From Paul Franson's Travel Tastes


From the Reno Gazette Journal

California’s newest wine destination

By Paul Franson

The new Lodi Wine & Visitor Center

Lodi, the invisible heart of many of California’s famous wines, is finally claiming its due. Located halfway between Sacramento and Stockton on the way to the Bay Area, Lodi is California’s newest wine destination. It’s well worth a detour or even overnight to visit its many new wineries and tasting rooms, most family operations where you’re more likely to meet a friendly winemaker and his dog than a slick presentation or charges for tasting.

Lodi has long been California’s number one source of varietal grapes, and its old-vine Zinfandel has even achieved cult status among connoisseurs, yet few wine labels mention the area. That’s changing as an aggressive local growers’ group promotes the area’s grapes and wineries increasingly recognize their quality. As a result, Lodi is starting to gain credit on wine bottles.

Some are on outside wineries, but many local wineries have also sprung up as new laws encourage growers to make wine and offer it to visitors.

Everyone knows Sonoma and Napa, but few appreciate how important the Lodi-Woodbridge American Viticultural Area is. It’s long been the industry’s largest supplier of Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc grapes -- in other words, all the major varieties.

Located at the end of the Carquinez gap that sucks cool air from the Bay into the Central Valley, Lodi is cooler than the rest of the hot San Joaquin Valley. Its temperatures mimic upper Napa Valley’s with hot summer days and cool nights while sandy clay soils washed from the Sierra are ideal for growing fine vines.

A cornerstone of Lodi’s new visibility is the new Lodi Wine & Visitor Center . It offers exhibits and classes about wine and pours samples of wines made in Lodi -- or using Lodi grapes. It also offers maps to Lodi’s tasting rooms and information about local attractions.

Mondavi Woodbridge opens tasting room

Equally impressive is the new visitor center at Robert Mondavi Winery’s large Woodbridge facility, which produces popular Woodbridge wines. The biggest difference between its wines and many “coastal” equivalents is less aging in expensive new oak barrels. This can ironically be an advantage: the wines exhibit fresher fruit flavors than more expensive over-oaked wines.

Woodbridge’s tasting room also pours wines you can’t buy elsewhere including a delicate Muscat ideal for a warm summer evening and Old Vine Zinfandel that can’t be beat with barbecue and rich Italian-American meals.

Mondavi isn’t the only Lodi winery open to the public. Among the dozen is a new winery boasting some of the state’s oldest vines.

Making wines from vines a century old, tiny Jessie’s Grove Vineyard and Winery features a museum of the family’s history as its tasting room and outside is the wagon ancestors used to cross the Great Plains.

The property contains walking trails through Great-Grandmother Jessie’s grove of ancient oaks while horses and other livestock demonstrate that this is a real farm, not a rich newcomer’s genteel retirement home. Friendly family members tend the tasting bar and you’re welcome to picnic with their wine.

Other family wineries in the area include Lucas, Spanker and St. Amant. Phillips Vineyards has a country café while Peirano Estates has a deli. Most welcome picnickers.

Another new development just off highway 12 is definitely worth a visit. The old Lockeford Winery is becoming a warren of mini-wineries with tasting rooms carved from giant wine tanks around a court that suggests Tuscany.

Many of the wineries share costly equipment, and by this fall, a dozen should make wine at the facility. Three or four are usually open for tasting on weekends  often Mitch Cosentino’s Crystal Valley Cellars, the Olde Lockeford Winery and  Peters Family Winery.

Places to stay

Lodi wine destinations (all Lodi unless indicated; Web sites preceded by www. It’s best to call before visiting as many are very small and only open by appointment or on weekends.)

Wine is just a taste of Lodi

Beyond wine tasting, the Lodi area abounds in activities for the whole family. Lodi offers a nice range of activities, from skydiving and ultralight plane rides for the brave to bird watching, fishing and antique-shopping for the less adventuresome.

 Some of the wineries feature kid-friendly activities to overcome that whine, “Not another winery!” but the area also boasts a zoo and reptile center for the kids, plus parks and a lake right in town for picnics and play.

If you’d like to see things from above, Ultralights of Sacramento at the Lodi Airport offers 15 minute flights in a minimal airplane with a pilot for only $35. It will also train your to be a pilot yourself or sell you a kit to make your own ultralight plane.
If that isn’t exciting enough, there’s skydiving at the Parachute Center at the airport. For $100, novices can jump from 13,000 ft. paired with an expert, providing 60 seconds of thrills -- or terror.

Lodi also has a skating rink, batting cages, and nearby Galt has a water slide for hot days. Golf courses lie nearby, and bicyclists will find the lazy terrain a welcome change from the hectic Bay Area. The nearby Delta and area lakes provide boating and fishing.

Visiting downtown Lodi is a must. With its century-old arch, it recalls small cities before malls and big box stores changed them forever. Fortunately, Lodi still boasts healthy businesses including restaurants and antique shops of interest to visitors.

A museum of local history inhabits the 1902-vintage Hill House Victorian, and the San Joaquin Historical Museum occupies 15 acres at the Micke Grove Park just south of town.

Also at Micke Grove is the 43-year-old zoo known for work with endangered species such as snow leopards, Chinese alligators, Waldrapp ibis and several types of appealing lemurs.

The park has a small amusement park with rides for the kids, a Japanese Garden and a picnic area. In town, the free Great Valley Serpentarium hosts the squirming reptiles so beloved of young boys.

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