Today something incredible happened. I still cannot believe it, but I won my first writing award.
I have always loved writing. I am a much better writer than a public speaker. It is my communication method of choice. As a child, I kept a diary, under lock and key, of course, and as a young adult, I kept a journal for many years. When I was in sixth grade, I wrote my first book in a spiral notebook. Sadly, I do not know what happened to my book. I still have dreams of writing a book about my life of reinvention and transformation.
My experience in professional writing originated during my years as a graduate student and community college professor. I wrote many papers, in French, as a master’s degree student. As a doctoral student, I wrote class papers and my dissertation. As a college professor, I wrote articles for academic journals.
I began this blog June 16, 2011, not having any formal wine knowledge. However, what I lacked in experience, I made up for in my passion to write and my thirst for learning.
I’m taking a wine marketing class this fall and on the first night of class, my instructor reminded me of something very important: only 20% of the United States population purchases wine and those customers are often drawn to wine brands based on an emotional connection or experience with the wine. Perhaps it was a dinner with friends or family, a visit to a winery made special by the tasting host, or a friend’s recommendation. Generally, most wine consumers don’t want to know what the percentages of blends are, how the wine is fermented and aged, or the vineyard management details. They want what tastes good and brings back memories of a great experience. When we meet someone, we don’t want to know their genetics or their chemical composition, we want a human connection. When I heard this, it hit me that maybe I am doing an injustice to the wines and wineries I review by sharing technical details that only wine geeks want to read. In light of this revelation, I am making a conscious change to the way I write. It should be fairly easy since this is who I am. I crave emotional connections to people, places, and things. I want to feel something inside after winery visit or a wine dinner. I want to feel inspired. Therefore, I’m bringing back storytelling, fun, passion, and emotion.
Three weeks ago, I arrived in Lodi, California, for the Wine Bloggers Conference. Unlike many of my peers, I had just visited Lodi in June and had already fallen in love with the wines and the people. Before that June visit, I harbored no preconceived notions about Lodi. If there’s anything I’ve learned after five years of wine and travel writing, it’s to visit wine regions with open mind, heart, and eyes, without reservation or hesitation.
I was especially lucky this fifth conference that my friend, Jeff Kralik (The Drunken Cyclist), had included me as one of the wine writers who would be staying at Michael David Winery’s Bare Ranch as a guest of the Phillips family. The first night I was there, I had the opportunity to share wine and dinner with David Phillips. Like my earlier trip to Lodi, I was taken aback by the kindness of David and his family to share their event property with a few crazy writers. Thank you again, David and Jeff, for including me in the Bare Ranch experience. I spent five nights there and it was at Bare Ranch that I had the lengthiest exposure to Lodi wine during the conference. The ranch was well supplied with Michael David wines and I had the opportunity to taste a few of them.
One of my favorites was the 2012 Bare Ranch Sparkling ($35), which is a small-production, traditional method sparkling wine crafted from Bare Ranch estate chardonnay (and a little pinot noir), located just over the fence from where I stayed, in honor of and especially for Bare Ranch guests and events. Its fresh and fruity fizziness with just a touch of yeast was the perfect accompaniment to starry Lodi nights by the pool, unspoken shenanigans, camaraderie, and lots of laughter. I am certain that I am not the only one who loved it, as somehow, over the course of five nights, a case of it mysteriously disappeared.
The second day in Lodi, Alison Marriott (Bon Vivant DC) and I visited Michael David’s tasting room and café. I knew I wasn’t in the Napa Valley any more when the freshly made burgers we ate were fewer than $10 each with the most AMAZING fries I’ve ever eaten. Since we were stocked up on wines at the ranch (understatement!), we decided to have a glass of the 2013 Inkblot Cabernet Franc ($35). The polar opposite of the delicate sparkling wine, this bold cabernet franc comes from a single, nine-acre vineyard near the winery. If a wine could be described as tall, dark, and handsome, this would be it. Opulent and juicy, spicy and smoky, this cabernet franc is seductive, the wine I wanted to take home with me after frolicking at the pool with the Bare Ranch Sparkling (wink, wink).
Not to be outdone by the sparkling or the cabernet franc, the 2014 Ancient Vine Cinsault ($25), sourced from the famed, 130-year-old Bechthold Vineyard, found its way into my heart one evening. More of a refined gentleman, this wine was indeed a smooth operator, with delectable red berry fruit flavors and tannins that gently caressed my palate. I had discovered a holy grail of Lodi wine.
Last, but certainly not least, was the comfortable, uncomplicated wine, the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc ($16). The first wine I shared with David Phillips and Jeff Kralik by the pool, it’s easy to drink, clean, and crisp, with loads of zingy citrus and tropical fruit flavors. Like a good friend, this is the reliable, go-to wine for hot, summer days in Lodi or wherever your travels might take you. It’s possible we may have consumed a case of this wine, too, but I’ll never tell. After all, what happens at Bare Ranch stays at Bare Ranch.
When I was invited by Visit Lodi to spend a weekend there, I jumped at the chance. I love to travel. I also love dispelling stereotypes and delving into a new place. When Lodi is mentioned, often people think zinfandel. Lodi is more than that. It offers a plethora of wines, food, and activities for everyone. Join me while I take you behind the wine and beyond the zinfandel.
Travel to Lodi from Napa is nearly a direct route by way of California Highway 12, with a few miles overlapping with Interstate 80. Once outside of Fairfield and Suisun City, Highway 12 is quite barren except for what I would call fields of wind turbines, the Shiloh Wind Power Plant. For miles, all you see are turbines. At the closest point, they appear ominous, yet also hypnotic. About halfway between Fairfield and Lodi is Rio Vista, suitably named due to its location on the Sacramento River and gateway to the Sacramento–San Joaquin River (California) Delta. It was home to my food stop that day at the also fittingly named Hwy 12 Diner, where I enjoyed an inexpensive breakfast for lunch. The next 25 miles were a bit more interesting with occasional bridges crossing the delta’s waterways. Upon my arrival to Lodi, I was surprised to discover that it is larger than I thought, with a population of around 60,000 people, not too much smaller than Napa or my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. After checking into my hotel, I decided to see if Lodi had Uber as a transportation option. It did. My driver originated in nearby Stockton to take me only a few miles, where my adventure began at the Downtown Visitor Center.
Downtown Lodi is on the cusp of change, with one foot in history and the other stepping forward into the future. The city’s reawakening began in the 1990s and continues today, yet it still retains a very charming feel. As my group walked around our first evening, the birthplace of A&W Root Beer captivated us with its blend of past and present. My advice to the city of Lodi is to not lose this balance of quaintness and progress because at this moment, it feels like home.
I was not a very good Girl Scout when I was a young girl. I never went to summer camp and only spent one required overnight in a tent for a badge of some sort, which was enough for me. I also sunburn very easily. My idea of the outdoors is relaxing on a patio sipping wine. Visit Lodi gave us the choice to go kayaking or tour on a covered boat, so of course, I opted for the latter. We accompanied the kayaking part of the group for an hour and a half tour of Lodi Lake and the Mokelumne River while we sipped sparkling wine from local producers under the helm of our outstanding captain, Tyler.
Driving in Lodi is easy, but if you plan to visit a few of Lodi’s wineries, look no further than Sip Shuttle, the brain child of Lodi native, Taylor Kininmonth. With Sip Shuttle, you “sip back and enjoy the ride,” without having to figure out directions or worrying about driving if you have tasted too many wines. During our afternoon with Taylor, we were nothing short of impressed with her service, her hospitality, and her kindness. However, I did warn Taylor that her business is going to blow up, which brought a wide smile to her face as she said, “I hope so.”
Local favorite Smack Pie Pizza was a great way to kick off the weekend, with its casual, relaxed atmosphere. Guests create customized pizzas or choose from a few house favorites. The pizzas are made from scratch in front of you while you watch and wait. The beers on tap serve as the ideal beverage pairings.
The winemaker dinner at Oak Farm Vineyards exceeded my expectations. It began with a pairing of exquisite cheeses from Cheese Central and award-winning wines from Oak Farm Vineyards, led by their respective owners, Cindy Della Monica and Dan Panella. The delectable food and wine pairings continued with a four-course catered meal by Chef Warren K. Ito. From chilled scallops ceviche, to smoked quail, to braised prime beef and prime rib, to limoncello-soaked pound cake, Chef Ito and Dan Panella left no stone unturned with this best of Lodi food and wine extravaganza.
In Lodi, grape growing and winemaking are king. Lodi produces more wine than any other appellation in California with around 116,000 acres planted to vine. The Mediterranean climate, cooled by the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta breezes, coupled with mineral-rich, diverse soil types, makes Lodi ideal for grape growing. Its 85+ wineries, some under the leadership of fourth- and fifth-generation winegrowers, craft wines under 450 brands. It’s true that Lodi is home to 40% of California’s old-vine zinfandel, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. During my visit, I had the good fortune to taste wines from four wineries – Mettler Family Vineyards, Harney Lane Winery, Bokisch Vineyards, and Oak Farm Vineyards – all of whom showcased the breadth and depth that is today’s Lodi wine. We sampled a few zinfandels, but also albariño, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, garnacha, garnacha blanca, graciano, merlot, monastrell, petite sirah, sauvignon blanc, Tievoli (Oak Farm Vineyards’ proprietary blend of zinfandel, barbera and petite sirah), verdejo, and verdelho. I was dazzled by the variety and quality of Lodi wines. Most wineries here are still family owned and operated. Many also began as farms, selling their grapes to other producers in California including Napa and Sonoma. For some, crafting their own wine is relatively new, like Harney Lane, who’s only been making wines under their own label since 2006. In fact, Harney Lane still sells 94% of their grapes, while retaining only 6% for their own brand. As Kathleen (Kathy) Mettler, the matriarch of Harney Lane, told us during our visit, “First and foremost, we are farmers.” It’s this farming tradition and entrepreneurial spirit, now captured in every bottle of wine, that makes Lodi a must-visit wine destination.
From the moment I arrived at the Downtown Visitor Center until I checked out of my hotel two days later, I felt welcomed by the people of Lodi. At every venue we visited, everyone was genuinely nice and very proud of what Lodi has to offer. By the end of the weekend, I realized I had made new friends as well as found a new weekend getaway spot. From my perspective, Lodi is one of the most underrated areas in California. It has small-town allure, a beautiful California delta locale, scrumptious food, and first-class wines at a fraction of the cost of some of California’s other wine appellations. If you’re looking for a destination that has it all, visit Lodi and be prepared to fall in love beyond the zinfandel.