There wasn't a single jug at a Wines of Lodi presentation in Los Angeles last week, only serious bottles that deserve serious attention. If you still scorn Lodi wine, you may be surprised to learn that you are probably drinking lots of it, made in other regions that buy Lodi fruit.
Growers in Lodi have sold so much to outside wineries that they finally wised up and began making wine themselves. From eight wineries 25 years ago, the region has grown to more than 85, ranging from big producers to small family-owned boutique wineries.
Sixty-five have tasting rooms, perfect for wine-touring, as is the town of Lodi. It's your "stereotype bucolic agricultural community," said Camron King, executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission. Streets have names like Vine and Tokay. The city crest features a grape cluster. And there's plenty of small-town friendliness. What you drink in the tasting rooms may be poured by a grower or a member of the family that owns the winery.
And forget that parched, unbearably hot reputation. "Stag's Leap [the Napa winery famed for Cabernet Sauvignon] has hotter days and nights." King said.
Lodi gets the cooling influence of San Francisco Bay Delta breezes, which makes for a day and night temperature differential of 40 to 45 degrees. The hot days (averaging in the low 90s) and cool nights are "phenomenal for growing grapes," King said.
Grapes have been thriving in Lodi since the 1850s. Today, some 110,000 acres are planted to more than 100 varieties of wine grapes, including the oldest Cinsault vineyard in the world. This is the Bechthold Vineyard, planted in 1886 and named vineyard of the year at the California State Fair in 2014.
But enough background. Let's see what the wines are like. The following six were poured at the Lodi tasting, held at Drago Centro in downtown Los Angeles. Choosing them was just "scratching the surface of the richness we have in our region," King said proudly.
LangeTwins Family Winery and Vineyards is large, producing 100,000 cases under its own label, plus crushing and bottling for North Coast wineries that source fruit in Lodi.
Another plus, besides the price, is that 85% of the fruit in this wine was certified under Lodi's certified sustainable wine-growing program, called Lodi Rules, King said.
2. Harney Lane Albariño 2013, $19. Albariño is "Lodi's version of Chardonnay," King said, meaning it's a common white wine there. Although Lodi grows plenty of Chardonnay, much of it is shipped to areas that specialize in this grape, leaving Albariño to take over.
Aged 50% in stainless steel and 50% in neutral oak, the Harney Lane wine is dry, with nice minerality, excellent with food. Its fruitiness blossomed when tasted with a plate of burrata, speck, cherry tomatoes, olive crostini and basil pesto that started lunch following the tasting.
In 2014, the Harney Albariño won a double gold medal, best of class of region at the California State Fair Wine Competition.
Farming the area since 1907, Harney Lane Winery began winemaking more recently. Last year (2014) was its ninth vintage. In that time, production has grown from fewer than 800 cases a year to more than 4,000.
3. Bokisch Vineyards Verdelho, Vista Luna Vineyard 2013, $18. Bokisch specializes in Iberian varietals such as this Portuguese white wine grape. In the wine above it is blended with 5% of the Spanish white wine grape Verdejo.
Although raised in California, Markus Bokisch is of Spanish heritage and worked in the Spanish wine industry along with his wife Liz before buying vineyard land in Lodi.
They made only 224 cases of this pleasantly aromatic dry white wine. Its acidity made it a nice companion to the burrata plate.
4. Bokisch Vineyards Tempranillo 2012, $23. This Spanish varietal is doing spectacularly well in Lodi, King said. It's the flagship varietal for Bokisch, blended in this wine with 10% of another Spanish varietal, Graciano.
Dark, fruity, earthy, tannic and complex, the Bokisch Tempranillo is an example of how well Iberian grapes do in Lodi. It is also certified green under the Lodi Rules program for sustainable wine growing.
5. m2 Wines Soucie Vineyard Zinfandel 2012, $28. Lodi is the world's leading producer of Zinfandel, turning out 40% of the Zinfandel in California, King said. The grape was brought to the region by European immigrants for use in blends. Little did they know that it would become one of California's most popular red wines. Its long history in Lodi vineyards makes possible old vine Zinfandels such as m2's (above), from a vineyard planted in 1916. This is a gorgeous wine in which I tasted bright fruit such as raspberries.
Relatively new, m2 Wines started out as a garage operation, opened its first winery and tasting room in 2006, then moved to a new winery and tasting room in 2014. m2 buys grapes from selected vineyards and recently planted Zinfandel on its own land.
6. St. Amant Marian's Vineyard Zinfandel 2013, $24. This dark, concentrated Zinfandel came from a vineyard that was planted in 1901. The third wine on the right behind the white wines above, it was an excellent companion to a New York steak during lunch.
St. Amant Winery was founded by Tim Spencer and his wife Barbara. Instead of calling the winery Spencer, they chose her maiden name. St. Amant. Their son Stuart is now the winemaker.
St. Amant produced 490 cases of this Zinfandel from vines growing on their own rootstock.
Summing up, King said: "So much diversity, so much beautiful wine comes out of the region. Lodi doesn't put on airs. It's approachable in a way that people can understand it." That's true of price too. Ninety-five per cent of the wines cost $17 to $25.
Located 35 minutes south of Sacramento, the region is justifiably growing in stature. "We're much more of an international destination than we used to be," King said. It's got a trendy logo too, "LoCA," which doesn't mean crazy but stands for Lodi, California. You can see it on the regional map above.