Lodi Winegrape Commission's Dr. Stephanie Bolton talks about her first year in Lodi
Yes, that job description is a mouthful; and in fact, Dr. Bolton has already achieved boatloads of accomplishments to match during her first year. This, perhaps, comes as no surprise, as Dr. Bolton came to the Lodi Viticultural Area with impeccable credentials; including a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology from the University of Georgia (focused primarily on studies of Vitis vinifera vineyards), a Master’s in Food Science from the University of Georgia, and a Bachelor’s in Chemistry from Wake Forest University.
We recently sat down with Dr. Bolton to query her on the progress of her work, in support of Lodi growers and the region’s industry-leading sustainable winegrowing program (which she now says must be capitalized as LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing).
LWC: First, please describe exactly what you do for the Lodi Winegrape Commission.
SB: My official title is long and boring. Try to think of me as head cheerleader for the Lodi winegrape growers. First and foremost, I believe in our growers, I support them, and love them – all with cheerleader-level excitement and a Ph.D.-level ability to lead projects and communicate technical information. Otherwise, my job is to direct grower education, outreach, and research, particularly as it pertains to LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing. Ultimately, I'm a farmer liaison – making sure that our winegrowing community in Lodi is well-connected to each other and to the resources needed to farm to its full potential.
LWC: After a year on the job, what are the things you’ve found that you enjoy most about living and working in the Lodi community?
SB: If anything, I enjoy Lodi’s people the most. Everyone I’ve met has an interesting story that is easy to appreciate. Each person in our community brings something good to the table. It's amazing to watch how Lodi’s grape growers hold each other accountable for their actions, which has created an extremely responsible and ethical community that you can’t help but feel honored to be part of.
LWC: Can you cite, or describe, one or two things you might consider your most significant contributions to this community thus far?
SB: Honestly, I am most proud of being welcomed and accepted. On top of that, earning the respect and trust of our growers. I came to Lodi from Georgia not quite knowing what I was getting myself into, but I’m glad that I did. I literally had to purchase jeans and a new vehicle to even enter the vineyards – flowing dresses and my regular old Honda Civic weren't going to cut it!
That said, I spend as much time as possible listening to the needs and concerns of our growers, then taking their ideas and making them a reality in the form of educational programming and research initiatives. From what everyone's told me, it's working. Each and every day the growers have been expressing their appreciation; and every single day, I wake up grateful to be part of this farming community. We’re making giant strides towards a more sustainable future together. We’ve brought back regular educational programs where the growers have fun and learn about relevant topics. We’ve reignited super important research topics such as biocontrol (i.e. biological pest management) and (grapevine) virus management, and the LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing program has more momentum than ever.
LWC: Everyone who first moves into a region from somewhere else is, at first, an “outsider.” From that perspective, what did you notice about people in Lodi?
SB: The first thing I felt is that I’m lucky to be in a region full of go-getters; people don’t wait around for others or waste any time to get their problems solved. That’s why the Lodi Winegrape Commission was formed in the first place, back in 1991. There exists a core group of people in Lodi who are leading the region in a huge way. These are influential growers, ranging in age from their 20s to over 70, and I’m getting them all on speed dial. Their life is full of endless challenges, like grape prices and harvest conditions; but they are already one step ahead, thinking about what they can do to make things better not just for themselves, but for everyone. They’re willing to try new ideas and to make sacrifices if, in the long run, the region as a whole can benefit.
Lodi is full of these selfless, progressive men and women who have travelled around the world and see the big picture, and I get to meet more and more of them every day. When we get together for dinner parties, we are so excited about discussing our ideas for moving Lodi forward that we barely stop to eat; although we do, of course, pause for sips of wine.
LWC: What are some of the priority projects on your plate right now?
SB: Right now, the focus is on giving our growers consistently strong, relevant educational programming. Our growers love to learn. It’s incredible to watch a group of 70 farmers give their full, undivided attention to a speaker discussing irrigation efficiency or nitrogen management. Everyone who visits Lodi for our educational events is amazed at the large turnouts and the level of grower interest. Our growers take more notes during a lecture than college students!
We’re continuing our educational series on mechanization, premiumization, and conservation; and adding in fun programs such as “Computer Classes for the Farmer” (partnering with our local library) and “Wine Tastings for the Serious Grape Grower,” all the way up to more advanced topics like vineyard branding. Long gone are the days when you could just be a farmer, joyfully driving your tractor at sunrise – nowadays the farmer has to also be a business expert, a laws and regulations interpreter, an environmentalist, a scientist, and a marketing genius. Plus they have to record all of these activities on paper, twice, and then online too. Our priority is to support these hard-working farmers whose roles are continuously evolving.
One way we do this, of course, is through the LODI RULES sustainable winegrowing program. Growing the LODI RULES program itself – making it stronger and utilizing all of its potential value for growers, winegrape buyers, wineries, and consumers – will always be a primary focus.
LWC: Why do you think Lodi growers have been so receptive to LODI RULES in particular? Or, putting it another way, what concerns of theirs do you think sustainable grape growing answers for them?
SB: Lodi growers enjoy being part of the LODI RULES program and practicing sustainable winegrowing for many reasons. But when asked why, the No. 1 answer is so that they can teach their children how to farm sustainably. The program acts as a tool for them to pass on sustainable farming from generation to generation – and Lodi is well known for its generational farming. LODI RULES growers believe in farming for the next 100 years, and their commitment to sustainability helps them continue their family legacies of responsible, thoughtful, purposeful farming.
LWC: In other wine regions along the West Coast that have embraced similar programs, the No. 1 reason given for practicing sustainability is usually “concern for environment.” Why is Lodi a little different?
SB: While environmental responsibility is extremely important to Lodi growers, the sustainability message of social responsibility is as big a priority. I think it may be because Lodi is more multi-generational than other regions. We’re also different in that many of our growers have employees who have worked for them for 20, 30, even over 40 years. In today’s winegrape industry, that type of employee longevity is truly remarkable, which is why the people part became such a big part of LODI RULES.
LWC: What are some of the longer term goals that you’d like to see accomplished sooner rather than later?
SB: Lodi is viewed in the industry as being home to some of California’s top winegrape growers. They have the reputation for being efficient and for being the most intelligent in the business, and they’ve been doing it for generations. I'd like for us to take this well-earned reputation and kick it up a notch. For instance, I’d like to see Lodi being thought of by consumers and wine connoisseurs as a place to learn more about viticulture – particularly through experiential, vineyard-focused forms of agritourism put on by the growers themselves.
LWC: Is there more?
SB: Yes, I have other plans; more specific things that I’d like to see implemented, but which I can’t really share right now for fear of other wine regions snatching them up. It’s very competitive out there. But to our advantage, we’ll always have our “secret weapon,” or our own “treasures” – which is not just our 100-year-old vines, but also our incredible, down-to-earth, hospitable winegrowing community.