When it comes to California Wine Country, Napa and Sonoma steal the spotlight as the “it” destinations for wine vacations, but just to the south, the understated wine region of Lodi is quietly becoming an alternative destination for those looking for fewer crowds, more affordable experiences, and quality, surprising old-vine zinfandels and family wines.
In the heat of early summer, the charming downtown area of Lodi teemed with people sipping pinot grigio on wrought-iron wrapped patios, and at Lodi Lake, kayakers sailed through the soft, calm waters into the Mokelumne River.
Once thought of as just a flat agricultural area that lacked the panache of wine country’s more sophisticated areas, Lodi is becoming a destination itself for outdoor adventures, culinary delights, and incredible, unique wines.
Even better, it’s cheaper to visit, as I discovered during a recent hosted excursion to this charming town located roughly an hour from Sacramento.
The secret is out of the bag, though, as more and more wine enthusiasts are looking at “big red” country, as Lodi is called. On Booking.com, Lodi came out on top over Napa, Burgundy, and even Bordeaux as the most popular location for old vine wine as well as family wineries and cellars, thanks to the fact that this region has cultivated grapes for well over 100 years and is located in California’s largest appellation (defined as a region under which a winegrower is authorized to identify and market wine).
So if you’re craving the warm sunshine of Wine Country, here are five reasons to skip Napa Valley and go to the lesser-known California wine region of Lodi.
1. Quality, Not Cost
Let’s be blunt. Lodi is simply more affordable to visit but still offers the same experiences as the more posh wine regions, including tasting rooms, heritage wineries, quality hotels, and cute walkable downtown areas.
“In Napa and Sonoma, you’re easily going to pay $300+ a night for the overnight stays, and it could be far more. The prices of the hotels on the properties that we have here will be a significant difference,” said Nancy Beckman, CEO of the Lodi Visitors and Convention Bureau.
Even resorts, like the wooded and expansive Wine & Roses Hotel and Spa with its pool and large landscaped gardens and patios, are priced astonishingly lower than resorts in California’s more well-known wine regions.
“In the wine tasting realm, most of our tasting rooms charge $10 to $20 for tastings, and you would normally get that back with [a] bottle purchase,” Beckman said. “Lodi is just more approachable and less commercialized than other wine regions. Our wineries are multigenerational wine grape grower families, so you’re likely to be greeted and have a family member on hand when you visit.”
Pro Tip: I stayed at Wine & Roses Hotel, and I fell in love. Not only does it have curated rooms with landscaped balconies and patios, but a pretty fancy spa that includes all the services and a soothing waterfall. The front porch area at reception plays host to evening events, and the Towne House Restaurant on site often has musicians playing live.
2. Wider Range Of Tastes
The Lodi region is the state’s largest grape-growing region, and thanks to the variety of climates and soils in the area, the Lodi wineries and winemakers have a greater variety of tastes to cultivate. Located in the Mokelumne River Valley, in an area known as the Bay-Delta ecozone, Lodi has more than 550,000 total acres of land with more than 100,000 acres of vines, which is twice as much as Napa Valley. In addition to the more than 750 growers, Lodi sports more than 85 family wineries specializing in small lot and old vine wines.
What that means is a greater variety of wine for every taste. I’m a sucker for Spanish wines, and on my recent trip discovered my new favorite white for summer — a delectable, bloom-scented and slightly sweet varietal called albariño from Bokisch Vineyards. This husband-and-wife team of Markus and Liz Bokisch started growing and creating award-winning Spanish varietals in the early 2000s after moving to Spain in 1992 and falling in love with the wine, culture, and food. The Mettler Family Vineyards also had a delicious albariño that I couldn’t get enough of.
The Michael David Winery in southwest Lodi takes advantage of the Zinfandel varietals that Lodi is most known for with its award-winning Freakshow Zinfandel, as well as Rhône and Bordeaux varietals.
In Lodi, you’ll find reds that include zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot, cinsault, syrah, petite sirah, and carignan, as well as blends. As for whites, you’ll travel the world with Lodi wineries producing chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot crigio, grenache blanc, and more.
In fact, the Klinker Brick Winery’s 2019 Klinker Brick Winery Lodi Grenache Blanc ($15) was listed in the 2020 Wine Spectator Top 100.
Rosé and sparkling wine can also be found at nearly every winery in Lodi, though my favorites were from Oak Farm Vineyards and its beautiful, sprawling, oak tree-filled property, and Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards, which has won four Best of Class awards at the 2022 San Francisco Chronicle’s Wine Competition. Acquiesce’s 2020 viognier won Best White Wine overall.
If German varietals are your favorite, Lodi offers those, too, like Markus Niggli of Markus Wine Co., who produces German wines like Kerner, Bacchus, Traminette, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling.
Other popular family wineries in the area include Harney Lane Winery with its “grape-to-glass” tours, Jeremy Wine Co., and The Van Ruiten Family Winery with its old vine zinfandels and cabernets.
3. Outdoor Adventures
From my home base at the lush and verdant Wine & Roses, I had plenty of opportunities to explore the great outdoors in this lesser-known region.
Kayaking is my jam, so taking a 2-hour guided kayaking adventure on Lodi Lake and the Mokelumne River with Headwaters Kayak was a relaxing morning excursion. Because the day was so nice and sunny, the public beach at Lodi Lake filled up with squealing children and sunbathers, as well as other kayakers and paddleboarders, by noon.
Kayaking isn’t the only outdoor adventure at Lodi Lake. Take to the wooded trails of the Lodi Lake Wilderness Area with 3.2 miles of pathways that follow the river and delve deep into the natural wonders of the area.
Biking is also a big deal in Lodi, and another option for outdoor fun includes a guided bike tour with Lodi Cyclery, through the downtown area and the quiet backroads of wine country.
4. Unique Excursions And Experiences
Nothing quite tastes as good as food you make from scratch, but cooking isn’t a skill that I’ve perfected yet. Luckily, Lodi also has fun culinary experiences like cooking classes, cheese events, and more.
One night, I learned to make pasta and pizza from scratch during an Italian-themed cooking class at the bed and breakfast Bordeaux Inn, followed by a wine tasting with Markus Wine Co. My pizza may not have been the prettiest of the bunch, but it sure was tasty.
Another unique excursion is an olive oil tasting session with Calivines Winery & Olive Mill, which makes award-winning olive oils and a barrel-aged balsamic that is just “oh my god” outrageously good.
“[Calivines] just built a new tasting room last fall with a viewing hall into the building. When harvest time comes, visitors see how olive oil is actually processed and produced,” said Beckham.
Lodi is also the birthplace of A&W Root Beer, and the Lodi Avenue location houses the largest collection of A&W Root Beer memorabilia.
Lodi also has a soothing Japanese garden at Micke Grove Park, as well as the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum, which showcases San Joaquin County’s singular contributions in agriculture and wine.
5. Cool And Quirky Downtown
Lodi’s downtown area is also comparable to such locations as Healdsburg and downtown Napa Valley, but with a more approachable and down-to-earth vibe. Along with boutique shops that line the tree-filled streets, Lodi’s core is also home to numerous fine dining restaurants, countless wine tasting rooms with curated pairings, fun specialty stores, and even a summer farmer’s market that attracts hundreds every Thursday night during the summer.
One of the most unique stores in Lodi is Cheese Central, which offers up hundreds of different types of cheeses from all over the world and also hosts wine tastings and pairings.
“We also have a host of boutique clothing stores, antique shops, children’s stores, and restaurants,” said Beckham. “Some of our fabulous restaurants range from Italian to Asian fusion. We have a new restaurant called the Oxford Kitchen, which serves European cuisine. Our farmer’s market has food vendors, a wine patio, and live music. It’s just a really vibrant downtown.”
So if you’re looking for the delights of California’s wine country without the steep price tag and crowds, skip Napa and explore this lesser-known wine region south of Sacramento instead.