There's so much to love about Lodi that you've never heard of it
As a producer of commodity grapes, it's ready to shake its reputation.
Between Sacramento and Stockton in California’s Central Valley is the largest wine-growing region in the United States (mostly east of Interstate 5). Although Lodi is a large wine region, it hasn’t exactly achieved glory. The truth is, most supermarket wine consumers drink Lodi wine every day. They just don’t know about it. With its high quality-to-price ratio, the region's fruit appeals to big wine companies like Gallos, Constellations, and Delicatos, which add it to large blends to improve the quality of their mass-market California wines. Those big players continue to sell to many of Lodi's large growers.
The region hasn't been devoid of greatness, but it's been a long time since important voices both inside and outside the region have urged that wine transcends merely a commodity. The LangeTwins Family Winery formed a joint partnership with Robert Mondavi around 1980 after he grew up in Lodi. Through the study of causes and effects in the vineyard, Mondavi attached Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon for the first time to the concept of terroir.
A number of other grape varieties have been planted in Lodi as a result of the lessons learned. Over the past few years, the number of growers who bottling their wine under their own brands has grown as a result of the lessons learned.
As a result, well-known outside vintners - some of them young and on the verge of becoming cult-like with their "cool-kid" followings - have also noticed the potential of the region and are either buying vineyards in this region or sourcing fruit from here. Combined, they are showing off a fascinating range of Lodi wines, with character profiles which are as bright and aromatic as the wines themselves, and are quite shocking to those who are used to the now-dated big, ripe fruit bombs.
But isn’t it too hot?
Yes, but in a nutshell, no. There are a variety of misconceptions about Lodi, but one of the most egregious is the misconception that it is a blazing-hot region capable of producing only red wines bursting with glycerin and alcohol. Lodi is located in the Central Valley region, but as they say, location is everything. It’s just not true.
Taking a look at some of California's other top-performing wine regions—Napa Valley, Paso Robles—there's no doubt a cooling influence contributes to the wines' balance between ripeness and acidity that helps keep them fresh and interesting. San Pablo Bay, a bay in Napa, and Templeton Gap, a valley in Paso Robles that lets in cool Pacific breezes, are some of Napa's best features.
Lodi has a delta, as well. The Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, which stretches from the Carquinez Straight eastward, acts as a conduit, bringing cool coastal breezes directly to seven sub-AVAs of the region by way of the maze of waterways that make up the Delta. As well as creating the same temperature patterns as some of the state's other successful Mediterranean climates, it is also characterized by warm, sunny days during the growing season, followed by large diurnal shifts at night, when the temperature drops dramatically.
As a matter of fact, Lodi's temperature matches up with those of St. Helena, the source of many of Napa Valley's prized red wines, similar to those of St. Helena. As a result of the favorable climate, and not to mention the well-draining soils, from deep, sandy loams to shallow sandy clay loams and gravelly or cobbled clays, talented winemakers-both veteran and newcomers-are putting forth wines that are on the cutting edge, whether they are white or reds. There are all the newest buzzwords here that work well: fresh, tense, savory, minerally, textured, crunchy, and all the words in between.
The American region to look to for old vines
It is said that Lodi has the largest number of old and ancient vineyards in the country—the term "old vine" generally indicates at least 50 years in the ground, and the term "ancient vine" generally implies over 100 years. It is here that Joseph Spenker planted 25 acres of Cinsault in 1886, and they are still growing on their own roots in the sandy soil free of phylloxera, so it never became necessary to graft onto rootstock.
There are many plantings in California that can come with surprises - the occasional Mission vine, Flame Tokay here, or even a full-on field blend - but the old vine Carignane, also spelled Carignan, which is planted in greater numbers in California than anywhere else in the region, is just as delightful as its companion Cinsault.
I think of the 2019 Precedent wine from Spenker Ranch in Mokelumne River AVA. Quite a number of wines are made under Nathan Kandler's own label from under-sung regions around the world that deserve a chance to be recognized, including this fragrant, silky red that is one of the six wines he makes himself for Thomas Fogarty at his Santa Cruz Mountains winery.
A Lodi Zinfandel wine and its old vines cannot be separated, of course, from one another. The wine maker Larry Turley has cut a swath through the region with at least six bottlings of his Zinfandel wine from single vineyards. All of them are definitely worth searching for (if you can find them at all). In the background at Turley, Tegan Passalacqua, his winemaker, acquired such a respect for Lodi's old head-trained, often dry-farmed, own-rooted vines that he bought a vineyard here with his wife, Olivia.
In addition to his Zinfandel and Carignane from Lodi and wines from beyond, he also sells wines under his Sandlands brand. As the name implies, these vineyards are not a dense, jammy example of California Zinfandel. These newer Zins are perfumed, red-fruited, with a bright acidity and refreshingly light.
Whites shine bright in Lodi
A Lodi whiplash, however, is a collection of beautiful white wines, including Spanish and Italian varieties, Germans and Burgundians, all of which have emerged in this traditionally red region. Interestingly, Chardonnay occupies quite a bit of space on that front. It's not as difficult to grow whites in Lodi as people think, according to Heather Pyle Lucas, owner and winemaker at the oldest existing winery. And her fresh, lemony 2006 Chard defies the myths that Lodi is too hot for Chardonnay to grow well, as well as the myth that Lodi wines cannot age.
However, Sue Tipton, founder of Acquiesce, the only white wine company in Lodi that produces crisp white wines (well, and pink), is credited with proving that Lodi has the climate that excels at producing crisp whites. She decided that she would devote her entire brand to whites from the Southern Rhône after becoming obsessed with them.
The myth busters of the world point out that “the climate here is very similar to that in the Southern Rhône—historically, only two degrees cooler during the day and two degrees warmer at night during the growing season.” With a blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanc, Bourboulenc, and Picpoul Blanc, Tipton's 2020 Ingénue blend embodies all of these flavors well, but her 2020 Ingénue blend stands out with its delicate floral notes, savory mineral and herb notes, and citrusy notes.
Their family of brothers and sisters is a group of brothers and sisters who grow more than 50 varieties of German and Austrian wines at Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, including Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Gewürztraminer, Kerner, Bacchus, Dornfelder and Blaufränkisch, and make the most successful varieties commercially available on the remainder of their vineyard. In the Markus Wine Co. 2020 "nimmo," Markus Niggli blends Kerner, Bacchus, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer to create a delightfully aromatic wine.
There’s a wealth of varietals growing here
In Lodi, many varieties of grapes have been introduced beyond the Rhône, Germany, and Austria. Born in Spain, Markus Bokisch specializes in Iberian varieties: Albario, Verdejo, Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Monastrell.
It is his belief that Grenache, which is being cultivated by Bokisch Vineyards, which he owns along with his wife, Liz, is becoming one of Lodi's great reds, and he is making a good case for it: In the Spanish International Grenache Competition, the Grenaches du Monde, the Bokisch 2017 Garnacha from Terra Alta Vineyards in the Clements Hills AVA won gold last year.
There is no fluke in that spicy, strawberry-bright Bokisch Garnacha; there is no fluke in the perfumed Maitre de Chai Zin rosé or in the exciting White Diamond whites from Peltier Winery & Vineyards, ranging from Sauvignon Blanc to Vermentino.
With the consistent climate of Lodi, coupled with the persistent Delta breezes, and the talented winemakers who have captured those breezes, a very modern success story is emerging out of the more than 100 varieties of grapes, including Assyrtiko, which has become the most popular white grape in Greece. Jeff Perlegos's Stampede and Perlegos Vineyards may not be in the bottles yet, but they are in the ground. His last name gives him the right to try his hand at winemaking.