The Grape Escape
Experiencing contrast in California wine country
By William M. Dowd
Photos by April L. Dowd
This is a tale of two appellations. Napa and Lodi, to be precise, side-by-side regions of California’s wine country and a study in social evolution.
On a recent tour of both regions, I was struck by how much Lodi is mirroring Napa’s past, while Napa is shaping a different sort of future.
To much of the world, the Napa region is symbolic of American wine in general. It began emerging from the industry pack in the 1970s, with such names as Mondavi, Beringer and Stags Leap becoming standards of wine quality.
To insiders, however, Napa is in the midst of major upheaval. Families that built some of the strongest brands from what once were farms, particularly the Mondavi clan, are either waging internal tussles for control or are selling out to major concerns as the corporatization of Napa relentlessly grinds on.
But, a short drive to the east, in the Lodi appellation (an agricultural region recognized by the federal government) that sweeps up from the San Francisco Bay/San Joaquin Delta region midway between San Francisco and Sacramento, early Napa is being re-created.
Third- and fourth-generation farm families have been moving from being mostly grape growers supplying major winemakers to developing their own wines and brands. They’re working hard at making the Lodi brand known outside the Pacific Coast and trying to develop tourism and ancillary businesses along with it, just as Napa did in its early days.
A good example is Vino Con Brio Vineyards where Mike and Renae Matson combine winemaking with Amorosa Inn & Gardens, their posh bed-and-breakfast operation. Renae gave up her practice as a psychiatrist to run the B&B full-time, and their daughter, Anne, left her job as a financial underwriter to become general manager of the wine business while Mike oversees the viniculture portion.
To the outsider, the Napa Valley image is wall-to-wall grapes. To anyone traversing the valley on Route 29 or the parallel Silverado Trail, that is merely part of the inventory.
The moderate climate, affected by low mountains on either side and by the narrow Napa River that meanders through the cleft, nurtures brilliant clumps of lilies, oleander and roses, as well as stands of camphor, valley oak, cedar, magnolia and olive trees.
Despite its relatively diminutive size—30 miles long and one to five miles wide—the Napa Valley’s undulating topography creates a series of microclimates. Temperatures can differ by 10 or more degrees from one end to the other.
Swaths of browned-out vegetation form the floor of the woods and fields, in marked contrast to the deep blue-greens and brilliant emeralds of the numerous copses of trees dotting the landscape from the little main city of Napa at the valley’s southern edge to the village of Calistoga and its mineral and mud baths up north.
In February and March, the valley usually gets its share of precipitation. In summer and early autumn, rain is so rare the natives can tell you on what day in what year they last recall seeing a downpour. This year it’s even easier. It hasn’t rained. Period.
Clever viniculture methods and irrigation systems have nevertheless made this spot an hour’s drive northeast of San Francisco arguably America’s premier wine producing area.
Visitors touring the ubiquitous wineries and their tasting rooms have about 200 to choose from, places marked by their distinctive main-building architecture that ranges from Victorian farmhouse to French chateau to Tuscan villa to the “Star Wars” look of Mondavi’s Opus One operation across the road from its main fields.
The valley’s growing tourist popularity has fueled the rebirth of Napa, the anchor city of 53,000, and made the region home to such hospitality industry facilities as the Culinary Institute of America’s West Coast branch, opened in 1995 in the former Greystone Cellars complex near the village of St. Helena.
Perhaps the most unusual facility in the valley, however, is something called Copia, named for the Roman goddess of abundance who carried a cornucopia, the horn of plenty.
Copia’s subtitle is “The American Center for Wine, Food & The Arts.” It’s a not-for-profit cultural center and museum that has been open to the public since 2001.
The complex includes sprawling herb, flower and tree gardens, as well as several restaurants in the 80,000-square-foot building on the banks of an oxbow bend in the Napa River.
In addition to exhibition and event space, the center, open year-round, has many clever ways of appealing to visitors of all ages. The programs, guests and styles of entertainment are geared toward virtually any demographic group.
Formal or self-guided walking tours in the extensive herb and vegetable gardens – home to an amazing 100 kinds of tomatoes and 40 kinds of lavender, for example—show how the institution helps keep heirloom plant species alive.
Copia may be in the heart of California wine country, but its venue is the world. Many visitors take full advantage of being plopped down in the middle of this temple dedicated to the senses.
Conversely, Lodi has a more rustic feel, a sport coat to Napa’s tuxedo.
The land is flatter, dotted with more general farms than Napa Valley as the transition to grape growing almost to the extinction of all else slowly picks up momentum. Here you can still see lots of fruit tree groves, tomato gardens, cornfields, strawberry rows and roadside stands offering produce from those very growing spots.
Lest you think this is solid agricultural country with nothing for tourists to see, think again.
Besides the obvious—wine tasting at the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, the Vino Piazza in nearby Lockeford where 11 wineries’ wares are featured, or any of the individual wineries such as Bear Creek, Crystal Valley, Benson Ferry, Baywood Cellars and Jessie’s Grove – there is an entire sector of activities not so obvious in a land without rain: water tours and sports.
What would any tourist area be without golf courses? The Lodi-Stockton area has more than a dozen with weekday greens fees at some venues as low as $8.
Bicycling is popular as well, thanks to the expanse of flat lands and number of quiet back roads.
The presence of wood ducks, double-crested cormorants, Cooper’s hawks, egrets, great horned owls, acorn woodpeckers and numerous other species make birding a popular pastime here as well, particularly at Oak Grove Regional Park and Lodi Lake. The highlight is the annual Sandhill Crane Festival in Lodi, which features the endangered bird and provides a good excuse for family activities, musical acts, habitat tours and the like. This year’s festival is scheduled for Nov. 2-3.
Off dry land, there also is much to see and do. From activities at Lodi Lake Park, host of the Lodi ZinFest every May and the Lodi Fishing Derby every June, to its larger cousin, the 160-mile–long Mokelumne River, every manner of boating, fishing, water skiing, partying or just gazing is available.
The Mokelumne—a Miwok Indian name meaning “people of the fish net”—is laden with salmon and trout that draw anglers from all over. Following the course of the river, from its origin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to where it opens up into the San Joaquin River and then spills into San Francisco Bay, can be a fascinating adventure in both western American history and a wide range of physical activities.
Nearly 25 miles of the river near the Eldorado National Forest is a Class V whitewater area—the most rugged classification for whitewater activities. The area running past Lodi city is calmer, more suited for leisurely boating or fishing. Seven dams and several manmade lakes—such as the aforementioned Lodi Park Lake—along the river length create recreational areas. Jet skiers in particular like the flatwater area at the start of the San Joaquin Delta just south of Lodi city.
There also is the Delta Loop, a 10-mile long drive along high-levee roads and well off the beaten track of Highways 12 and 160, which carry most of the local traffic. It begins about 25 minutes from downtown Lodi and reveals a steady stream of marinas, shops, restaurants and waterside resorts.
The whole Lodi area is entwined with development of the west. The California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s was headquartered at Mokelumne Hill in Calaveras County. The wild times of those days gave rise to numerous classics of Americana poetry and literature by the likes of Bret Harte (“The Luck of Roaring Camp,” “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”) who was born in Albany, NY, in 1836 and Mark Twain (“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”).
And, just to show that Lodi country reveres more than grapes, each spring it holds an Asparagus Festival, Cherry Festival and Strawberry Festival; in summer, an Apricot Festival, and in autumn, a Dry Bean Festival and an Eggplant Festival. Tucked in among them are testimonials to other culinary delights, such as the ZinFest, the Art & Wine Festival, Wine & Sausage Festival, Crawdad Festival, Seafood Festival and Candy Festival.
If you can’t find something to do in Lodi, you’re really hard to please. If you can’t find enough to eat and drink, it’s your own fault.