Seated at a picnic table in the shade of 300-year-old oak trees, Greg Burns, 54, and his mother, Wanda Woock-Bechthold, 77, sample an award-winning zinfandel produced by Jessie’s Grove Winery in Lodi, Calif. (pop. 56,999).
Like most of the 65 wineries in the Lodi area, Jessie’s Grove is family-owned and operated, the land having been settled and first cultivated in 1868 by Woock-Bechthold’s great-grandfather, Joseph Spenker. The winery is named for Spenker’s daughter and claims the distinction of having the oldest grapevines in the region at 118 years of age.
“We’re into the sixth generation now with eight family members involved, including my grandson,” Woock- Bechthold says.
Tucked between San Francisco Bay and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Lodi enjoys a classic Mediterranean climate of warm days and cool, moist nights, which is ideal for growing grapes for wine.
Grapevines were first planted near Lodi in 1852 and the first winery was developed in 1858, though the region didn’t become a major wine-producer until dozens of local growers began fermenting their own grapes in the 1990s.
Today, the Lodi region grows 20 percent of California’s wine grapes on 100,000 acres of land. Between 1995 and 2005, the region’s vineyard acreage doubled and annual wine production increased from 60 million to 125 million gallons, enough to fill 200 Olympic-size swimming pools.
“I believe that the number of wineries could easily double in the next 10 years,” says Mark Chandler, a grape grower and executive director of the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission, who foresees a bright future for the local wine industry.
The prestige of Lodi wines was greatly enhanced in 1986 when the federal government approved an appellation for the region, allowing local wineries to label their wines with “Lodi” listed as the origin of the grapes. “The appellation is hugely important because it gives us the opportunity to create our own identity,” Chandler says.
Prior to appellation, most Lodi grape growers shipped their fruit to vintners in nearby Napa and Sonoma counties. As consumers began demanding and paying more for appellation wines, many Lodi growers decided to bottle their own chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon wines. Today, more than 100 Lodi-labeled brands are on the market.
“We couldn’t just stay being wine growers,” says Randy Lange, 56, a fourth-generation grape grower who opened Lodi’s newest winery last year with his twin brother, Brad. “We have to take the next step up.”
LangeTwins winery crushed 6,500 tons of grapes last fall and plans to expand to 40,000 tons in the coming years, making it one of the largest wine producers in the Lodi region. In addition to the twins, the winery employs seven other members of the family: Randy’s wife, Charlene, and their daughter, Marissa, and sons, Aaron and Joseph; and Brad’s wife, Susan, and their daughter, Kendra, and son, Philip.
“I came home because of the vision we have,” says Marissa, 29, who gave up her career as a brand manager for Fosters Wine Estates in Napa, Calif., (pop. 72,585) to return to Lodi in 2005.
As the Lange brothers anticipate retirement in the near future, they express confidence that the legacy of their vineyards and winery will be in the hands of their children, who will continue to elevate the stature of Lodi’s wines.
“Lodi doesn’t want to be Napa,” Marissa explains. “Lodi just wants to be Lodi because it’s a generational town.”