Northern California is known for being home to some of the most famous wine regions in the world. But 90 miles east of San Francisco is a wine region you may not have heard much about, with a rich history of small, family-run producers: Lodi. It hasn’t been given the same attention as its peers—even though 20 percent of California’s premium wine grapes are grown here.
The region was recognized as an American Viticulture Area (AVA) in 1986, and is filled with vines that are more than 50 years old—many of which were planted in the late 1800s. During California’s Gold Rush, people from across the United States and abroad migrated to the state. Many people settled on the Native American lands called Mokelumne, which would later become Lodi, as it was less than a day’s ride on horseback from the legendary gold-filled Sutter’s Mill. Thanks to its deep Tokay sandy loam soil, Mediterranean climate and cool Delta breezes from the San Francisco Bay, Lodi was a farmer’s dream. In fact, native varieties of grapes even grew along the region’s river banks.
In 1886, hopeful prospector Joseph Spenker planted cinsault in the area, which would later become the oldest known surviving planting in Lodi. By the 1960s, Guild Winery in Lodi was the largest co-op winery in the United States, and soon after, Robert Mondavi came onto the scene, spurring the transition from jug wines to higher-quality varietal-led wines made from grapes like zinfandel, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.
Today, the Lodi AVA is one of the largest in the U.S., with close to 110,000 acres of vineyards. And while nearly 40 percent of California’s zinfandel comes from Lodi, more than 125 varieties grow within its seven AVAs.
Zinfandel originated in what is now Croatia, making it perfectly suited for Lodi’s Mediterranean climate. Unlike other California coastal regions, Lodi’s vineyards aren’t as susceptible to fog, giving these vineyards slightly warmer, consistent temperatures, resulting in lush, fruit-forward wines. Besides zinfandel, producers here are bottling everything from sunny cinsault rosés to crisp sauvignon blancs and spicy syrahs, as well as wines from Spanish grapes like albariño and tempranillo and, soon, Greek assyrtiko.
Producers Off the Beaten Path:
Acquiesce is doing things a little differently—and being rewarded for it. Just northeast of the city of Lodi, Acquiesce focuses on crisp and bright Rhône-inspired whites and a rosé, a far cry from Lodi’s famous zinfandels. In a 2022 U.S. wine competition, its 2020 viognier was named the best white wine, up against thousands of others, while its roussanne, grenache blanc, and picpoul blanc won best of class. Another five of their wines also won silver medals: an unprecedented showing. You can taste the lineup, along with curated pairings, in their century-old barn in Acampo.
Markus and Liz Bokisch traveled across Spain in their ’67 VW Bus in 1992, and fell in love with Spanish food and wine along the way. So much so, in fact, that they started growing albariño, tempranillo and graciano on small plots when they returned stateside in 1998. Today, Bokisch produces nine Spanish varieties and continues to experiment with small, unique productions in Lodi’s Clement Hills. It is one of the few wineries located within that AVA, but it’s worth the trek for the views alone.
Often listed on top 100 wines to drink roundups, Klinker Brick knows what it’s doing. Old Ghost, made from its best zinfandel year over year, was awarded gold at a 2023 San Francisco wine competition, while its plummy and spicy 2020 Farrah Syrah and its violet and tobacco-filled 2020 1850° blend of cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, and zinfandel won double gold. Besides the bold red wines, the winery also produces a Vorgange white blend with gewurztraminer, rieslaner, and pinot blanc that is a nod to fifth-generation grape growers Steve and Lori Felten’s German roots.
Owned by one of Lodi’s oldest farming families, Mettler recently added single vineyard old vine wines to their lineup. Their HGM Old Vine Zinfandel, for example, is produced from head-trained vines that have been in the Mettler family since 1899, while their Steacy Ranch Zinfandel is silky and delicate—and produced from vines first planted in 1907. Beyond these classic examples of the region, the winery also produces Italian Montepulciano and aglianico, both of which are available through the winery’s wine club.
Brothers Jeff and John Perlegos are second-generation farmers in Lodi with Greek heritage, and after their inaugural release of zinfandel and cinsault just a few months ago, be on the lookout for something the region hasn’t seen yet: assyrtiko, a white grape traditionally grown in Santorini that is known for its crisp acidity despite thriving in an area with intense sunshine and little rainfall. While there is no tasting room to explore here yet, the current release is available on its website.
Royal Tee, planted in 1889 by Joseph Spenker, holds acres of old zinfandel, carignan, tokay, mission, and black prince vines that look more like gnarly, twisting olive trees than grape vines. You can see a few of them for yourself at Jessie’s Grove Winery (owned by Spenker’s descendants), at the center of the property. There you can taste wines like its old vine zinfandel or a selection of dessert wines, from a tawny port to petite sirah, and attend the summer concert series.
In 2002, Oak Ridge Winery took over from East Side Winery (built in 1934), and now, five generations of the Maggio family later, it is the oldest continuously operating winery in Lodi. Its “OZV” wines are made from its old vines, with an average age of fifty years, but the winery also sells a wide range of styles, from a primitivo rosé to an oaked chardonnay. It is open for tastings on the outdoor patio.