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Hanley-Tasting-Room

Harney Lane Winery Tasting Room and Gardens

If you think of Lodi at all you probably remember it as that place in which John Fogerty was stuck, again. If you’re a wine snob you may know Lodi as the heart of the Evil Empire, the San Joaquin Valley, where they grow the hot weather, generic grapes that find their way into the industrial plonk foisted on unwitting consumers who don’t know  Petrus from Pepperwood.

Fogerty may have had his reasons for wanting to skip town and Lodi does grow a lot of grapes for bulk wines—which of course enable consumers to drink everyday wine at reasonable prices.

But during my recent brief stay, I discovered another side to Lodi that too few people know about—small, artisanal wineries, run by dedicated winemakers who toil for the love of the grape, and who make some really good wine. The development of Lodi as a fine wine destination is relatively recent. In 1995, there were only a handful of wineries in Lodi; today there are over 80, most of them small, boutique wineries interested in quality not quantity. Fine wine is exploding in Lodi and far from lamenting being “stuck” there, I can’t wait to return.

There are good reasons why Lodi can make quality wine. Cool breezes off San Francisco Bay make their way down the Sacramento River delta moderating temperatures, especially at night, allowing grapes to ripen more slowly and maintain acidity levels. The result is well-balanced, elegant wines from grapes that take advantage of the San Joaquin Valley’s sun without withering from excessive heat.

What makes Lodi a promising wine tourist destination? They have a focused effort to make their wine tourism successful.  The Lodi Wine and Visitors Center is at the center of this effort, educating anyone who will listen about the virtues of Lodi wine. A visit to the region should start there. Their staff is helpful, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic. You can taste from their extensive list of local wines, and they’re more than willing to give visitors advice about where to go to satisfy individual tastes.

But Lodi is also unique in their approach to winemaking. Most wine regions specialize in certain grapes that are suitable for their soil and climate. But Lodi vintners are out to prove they can grow anything. There are over 85 different varietals grown in the region and rampant experimentation seems to be their M.O. This makes it an interesting region for wine lovers who like to explore new approaches to winemaking. Old Vine Zinfandel is what the region is known for but I tasted Barbera, Tempranillo, Portuguese, and Rhone varietals (white and red) that seem to do well.

Of course, wine tourism is not just about wine. You need accommodations and good food as well. I didn’t have the opportunity to sample the accommodations but I had some good grub. Alebrijes Mexican Bistro serves innovative Mexican cuisine at reasonable prices. The Skirt Steak with cilantro, lime, and tequila marinade, their Mole, and the Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp were standouts. School Street Bistro serves southern cuisine with a California twist. The Cornmeal-crusted Catfish with Bourbon/Pecan Sauce, as well as their steaks, were excellent.

So if the thought of Napa, Sonoma, and Paso has that “been there done that” quality, put Lodi on your destination list.

My trip to Lodi last week was by necessity very brief. I visited four wineries and I would recommend all of them as worth your time and attention.

Saint Amant’s Mohr Fry Ranch Old Vine Zin was extraordinary. But they also feature Syrah, Portuguese varietals–Verdelho, Sousao among others–and several ports that really did bring back memories of my visit to Portugal a few years ago. Their Tawny (100% Bastardo) is the closest thing to real Port-style wine you will find in California. Housed in an industrial park, this winery has deep roots in Lodi’s winemaking history and their Assistant Winemaker Joel will tell you all about it.

Harney Lane wins the prize for location, location, location. Acres of vineyards spread out from their well-appointed tasting room, which opens onto a lovely garden area ideal for a picnic or solitary contemplation, enhanced by a glass of wine of course. A classic Old Vine Zin will augment the mood but I also enjoyed their leathery Tempranillo and the crisp Albariño with citrus notes that leap from the glass.

The “Most Daringly Original Concept” goes to Acquiesce Winery—all whites, all Rhone varietals. Winemaker and proprietor Susan Tipton loves food and wine pairings. She developed a mad crush on a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape that paired well with the foods she liked to eat. So that is what she makes. White wines in the Rhone style that capture the crisp acidity and lush aromatics of these under-appreciated varietals. And her wines are dead ringers for the French versions. Curious about Picpoul?—she makes one. Want to know what a correct Viognier tastes like (without that distracting oak)?—she has it. All were paired with snacks that highlighted the quality of these food-friendly wines. My favorite was the Belle Blanc, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, and Viognier, which was weighty and mouth filling yet dry and crisp.

I hate to pick a winner from among these excellent wineries. But it was at Kidder Family Winery that I found my Thanksgiving wine—a surprisingly complex Barbera, earthy enough to complement the stuffing and gravy but not so big as to overwhelm delicate white meat. And for the day after, the Kidder Duet—a blend of Graciano (55%) and Tempranillo (45%)—stole the show. Big, dense, and tannic but with a lithe, supple mouthfeel and long finish, this combination of power and elegance is irresistible. When you visit the winery, you might get winemaker and co-proprietor Aaron Kidder to tell you about his childhood appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.

You can sense a theme here—a culture of creative people, finding their way in the wine business, who love to talk about what they do. Sampling their wares is a great way to spend a weekend.

Many of the smaller wineries in Lodi are not open everyday. Be sure to check their tasting hours before visiting.

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