Lodi in central California is a huge winemaking area, covering over 40,000ha of land. Its reputation does not match its size, however, as it’s known for big, high-alcohol, inexpensive reds. It’s also in Central Valley, a hot region that produces most of California’s high-volume wine and is rarely associated with quality (Gallo, the world’s largest producer of wine, are based in Modesto, just a forty-five minute drive away). That reputation is slowly changing though - as the price of land increases elsewhere, producers are looking to Lodi for fruit and discovering that there is a lot more quality and variety than its reputation suggests.
I recently visited Lodi for the first time. It was just a brief visit and I stopped by Bokisch Vineyards as I had tasted the wines a couple of months ago with co-owner Liz Bokisch and had been impressed by them. In the 1990s, her husband, Markus, convinced Liz to move to Lodi from Napa to grow grapes and make wine there. Given the rise in the price of land and grapes in Napa since then, it may seem an unwise decision - albeit a much more exciting one than sticking to Napa Cab.
The focus has always been on Mediterranean grapes, as Lodi reminded Markus so much of his Catalan background. This seems visionary, as so few producers beyond the small Rhône Rangers movement were prepared to plant Mediterranean grapes, instead preferring to work with much more profitable and well-known Bordeaux and Burgundy grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. However, it also seems an increasingly sensible decision.
For my podcast, I recently interviewed Hardy Wallace of Dirty & Rowdy, a small producer based in Napa, who have become famous for their single-vineyard Mourvèdre wines sourced from all over California. Hardy strongly believes that California’s Mediterranean climate is perfectly suited to grapes such as Mourvèdre and that it’s commercial rather than viticultural concerns which have driven plantings of Bordeaux and Burgundy varieties. Alternatively, Rory Williams, vineyard manager at Frog’s Leap and who has his own small label, Calder, believes no grape expresses the terroir of California more than Carignan - another variety that originates in eastern, Mediterranean Spain.
In moving to Lodi and planting Mediterranean grapes there, the Bokisch couple were going against the grain but it looks like they were on to something. They have plantings of Albariño - a grape fast growing in popularity with winemakers and consumers alike - Verdejo, Verdelho, Garnacha Blanca as well as Garnacha itself, Tempranillo, Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre), and even Graciano. As California’s climate heats up, these varieties are going to become more and more popular as they maintain acidity, balance, and complexity in warm growing conditions.
Lodi itself is also more popular and is slowly shedding its reputation for low quality wines. It’s less than a two hour drive from San Francisco, and a good place to stop off for tourists travelling to the Sierra Foothills - I was surprised by how many established tasting rooms there were in the town. Small producers access fruit from Lodi because of its unusual varieties and the low prices; in turn, they’re more willing than before to put Lodi or one of its sub-AVAs on the label rather than just “California.”
Lodi is situated in inland California, where the climate is hot and continental. Although the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean is not as strong as regions nearer the coast, there are still some fog and breezes rolling in. More important is the diurnal temperature variation, as the nights get cool. It’s a flat region, although the Bokisch property is located on undulating slopes. Grape growing here is easy, which is why Lodi is such a common source for grapes and also why late-ripening Mediterranean grapes used to the heat work so well here.
As Lodi is so colossal, it was divided into seven AVAs in 2006. That may seem a pointless venture given that it’s hard enough to persuade a producer to put Lodi on a label, let alone one of its sub-AVAs. However, the different AVAs emphasise that Lodi has regional differences just like any other grape-growing area. As Lodi begins to gain traction in the market, it already has an organised structure which will help both winemakers and consumers understand the region better.
Alta Mesa - as the name suggests, this AVA is on Lodi’s tabletop; it’s also warm and best for red wines
Borden Ranch - to the east of the region, Borden Ranch is both warmer and wetter than AVAs to the west while also receiving winds from the Sierra Foothills. This is where Bokisch’s Vista Luna vineyard is located, the hillside slopes providing variation in growing conditions.
Clements Hills - volcanic soils in a warm AVA where old-vine ZInfandel dates back to the 1920s. Bokisch own another vineyard here, Terra Alta, named after the Catalan DO and where their Garnacha Blanca comes from.
Cosumnes River - the smallest and due to its proximity to Sacramento Delta one of the coolest
Jahant - small flat AVA that receives a strong cooling influence from the Sacramento Delta
Mokelumne River - the largest AVA centred around the town of Lodi, with vines dating back to the 1880s
Sloughhouse - relatively high AVA (up to 200m elevation - Lodi is generally low and flat) which has the largest diurnal temperature variation with the warmest days and coolest nights
some other wineries
The most interesting wines coming out of Lodi are small production and may be hard to find outside California. Likewise, some wineries may not even put Lodi or any of its AVAs on the label. For instance, a small Napa producer called Localism make a Kerner - evidence of the wide variety of plantings in Lodi - from a vineyard in Mokelumne River but label it “California.” Tim Keith’s small Leaf & Vine label, based in Napa, sources his Verdelho and Petite Sirah from Lodi’s Vista Luna vineyard - owned and managed by Bokisch. Also check out Uncharted, who share a tasting room with Leaf & Vine called Rebel Vintners in Napa.
With the price of land and grapes and the effects of climate change, Mediterranean grape varieties grown in Lodi may play a larger part in California’s future than the current reputation of the region may suggest.