Thirty-five miles south of Sacramento exists a wine country that rises from the flat plains of the Central Valley, beckoning Sacramento sippers seeking a close-to-home tasting experience. Although it’s been producing wines for more than 100 years, Lodi began building a strong reputation as a wine destination only in the past 10 years or so—particularly for its popular Zinfandels. Today, oenophiles can discover the 70-plus wineries in the vicinity. But they soon find there’s more to Lodi than wine. Opportunities abound for those wishing to browse the Central Valley city’s revitalized downtown, float on its lake and river, and explore its parks and museums. Bounded by Interstate 5 and Highway 99, Lodi will delight visitors who can see the charm in this modest agricultural city that has found its fortune in the grape.
Lodi has been producing wine since the late 1800s, but only recently has emerged as a true wine destination. Fueled by the 1986 approval of the Lodi Appellation, which allowed vintners to label wines made with Lodi varietal grapes as such, the area’s wine industry has continued to flourish as new wineries have opened and marketing efforts have taken hold. Start at the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center on Turner Road to pick up wine maps and check out exhibits that will help you identify your favorite type of wine and educate you about the wine-making process. Kick off your wine-tasting tour with a few sips at the counter. Then, map in hand, designated driver in place, meander around the town and its outskirts, customizing your own wine-tasting experience. In many tasting rooms, winemakers themselves pour the wines and are happy to chat.
Lodi’s downtown, anchored by the Lodi Stadium 12 Cinema complex, draws crowds. School Street, revitalized in the 1990s with bricks, potted plants, gold-painted sidewalks and 30-foot sycamores, lures visitors looking for meals, beer, used books, spa treatments, health food, Parisian gifts, kayaks or kitchenware. Bite into a burger at the unfortunately named Moo Moo’s Burger Barn, devour Mexican specialties at Angelo’s, wash down beer-battered onion rings with house-produced pale ale at Lodi Beer Co. or go upscale at Rosewood Bar & Grill, where steaks and cedar-plank salmon grace the menu. Pet one of the resident cats while perusing the shelves in room after room at Tom’s Used Books; down the street, a large yellow Lab often greets those who venture into Sierra Adventure Outfitters for kayaks, canoes or other outdoor gear. Shop for high-end kitchenware at Lodi Cooks, and pop into any of downtown’s many boutiques and gift shops. Throughout the downtown area, check out the murals painted by the Walldogs, a group of artists and sign painters, as part of Lodi’s 100-year anniversary in 2006. Also, just opened: World of Wonders Science Museum, where $6 admission ($4 for children) buys you access to hands-on exhibits that will remind you of some you might find at San Francisco’s Exploratorium.
Across the street from the landmark General Mills factory, Lodi Lake’s beaches open in late May. Hang out on the shores of the lake or the Mokelumne River, and rent a kayak or pedal boat for the afternoon. Trails wind through the riparian habitat, where you’ll find frogs, fish and fowl. Or simply walk around the lake, catching a little exercise and admiring the pretty park.
Micke Grove Regional Park
Kids and grown-ups will love Micke Grove, where you can see lots of lemurs, a snow leopard and a pudu—the smallest member of the deer family—among other unfamiliar animals, at the endangered-species zoo. Hop the stones across the koi ponds in the Japanese Garden, scream your head off at Funtown Amusement Park (ideal for littler kids) and learn a thing or two at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum. Admission to the park is $5; museum, zoo and ride tickets are extra. Off Highway 99, west of Armstrong Road
Lodi Parachute Center
Driving along Highway 99, you may be shocked to see people dangling from parachutes as they descend from the sky, looking as though their feet will come down right on top of your car. Pull in to the airfield and sign up for your own sky-dive—for $100, you, too, can jump from a plane and land in a field adjacent to the busy freeway. Not for the faint of heart. 23597 N. Highway 99; (209) 369-1128
Great Valley Serpentarium
Another activity for only the bravest: a visit to Lodi’s Serpentarium, home to some 50 breeds of—you guessed it—snakes. You’ll also see containers housing huge blobby, hairy spiders, some scorpions and weird, poisonous frogs. Scarier than the reptile house at the zoo, this place smells clammy and dense and is filled with beady-eyed, leathery-looking critters sure to invade your dreams for nights to come. Free to visit; critters are for sale. 2379 Maggio Circle, Unit C; (209) 369-7737
The Farm Cafe
On that killer stretch of Highway 12 between Lodi and Rio Vista, The Farm Cafe extends a welcome mat to weary travelers and anchors the Phillips Farms/Michael-David Winery property. Stop for lunch (chicken tor-tilla soup and the tri-tip sandwich are specialties), some housemade pie or to taste wines at the Michael-David counter inside. Out back, visit the roosters, bunnies and goats, and be prepared to dodge the “geese and quackers” holding court at the pond beside the picnic area. Then grab some fresh, grown-on-the-premises produce for the road, and don’t forget to flip on your headlights before turning back onto Highway 12. 4580 W. Highway 12; (209) 368-7384
Zinfest Wine Festival—Visit Lodi the weekend of May 15–17 to celebrate the Lodi grape. For wines paired with food, join area vintners for dinner Friday night at Lodi Lake (tickets are $75). The next day, Zinfest continues at the lake with some 50 local wineries pouring samples while you wander among booths displaying arts and crafts, specialty items and food. The event promises a wine and cooking school, and live entertainment throughout the day. (Tickets are $35 in advance, $45 at the gate.)
Spend the Night: Wine & Roses—Adjacent to the Wine & Visitor Center, Wine & Roses hotel has rooms ranging from $169 (historic inn) to $450 (grand spa suite) a night. Set on 7 acres of botanical gardens and tall trees, the 52-room hotel, restaurant and spa, which started out as a family home in 1902 and began operating as a historic country inn in 1988, has grown so popular that it’s again undergoing expansion. New rooms are expected to open this spring.
Take Highway 99 south or Interstate 5 south to Lodi.