Lodi, the other wine country

Lodi, the other wine country
The wine bar for Michael & David Vineyards in Lodi, Calif., is like much of the town: relaxed and unpretentious. (John Decker / For the Times)
There's a Creedence Clearwater Revival song about this Central Valley town. "Just about a year ago, I set out on the road, seekin' my fame and fortune, lookin' for a pot of gold," the lyrics go. "Things got bad, and things got worse, I guess you will know the tune. Oh! Lord, stuck in Lodi again."

During a business trip here last summer, though, I was surprised by the town's rural charm and picturesque vineyards. My boyfriend couldn't believe the scene I described.

"Lodi?" Jon asked. "As in the song?"

Yes, as in the 1969 song, but also as in the vineyards, which have flourished in Lodi for more than a century. The area produces more premium wine grapes than Napa and Sonoma counties combined.

Only recently has Lodi promoted itself as a wine-tasting destination, partly in response to a wine glut caused by overproduction worldwide and an influx of cheap imports in the U.S. Not until 1998 did the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission begin publishing the Lodi Wine Trail map, now a glossy color guide to 40 wineries.

With wine prices dropping, vintners are turning to tourism for revenue. While some growers in other parts of the Central Valley are ripping out vines in favor of more profitable crops, Lodi vintners are opening tasting rooms and playing up their viticultural roots.

Jon and I decided it would be the perfect locale to expand our wine knowledge and spend a low-key weekend. We flew from Burbank to Sacramento on a Friday evening, drove 30 minutes south on Interstate 5 and soon found ourselves trundling down a road surrounded by vineyards. The bustle of traffic faded as the evening light tinged the sky pink behind a canopy of oak trees. The view was perfect except for a subdivision that appeared on the left — a sign that growers are fighting the encroachment of the suburbs and aren't always winning.

The sight of our bed-and-breakfast restored our spirits. The Wine & Roses is a converted 1902 Victorian home next door to the Winegrape Commission's 2 1/2-year-old visitor center. The original Wine & Roses building looks out over a lovely plaza and garden, a popular spot for weddings, and the inn's year-old Mission-style addition, which includes luxury suites for $275 to $325 a night.

We were staying in the original building, which has the least expensive rooms, but were thrilled nonetheless. The spacious second-floor room ($149 plus tax each night) boasted a mahogany four-poster bed and plantation-style shutters. We declined the desk clerk's offer to move us farther from the bar downstairs, preferring to enjoy the strains of piano floating up through the floorboards.

After dropping off our bags, we drove a few miles for dinner and some jazz at downtown's Rosewood Bar & Grill, operated by the owners of our hotel. Driving down School Street, Jon remarked on the brick walkways and trees festooned in white lights, part of the city's $4-million revitalization of downtown completed in 1999. "This is pretty nice," he admitted.

The restaurant, a dark wood-paneled room, was a modern extension of our hotel. We shared a refreshing apple romaine salad with candied pecans, followed by a delicious flatiron steak with rice and beans for me and mahi-mahi with wilted spinach for Jon.

When we returned to the hotel, pianist and vocalist Rudy Tenio was crooning "Walking My Baby Back Home" by the bar. We fell asleep to the faint rhythms from downstairs.

Down to earth

Fruit salad, coffeecake, croissants, coffee and orange juice awaited in the dining room the next morning. We jump-started the day with a jog around nearby Lodi Lake, fed by the Mokelumne River.

In summer the city rents paddle boats and canoes, and locals flock to the surrounding park for barbecues. For us, getting there required a half-mile walk that wasn't very picturesque. We strolled down Turner Road, a busy four-lane street, and passed a power plant and a General Mills cereal factory.

The scenery improved at the park. We jogged past the reed-fringed water and a gaggle of geese. At one end of the lake lies a mile-long wilderness trail. Berry bushes frame the path, which leads to the river. We took a break on a wooden bench, watching cows graze languorously on the facing riverbank.

That afternoon we hit the vineyards. Our first stop was Phillips Farm, a homey roadside cafe and grocery. We had a good light lunch — turkey sandwich for me and cheeseburger for Jon — and then walked over to the adjoining wine bar of Michael & David Vineyards. We liked Seven Deadly Zins, a popular red.

Ducks and chickens roamed underneath picnic tables in the farm in back. We could have picked our own bouquet in a flower patch, and camera-ready pigs, billy goats and rabbits peered out of pens. The woman at the wine bar showed us hour-old ducklings hiding with their mother in the herb garden.

"You know what's great about this?" Jon said. "In Napa you feel like you're driving into the gates of Falcon Crest when you go wine tasting. But this is so down to earth."

The vibe continued five minutes up the road at Jessie's Grove, a 320-acre vineyard that dates to 1873. The story goes that in the early days, Jessie Beckman's father wanted to plow down the farm's oak trees to plant more grapevines, but Jessie persuaded him to preserve a 32-acre grove. Now the vineyard that bears her name hosts summer barbecues and concerts in the shade of those oaks. (The Temptations are scheduled for September.)

Inside the tasting room, we studied walls covered with old black-and-white photos of Jessie's family. The woman pouring wine said Jessie's great-granddaughter, one of the seven family members who own the vineyard, is a spitting image of her ancestor. We were enjoying the mellow atmosphere and local gossip when we heard tires crunch up the gravel driveway. A white stretch limo pulled up, and giggling women emerged. They were on a winery tour, and by the looks of it, they had made a few stops already. We fled.

It wasn't hard to find peace and quiet, as crowds were nonexistent everywhere else we went, and tasting rooms had a flannel shirts-and-jeans ambience. At the nearby Lucas Winery, we got a lesson in winemaking from David Lucas, a former Robert Mondavi executive who opened his boutique winery in 1978. He had us compare a 1998 Zinfandel with one barreled in 2002. For two novices, it was a wonderful lesson in how a wine grows more complex with age.

The $5-per-person tasting fee included two glasses engraved with the Lucas motto: "A Zinfandel is never truly happy unless it's shared among friends."

That night we stayed in for dinner at the Wine & Roses' well-regarded restaurant. Single rosebuds and votive candles adorned white tablecloths, and the waiters bustled with professional intensity.

A crab cake appetizer was fantastic. I had perfectly cooked salmon with homemade gnocchi, and Jon ordered beef tenderloin with fresh asparagus. We were utterly content.

After breakfast the next morning, we browsed Lodi's commercial district. In Joe Hassan's Clothing & Western Wear, on a slightly down-and-out street on the outskirts of downtown, Jon bought cowboy boots. We walked a few blocks, but almost every other store was closed for the day. Jon peered through the window of the Casablanca Wine & Piano Lounge.

"This place looks great," he said. "How could we have missed this?"

I told him we'd have to try it next time.

"I don't know," he said. "I wouldn't mind being stuck here for a few more days."