Lodi Friday: From Bulk Wine to Fine Wine

This is another in my series about my recent trip to Lodi, California on a media trip sponsored by the Lodi Winegrape Commission. In last week’s piece, I focused on our first day in the region, which was a bit of a blur given that I had to get up before 4:00 a.m. to start the journey out west. The following day, though, I was raring to go….

From the moment I landed in Sacramento, it was clear that a large focus of the trip would be the winegrowers in Lodi, which made a lot of sense since Lodi Winegrape Commission is almost entirely funded by Lodi winegrowers.

But there is more to it than that.

Lodi, unlike it’s more renowned neighbors to the West, is much more of a farming community. Many of the area’s growers are fourth, fifth, or even sixth generation farmers, which provides not only consistency and stability, but also a deep sense of community.

Every wine region I have ever visited (with perhaps one notable exception) has proclaimed that they, unlike many other regions, have a sense of community and coöperation that really sets them apart from other regions.

Seriously.

I have heard that in every wine region I have ever visited (with one notable exception).

No kidding.

In Lodi, though, it seems different. I am not sure if I can put my finger on it, but everyone seems to get along–even recent outsiders are welcomed as insiders and there truly seems to be the belief that each success benefits the whole. Now, it could very well be that we were shielded from their equivalent of cousin Rufus (I have several “cousins Rufus” and let me tell you, when one of them shows up, I am ready to drink even the most insipid Pinot Grigio–is that a redundancy?), but in Lodi, it really did seem genuine.

Why is that?

I am not entirely sure, but it seems to stem from the fact that most of the vineyards are long since paid for, which means a few things: 1. There is a greater freedom for experimentation (I will get to that in a later post), 2. Farmers are less susceptible to the vagaries of both the market and the harvest, and 3. This minimizes the sense of competition that would perhaps otherwise be inevitable.

Don’t get me wrong, Lodi growers are always looking to maximize profits, but with at least a modicum of financial stability, they are better able to ride out any fiscal slumps.

Lodi, as a wine making region, owes a considerable part of its success to Robert Mondavi, whose family moved to Lodi when he was a child. He grew up there and attended Lodi High School while his father built a successful fruit-packing business. Eventually, the family looked west, buying the Charles Krug Winery in 1943.

After Robert broke away from the family’s winery and established his own eponymous label in 1966. Robert returned to Lodi, in a sense, in search of less-expensive fruit to go into more of an everyday wine, which he did in 1979, establishing the Woodbridge Winery, named after the town just outside of Lodi.

The I.O.O.F. Hall in Woodbridge, CA (from Wikipedia).

The I.O.O.F. Hall in Woodbridge, CA (from Wikipedia).

For the better part of the next two and a half decades, Mondavi cast a bit of a protective shadow over the Lodi region, providing a reliable market for many of the areas growers, but at the same time, perhaps, making it a bit too easy for the growers: there was no real incentive to innovate or be creative since there was a fairly stable market for their fruit.

That seemed to change in late 2004 when Constellation Brands bought the Mondavi Winery and all of its holdings. Constellation, perhaps understandably, approached their newly acquired Woodbridge Winery with the bottom line more firmly in mind, and as a result, many growers that sold to Mondavi in the past were now looking for other buyers of their fruit. For just about any other wine grape growing region, this would have likely created much more havoc than it did in Lodi, given the relative financial stability of many of the areas growers.

What also helped was that Lodi was already changing by the time that Constellation took over Woodbridge. No doubt ignited by Tim Spencer of St. Amant Winery, who in 1996 as a result of his own vineyard dying from phylloxera, worked out a deal with the Lodi Winegrape Commission. Tim told the other growers in the area that if they brought him two tons of fruit from one of their old vine Zinfandel vineyards, he would produce a vineyard designate wine and give them 25 cases of the wine, keeping the rest to sell from the winery.

A neraly 100 year old Zinfandel vine--this one from the Schmiedt Vineyard

A neraly 100 year old Zinfandel vine–this one from the Schmiedt Vineyard

At the time, there were virtually no wines being produced with “Lodi” on the label as most of the region’s fruit was being sold off to the “big boys” (Mondavi, Gallo, Sutter Home, etc.), but Tim was convinced that Lodi was capable of producing world-class wines. Tim was right, and his gamble paid off, effectively putting Lodi “on the map.”

Thus, when Mondavi became part of Constellation, Lodi was already on its way to a transformation, but with the exit of its longtime paternal influence, the process certainly accelerated: in 2000 there were eight wineries in the Lodi appellation. Today? There are eighty.

Clearly, Lodi is still in a period of transformation from a sleepy farming community, which provided much of the fruit to large producers of inexpensive wine, to a significant player in the fine wine market, producing wines with depth and character. Don’t get me wrong, there are still many growers that supply fruit to those “big boys” filling a need in the market for inexpensive, widely available wine. But from what I saw in my time in Lodi, that transformation to a fine wine producing region is well along its way.

Next week, I will continue with my Lodi Friday series, delving into some of the region’s wonderful vineyards.