Early explorers to the area discovered a region teeming with wildlife and lush vegetation. The valley’s floor was covered with towering oaks, grasses, and wildflowers. The rivers were filled with salmon, the skies with migratory birds, and the lands rich with deer. Grizzly bears rumbled through the foothills, vast herds of antelope and elk roamed the valley floors, and Miwok Indians first inhabited the region, hunting and gathering along the rivers.
Grapes were always part of the local landscape, growing wild dangling from the trees along the riverbanks. Early trappers called one stream “Wine Creek,” due to the bounty of wild vines. That river was later renamed the Calaveras River, and flows through the southern part of the Lodi region.
The First Vineyards
Capt. Charles Weber, founder of Stockton, was the first to plant grapes in the region around his home in 1850. Two years later, a Massachusetts man named George West, who first came to California to mine gold, saw those flourishing vines. West got some cuttings from Weber and established the first major vineyard in the region just north of Stockton at the southern edge of the Lodi region.
A good businessman West could see that California had very few wineries yet a rapidly growing and thirsty population. In 1858, he built the El Pinal Winery and became the region’s first commercial vintner. While West was expanding his vineyards and planting different varieties, growers in the heart of Lodi prospered farming grain and watermelons.
By the late 1880’s the market for grains and watermelons went flat. Farmers began focusing on other crops but none excelled like grapes. Several different varieties did well in Lodi, but Zinfandel and Tokay stood out above the rest. Farmers especially embraced the Tokay, a versatile table grape with an eye-catching flame color. It was only in Lodi, with its sandy soils and cool delta breezes, that the Tokay would develop its distinctive flame color laying the foundation for what would eventually become the Lodi Appellation (established 1986).
The Tokay was a delicious table grape that held up well during the long rail trip across country to eastern markets. It could also be fermented into wine, distilled into brandy, or fortified into ports and sherries.
Just after the turn of the century, vineyard development thrived, shipping companies emerged, and wineries slowly began sprouting up in the Lodi area. The once struggling farmers prospered, and in 1901 the local newspaper declared that wine production was “the coming industry for this part of the state.”
Despite the prosperity, the West family maintained a strong monopoly on local wine production, providing few alternatives for growers to sell their grapes. Anger over the West’s control led to the formation of many co-operative wineries, where the growers actually owned the business and shared the profits.
The enactment of Prohibition in 1919 posed a real threat to Lodi winegrape growers. Although some wineries did close, and some farmers prematurely tore out their vines, it turned out that Prohibition became a very prosperous time for Lodi growers. The business just changed from making wine to shipping fresh grapes. Since home winemaking was allowed under the Volstead Act, the demand for winegrapes actually increased during Prohibition. Thousands of railcars left Lodi each harvest full of Zinfandels, Tokays, Alicante’s, and many other winegrapes.
The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 signaled the rebirth of the Lodi wine industry. Some new co-operatives were formed, many new wineries were built, and Lodi wines were once again finding their way across the country. Dessert style wines like sherry, port, and sparkling wines were the consumer’s preference at the time.
The Varietal Wine Boom
Throughout the 40’s and 50’s Lodi prospered with their Tokays, Zinfandels, and dessert wines, but then in the 1960’s consumer tastes began to change. They began to prefer table wines, and then later, quality varietal wines. The Tokay, no longer favored by wineries, was dealt another serious blow with the development of the seedless table grape that flourished in the warmer climates south of Lodi. The table grape market completely disappeared, and Lodi growers began focusing on producing quality varietal winegrapes for the blossoming table wine market.
The transition, which began in the late 60’s, and climaxed in the mid 90’s saw thousands of acres of grapes converted into premium varietal winegrapes. Buoyed by the reported health benefits of moderate wine consumption and a strong US economy, wineries throughout the state turned to Lodi to supply the growing demand for delicious affordable table wines.
The Lodi Appellation
The area’s transition to premium wines got a credibility boost when the Lodi Appellation (American Viticulture Area) was approved in 1986. Wineries were now able to label their wines with Lodi listed as the grapes’ origin. Lodi was no longer the wine industry’s best kept secret as awareness slowly began to build for the distinctive quality of Lodi wines. At first only a handful of small local vintners produced a “Lodi” designated wine, but as the quality and the reputation spread, wineries across the state proudly proclaimed “Lodi” on their wine label.
Today & the Future
Today, Lodi is home to nearly 80 wineries, hundreds of “Lodi” labeled wines, and approximately 100,000 acres of premium winegrapes. Its growers and vintners combine the best of tradition with the most modern advances of science and technology. It leads the industry in sustainable viticultural practices, preserving the land for generations to come. It is a region where a new generation of growers is rediscovering its rich heritage, and setting out to produce world-class wines that rival the best that California has to offer.