The Next Napa?

Good wine comes from good grapes, which need good soil, which is helped by good weather. Growing wine grapes is so difficult, in fact, only a few regions in the world really nail it: Napa, Bordeaux, Chianti. It’s technically possible to grow grapes anywhere that has damp and cool weather, but the terroir of good wine—the special characteristics of a place it comes from—is what makes it stand apart from the cheaper stuff.

Meet Lodi, California, a place you’ve probably never heard of, but your taste buds have probably visited. The town is most famous for the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival lyric about being “Stuck in Lodi Again,” although the region’s grapes really put it on the map. Lodi is North America’s top producer of Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. For the last hundred years, Lodi growers have supplied grapes to vintners who make wine in other parts of California. If you’ve ever tried wine from the U.S. West Coast, odds are high it contains Lodi grapes.

But the city is getting tired of simply producing other people’s raw materials. Over the last decade, small wineries have popped up in Lodi, offering the same wine tasting experience that costs big bucks further north in the legacy region. With Lodi’s optimal soil, decent rainfall, and cool weather just east of the San Francisco Bay, Details Magazine last month called it the “next Napa.”

I visited Lodi hoping to see the fuss. I went to college nearby and only used to visit Lodi to see friends, not to taste good wine (and unfortunately, not to buy real estate either). The town is modest like Napa was in the 70s. Most wineries are run by families, not major companies. Each spring, the town hosts “Zinfest,” a charming festival around the town’s central lake in honor of the local grape. It’s small-town America at its most wholesome.

Tour buses don’t have stops in Lodi, but a few sommeliers I chatted with said that they see it happening as the area grows its name recognition. Lodi won’t vie with Napa for prestige, yet might be competitive on character. Land values in Sonoma and Napa have shot that region beyond reach of all except the most successful vintners. Lodi has a small main street and mom and pop shops. If Napa wore a sports coat with elbow patches, Lodi might be in a short sleeve button down and flip flops, not interested in impressing anyone with anything but its quality.

So far it works. At the Consumer Wine Awards in March, the sometimes-called Oscars of wine, Lodi grapes took home two top platinum medals. As a consolation for not buying land all those years ago, I decided to pick up a sampler case of the area’s wine at the office of the Lodi Winegrape Commission. While I paid, I asked the pourer if she thought Lodi would one day be a name known around the world. It depends, she said, on whether Lodi wanted to grow or whether people preferred to maintain the town’s quaint modesty. Or in other words, whether someplace on Earth could produce good wine—of all things—without a hint of pretension.