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Find Value and Taste at Lodi Wineries

By Evan Goldstein, MS

Let’s face it. Almost nobody associates Lodi with wine. And if they do it is only with volume wines made by volume producers but rarely any bottles of a memorable nature. More likely if someone has heard about Lodi it is probably due to John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater’s monolithic rock band of the 70’s and that ‘stuck in Lodi again’ line from the eponymous song. But fine wine does not cross people’s minds..much less palates! And that’s a shame.

Once one peels back the skin of the grape, one finds a treasure trove of great wines that are also extraordinary values. While premium Napa Valley and Sonoma County wines are seeing their prices rise due to increasing national- and international- demand, the true quest for value is today often found in lesser known areas and Lodi, in this writer’s opinion, is high on the charts of great value. Having said that, it is definitely a road less traveled and alas, for now, less heard from.

One of the greatest obstacles for the Lodi area location. Real estate moguls always claim location, location, location that is the key to success. Lodi’s prime challenge is that it’s off the classic wine track. It’s not that far away from San Francisco (less than two hours to the northeast) but it’s not coastal which keeps many a wine traveler away as they seek out cooler climate wine excursions.

Less than ten years ago the number of Lodi wineries grew to 25, and today they number has swelled to around 50. Virtually all fit into the category small businesses that have been owned and operated by the same families who have been growing grapes in the Lodi area since the 1880s. Yes, that is since the 1880’s and that’s no typo!. That fact makes Lodi one of the oldest and long established wine regions in California.

Its 5,000-plus acres are, for the most part, all on their original roots and ungrafted. The predominantly sandy soils of Lodi create an incredibly inhospitable vineyard environment for that grape root loving subterranean root louse, phylloxera, and subsequently the area has witnessed the categorical devastation of other wine regions of the world. That’s a unique phenomenon and places Lodi, along with some areas of South America, among the largest plantings of ungrafted grape vines in the world.

The fertile region is able to grow just about anything but specializes, in terms of grapes, in warmer climate varietals such as one world find in the Mediterranean basis and is a primary home of California’s virtually native Zinfandel. These types of grapes become lower yielding and more scant in their output as they age and we are all the beneficiaries of this lower production per vine. Terrific concentration is a hallmark of Lodi wines.

Zinfandel and Lodi are synonymous. It is therefore always surprising to me that all of the internationally acclaimed magazine’s Zinfandel stores rarely, if ever, mention Lodi. Lodi's climate is influenced by the Sacramento River Delta. The consistencies of its well drained soils are closer to those of the moderately warm coastal regions of California rather than the often desert-like conditions of the Central Valley. So while a typical ultra-premium style Lodi Zinfandel can often be massive and easily surpass 15% alcohol, they are rarely pruney and over the top, and are actually, counter intuitively, soft and approachable.

Petite Sirah is a grape that one rarely finds of California. As many wine lovers know it's unrelated to the true Syrah from France's Rhone Valley; although up until the mid-1980s Californian vintners, who have been cultivating it since the 19th century, could scarcely delineate the differences between Syrah and Petite Sirah in their fields and wineries. The grape produces wines of equally inky and extracted personality but with more rustic and coarse qualities than those of Syrah. Bottom line is Petite Sirah does extremely well in warmer climates and Lodi shines brightly as one of the best places in California to grow this grape and produce the wine. For wine consumers the good news is that armed with their recent successes, Lodi's family wineries are starting to produce more of this fun wine. Unfortunately, only a few plantings of the grape remain and as the older vines naturally decrease in production, the costs make it harder and harder for growers to justify keeping them in the ground. Time will tell the real story.

At the risk of confusing you, Lodi is become increasingly celebrated for its Syrah!
The region now crushes almost three times more Syrah than Napa and Sonoma combined but has not yet been recognized for the efforts. Again time should change that as many of the bottlings are delightful, powerful and complex.

Finally it should be noted that while not the specialty, whites wines are made in the region and some are quite good. Of particular note are the up and coming Viognier wines which, it should come as no surprise, are well suited to this warmer climate. Fragrant, aromatic and packed with the peach and tangerine fruit flavors one would expect, Lodi’s viogniers have been some of the best I have recently tasted and worth seeking out.

So next time nostalgia hits and the CD player screams Creedence Clearwater Revival’s greatest hits, smile when you listen to Lodi. Better still do so with a glass of great local zin in hand.

Below is a list of some of the better producers in the area and the wines they are most known for:

Michael- David Winery Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Syrah “Earthquake” (Syrah, Zin and Petite sirah- all three are..)
Van Ruiten Family Winery Petite Sirah  
Clay Station Petite Sirah, Shiraz  
St. Amant Zinfandel “Mohr Fry Ranch”, “Marian’s Vineyard Old Vine”
Jesse’s Grove Zinfandel “West Wind”
Rosenblum Cellars Syrah “Abba Vineyard”
Renwood Viognier  
Michael-David Winery Viognier/Roussanne “Incognito"

JAN/FEB 2005

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Value & Taste at Lodi Wineries

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