When I was invited by Visit Lodi to spend a weekend there, I jumped at the chance. I love to travel. I also love dispelling stereotypes and delving into a new place. When Lodi is mentioned, often people think zinfandel. Lodi is more than that. It offers a plethora of wines, food, and activities for everyone. Join me while I take you behind the wine and beyond the zinfandel.
Travel to Lodi from Napa is nearly a direct route by way of California Highway 12, with a few miles overlapping with Interstate 80. Once outside of Fairfield and Suisun City, Highway 12 is quite barren except for what I would call fields of wind turbines, the Shiloh Wind Power Plant. For miles, all you see are turbines. At the closest point, they appear ominous, yet also hypnotic. About halfway between Fairfield and Lodi is Rio Vista, suitably named due to its location on the Sacramento River and gateway to the Sacramento–San Joaquin River (California) Delta. It was home to my food stop that day at the also fittingly named Hwy 12 Diner, where I enjoyed an inexpensive breakfast for lunch. The next 25 miles were a bit more interesting with occasional bridges crossing the delta’s waterways. Upon my arrival to Lodi, I was surprised to discover that it is larger than I thought, with a population of around 60,000 people, not too much smaller than Napa or my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. After checking into my hotel, I decided to see if Lodi had Uber as a transportation option. It did. My driver originated in nearby Stockton to take me only a few miles, where my adventure began at the Downtown Visitor Center.
Downtown Lodi is on the cusp of change, with one foot in history and the other stepping forward into the future. The city’s reawakening began in the 1990s and continues today, yet it still retains a very charming feel. As my group walked around our first evening, the birthplace of A&W Root Beer captivated us with its blend of past and present. My advice to the city of Lodi is to not lose this balance of quaintness and progress because at this moment, it feels like home.
I was not a very good Girl Scout when I was a young girl. I never went to summer camp and only spent one required overnight in a tent for a badge of some sort, which was enough for me. I also sunburn very easily. My idea of the outdoors is relaxing on a patio sipping wine. Visit Lodi gave us the choice to go kayaking or tour on a covered boat, so of course, I opted for the latter. We accompanied the kayaking part of the group for an hour and a half tour of Lodi Lake and the Mokelumne River while we sipped sparkling wine from local producers under the helm of our outstanding captain, Tyler.
Driving in Lodi is easy, but if you plan to visit a few of Lodi’s wineries, look no further than Sip Shuttle, the brain child of Lodi native, Taylor Kininmonth. With Sip Shuttle, you “sip back and enjoy the ride,” without having to figure out directions or worrying about driving if you have tasted too many wines. During our afternoon with Taylor, we were nothing short of impressed with her service, her hospitality, and her kindness. However, I did warn Taylor that her business is going to blow up, which brought a wide smile to her face as she said, “I hope so.”
Local favorite Smack Pie Pizza was a great way to kick off the weekend, with its casual, relaxed atmosphere. Guests create customized pizzas or choose from a few house favorites. The pizzas are made from scratch in front of you while you watch and wait. The beers on tap serve as the ideal beverage pairings.
The winemaker dinner at Oak Farm Vineyards exceeded my expectations. It began with a pairing of exquisite cheeses from Cheese Central and award-winning wines from Oak Farm Vineyards, led by their respective owners, Cindy Della Monica and Dan Panella. The delectable food and wine pairings continued with a four-course catered meal by Chef Warren K. Ito. From chilled scallops ceviche, to smoked quail, to braised prime beef and prime rib, to limoncello-soaked pound cake, Chef Ito and Dan Panella left no stone unturned with this best of Lodi food and wine extravaganza.
In Lodi, grape growing and winemaking are king. Lodi produces more wine than any other appellation in California with around 116,000 acres planted to vine. The Mediterranean climate, cooled by the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta breezes, coupled with mineral-rich, diverse soil types, makes Lodi ideal for grape growing. Its 85+ wineries, some under the leadership of fourth- and fifth-generation winegrowers, craft wines under 450 brands. It’s true that Lodi is home to 40% of California’s old-vine zinfandel, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. During my visit, I had the good fortune to taste wines from four wineries – Mettler Family Vineyards, Harney Lane Winery, Bokisch Vineyards, and Oak Farm Vineyards – all of whom showcased the breadth and depth that is today’s Lodi wine. We sampled a few zinfandels, but also albariño, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, garnacha, garnacha blanca, graciano, merlot, monastrell, petite sirah, sauvignon blanc, Tievoli (Oak Farm Vineyards’ proprietary blend of zinfandel, barbera and petite sirah), verdejo, and verdelho. I was dazzled by the variety and quality of Lodi wines. Most wineries here are still family owned and operated. Many also began as farms, selling their grapes to other producers in California including Napa and Sonoma. For some, crafting their own wine is relatively new, like Harney Lane, who’s only been making wines under their own label since 2006. In fact, Harney Lane still sells 94% of their grapes, while retaining only 6% for their own brand. As Kathleen (Kathy) Mettler, the matriarch of Harney Lane, told us during our visit, “First and foremost, we are farmers.” It’s this farming tradition and entrepreneurial spirit, now captured in every bottle of wine, that makes Lodi a must-visit wine destination.
From the moment I arrived at the Downtown Visitor Center until I checked out of my hotel two days later, I felt welcomed by the people of Lodi. At every venue we visited, everyone was genuinely nice and very proud of what Lodi has to offer. By the end of the weekend, I realized I had made new friends as well as found a new weekend getaway spot. From my perspective, Lodi is one of the most underrated areas in California. It has small-town allure, a beautiful California delta locale, scrumptious food, and first-class wines at a fraction of the cost of some of California’s other wine appellations. If you’re looking for a destination that has it all, visit Lodi and be prepared to fall in love beyond the zinfandel.