Ever since Creedence Clearwater Revival sang about being penniless in Lodi, the sleepy farming town of Lodi has had a bad rep. But Lodi is one of the biggest wine producing regions in the state, and has over 100 years of wine growing history, stretching back to the heyday of the Flame Tokay grape. Even today, the Lodi area produces more wine than Napa and Sonoma counties combined.
But in the wine industry, as in the music industry, Lodi’s reputation has not fared well. Known as the northern capital of the bulk wine industry (Modesto is the southern capital), Lodi is home to Sutter Home and Woodbridge. Lodi has justly earned a reputation as a cheap wine Mecca.
But all that's beginning to change - or so I keep hearing. Lodi is the new boutique wine capital, with small wine makers popping up everywhere. Suddenly, poor old disrespected Lodi, butt of hick farming town jokes, is hip. Even the stodgy old AAA is blowing Lodi's horn, with a cover article on the Lodi wine country in a recent issue of their member magazine. Well, anyone who knows me knows that I'm all about what's hip. If the AAA, with its geezer drivers, thinks Lodi is hip, then I must really be missing the boat! So, I hopped in my AAA-insured Mercury Grand Marquis and tooled down Highway 99 to find out.
Downtown Lodi is actually pretty cute - if you can tell much on a Sunday morning when the only thing open is the Starbucks. But they've obviously put a lot of effort into revitalizing the central downtown area; brick intersections, nice streetlights, even a few fancy restaurants - all make downtown Lodi actually fairly appealing to look at.
But downtown is not where the wine action is in Lodi, so off I headed to the north end of town and the Lodi Wine & Visitor's Center (www.lodiwine.com). The Visitors Center is a nice new building that looks like a cheap knockoff of a Napa Valley winery. Inside, there are a few rather lame exhibits. The real draw is the "wine shop" which is really a large tasting room. The people pouring wine were very nice, but I made the mistake of saying that I was interested in wines with subtlety and complexity. Our pourer just laughed. "You came to the wrong place," she said.
Boy, was she right. None of the wines we tasted were even halfway interesting. Not a great start, but it was early and we had a lot of wineries to hit. Back on the road, swerving slightly now, we headed for the best-known wine maker in the region: Michael-David. Never heard of them? OK, how about "7 Deadly Zins"? "6th Sense Syrah?" "Earthquake Zin?" Michael-David makes them all.
And the place was mobbed when we got there. The tasting bar looked like a dead zebra surrounded by feasting vultures. People were literally elbow-to-elbow fighting for space. When we finally poked and jabbed our way to the bar, we decided that this stuff must be damn good, so we went whole hog and paid to taste their full line of wines, from the cheap stuff all the way up to their $30 a bottle flagship cab.
Words can't describe how bad these wines were. As we were learning, the Lodi "style" of winemaking means producing over-heated, over-cooked, and over-oaked fruit and booze bomb wines. These are wines with no finesse, no originality, no character, and no creativity. Sadly, these were about the best wines we tasted that day.
Our last best hope to taste some decent wine was at the Vino Piazza in Lockeford, about 15 minutes east of Lodi. This former bulk winery has been converted into homes for about a dozen boutique wineries. Dutifully, we went from tasting room to tasting room, trying to find a way to gag politely on the vile concoctions we subjected ourselves to.
By the end of the day, I realized that the wines in Lodi all have virtually the same two deadly flaws.
First of all, the grapes are over-ripened to try to get the most fruit flavor and alcohol out of them. What happens when you leave grapes in the sun too long? That's right, you get raisins. And nearly every Lodi wine we tasted had a strong raisiny or cooked flavor. That’s fine in a port, but it’s a serious flaw in a cabernet.
And what do wine makers do with flawed grapes? They try to cover the flaw with lots and lots of oak. Used in moderation, oak can mask minor flaws in a wine. But if a little is good, more is definitely not better. Drinking these wines was like sucking on an oak 2x4 dipped in wine.
But the real problem is that people love this stuff and down it like water. I have a problem with that. Maybe I was wrong in my last column when I said "we’re not as stupid or ignorant as you think". Maybe we are. Wine - good wine - is fun. It's an incredible world of tastes, flavors, styles, people, places, and most of all, infinite variety. But bad wine is just a way to get drunk.
You don't have to drink bad wine, and you don't have to think that bad wine is good. And most of all, you don't have to pay $30 a bottle for good wine. I’m going to keep trying my damnedest to prove that to you. Just don't get stuck in Lodi.