The Spirit of Northern California

A Fortunate Change of Plans

Lodi AVA – Central Valley

Rachel and I had planned to head to San Jose for a conference stop and an overnight stay. It’s about two and a half hours away, so while it’s totally doable as a day trip, I knew I didn’t want to drive for 5 or 6 hours in a day while doing work stuff.

Just a note: Traveling around California has been a learning experience. I’ve found that driving the roads can be a lot of fun, and at times pretty intense. But overall, I don’t mind spending long hours behind the wheel as long as the landscape keeps changing. And around Northern California, it’s ALWAYS changing.

But all good plans can come to a miserable end. Stuff went a little sideways, and it turned out that I wouldn’t attend the conference. But when one door closes, someone gets thrown out a window. I’m pretty sure that’s the saying.

Okay… I’m, like, 60-65% sure that’s the saying.

So Rachel and I decided to take a trip that way anyway, as we’d been eyeing the Lodi area for the last couple of weeks. And this would be an actual day trip!

Lodi is only 35 miles or so from downtown Sacramento, and about double that from Oakland. This makes it the perfect getaway to a wine country that isn’t completely saturated with tourists and wanna-be wine snobs. But there might be a reason that it’s the road less traveled.

From reports that I’ve seen, it sounds like Lodi is going through tough times. According to some friends of ours, the homeless situation in the Central Valley is pronounced, with encampments starting to take over parks and other public lands. During our time in town, we were approached by a couple of homeless people as well, saw another digging through business’s garbage, and may have even been followed for a block or two.

If you were to remove that issue, Lodi is positioned to be a very hipster version of wine country. Hell, maybe it is already (I don’t know how this state works yet!). Unfortunately, a lot of the news coverage that I’ve seen recently has dealt with guns and shootings, homelessness, and assorted crimes… even a skydiving death.

Though there was this story from the local CBS station on TV. Inside, they talk about how the wine industry has grown over the years, and it seems there’s also a rise in tourism. Hopefully that will help turn some things around.

Downtown Lodi is pretty charming overall… though you’ll have to look past the above issues. The tree-lined main street looks like it’s been worn down a bit from some hard times, and when we were there anyway (midday on a Friday), the streets were pretty sleepy. It reminds me of a lot of small midwestern towns that have gotten depressed over the years.

But let’s talk about the WINE, I hear you scream toward your screen. Okie dokie.

Weibel Family Winery

The tasting room for Weibel Family Winery is plunked in the heart of downtown Lodi, surrounded by restaurants, wine bars, and even Lodi Beer Co., and the decor is a mish-mash of prohibition era meets hipster junkyard meets IKEA flair. It’s probably aimed for the younger crowd, but that shouldn’t let anything stop the over 30 crowd.

They specialize in sparkling wine, and can even use the term “California Champagne,” one of the wineries grandfathered into that particular club. When we visited, they featured 11 sparkling wines and one sparkling grape juice, along with a couple of whites and seven reds.

Whenever there are a LOT of wines available, I always wonder if any of them will be any good. Do those wineries with breadth have less depth? My experience says yes, even though I’m proven wrong a lot.

We tried a few of the sparklings, staying away from the flavored ones like Strawberry, Peach Mango, Pomegranite and Almond. No thanks. Though I hear their Almond is one of their better sellers. This is where I, as a Gen-X’er, shake my head slightly and say, “Millenials,” under my breath.

We did try the Archgate Bubbles Syrah, however. Making a sparkling out of syrah is unusual, but it tasted fairly light all things considered. But I must admit that I’m not much of a sparkling wine drinker.

We walked out with a bottle of Zinfandel and a bottle of Chardonnay. Neither was challenging or too complex, and neither had an unexpected depth to them. They were just… good. I’ll take a solid bottle of wine for drinking any time over a special bottle I have to wait for just the right moment to open.

Michael David Winery

We decided to skip out of downtown Lodi and take a tour through all of the vineyards surrounding us. And there are a lot of them! And at all of the intersections, sign posts gave direction to the dozens of nearby farms and wineries.

Michael David is a pretty big producer, and one that we’ve had the chance to see, buy and try back in Minnesota. With brands like Freakshow and Earthquake, I know this winery to have some pretty bold reds that I’ve had and enjoyed before, like the Petite Petit. Some of the standouts during the tasting were the 6th Sense Syrah, Earthquake Cabernet Sauvignon and the Lust Zinfandel. But all that we had were better than good, and the grounds were certainly pretty.

Viaggio Estate and Winery

We decided to head to another area, just to see the surrounds a bit and figure out a little more about the area. We decided it’s extremely flat in this part of California. It’s like “driving through Indiana” flat… with vineyards and palm trees, of course.

We ended up at Viaggio Estate and Winery, which kind of reads as a little Good Fellas very Italian feel meets prohibition or historic winery or something. Dark woods, a leather sectional, and even a chance to buy a cigar for those inclined.

The 2016 “Buttercup” Chardonnay hits you over the taste buds with butter kick, the Peach Mango Sparkling was… not purchased, and the chocolate flavored desert wine tasted like someone had dumped Nestle syrup into some Tawney Port. Their regular Tawney, however, was pretty good, and we ended up going home with a bottle.

They also had a Pinot Noir, a red blend, and a couple of Barberas, but they didn’t really stand out all that much to me. The best thing we tried wasn’t even on the tasting menu for that day. I love it when the servers go off book for you.

Their Torrontes was pretty great, and when we tried to figure out what the main flavor was, the answer struck me. It tasted like elderflower liqueur. That’s St. Germain to you and me. It’s a little citrusy and a little sweet, but pretty dry overall and a great break from drinking Chardonnays. Our server lit up when she heard that, and said she’d start using that description.

You’re welcome.

The Takeaway

Lodi isn’t Sonoma, and it damn sure isn’t Napa. From what I’ve gathered, this is blue-collar, small town California. Sure it’s a little beat up, but the Central Valley is a provider. So if you’re going, drop the pretense and walk in for a good time and some solid wines that might take you by surprise.