Defined by vines

Lodi’s winemakers may help the city defy growth pressures and remain a small town

David Lucas of Lucas Vineyards is part of the new breed of winemakers who want to establish Lodi as a premier wine region, and in the process, to help save the town.

David Lucas of Lucas Vineyards is part of the new breed of winemakers who want to establish Lodi as a premier wine region, and in the process, to help save the town.

Photo by Larry Dalton

As you head west on Lodi Avenue, leaving Lodi is like driving into an agrarian past.

A brand-new subdivision buzzes by on your left, then a soundwall and an irrigation canal. The road suddenly narrows and instead of suburbia, you’re surrounded by vineyards dotted with grand 90-year-old farmhouses.

After a glass or two of old-vine zinfandel, it’s easy to imagine you’ve just left a fortified medieval city, complete with moat. The Central Valley is known for urban sprawl more than smart growth. No agricultural region in America is more threatened by encroachment of development, says the American Farmland Trust.

Lodi, with a 20-year growth plan that in effect created an urban limit line, is a proud exception. A decade ago, the governor’s office on planning identified model cities for smart growth, among them London, Portland, San Diego and Lodi. Planners from throughout the country toured Lodi’s renewed downtown, admired its neighborhoods, and noticed how strip malls and fast food have at least been confined within the city’s nine-square-mile core.

“Lodi is 60,000 people but it seems a whole lot smaller,” says winemaker Dave Phillips. “The feeling in Lodi is: we want to keep it a small town.”

But Lodi can only plan for what happens inside its borders. Most of the growth, however, is happening next door, in Stockton, with its borders only four miles away—and could become closer if Stockton annexes land for further development.

Like almost every farmer, Mark Chandler, executive director of the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission, is wary of restrictive land regulations. But he concedes: “If a greenbelt zone is not adopted, then ultimately Stockton will absolutely just grow up into Lodi. The vineyards will go away, unless there are land-use regulations in place to preserve agriculture.”

The battle is over 15,200 acres between the cities, mostly small parcels owned by grape growers, small wineries, agricultural services and some homeowners. For three years, officials from Lodi, Stockton and San Joaquin County met to develop a “community separator,” and expected to have a plan by June 2001.

Then talks collapsed. Stockton insisted on bringing in more participants and broadening the scope to the whole county. The goal, Stockton city Councilwoman Ann Johnston says, is to adopt a regional perspective. But the real reason, says Bob Padden of the Sierra Club’s Delta-Sierra Group, was to “pull the rug out from beneath everybody’s feet.”

But could Lodi’s wine growers and winemakers wind up being the city’s salvation? Phillips, who is also a planning commissioner, thinks so: “We need to keep the land valuable as agricultural land. There’s less incentive then to build shopping centers and tract homes.”

The idea that prosperous farmers will be less inclined to sell their land for housing is widely accepted statewide by farmers and planners alike, says Karen Ross, president of the California Association of Wine Grapegrowers.

Chandler agrees. “It helps if you can increase the value of the land because the grower wants to grow grapes on that land—he doesn’t want to sell it for a house,” he says. “It’s not strictly a dollar-for-dollar issue. These are people so grounded in agriculture they want to stay with it. We’ve all been in this thing for generations. We don’t want to sell it so we can go play golf.”

Ross points out many positive signs for grape growing in Lodi. Growers have invested heavily in replanting to higher-value grapes, something that could be the key to keep value in the farmland. Farmers are also buying new winemaking equipment and opening tasting rooms. Just as telling, she says, is that younger generations are returning to the vineyards.

Efforts to preserve vineyard land from urban sprawl have succeeded elsewhere, including Napa and Livermore.

In Napa, an agricultural preserve, created in 1968 and strengthened several times, blocked a proposed freeway that would have gone through prime vineyard land, says Jeri Hanson of the Napa Valley Vintners Association. The measure preserved much of the valley for vines, she says.

High prices for Napa wine also help protect against creeping development.

Grape growing, Hanson says, “should be profitable as a business so no one wants to sell. We are the perfect example. We have double protection. We have the preserve—and our products are selling so well. We’re buffered both ways.”

The South Livermore Valley Area Plan, established a decade ago, has succeeded in preserving a wine-growing region and providing an urban limit line to the south of rapidly suburbanizing Livermore, says Stuart Cook, the Alameda County planner who co-wrote the plan.

Before the plan was established, he says, the Livermore Valley had 1,500 acres of vines—a number that was declining—and nine wineries. Now, there are about 5,000 acres of vines and more than 20 wineries.

Lodi has noticed.

“If they can do it in the Livermore Valley and people are happy,” Lodi community development director Rad Bartlam says, “why can’t we do it here?”

Preserving Lodi from sprawl wasn’t on David Lucas’ mind when, after running a surf shop and gigs with the Peace Corps and Foreign Service, he started Lodi’s first “boutique” winery—small production, high quality—in 1976.

But he knew that Lodi was a special place, capable of creating uniquely flavored zinfandels that could come only from Lodi. “I said my goal now is to create a zinfandel that can stand with the finest wine in the world, the best cabernet, the best pinots.”

For years Lucas worked for Robert Mondavi’s Woodbridge Winery, one of the largest wineries in Lodi and one of the largest buyers of Lodi grapes. Woodbridge worked with its growers to improve the quality of Lodi wine by bringing in better varietals and improving vineyard practice.

The result, says Karen Ross of the state Association of Grapegrowers, is much higher-quality grapes. Lodi is now on the map as one of the top producers of zinfandel, she said, and has a strong future.

Lucas, a talkative, thoughtful man known for his nerve (and for calling Lodi “the Carmel of Central Valley”), was the first to brag about Lodi by putting the name on his wine.

“People told me, ‘Don’t do that, David. Put ‘California’ or ‘America,’ but don’t put Lodi on the label,’ ” he says. “And there was a lot of truth in that. It was a big challenge to go out in the marketplace and taste wines with people. And they’d go, ‘Where is Lodi? Oh, it’s really hot there.’ It was a battle and it’s still a battle.”

For Lucas, winemaking is as much about place as grapes, and his goal is to emphasize what is unique about Lodi’s soil and climate. “The journey of a winemaker,” he says, “is to learn how to craft wines that taste like where they’re from.”

Lodi wine may still get a bad rap among snobs who think the Central Valley is too hot to produce anything but wine that’s overripe, high alcohol or sickly sweet. Historically minded snobs remember when Lodi, which started growing wine grapes in the early 1900s and flourished selling grape concentrate to home winemakers during Prohibition, was called “America’s Sherryland.”

Lodi itself gets a bad rap. Tim Spencer, who runs the tiny St. Amant Winery, tells a story that has become lore in town. When Wine Spectator ran a map of all the great zinfandel regions, they left Lodi off. A proud native called to complain and was told, “ ‘We’re not a wine magazine. We’re a lifestyle magazine, and Lodi’s not our lifestyle.’

“I don’t know if it’s true,” Spencer adds. “It sounds true.”

For years Lodi, which produces more premium wine grapes than any other area in the state, has been known for jug wines and $6 “fighting varietals” bottled by every corporate producer. But Lodi thinks it can do better.

Weather-wise, Lodi is more Delta than Central Valley. The same cool nighttime sea breezes that drift into Napa also hit Lodi. “Lodi is not as hot as some people think it is,” says Mike Phillips, Dave’s brother and the winemaker at their winery, Michael David Vineyards (aka Phillips Farms).

Over the past decade, the number of wineries in the Lodi district has gone from seven to 37. Chandler says that could hit 60 within five years. Also during that period, wine grape acreage has doubled to 75,000 acres.

Most boutiques are family-run operations that aim up-market, generally started by longtime growers hoping to diversify, sell a high-priced wine instead of simply grapes, and get a higher price for the grapes they do sell by demonstrating how fine a wine those grapes can make.

Brothers Mike and Dave Phillips are more typical Lodi winemakers than Lucas because they are fifth-generation farmers.

The Phillips’ tasting room is as Lodi as you can get—a fruit and vegetable stand and lively café with a tasting bar in the corner. Their dad, Don, who pioneered direct marketing through farm stands and farmers markets, shares canning recipes. Mom Jeanne handles the herb garden.

Ironically—or not—Lodi’s wine boom is happening during a worldwide wine bust. Over-planting in the ’90s created a glut that is leaving grapes on vines throughout the state, as cheap wines from Chile and South Africa—and the Central Valley—are dumped on Trader Joe’s shelves for $4 a bottle.

Lodi is in better shape than some areas because in the ’80s it shifted to quality fruit, which always brings better prices. And as Mike Phillips says, “There never will be an oversupply of old-vine zinfandel.” Some of Lodi’s growers are becoming winemakers primarily to create a market for their own fruit.

Growers and vintners face more immediate problems. Winemakers are being ordered to treat their wastewater instead of pouring it into leach ponds. Growers face new restrictions on spraying. There are fewer wine distributors than ever before. And growers who hope to pass their vineyards onto their kids say that can’t happen thanks to the estate tax.

Ask a grower and he’ll say urban sprawl is way down the list of problems. But drive through the belt of unincorporated farmland that separates Lodi from Stockton, note the tract homes in Stockton butting up against the would-be greenbelt, and the new churches, exempt from county zoning laws, that dot the area.

“The dirt in this valley is the best in the entire world,” Phillips said. “Why are we going to cover it up? This valley feeds the world.”

Susan Hitchcock, Lodi’s vice mayor and the prime mover behind the greenbelt, moved to Cupertino from rural Georgia in time to see its orchards replaced with housing and came to Lodi 27 years ago.

“I said ‘Wow, this is a wonderful place to live, it’s a wonderful place to raise children.’ My first question was, ‘Will the same thing happen here as happened in Cupertino?’ You will constantly hear, ‘If the city stops growth, our kids need a place to live.’ I say, ‘My son won’t want to live in Lodi if there’s no resemblance to the place he grew up. He’ll find a small city—and it won’t be here.’ ”

Efforts to create an official greenbelt have not died, says Ben Hulse, the county’s community-development director. A consultant is looking at ways of conducting a countywide community separator study and at other alternatives, and the report will go to all the cities soon. Stockton’s balking, Hulse says, “is just a little hiccup.”

But Phillips is still betting on wine to save Lodi’s greenbelt. “If it’s profitable for farmers to keep growing on their lands and if it’s possible for farmers to pass their land onto their children without paying the taxes,” he says, “ then the next generation can continue.”