You can drive from the southern end of the Napa Valley to Lodi at the northern end of the Central Valley in just over an hour, but the two regions belong to different worlds. To many people, they are the alpha and omega of the California wine industry: the one glitzy, self-confident and the source of some of the priciest wines on the planet; the other rural, a little diffident and associated, exclusively and somewhat unfairly, with mass-market reds and whites.
And yet Lodi is changing. It has always been famous among drinkers in the know for its sizeable plantings of old vine Zinfandel, but in the last 20 years it has expanded its range of varieties to include Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Rhône Valley grapes and is leading the way in California with its commitment to sustainable agriculture. There has been a corresponding boom in the number of wineries, too. As recently as 1991, there were only eight; today there are 80.
More importantly, at least for UK consumers, the majority of its wines are reasonably priced. Most sell for less than $20 and very few for more than $40. For California, which has found it difficult to supply wines that retail between £8 and £15, Lodi provides part of the answer. It is significant that many of the growers are third, fourth or even fifth generation, which means they own their vineyards. If they do have to buy it, land is a quarter of the price of Napa’s.
Lodi is a farming community dedicated to viticulture, where even the local police cars have bunches of grapes on the door. The first vines were planted in the 1850s, with Zinfandel (the variety with which the region is most readily linked) arriving in 1888. What appealed to the pioneers was what still appeals to producers today: comparatively cheap land and good growing conditions, with abundant sunshine, mostly rich soils and (in parts) a cooling breeze from the San Joaquim/Sacramento Delta to the west.
Unlike some regions in California, Lodi was barely affected by Prohibition, since its grapes were bought by home winemakers keen to vinify their permitted 200 gallons per annum. Zinfandel apart, Lodi wasn’t known famous for premium grapes. Before the Second World War, most of what it made was either sweet or fortified. Indeed, as recently as 1985 more than 40% of Lodi’s vineyards were planted with an obscure Algerian table grape called Flame Tokay.
It was the Gallo family — still heavily involved in the region, not least with a large field trial block that has been evaluating the potential of grapes as varied as Arneis, Touriga Nacional, Pinotage and Teroldego since 1991 — who encouraged growers to plant slightly better varieties in the 1960s, such as French Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Barbera and more Zinfandel.
The link with big companies endures to this day. Gallo, Robert Mondavi (for its Woodbridge brand), Constellation (for Ravenswood) and Delicato Family Vineyards (DFV) are all big buyers or growers of Lodi fruit. “It’s one of the best areas in California,” says Bud Bradley, director of grower relations at DFV. “We’ve been using common sense farming here for more than 100 years; the disease pressure is very low.”
Selling to big companies isn’t always a boon, however. “We have a real challenge promoting Lodi as an appellation,” says local grower Richard Lauchland. “Most of our fruit goes into California blends. The large producers don’t want to put Lodi on the label in case it inflates the price of grapes. We’re their best kept secret.”
Even though it is generally regarded as homogenous, Lodi is surprisingly diverse. As early as 1937, a US Department of Agriculture survey identified as many as 42 different soil types. Today Lodi contains seven different American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). These are Alta Mesa (clay and gravel, low elevation), Borden Ranch (stony, diverse elevations), Clement Hill (at the base of the Sierra foothills), Cosumnes River (alluvial soils, with a cooler growing season), Jahant (loam, cool and dry), Mokelumne River (sandy soils, the largest AVA and the heart of Old Vine Zinfandel territory) and the engagingly named Sloughouse (the warmest AVA, close to Sacramento).
The AVAs closest to the delta, which funnels cold air up from the San Francisco Bay, are the coolest. But even Mokelumne River and Consumnes River are warm by the standards of coastal California 90 miles away. “We’re talking degrees of warmth,” is how Stuart Spence of the Lodi Winegrape Commission puts it. “This is a Mediterranean climate, with only 17 inches of rainfall, and most of that occurs in the winter time.”
The range of conditions means that Lodi can grow lots of different grapes successfully. Tasting in the region for two days earlier this year, I sampled wines made partially or exclusively from Albariño, Verdelho, Roussanne, Viognier, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Gris, Muscat d’Alexandria, Pinot Grigio, Vermentino, Barbera, Cinsault, Zinfandel, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Tannat, Malbec, Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot, Teroldego, Graciano and Tempranillo, which surely makes it the most diverse wine region in the United States.
Lodi’s low-key image means that growers and producers can afford to take risks. Craig Leadbetter, who farms 4,300 acres in the region as part of his Vino Farms business, says that growers here are more progressive than in other parts of California. They are also commited to the Lodi Rules certification programme, which audits vineyards and promotes sustainability, encouraging the use of cover crops and solar energy among other things.
The challenge for Lodi is to improve its image as a supplier of good value but uncomplicated wines. It could start by promoting its old vines, which are some of the most venerable in the state. The Zinfandels are rightly celebrated, but they are not the only 80 plus year old vines in the region.
The Bechthold Block Cinsault, planted in 1885, is particularly wonderful. Now owned by the Michael-David winery, it’s a low-yielding 25 acre vineyard of Cinsault with roots that are 40 feet deep. “No one in their right mind would imagine that you could find 135 year old Cinsault here,” says Kevin Phillips, vice president of operations. The grapes sell for $1600 per ton to Turley Wine Cellars, Bonny Doon and Phoenix Ranch as well as being used in Michael-David’s wines.
There’s a commendable sense of community in Lodi, with larger producers like Michael-David, Kautz Family Vineyards and Lange Twins happy to work alongside excellent smaller operations like Bokisch, Fields Family, Phoenix Ranch, Klinker Brick, Macchia, Ripken, McKay Cellars, Uvaggio, St Amant , M2 and Sorelle to promote the region. “Lodi is who we are, what we’ve been and what we are going to be,” says Randy Lange, whose ancestors arrived from Germany in 1870. “We are generational farmers and we have a generational outlook.”
That generational outlook is exemplified by Jessie’s Grove, the oldest and arguably the best winery, run by the wise-cracking Greg Burns from a set of old barns surrounded by chickens and roosters. “People think of Lodi as it was in the 1970s,” he says. ‘They lump it in with the rest of the Central Valley and it’s very different. We have to reformat their hard drives.” Grove’s own wines are a good place to start, particularly his Royal Tee Zinfandel (made from vines planted in 1889), his “Carignanne” (ditto) and his Petite Sirah. “What Lodi does best is full-bodied reds,” he says, “that’s why Petite and Zinfandel perform so well here.”
That may be true, but in wine terms, there’s more than one Lodi. This is a region that can do everything from crisp whites to gutsy reds, entry points quaffers to $60 a bottle stunners. It’s a region where the producers know how to party but are serious about what they do, sustained by the sense of a common past. If anywhere in California can persuade us Brits to drink something other than White Zinfandel, supplying wines that are distinctive as well as good value, then Lodi has to be leading candidate.
TEN LODI WINES
2009 Uvaggio Vermentino, Lodi (16.5/20, $12.99 from the winery, 11%,Now)
One of a series of tasty Italian-influenced wines from Jim Moore’s impressive Lodi project, this is light, zesty and racy with notes of lemon grass and green olive. Thinking person’s Pinot Grigio.
2009 Lange Twins Merlot Reserve (17/20, $30 from the winery, 14%, 2-5 years)
Deeply coloured, coffee bean scented Merlot with plenty of concentration and texture. This is fleshy and sweetly oaked with flavours of green pepper and chcolate and enough stuffing to develop in bottle.
2006 Jesse’s Grove Carignanne (18.5/20, $32 from the winery, 15.2%, Now-5 years)
Old vine Carigan, or Carignanne if you prefer, from a one-acre block near the winery. Perfumed, brambly and sweetly oaked, with Asian spices and polished tannins on the palate. Concentrated without being over-ripe.
2008 Bokisch Vineyards Graciano (17/20, $21 from the winery, 14%, Now-3 years) One of a number of Spanish-themed wines from Markus and Liz Bokisch’s winery, this is softer and more fruit forward than a lot of Spanish Gracianos, with deftly handled French oak and ripe, red fruits on the palate.
2009 Black Saint Peter Old Vine Zinfandel, Lodi (16.5/20, £8.99, 13.5%, Laithwaite’s, Now to 3 years)
Essence of good value Lodi Zinfandel, this youthful, medium coloured red is spicy, soft and lower in alcohol than many, with easy-drinking bramble and strawberry fruit and refreshing acidity on the finish.
2008 Ravenswood Old Vine Lodi Zinfandel (16.5/20, £8.95, The Wine Society; £9.49, Sainsbury’s, 13.5%, Now-3 years)
A blend of 77% Zinfandel with 23% Petite Syrah, this is Joel Peterson at his crowd-pleasing best, producing a Zin that’s peppery, spicy and broad, with well integrated oak, fresh acidity and medium weight tannins.
2008 Brazin Old Vine Zinfandel, Lodi (17/20, £12.99, Waitrose, 15%, 2-5 years)
Produced by Delicato, this is a very serious Zin at the price, with lots of black fruits, tobacco spice, wood smoke and firmish tannins. I’d be tempted to put leave this in a wine rack for a year or two.
2009 Phoenix Ranch Bechthold Vineyard Cinsault (18.5/20, $19 from the winery, 14.7%, 3-8 years)
Sourced from Lodi’s most famous Cinsault vineyard, this organic red is deceptively pale in colour, with soft, berry fruit, a balsamic note and a spicy, refreshing finish. Effortlessly concentrated.
2008 Michael-David Inkblot Tannat (17/20, $35 from the winery, 14.5%, Now-5 years)
I’d love to see more Tannat planted in Lodi if the success of this wine is anything to go by. It’s big, bold and flavour-packed with serious tannins, good acidity and savoury, plum and blackcurrant fruit. A variety with huge potential.
2009 Macchia “Serious” Old Vine Zinfandel (18.5/20, $50 from the winery, 15.5%, 2-8 years)
A comparatively new winery which buys grapes from local growers, Macchia uses Italian grapes, too, but specialises in small parcel Zins such as this one. It’s a very ambitious wine, with pepper spice, lifted fruit and impressive palate length.
Location: Ninety miles east of San Francisco in the Central Valley, Northern California, covering the counties of San Joaquin and Sacramento.
Climate: Mediterranean, with some cooling influence from the San Francisco Bay.
Area under vine: 100,000 acres (66% red, 34% white)
Principal grapes: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but smaller plantings of more than 55 other varieties.
Number of wineries: 80
Number of growers: 750
Number of AVAs: 7
An edited version of this article originally appeared in Decanter