Spring is nearly upon us, which means it’s wine tasting season! Granted, you can actually go wine tasting year round, but now is generally the time I start daydreaming about driving around wine country and checking out vineyards with unbeatable views and delicious pinots. In previous years, I’ve toured Sonoma, Long Island, the Finger Lakes, and Paso Robles — but this year, I headed somewhere new: Lodi.
And you know what? After spending time there, I’ve seen the light. (Or at least the sunlight filtering through rows and rows of old vine zinfandel grapes.) I’ve become an official lifelong #LodiWine fan. In fact, if I wasn’t headed abroad soon, I’d be back in town for their ZinFest in mid-May.
But what wine does Lodi specialize in? And how the heck do you even get there? Patience, Vino Jedi. Here’s everything you need to know about why Lodi needs to be your next wine country destination.
Where Exactly Is Lodi, Anyway?
Think you know your wine regions backwards and forwards? All right, then, I’m going to give you a 30-second pop quiz. (This isn’t school, so I’ll wait while you go and fill up your wine glass. Got it? Good.)
Which of these wine regions is NOT in California?
C) Paso Robles
F) Santa Barbara
Time’s up! So this is actually a TRICK question — they’re all located in California! It’s a state that’s spoiled rotten when it comes to great wine, isn’t it?
Most people have heard of Napa and Sonoma, and others have heard of Santa Barbara and its @#$!ing merlot thanks to Paul Giamatti and Sideways. While Paso Robles will always be in my heart — Mr. Five O’Clock and I got married there, after all — Lodi is a wine region that burst onto my radar because it’s California’s largest wine appellation: it produces more wine grapes than any other wine region in the state.
As you can see on the map below, Lodi (pronounced LOW-DIE) is 90 miles east of San Francisco and 35 miles south of Sacramento. I flew into Sacramento on JetBlue (airport code SMF) and used the city as a home base for a day trip out to Lodi wine country. It took us roughly 45 minutes to drive from our place in Sacramento to our first winery.
What You Need to Know About Lodi Wines
If I were a betting (wo)man, I’d throw down some money on Lodi as the next hip, happenin’ wine region in the U.S. For starters, it was named Wine Enthusiast’s 2015 “Wine Region of the Year.” Its wineries are racking up awards at the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and American Fine Wine Competition. Plus, its winemakers aren’t afraid to explore new and daring wines.
Lodi is justifiably lauded for their zinfandels. Known as the “Zinfandel Capital of the World,” it accounts for over 32% of California’s premium zinfandel production.
In addition to old vine zinfandel, Lodi wineries are also known for their merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and chardonnay. You’ll also find Spanish and Rhône varietals here as well.
One of my favorite things about the region, though, is that a lot of Lodi’s grape-growing families have been in the region for four or five generations. In fact, it’s not uncommon to visit a tasting room and be served by the owner or the grape grower. How often can the same be said about Napa nowadays?
What Lodi Wineries Should You Visit?
With 85 wineries and over 60 tasting rooms to choose from in Lodi, determining which ones to visit — especially if you only have one day — can be a tough call to make. I was fortunate enough to visit three wineries with Catwoman and Agent M when we were there at the end of February 2017. Try to work in at least one of these spots into your itinerary; you won’t be disappointed!
Klinker Brick Winery
Like a dear, old friend, Klinker Brick and I go way, way back. Mr. Five O’Clock and I used to drink bottles of their Old Vine Zinfandel while he was a graduate student in Chicago in 2008. Visiting this tasting room, which opened in 2010, felt like a homecoming for me.
Family is the name of the game here: Klinker Brick’s Steve and Lori Felten are fifth generation grape growers in the Lodi region. They’re producing some phenomenal wines, one of which — the 2014 Old Ghost Old Vine Zinfandel — was a huge highlight for us. The wine was jammy, well balanced, and had notes of berries and spice.
Agent M was partial to the 2016 Bricks and Roses — a dry rosé which was a blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre, and carignane — and the 2014 Dolcetto, which had aromatics of blackberry and spice. Catwoman, on the other hand, was a big fan of the 2016 Albariño, which had aromas of pear, melon, and green apple. In a group like ours, which had a variety of palates, we were happy to see that there was something for everyone.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 2014 Old Vine Zinfandel (seen above) was also a hit. As Klinker Brick’s flagship wine, it accounts for roughly half of their annual total production (meaning 40,000-50,000 cases out of 100,000). It’s jammy, peppery, and — in the immortal words of Mike, Catwoman’s husband — will make you say, “Man, I need a steak.”
Marisa, the woman who poured wine for us (and is related to the grape growing family via marriage), was knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and warm. This wasn’t unique to us; we saw excellent service delivered across the board.
After our tasting session, we bought a glass of wine and strolled through the grounds, coming upon horses frolicking in the warm sunlight. With three animal lovers among us, it was the perfect ending to the perfect beginning in Lodi.
1301 East Armstrong Road, Lodi, CA
Website, Facebook, Twitter
Tasting Room Hours: Open by appointment; open to the public the last weekend each month (Friday to Sunday of that weekend, 12:00 PM to 5:00 PM; check website)
When we asked wine bloggers for suggestions of where to taste wine in Lodi, one name came up repeatedly: Borra Vineyards. When you have several people recommending the same winery, your ears perk up. Thus, this winery — started by Steve Borra in 1975 — was a mandatory stop on our Lodi wine quest.
Though we arrived at Borra with less than an hour until closing, we didn’t feel rushed at all. In fact, by the end of our tasting, we practically felt like the tasting room staff (Mike and Nick) were family! We can’t stress how incredible the service was here. Conversation flowed as naturally as the next wine into our glasses.
Wines we particularly enjoyed included:
- 2014 Borra 47.5° Red Wine — blend of 80% Petite Sirah, 10% syrah, and 10% mourvedre
- 2013 Heritage — blend of 70% Barbera, 10% Carignane, 10% Petite Sirah, 10% Alicante Bouschet
- 2014 Old Vine Zinfandel — notes of plum and black cherries; velvety smooth
- 2013 FUSION Red — great table wine; easy drinking, crowd pleaser; very fruit forward
- 2015 Markus Nativo — blend of 52% Kerner, 29% Riesling, 15% Bacchus, and 4% Gewürztraminer.
Swiss-born Markus Niggli is the winemaker here; he’s also winning critical acclaim for his wines under the Markus Wine Co. label (check out their Twitter account here). With Borra likely to retire this year, keep an eye out for some potential changes to their labels. Different wine, perhaps, but in the hands of Markus it’ll be the same great quality.
Michael David Winery
Recognize the label in the picture above? You might, given that 7 Deadly Zins can be found across the country. I vividly recall seeing it at our local grocery store while growing up. No, I didn’t drink it under 21 — that would be zinful. (Sorry, had to. It’s the wine talking.)
The great thing about visiting a winery in person, however, is you get to try wines beyond what you’ll typically find on the shelves. Case in point: I fell pretty hard for their 2013 Lust Zinfandel, a full-bodied, voluptuous wine with aromas of brandied cherries, blackberries, and caramel.
You’ve got to love it when wine descriptors perfectly match the wine’s name, eh?
Though service here was hectic at first given the large crowd clamoring for attention, we were able to find our rhythm after we began conversing with the staff. I’d suggest visiting earlier in the day if you visit on a weekend and don’t want to compete.
Pro Tip ⇒ Michael David Winery has café on site serving tasty food. We enjoyed lunch here before our tasting, making it a perfect midday winery stop.
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A huge thanks to Visit Lodi for sponsoring this post and for helping me have such a wonderful time in Lodi. As always, all opinions are my own and I will never promote something I haven’t personally experienced and believe in, regardless of who foots the bill.
Also, some of the above are affiliate links. This means I will earn a tiny percentage of the sale if you purchase through them at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting It’s Five O’Clock Here!