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Wine makes up just part of the landscape in this agrarian valley region.
The Lodi wine region, anchored by a renovated old town, lies about 30 minutes south of Sacramento—an easy drive for a day of wine tasting or a weekend mini-getaway. Depending on your route, it might not look like much more than a weary Central Valley town that’s home to fewer than 70,000 people, a spot that’s roasting in the summer and foggy in the winter. But come in on the back roads and you’ll notice the vineyards, just now greening up from winter bare, some of the vines beefy and gnarled from more than a century in production. Then, as you poke around, you discover some gems: cool wine-tasting rooms, restaurants picking up the pace, shops and galleries downtown, taco trucks with lines half a mile long, a charming zoo, a river that winds behind wineries and into the town’s central park. Things you might not expect, like an upscale inn-restaurant-spa that blends the historic with the contemporary and draws besotted couples to exchange vows during wedding season, or a Thursday-night farmers market that gathers residents in downtown’s streets for locally made sausage and paella served straight from a skillet twice the circumference of a manhole cover, or a museum/store that will fascinate you or scare the hell out of you—it’s packed with snakes, lizards, frogs and big, hairy spiders.
Here’s how to do Lodi.
Let’s start with the obvious. Wine production started in Lodi in the late 1800s, and the region’s reputation as a wine-tasting venue bloomed big after the 1980s, when it got approval as an appellation and the marketing gurus got to work. Nowadays, more than 50 wineries dot these flats where rich and loamy soil, hot daytime sun and evening Delta breezes combine to help stress grapes into prime ingredients. Thick, black, craggy vines produce thick, dark old-vine zins, a Lodi specialty; chardonnays and cabs crowd tasting-room shelves, too. Fees run low—five to 10 bucks, knocked off your purchase in most cases. Pick up a wine map and plan your trip. Meanwhile, just a few of our faves:
M2, its broad and open tasting room a cool blend of distressed wood and rusted metal, with industrial fans, huge windows and a 20-foot-high doorway—not to mention some great wines. Watch for Bob and Nancy, the winery’s flagship cats.
Viaggio, a sprawling winery estate on the Mokelumne River, where a vintage red phone booth, California trolley and old-fashioned pickup truck tempt tipsy visitors to pose and grin. With a man cave (pool, anyone?) and a gigantic fireplace—and heat lamps—on the wrap-around patio off the tasting room, it’s a comfy spot to relax over a few good glasses.
Michael David, with its Farm Cafe (tri-tip sandwiches and pie are specialties), its barnyard out back past the pond and its lineup of funny-named wines. Impossible to resist the 7 Deadly Zins, Earthquake and Freakshow.
Harney Lane, with big, big, big evergreen trees shading the patio. Get a bottle, crack open a picnic and feel gorgeously small. Best-sellers here include tempranillo and albarino.
Not sure of the plural of pudu, but two of them at the zoo in Micke Grove Park possess a cuteness factor off the charts. A member of the deer family, the Chilean pudu seems to never grow up, its baby face and short legs sending spectators’ voices into high pitches as they croon over the soft-eyed creatures. Don’t scare a pudu, though, or it may scramble up a tree—a seemingly impossible feat for a stump-legged deer. This couple at Micke Grove Zoo spawned two babies that moved to the San Francisco Zoo this past December.
An unassuming little spot in an aging strip mall on W. Lodi Avenue, Zin Bistro seats about 30 people at a time in its black-and-white-tiled dining room. Reservations are a must. Here’s why: great food at great prices. For example, a huge plate of three generous lamb chops topped with mint-cranberry sauce, a pile of mashed potatoes and perfectly hot and crunchy green beans ran us $16. Other favorites: housemade gnocchi and any of the inventive chicken dishes. The menu changes regularly, so go with an open mind. Ask for a high-top by the window.
Out back of Heritage Oak Winery, a trail leads through the vineyards and through a tree tunnel to the Mokelumne River. Buy a bottle of wine—Heritage Oak’s sauvignon blanc tastes lovely on a warm spring day—and ask for printed (and detailed) directions to the private beach. Picnic tables await, and the river beckons hike-warmed toes. Round trip: about 2.5 miles.
The first thing you notice at the Lodi Serpentarium is the smell: moist and green and dense. Aquariums line the walls, lids locked down tight (thank goodness), housing frogs (some brilliantly hued and deadly), tarantulas, scorpions and roaches. Snakes coil in corners, and lizardlike things such as iguanas, bearded dragons and geckos cling to branches. Each step deeper into the place reveals something new to gasp over: severe-looking beige spiders or putty-colored pokey reptiles with beady, darting eyes and tongues that zoom out longer than their bodies. If you’re lucky, you might get to watch Splash, the 6-foot-long water monitor (think lizard on steroids), gobble down a mouse and jump into his pond. Admission $5.
If you want to drop $400 or so on a his-and-hers dunk and rub, the spa at Wine & Roses will have you and your special someone for a private candlelight deep-whirlpool soak and side-by-side massages in front of a roaring fire. Or do a 90-minute “La Stone” massage, which will light up your skin with hot and cold stones, said to carry the memories of the universe. The spa serves lunch and wine from the on-site Towne House Restaurant—salads, cheese plates and a mean tuna nicoise.
Yes, that’s a lake right off a main thoroughfare: Lodi Lake—created by the small Woodbridge Dam in the Mokelumne River. You can watch the cars zoom by while you balance a floating board between your feet and guide yourself around by dipping a long paddle. A surprisingly peaceful way to spend a warm afternoon, stand-up paddle boarding will cost you $25 for a half-day board rental from the Lodi Lake Boat House. Kayaks, canoes and pedal boats can be checked out, too.
The sidewalks zip up pretty tight and early in Lodi. But especially on Friday and Saturday, things pick up speed after sundown in a few downtown hotspots. At Ollie’s Pub, Guinness on draft and a sizable lineup of Irish whiskeys keep the conversation well greased. The Cellardoor, with three wineries pouring (Van Ruiten, Michael David and Bokisch) and live music most weekends, stays open till 11 p.m. Wine Social, pouring Sorelle and Six Hands wines, rocks with live music, dancing, karaoke, food-and-wine pairings and themed parties—like the Speakeasy coming up April 18—in a rich, dim brick space until 10 p.m.
Cross the bridges and wander among the topiaries at the Japanese garden in Micke Grove Regional Park, across from the zoo. With vibrant koi, cherry blossom trees, lanterns, stones and islands, the three-acre garden is especially serene in springtime, when the azaleas bloom against walls of green.