Mark Chandler's job is to tell the world about Lodi wine. And after 17 years of persistence, his efforts are paying off.
Chandler, a confident but modest man with glasses and graying hair, has helped place Lodi firmly on the world's wine map.
Talking with the longtime leader of the Lodi Woodbridge Winegrape Commission, it's clear he's not complacent.
Nor does he take full credit for Lodi's success as an emerging wine region.
"I'm really proud to be a spokesman for Lodi wines, but my efforts are backed up by our staff and our growers and our vintners," Chandler, 54, said this week, standing outside the commission's Turner Road headquarters, as a light Delta breeze blew across town.
"I'm certainly not doing it alone," he added.
Chandler's love for wine came early. His family grew grapes near Visalia, and allowed him to taste wine at holidays as a youngster.
He's worked up and down the West Coast in the wine business. But he's grown deep roots in Lodi, where he lives with his wife, Jan.
His dedication here is hard to ignore: He's been the head of the LWWC since its founding in 1991, leading the educational and marketing charge for the region's wine.
Local leaders say that commitment, plus Chandler's deep knowledge of the industry, make him the right person to carry Lodi to the next level.
"They hired Mark and they had no idea how far he would take this thing," said Leonard Cicerello, who runs a wine distribution company in Lodi. "But he's probably taken this thing 100 times further than anyone has imagined."
Growing Lodi wine
When Chandler started at the commission - a grower funded venture - Lodi was still best known as a "jug wine" region, lacking the fine grape varietals necessary for high-quality wines.
I really do love zinfandel. So, I think I'm working in the right wine region … I'm passionate about zinfandels. There are dozens and dozens of wines in Lodi that are really high quality and really enjoyable.
What's the silliest question you've been asked about Lodi and its wine?
'Just what part of Napa Valley is Lodi in?' Because the world's conception of California wine is Napa. This gives me the option to explain that we are about an hour and a half away and that Lodi produces more than twice as many winegrapes as Napa Valley.
What's the worst experience you've had making wine?
Early in my career I was a winemaker in Vancouver, British Columbia … and a lot of amateur winemakers would come in and ask questions about their wine. There were some egregious examples of poor sanitation in what they were doing. Often, the wine they brought in - you could not put it in your mouth.
Do you every just have a beer?
Absolutely. I enjoy a nice, cold beer in the middle of my winemaking. (Red wine) is drying to the palate. There's a phrase that 'It takes a lot of good beer to make good wine.'
Occupation: Executive Director of Lodi Woodbridge Winegrape Commission
Family: Wife, Jan, son, David and daughter, Laura.
- Executive Director of LWWC since 1991
- General manager at Stevenot Winery in Murphys from 1985 to 1989
- Marketing Director at New World Wines, Inc. in San Martin 1989 to 1991
- Winemaker at Andres Wines Ltd. in Port Moody, British Columbia 1980 to 1985
- Grows winegrapes on 180 acres in Acampo
- Gained degree in Agricultural Business Management from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
- Born and raised in Visalia, a fourth generation San Joaquin Valley resident and seventh generation Californian.
In the years since, however, Lodi has gained acclaim for its old vine zinfandel, along with other varietals. The number of wineries in the region has soared, from eight then to 70 today.
Chandler, from a Visalia farming family, has helped grow Lodi's name in numerous ways. He's traveled the nation and globe, speaking at countless seminars and wine shows. He's helped organize local events like Lodi ZinFest and The First Sip, the latter taking place next weekend.
Importantly, he's brought scores of top wine writers and judges to Lodi. They, in turn, have spread the word about the region's wines.
The commission's staff has jumped from just one, to eight full-time workers.
They're housed at the spacious Lodi Wine and Visitor Center. The attractive building is a far cry from the days Chandler spent in a small, cramped office on Mills Avenue, near Kettleman Lane, with a single phone and computer.
Even with more room to work and more staff, however, Chandler says he's still frustrated he can't do more.
"There's not enough time to respond to all the (promotional) opportunities that are out there," he said.
Chandler's attitude and work ethic have endeared him to many local grape growers.
Their bottom line - the amount they're paid for their grapes - is dependent on how local wine is perceived.
Bruce Fry, a longtime Lodi grower, said Chandler has fought hard for the region.
"He's obviously a great communicator … and a great promoter," Fry said. "He's been here since the beginning, he knows how we grew up. That helps profusely."
Keys for the future
While Chandler has taken Lodi wine to new heights, he wants the region to climb higher.
Doing that will take strategic planning, and continued diligence.
Chandler embodies both.
One of the key grower programs he and commission staff have promoted is the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing. The voluntary program sets environmentally friendly standards and certifies growers through a third party.
Several local winemakers have added labels to their products to inform consumers about their sustainable practices.
Chandler feels this is one way the Lodi region can separate itself from wine regions across the state.
"I think it's going to play a major role because consumers are responding to it - they are demanding it," Chandler said of the practices. "That's the hot topic in wine, and we're at the forefront of that."
Convincing the area's largest wineries, like E. and J. Gallo, Woodbridge Winery and Delicato Family Vineyards, to devote more of their wine labels to Lodi - where they get a lot of their grapes - would also help, Chandler noted.
The city of Lodi can also help, he added, by attracting more high-end restaurants and perhaps a new Downtown hotel.
Lodi wines have made a splash in recent years, winning numerous awards and praises. Michael-David Vineyards, in particular, has produced great wine. Their 2003 Earthquake Petite Sirah was named best of class for all red wines at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition two years ago.
They also produced the first Lodi wine to top the $50 per bottle mark, selling their luxury cabernet sauvignon at $59 earlier this year.
More than just creating high-quality wine, the company has also done a smart job of marketing and distributing their product, Chandler said.
The region needs more of that to move to the next level, to become a premiere wine destination, he added.
"I need a dozen Michael-Davids," Chandler said. "Ultimately, it's up to the producers to put out good products. To sell it, pack it and distribute it. We can help with that - we can't do it."
He notes that no single award or score in a wine magazine or at a competition will elevate Lodi to the next level.
Instead, it's a matter of working day-by-day, "brick-by-brick," to build up the wine region.
"One day, we'll all get to stand back and say 'We did it,'" he said by cell phone Friday, from a wine industry event in North Carolina.