Over the years, Lodi hasn’t gotten much respect in the wine world, and I was part of that ignorant crowd. (I blame CCR’s John Fogerty. Who can forget that plaintive refrain, “Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again”?)
I had only a vague notion of where and what Lodi is: that sign on the I-5 north of San Francisco pointing toward the simmering interior. I knew it as a place lacking any vestige of Napa cache where grapes were grown in large quantities for mass producers. The dreaded Woodbridge lurked somewhere in its vast, uncharted belly.
Then I started tasting and hearing about some Lodi wines that made me re-evaluate my ignorance. Earthquake Zinfandel made a splash in my corner of the universe, and wineries such as Michael David (Earthquake’s maker), m2, Uvaggio and Bokisch began getting impressive reviews and low-90s scores from Wine Enthusiast.
I finally found the time this week to visit. We’re staying in Lockeford, a small town a few miles east of Lodi and the winery neighborhood. Fortunately, it’s quite a compact region and you can cover a lot of ground in a day if you’re determined.
We started at the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center just west of town (2545 W. Turner Rd.), an excellent place to taste and get oriented. (Determining what’s open is crucial, as many wineries here are closed at the beginning of the week and others operate on a Thursday-through-Monday schedule.)
From there we followed a roughly clockwise circular course in the flatlands around Lodi, visiting wineries recommended to us by knowledgeable locals and a few that we’d already heard of.
I will get into more detail in another post, but our first impressions were mixed.
Old vine Zinfandel is what put this place on the map, and we tasted some excellent examples. The best of the lot: Field Family’s 2012 Sherman Family Old Vine Zinfandel, which delivers surprising restraint and elegance — the opposite of the jammy, overblown zins we were assaulted with in the ’90s — for a reasonable $26. Michael David’s Earthquake is still a bargain at $19.50, but it pales a bit in comparison to the Field zin.
I appreciated that Field and other winemakers are approaching zinfandel more sensibly, opting for lower alcohol content and less manipulation. The result is a surprisingly balanced and food-friendly expression of this often overly rambunctious varietal.
Other reds also impressed.
Jessie’s Grove makes a Carignane from vines that are well over a century old, and it’s plush and elegant ($32). Fields’ Tempranillo ($25), in bottle for only six months, is young and frisky but shows signs of being a beautiful food wine.
Oak Farm, our favorite Lodi winery, features a gorgeous new 2600-square-foot tasting room that belies its small output, but it’s no false front.
Winemaker Chad Joseph is making small-lot wines of quality, including a 2014 Verdelho ($19) which was fruitier than normal for this white Portuguese varietal and not too acidic or overly bright. Oak Farm’s 2013 Barbera ($26) was graced by soft, supple tannins and lots of juicy fruit. A 2012 Zinfandel ($26) is typical of their balanced taste profile — lush, fruit-forward but not aggressively jammy.
Every single wine in Oak Farm’s line-up was intelligently crafted and approachable. Too bad they’re so small — I’d love to see this label on O.C. restaurant wine lists and retailers’ shelves.
Michael David’s bewitching Ancient Vine Cinsault is an original. Planted in 1885 by pioneer Joseph Spenker, it’s one of the oldest producing Cinsault vineyards in the world. It’s a gentle yet earthy and complex wine that’s completely unique in character.
Among the whites, viognier and albarino were standouts in Lodi. m2 makes a lively, fresh, zesty example of the former ($20) with a classically floral viognier nose — flowery, perfumed and full of promise. Vinedos Aurora produces a lovely, bright and bracing albarino for $17.
OK, so the wine wasn’t all great, as I hinted.
The old complaint about Lodi does hold some water — its wines can seem flabby and cooked. I noticed prune-ish and lingering dry-fruit qualities in some reds, the telltale signs of too much heat. This place gets damn steamy, and though it benefits from some marine cooling, it isn’t as dramatic as Paso’s Templeton Gap cool-down. (The west side is considerably cooler than the east, though.) The deep, loamy soil is wonderfully fertile, but some winemakers who like to torture their grapes think good dirt can be a bad thing.
Bottom line: I’d stick with the really warm-weather grapes from Lodi. It’s better for Rhones, Spanish, Portuguese and some Italian varietals. And zinfandel, of course. But with a few exceptions, I didn’t taste anything I liked among its cabernet sauvignons, sauvignon blancs, chardonnays or pinot noirs.