The acclaimed wine district may be one of Northern California’s best-kept secrets

Lodi, in Northern California’s Central Valley, may be the most acclaimed wine appellation you’ve never heard of. Wine Enthusiast magazine declared it the 2015 Wine Region of the Year. In fact, it’s California’s largest appellation (legally defined wine-grape-growing district) with more than 100,000 acres of vines and 750 growers. This small agricultural city 35 miles south of Sacramento grows more than 100 varieties of wine grapes, including fruit from some of the world’s oldest cinsault and aglianico vines. But it is Lodi’s trove of “old vine” zinfandels, many from plants more than a century old, that has separated Lodi from the pack, drawing plaudits from wine writers and other oenophiles, and earning its nickname “the zinfandel capital of the world.” Indeed, 40 percent of California’s premium zin comes from Lodi.
Even so, your closest association with Lodi could easily be the ancient Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Lodi,” with the immortal lyrics “Oh! Lord, I’m stuck in Lodi again,” penned by John Fogerty — who had never been there. Lodi is the birthplace of wine titan Robert Mondavi, who opened a winery in nearby Woodbridge in 1979. But for much of its history, Lodi had a low wine had profile because it mainly supplied grapes to wineries elsewhere in California. Like many California grape-growing districts outside Napa and Sonoma, Lodi is a late bloomer when it comes to wine production. Thanks in part to the coordinated efforts of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, founded in 1991, the city now has more than 85 boutique wineries specializing in small-lot wines. (Lodi was not impacted by the recent deadly wildfires in Northern California, but the commission joined the state’s other regional wine and grape associations in collecting donations for its beleaguered neighbors.)
Lodi’s boutique wineries should be catnip to true oenophiles who like a taste of adventure with their Rhône varietals. Because Lodi has only recently emerged in force from its fine-wine chrysalis, it isn’t even remotely touristy and tacky. Downtown resembles Main Street, U.S.A., with a bit of an edge but few store chains; most shops are charming local businesses like the quirky Double Dip Gallery at 222 W. Pine St., which doubles as an ice-cream shop.
And while there are a number of hotel/motel chains, there’s still only one high-end property — the lovely Wine & Roses (2505 W. Turner Rd., on the site of the old Burton Towne estate, home to a Southern Pacific Railroad engineer at the turn of the 20th century. The estate changed hands until 1999, when it was acquired by current local owners Russ and Kathryn Munson, who worked with the Lodi Winegrape Commission to envision and create a hotel suitable for a premium wine destination. The rustic luxury hotel has since expanded to encompass seven acres with 66 airy rooms and suites, a fitness center, pool, cooking school, spa and salon, lounge with live music, indoor and outdoor event spaces (yes, this is wedding country) and a fine restaurant named for the original occupants — the Towne House Restaurant. The entire property is designed to induce relaxation, from its earthy color scheme and building materials to its cozy spa, where I had an excellent “signature” facial with organic products, and the delightful parrot aviaries dotting the property.
Of course, whither oenophiles go, foodies will follow (okay, they’re usually the same people). Wine & Roses recently brought in celebrity chef Bradley Ogden who had an eponymous James Beard Foundation Award–winning restaurant in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas for a decade. These days, the one-star Michelin chef prefers to forego the glitz in favor of overseeing W&R’s cottage-like restaurant offering seasonal ingredients that are sustainably and regionally sourced, 70 Lodi wines and a mind-melding open-face omelet with chicken sausage, pasilla peppers and feta.
Foodies may want to plan their trip to coincide with cooking classes helmed by the hotel’s executive chef, John Hitchcock, who worked for Ogden earlier in his career. Or jot down Feb. 10 and 11, 2018, on your calendar — that’s the weekend of the 21st annual Lodi Wine & Chocolate Weekend (, which offers sweets and wine tastings at 50 wineries for a thrifty $55 ($65 at the door). Whatever you do, don’t miss Pietro’s (317 E. Kettleman Lane, whose young Italy-trained chef makes the best garlicky pizza bianca I’ve ever had in my life.
Wineries are Lodi’s prime attractions, but downtown offers a number of nonalcoholic diversions. There’s a memorabilia-filled A&W Root Beer (216 E. Lodi Ave.), which started in Lodi in 1919 and still serves a mean root-beer float. You’ll also want to check out the nine Walldog murals depicting Lodi history in the style of vintage ads; they were created in 2006 by a group of sign painters who call themselves the Letterheads in a project organized by Lodi sign artist and Letterhead Tony Segale. Segale owns the Double Dip art-and-ice cream gallery and sometimes gives visitors tours of the murals. (Visit Lodi also produced a Walldog walking tour map.) Other attractions include Micke Grove Park’s lovely Japanese Garden, the San Joaquin County Historical Museum and outdoor activities like biking and kayaking.

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