Deidre Pike
Get some learnin' on local wines at the Lodi Wine and Visitor Center. Credit: Deidre Pike

I arrive at the motel early. Housekeepers are still cleaning rooms. Two patrons read newspapers by the pool. I check my email in the parking lot.

A Jeep pulls up next to me. Within seconds, we’re out of our vehicles and in each other’s arms.

Lovers meeting for a romantic tryst—in Lodi, California.

Scoff if you must. We’re here by design. This is not an “Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again” moment, as the Creedence Clearwater Revival song laments.

We like this appellation, east of San Francisco, where grapes have been growing blissfully since the 1850s. Lodi’s sandy soils and Mediterranean climate, with warm days and nights cooled by Sacramento River Delta breezes, are ideal for growing zinfandel, the punk-rocker of grape varietals. Unpretentious but hardly humble. In your face with gooey fruit and zingy spice. Unsubtly dissonant. Rough around the edges, most often without apology.

Lodi is synonymous with zin.

My hubby of 30-plus years and I, reunited for the weekend, can’t check in yet. We have a couple of hours to kill. Whatever can we do? We’ve done no research for this trip. So our first stop: the Lodi Wine and Visitor Center, and a cheat sheet for local wines that are drinking nicely right now.

Outside the center, an educational vineyard displays a half-dozen varieties of grapes on and off trellises. Head-trained zinfandel grapes burst with new spring foliage. Nearby, syrah, merlot and pinot gris are neatly pruned into the vertical shoot position—that’s the sexy T-shaped vine with new shoots emerging from the horizontal cordons (the top of the T).

Inside the center, we obtain maps, advice and tastes of a few representative Lodi wines. It’s $5 to taste four of the seven wines they’re pouring—all from different vineyards. We eliminate the two whites from the list and share a tasting of all the reds except for the one we already know—Cycles Gladiator’s 2010 Old Vine Zin, nicknamed the Boneshaker.

We skip the Boneshaker, because we know we like it. In fact, before we leave Lodi, we’ll head to Cycles to pick up a Boneshaker ($25) and a bottle of red cuvee, the 2010 Banned in Alabama ($18).

Please note the relatively modest prices. In March, we went on a tasting adventure in Napa. We camped in a tent and drank fabulous $60 bottles of wine at a bird-shit encrusted picnic table. Practically nothing we tasted in Napa was less than $40 a bottle.

What a difference an appellation and 64-mile drive makes. None of the Lodi wines poured at the visitor’s center run more than $25. Does this equate to wines that are half as structured, refined, tasty-licious?

Good question, one that I spend the day asking others while consulting my own completely amateur palate. (Mmm. Red wine good. More, please. Urp. Excuse me.)

What I learn: Though the Lodi (the “L-word”) has been dismissed by some in the wine world, many folks agree that in the past decade, the region has upped the ante.

“It’s hard for us to go up to Napa and pay $60 for a bottle of wine,” a woman at the visitor center tells me, “when we have the quality here, too.”

Two wines impress us at the visitor center, the 2012 Fields Family Tempranillo and the 2010 Harney Lane Zinfandel.

We only have time for a couple of winery visits before tonight’s School Street Stroll—23 wineries pouring at local businesses, clothing boutiques, galleries and salons in downtown Lodi. So we chart our course to Fields and Harney Lane.

The Fields Family Estate Winery has a bar set up on a cement floor in a low cool building packed with barrels. Ambiance includes a forklift. This makes me happy.

When we walk in, tasting room manager Michael Perry is giving an aromatics lecture to a young couple. “If you close your eyes and pinch your nose, are you going to taste the wine?” he asks, acknowledging our presence with a nod. “You ain’t gonna get anything.”

Perry’s clearly great at his job, not only pouring and explaining the wines, but giving wine ingénues a broader oenological education. Perry says wine critics, historically, hadn’t given the time of day to Lodi wines.

“They’d turn up their noses at the L-word,” he says, “and rightfully so. Lodi didn’t always make great wines. That’s turning around with the small boutique wineries.”

We try more of the award-winning Tempranillo ($22), which nabbed a gold at the SF Chronicle International Wine Competition. The winemakers also made a Santa Barbara pinot noir in 2009, so we taste and buy that ($22), and a 2009 merlot ($28) made with grapes from Napa’s Oak Knoll District. Wine Spectator gave this wine 90 points. We walk out with three bottles, and feel weirdly like we’re saving money.

To be fair, Fields has a 2009 Napa cabernet sauvignon, Dr. Konrad’s Vineyard, Mount Veeder, that runs $59. Close your eyes when you gargle this; imagine a tasting room filled with international tourists; and you’ll believe you’re in Napa. It’s the aromatics.

Next goal: Acquire the requisite bottle or two of Lodi zinfandel. Lodi holds Zinfest 2013 on May 17-19, but I can’t make it back for this glorious event.

Today, it’s zin or bust. So we head to Harney Lane Winery, where the 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel, Lizzy James Vineyard ($35), achieves that mouth-watering berry-spice balance.

We taste, groan appreciatively—“Now that’s a Lodi zin!”—and buy a bottle. Then it’s back to the motel for a dip in the pool and a walk downtown to School Street in downtown Lodi.

We stand in line at art galleries and furniture stores. We listen to live music on and off the street. A guy’s playing jazz hits on an accordion at a furniture store. A flamenco guitarist launches into “Barcelona Nights” in the Atrium Plaza.

My honey and I hold hands plenty, because, well, we’re doing the long-distance marriage for the second year in a row. Every night together is a date.

A man who’s pouring Viaggio Estate wines compliments me for knowing how to pronounce carignane. I’d guessed, saying “CAR-in-gyan.” Thank you, Monsieur Chatelain from eighth-grade French class.

A Sniff the Cap hint: Confidence is key when it comes to pronouncing odd wine varietals. Even if you fuck up a foreign word fabulously, do it with flair and gutsy certitude. Yes, you may annoy a few snobs. That’s part of the fun.

We snack on a dizzying variety of cheese, fruit and small processed meat products. Dipping strawberries, cake and other food items in melted chocolate fondue seems popular. At a beauty salon, a woman encourages me to try something new—something I’ve never tasted before.

“Dip a potato chip in the chocolate,” she recommends. “You won’t believe how good it is.” Which seems, to me, a very Lodi thing to say.

Did I mention the wine stroll was sponsored in part by Waste Management? Zero pretensions. Love it. As it turns out, the salty sweet choco-chips pair nicely with CAR-in-gyan.

We end our night at the Dancing Fox’s tasting room, talking to winemaker Gregg Lewis. He’s showing off the 2009 Triskele, a red blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet Franc. We walk out with a bottle of 2007 Old Vine Zin ($24).

We saunter back to the motel, about a mile and a half through mostly residential streets. Passing a few stores, closed for the night, with signs in Spanish, we felt we could be in South America or Spain. We visited Spain a couple of years ago. We didn’t go out for dinner at night in Madrid or Granada. Instead, we consumed wine and tapas and wine and tapas and wine and tapas at a variety of bars until midnight or 1 a.m. The School Street Stroll was a little like that. Only it ended around 9 p.m. and it was, you know, in Lodi.

Sunday morning, my guy and I packed wine purchases into our separate cars, kissed and drove off in opposite directions. We’ll plan another rendezvous soon.

We don’t mind being stuck in this appellation again and again.

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