A feeling of anticipation lingered in the air, as a charter bus carrying 42 students from the Culinary Institute of America arrived at the Vino Con Brio Winery at Amorosa Inn and Vineyards.
It was their first time in Lodi. The students had traveled from Hyde Park, New York to see these vineyards, to sip this wine and to taste some of the bounty that is readily available in the San Joaquin Valley.
What would they think of this town and its people?
The students were in Northern California, as part of a month-long trip comprised of artisan factory tours, farm visits and restaurant stops in the Bay Area, Monterey, Napa and Sonoma. So far, the group had visited spots like the Foxy Lettuce Company, Driscoll's Berries and the Monterey Aquarium to learn about sustainable seafood. They also hit the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Factory, Anchor Steam Brewery, Peerless Coffee and Windy Oaks Estate Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
But it was the first time that the CIA group scheduled a stop here.
"It's a coup for Lodi," said Paula Jansen, who helped arrange the event with California Vegetable Specialties, an endive producer, who has been a part of CIA's Northern California tour for years.
When Jansen heard that the students were looking for a lunch spot, she suggested the serene setting at Vino Con Brio Winery and Lodi made the itinerary.
Students boarded their bus in Pacific Grove last Thursday morning and arrived at Vino Con Brio's Turner Road facility before 11 a.m., just in time for an introduction to the Lodi wine growing region by Vino Con Brio winemaker Paul Wofford and winery owner Mike Matson.
"The Lodi appellation grows more grapes than Napa and Sonoma combined," said Matson, comparing the area to the Rhone region of France. Students jotted down notes, as he spoke. They would later refer to these notes to compile their six-page research paper, which focuses on selected topics like sustainable agriculture and food trends.
CIA student Elizabeth Merrills is focusing her paper on the topic of organic, sustainable foods and said one of the trip highlights so far has been seeing first-hand the methods that different California farmers use for farming.
"It's been so hands on," said Merrills, who hopes to go to Italy and France to take more culinary classes after graduation and eventually hopes to open a pastry cafe.
CIA student Ryan Curran agrees. He said it's been an invaluable experience just walking alongside local farmers in the fields and learning about the origins of the products that they cook with.
"It's letting us learn that food is not a synthetic product," said Curran, who hopes to do some event planning and catering after he graduates. "I am glad we've been able to do this."
The group toured Vino Con Brio's barrel room and tried barrel tastings of pinotage, before getting back on the bus and heading to Amorosa Inn and Vineyards for lunch.
By noon, they were sipping viognier, nibbling mini-crayfish cakes and mingling with food producers on the lawn at the Amorosa Inn and Vineyards. Representatives from different food companies like Liberty Duck Farms, O Olive Oil and California Vegetable Specialties were on hand to talk about their products and welcome the students.
"We want to give students an understanding about farming, the wine and cheese industry and all of the food that California produces (that we use)," said Paul Prosperi, a CIA teacher who accompanied students on this trip. The CIA brings a new group of seniors every three months to Northern California.
Back in the kitchen, Gourmet Club executive chef Buddy O'Dell and his team, which consisted of John Britto, Eric Davis and Dianne Mauler, were putting finishing touches on some dungeness crab and making sure that all of the meals were ready to roll.
Was it intimidating to cook for these students?
"Nah," O'Dell shrugged. "This is fun."
O'Dell created a four-course lunch, paired with Vino Con Brio wines. Dishes included spiced Liberty duck with roasted plums, pan-seared North Coast Fisheries sturgeon and citrus panna cotta.
As the students dined, representatives from different food companies stood and gave a short presentation about their product.
But none was as moving as Prosperi, who gave a poignant thank you on behalf of his students.
"Lodi is the most beautiful place we've seen so far," Prosperi said.
Students were also getting their first taste of Lodi as a destination.
"I'm definitely surprised," Trey Quinlan, who had never heard of Lodi before this visit. "I was expecting a dry, basic winery tour and this is phenomenal."
CIA at a glanceFOUNDED: 1946
LOCATION: 1946 Campus Drive, Hyde Park, New York (about two hours from Manhattan)
STUDENT POPULATION: 2,400
STUDENT/FACULTY RATIO: 18:1
ACADEMICS: Four-year bachelor degrees and two-year associate degrees in culinary arts management or baking and pastry arts management.
CALIFORNIA BRANCH: The Baking and Pastry Arts Certificate program and the Accelerated Culinary Arts Certificate Program are 30 weeks long and based at the CIA at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif.
FULL-TIME OR PART-TIME: Classes are only offered on a full-time basis. There are no part-time or night classes.
TUITION COST: $19,180 for the 2005-2006 year
Information: (800) CULINARY or http://www.ciachef.edu
CIA students' favorite Bay Area dining spots1. The Butterfly. Asian cuisine. Pier 33 at Bay Street, The Embarcadero, San Francisco.
2. Millennium. Gourmet vegan. 580 Geary Street, San Francisco. (415) 345 3900.
3. Gary Danko's. California cuisine. 800 Northpoint, San Francisco. (415) 749-2060.
4. Slanted Door. Modern Vietnamese. 1 Ferry Building #3, San Francisco. (415) 861-8032.
5. Chez Panisse. California cuisine.1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. (510) 548-5525.
SOURCE: Interviews with Culinary Institute of America students