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Have a taste with the owners, growers

Lodi offers an intimate, personable atmosphere to enjoy wine

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Posted: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 12:00 am

Drop by one of Lodi's tasting rooms and you may find yourself enjoying a taste poured by the vineyard manager, winemaker and winery owner.

Many of the area's wineries are owned by families who have farmed the land for generations. Several of these families have made the decision to go into the winemaking business and have opened their own wineries. That means visitors get the chance to not only taste wines but learn more about them from the very people who make the wine.

Brothers Dino and Ron Mencarini, co-owners of Abundance Vineyards, had been growing grapes for years before deciding to jump into the winery business. Dino Mencarini said his family had been selling grapes to several large wineries in Sonoma County and he had always thought they could go into the business for themselves.

The family recently opened a tasting room and winery located at 1150 W. Turner Road ((209)334-0274, www.abundancevineyards.com).

Mencarini said he most enjoys being able to teach people all about wine; from its origins in the vineyard to the chemistry of winemaking and how best to pair it with food.

He said being able to interact with owners, winemakers and grape growers is what sets Lodi apart from the more famous wine regions of Sonoma and Napa.

"I try and offer a little friendliness and I want to introduce people to what we do," Mencarini said. "You go to Napa and Sonoma and they never even give you the time of day half the time."

Visitors to Abundance can taste the family's wide selection of varietals from Zinfandel to Petite Sirah.

Tom and Carmela Hoffman opened Heritage Oak Winery a few years ago on land that has been owned by the Hoffman family for nearly 150 years.

Lodi Wine Country at a glance

  • Lodi has been a major winegrape growing region since the 1850s. Today, the area has more than 75,000 acres of winegrapes, farmed by over 750 growers.
  • Lodi leads all other California wine districts in the production of the top five premium wine varieties — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel.
  • The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate, with warm, dry summers and cool, moist winters. Average annual rainfall is 17 inches. Deep, sandy clay loam soils predominate.
  • The region's annual yield of approximately 600,000 tons of grapes is valued at more than $300 million, and comprises 18 percent of California's total winegrape production — more than Napa and Sonoma Counties combined.
  • The "Lodi" appellation was approved by the federal government in 1986.
  • In 1991, local growers voted to found the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission. With its $1 million annual budget, the commission conducts programs in marketing, grower education and viticultural research. The commission has also launched the industry's only district-wide integrated pest management program to reduce the amount of pesticides and herbicides used in winegrape production.

    Source: Lodi Woodbridge Winegrape Commission, www.lodiwine.com.

Tom Hoffman said opening a winery has created another revenue stream for the family off their property, but it has also opened up their land to the public. After stopping by the tasting room first, visitors to Heritage Oak can wander down a trail to a picnic area on the bank of the Mokelumne River.

Hoffman said he also plans on offering several hummingbird sunset parties during the spring and summer. At these casual events, guests are invited to enjoy a glass of wine on a patio ringed by hummingbird feeders, and enjoy music, the sunset and watching the hummingbirds.

"It's kind of a de-stressing type of event to participate in," Hoffman said, adding that the winery will also host an art fair in June.

Heritage Oaks Winery is located at 10112 E. Woodbridge Road and can be reached at 986-2763 or www.heritageoakwinery.com. The winery offers an Old Vine Zinfandel as well as a blend of Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon known as Zinfidelity and a new blend of Tempranillo, Carrignane and Alicante Bouchet called Carnival.

Many of the area's farmers are part of families who have been working the land started by first growing table grapes such as the Tokay Flames.

The two local high schools are Tokay High School and Lodi High School, home of the Flames.

Farmers found a profitable market for Tokay Flames as table grapes, shipping their product throughout the nation. In the 1950s and '60s Lodi growers had nearly 40,000 acres of Tokay grapes.

That market suffered after consumers began to favor seedless grapes and Southern California growers developed a strain of seedless Tokays. Currently there are just a few hundred acres of Tokays scattered around the region.

One varietal that has stood the test of time and has been the foundation of Lodi's reputation as a place for fine wine is Zinfandel.

This grape does well with plenty of sunshine and heat, so it thrives during Lodi's summers. Those same summers give Lodi Zins a zesty, fruit-forward taste with long and luxurious finishes.

Old Vine Zinfandels are usually considered to be older than 30 years, although many wineries boast vines far older than that, some dating back to the 1800s.

Jessie's Grove Winery features a Zinfandel blend made with wines from vines 63 to 119 years old. These ancient vines require meticulous upkeep and yield low quantities of exceptional fruit.

Jessie's Grove Winery is located on West Turner Road and features a museum showcasing the property's history.

The vines ages are remarkable in that they survived for so long and also through the Prohibition era. Lodi growers were able to maintain their vineyards through the "dry" '30s by shipping their grapes on refrigerated boxcars throughout the country. These grapes often came with written warnings explaining "how not to turn these grapes into wine."

Starting in the 1950s, growers began to build the region's reputation by investing in more wine varietal vineyards and improving their wines.

By the late '80s and '90s as the number of Lodi wineries had exploded and the wines began winning awards and garnering good press. Much of this publicity came with a greater appreciation of Lodi's distinct Old Vine Zinfandel.

Today, many in the wine world no longer consider Lodi an emerging wine region but one that has taken its place alongside Napa, Sonoma and other appellations.

While Zin will likely always be king, some Lodi wineries have branched out into other varietals.

Bokisch Winery specializes in Spanish varietals like the red Tempranillo and the white Albarino. Mokelumne Glen Winery offers German wines like the red Dornfelder and white Kerner.

Ripken Vineyards and Winery, Inc. located on West Sargent Road outside of Lodi has an eclectic collection of wines produced at the "barnista" winery. Richard Ripken and his wife Nancy Ripken's wines include the Rhonealicious, a white blend of Viognier and Roussane. A specialty of the winery is its Vintage Port made with 55 percent Souzao grapes and 45 percent Touriga.

Many of Lodi's large-scale wineries also offer the chance to taste their quality products.

Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi has long been a backbone operation of Lodi's wine industry. The large winery is located on East Woodbridge Road in Acampo and offers tours and tastings daily. Visitors to Woodbridge by Mondavi can sample a variety of wines from Zinfandel to Shiraz as well as the winery's Select Vineyard Series.

A tour of Lodi's wine country can also be a one-stop trip with a visit to the Vino Piazza. Located in the small town of Lockeford, just minutes outside the city of Lodi, Vino Piazza is a collection of small wineries all housed in a sprawling complex that once was the Lockeford Winery.

Visitors can wander the hallways to discover tasting rooms tucked away in old concrete wine fermenters that offer a cool respite from hot summer days.

A visit to Lodi's wine country offers not only a taste of some of California's premier wines but a chance to meet some of the industry's most interesting personalities.

"Let's face it: The vineyards are about wine, and the wine is about people," Mencarini said.

Contact City Editor Andrew Adams at andrewa@lodinews.com.

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