, north of Lodi proper. With warmer temperatures and less wind than its neighbors to the west, this is one of Lodi’s warmer AVAs. Alta Mesa was initially planted with familiar red varieties. Today, this AVA is known for its collection of unique varietals – like Grenache Blanc, Tannat and Touriga Nacional.

Borden Ranch
Borden Ranch is defined by its hillside topography, with elevations ranging from 70 feet to 520 feet along the border of the Sierra Nevada foothills. Clay soils and windy conditions force these vines to struggle to survive – optimal conditions for structured reds, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Zinfandel.

Clements Hill
The Clements Hill AVA boasts clay loams and slightly greater diurnal shifts, allowing red varieties, Rhône grapes, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Spanish varieties to thrive.

Cosumnes River
Located in the Northwest corner of the Lodi AVA, the Cosumnes River AVA is marked by cooler temperatures (courtesy of the Delta Breeze) and alluvial soils. Cosumnes River is sparsely planted but is known for its excellent white varietals.

Jahant
Jahant is the smallest of Lodi’s sub-AVAs and also the coolest. Marked by distinctive pinkish sandy clay loam, this region is heavily planted to white varieties, like Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. Black-skinned varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Montepulciano and Barbera have also fared well.

Mokelumne River
Mokelumne River is Lodi’s largest sub-AVA – home to most of the region’s old-vine Zinfandel plantings and the world’s oldest surviving Cinsault vineyard. Its incredibly fertile soils have lured growers since the early 20th century. Originally, this area was planted to Zinfandel vines, some of which remain productive after over 100 years. These old-vine vineyards might be Mokelumne River’s claim to fame, but over 100 different types of winegrapes are grown in this remarkable AVA.

Sloughhouse
Lodi’s easternmost AVA, Sloughhouse creeps towards the lower foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Before the construction of levees in the Sacramento Delta, this area was littered with rivers and streams. These tributaries have since dried up, but an abundance of tiny river rocks remain. The stones restrict vine growth, which results in fewer, more concentrated grapes. Jammy varietals, like Zinfandel and Petit Syrah, are excellent examples of Sloughhouse wines.

vineyard
Photo courtesy of Randy Caparoso
Lodi vineyard
Photo courtesy of Randy Caparoso
vineyard
Photo by Robert Holmes

Planning a Visit to Lodi

To really understand what sets this region apart, you have to experience it for yourself. Lodi is known for its hometown hospitality.  When you visit one of Lodi’s family-owned wineries, you won’t just taste the wines. You’ll meet the farm families who have grown the grapes for generations. 

Traveling to Lodi 

If you’re lucky enough to live in the Golden State, Lodi is probably within driving distance. Visitors from outside the state should plan to fly into the nearby Sacramento airport and rent a car.  

Lodi wine tasting

Where to Taste Wine in Lodi 

With over 85 wineries (63 are included on the Lodi wine trail), figuring out where to start can be daunting. If it’s your first visit to Lodi, head downtown and stop in to the Lodi Wine Visitor Center. They offer guided tastings and can help you decide which local wineries best suit your palate.  

Although the Lodi AVA is enormous, most of the wineries are clustered in and around the Molekumne AVA and no more than a half hour (at most) apart. This gives you the freedom to bounce from winery to winery without worrying too much about travel times. Note: Reservations are not required but are recommended – especially during weekends. See our list of Lodi wineries. 

 

Learn more about Wine Tasting in Lodi 

Want to get a taste of Lodi at home? Lodi isn’t just known for incredible wines. Local farmers also grow the majority of California’s cherries! Grab a bottle of Lodi Zinfandel or Cinsault and make Bone-In Pork Chops with Cherry Sauce

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