Whites delight on a recent wine-tasting excursion to the land of bold reds.
On a June 2022 press trip to the Lodi wine country, the big takeaway was how impressively the whites performed in the self-described “Zinfandel Capital of the World.” I’ve long admired Lucas Winery’s Chardonnay and with two sips of Viognier became an instant fan last year of Acquiesce, which specializes in Rhône-style whites, but on this visit, the lighter wines at nearly all our stops stood out. The many grape types produced in Lodi (125, the most of any U.S. wine region) are among the area’s claims to fame, so we’re not talking just Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Several winemakers mentioned the “Delta breeze,” cooling winds off the California Delta, as a critical factor in Lodi’s success as a growing region. During a typical summer day, the temperature might hover near 100℉ in the afternoon, then drop 30℉ or 40℉ by 6 a.m. the following morning. The daytime heat ensures ripeness, with the lower temperatures helping to preserve acidity, Elyse Perry, the winemaker at Bokisch Vineyards, told us. Many grape farmers here follow the Lodi Rules, billed as the nation’s “original sustainable winegrowing program,” a point of pride for the appellation’s wine community.
I’ve been experiencing Lodi’s diverse pleasures since the 1990s, mainly for Fodor’s California and occasionally other outlets. There’s more to do here than just sipping wines. Our contingent hit many tasting rooms, but some of us also went kayaking, toured a Japanese garden, learned about the area’s agricultural history, rode bikes around town, or took a cooking class. Below are eight ways lovable Lodi tickles my fancy right now – and might do the same for yours.
Old-Vine Zin at Lucas Winery
Established in 1978, Lucas Winery isn’t Lodi’s oldest operation, but husband-and-wife owner-winemakers David Lucas and Heather Pyle-Lucas helped prove the area capable of producing wines of finesse. The couple worked in the Napa Valley, both at Robert Mondavi Winery, Pyle-Lucas also at Opus One and later as a winery consultant. The grapes for the ZinStar Vineyard Zinfandel grow (organically) right behind the tasting room; the oldest vines were planted in 1933, just as Prohibition ended. The Lucases let their wines age before releasing them: the 2017s noted below are current offerings, all the better for the extra time in bottle.
Cycling to Oak Farm Vineyards
Lodi is flat, making a bike ride around town and to outlying wineries easy and pleasant. Led by members of Bike Lodi, the influential local advocacy group, we picked up rental bikes at Lodi Cyclery. Riding to wineries is best begun early for two reasons: in summer, the temperatures rise, and year-round the Delta breeze from the southwest picks up as the day progresses. One of our cycling hosts told us locals only plan their route incorrectly once. Having felt the effect of late-morning headwinds slowing us even on flat ground, our group appreciated not having to learn this lesson the hard way. From the bike shop, we pedaled to downtown’s famous arch and stopped nearby to gaze at a new mural honoring 100 years of women’s suffrage and a plaque commemorating the world’s first A&W Root Beer stand (1919). Then we zipped over to Lodi Lake’s nature preserve, afterward cycling past the vineyards along the way to Dan and Heather Panella’s Oak Farm Vineyards. The couple’s 70-acre property was part of a ranch that dates to the 19th century.
Cooking at the Bordeaux Inn
Rebecca Forrest and her husband, Craig, run the four-room Bordeaux Inn, which occupies a sturdy turn-of-the-20th-century structure built in the American Foursquare style. In addition to keeping things humming at the inn, Rebecca conducts cooking classes. They’re usually not quite as large as our session, but even so, the unflappable Forrest had no trouble instructing us in the fine art of rolling pizza dough and making ravioli and fettuccine, also supplying us with “I never thought of that” cooking tips. Our creations became dinner, accompanied by wines poured by Markus Wine Co. cellar master Mike Bogarin (Markus Niggli is the owner-winemaker). Among the whites, the Nativo, primarily from Kerner grapes (a hybrid of Riesling and Trollinger), impressed, as did the Essenzo red (mostly oldish-vine Zinfandel, plus Petite Sirah and Syrah).
Rhône Whites at Acquiesce
Rhône-style whites take center stage at Acquiesce Winery, where rosé is the reddest things get. Two weeks before our visit, the 2021 Picpoul Blanc earned a double-gold medal at the International Women’s Wine Competition, which also named owner Susan Tipton 2022’s Best Woman Winemaker. Although her whites are marvelous on their own, Tipton wants guests to discover how well they go with food, so she provides small bites. The Bordeaux Inn’s Rebecca Forrest prepared the ones for our visit. One noteworthy pairing involved another liquid: the 2021 Belle Blanc blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Bourboulenc with bouillabaisse shooters. Magnifique. Bourboulenc is among several obscure-in-California Rhône grapes (Clairette Blanc’s another) Tipton cultivates along with better-known whites such as Roussanne and Viognier.
Colorful Tanks at Michael David
It’s been intriguing to watch Michael David Winery grow (and grow) over the years, becoming so proficient at producing high-octane reds that the company sold off its highly successful 7 Deadly Zins Zinfandel and, barely skipping a beat, roaring back with the cheekily labeled Freakshow line of fruit-forward wines. We tasted selections from several Michael David portfolios while enjoying the on-site café’s sandwiches and salads in one of this large property’s several outdoor spaces.
Low-tech Approach at Fields Family
Self-taught winemaker Ryan Sherman, a partner in Fields Family Wines with owners Russ and Melinda Fields, believes in minimal manipulation of the small-production wines. He picks their grapes early to keep acids high and alcohol levels low, enhancing food-friendliness. Sherman prefers not using commercial yeasts, nor in many cases does he fine or filter the wines, two processes that remove impurities but, some believe, do so at the expense of complexity. The low-tech, hands-off approach yields wines of at-times startling vibrancy. The Zinfandels, though, come off as restrained, even lean in some cases, for these parts. Tastings are as no-frills as the production facility; the charm is in the wines and hosts steeped in Lodi lore and the house winemaking philosophy. The vineyard setting isn’t bad either.
Spanish Influence at Bokisch
Markus and Liz Bokisch acquired a passion for Spanish wines during an early-1990s stint in Spain. By decade’s end, they owned land in Lodi they’d planted to Albariño, Tempranillo, and Graciano. These days Bokisch Vineyards winemaker Elyse Perry produces wines from those grapes and quite a few more Spanish and French ones and old-vine Zinfandel, some single-varietal, others blends. Most guests enjoy them on the sprawling lawn outside the winery, a nearly uninterrupted carpet of grapevines rolling west toward the horizon. The view from the lawn is particularly fetching later in the day as the sun backlights the vines and cooling breezes waft in.
Verdant Setting at Wine & Roses
Lodi’s premier lodging always enchants, but the 7-acre, 66-room Wine & Roses was looking its verdant best on this visit, and our schedule included sufficient downtime to enjoy the pool and tree-shaded grounds. My tranquil King room, its decor hinting at minimalist-modern style, had a view of the spa’s courtyard. The inn’s Towne House restaurant is Lodi’s special-occasion destination for farm-to-table fine dining, but I also appreciated breakfast each morning at the Town Corner Café & Market, particularly the salmon tartine with smoked salmon, lemon-herb cream cheese, capers, and pickled onion. Next door to the café is the Lodi Wine Visitor Center, whose tasting room pours the wines of many local producers. Even if you don’t stay for a tasting, the staffers are adept at helping newcomers find wineries to suit their preferences.
Lead photo: westward vineyard view from Bokisch tasting lawn.