Sunday, August 12, 2001

Lodi wines stuck on quality

By John Vankat
Enquirer contributor

        Mention “Lodi” as a California wine appellation and you'll get plenty of blank looks. In fact, people from my generation are more likely to recognize “Lodi” as a '60s rock song by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

        But believe it or not, when John Fogerty was singing “Oh! Lord, I'm stuck in Lodi again,” mention of Napa or Sonoma would have drawn blank looks, too. Then, these were agricultural areas with primary products that were neither famous nor fermented. Thirty years later, Lodi (LOW-die) is similarly poised — make that, on it's way — to becoming a widely recognized wine region.        

The region

        The Lodi of '60s music lovers is a town about 30 miles south of Sacramento in California's Central Valley. The Lodi of wine lovers is an AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the eastern part of the Delta of California. Unlike the rest of the hot Central Valley, the Delta region is cooled by ocean breezes blowing through San Francisco's Golden Gate, 100 miles west of Lodi.

        In contrast to large-scale agriculture in much of the Central Valley, small farmers such as Mike Phillips — who recently visited Cincinnati — predominate in Lodi.

        Mr. Phillips' great-great grandfather homesteaded in the Lodi area in the 1860s. Although the Phillips family planted grapes long ago, they made a living selling a variety of fruits and vegetables. When he took over the family farm in 1975, Mr. Phillips began planting more grapes and, in 1997, “became serious about it.” Today, he's co-owner (with brother David) and also winemaker of the 350-acre Phillips Vineyards (not to be confused with R.H. Phillips of Dunnigan Hills).

        Despite producing prize-winning wines, Mr. Phillips dmits he is a farmer at heart who is more comfortable on a tractor than on a promotional tour.

The wines

        Lodi wines are increasingly common in the Tristate. Today, I cover the top whites, holding some excellent reds for my next column. Trust me, with these wines, being “stuck in Lodi” isn't a bad thing.

        Of the white varietals I tasted, the chardonnays were most impressive. Topping my list is the stunning Van Ruiten-Taylor 1999 “Reserve, Lodi” ($11) in which oak is smoothly integrated into rich, fruit-dominated flavors. Either a small miracle occurred in the bottle I tasted, or this is an incredible, not-to-be-missed bargain.

        Another fine chardonnay is Phillips 1999 “Reserve, Lodi.” Silky smooth, it will appeal to wine lovers who enjoy a bit more oak. It will be available here within a few weeks for $20-25.

        A good basic chardonnay is Woodbridge 1999 “California” ($9), in which Lodi grapes predominate. It's food-friendly, keeps well recorked in the frig and is widely available.
       Contact John Vankat by mail: c/o Cincinnati Enquirer; phone: (800) 524-1005; fax: 768-8330.



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