By Mike Lee, Sacramento Bee
LODI - David Lucas did the unthinkable when he opened his boutique winery 26 years ago on an anonymous sliver of farmland south of Sacramento.
He put the Lodi location on his wine labels.
The farm town was virtually unknown outside the Central Valley despite its long history of growing wine grapes.
"Everybody said I was nuts," recalled Lucas. "Everybody said put 'California' or put 'America' or put 'world' but - for God's sake - don't put 'Lodi.' "
Lucas was ahead of his time. The San Joaquin County city's name now is featured on 175 labels, and wine giants Robert Mondavi Corp. and Canandaigua Wine Co. are placing expensive new bets on what has become one of the state's fastest-growing wine grape regions.
Canandaigua, a unit of the world's largest winemaker, boasts the Lodi name on a new wine series priced to compete with the inexpensive Australian wines flooding the market.
And Mondavi is jettisoning its Napa holdings and wagering its future on mid-priced "lifestyle" wines produced at its sprawling Woodbridge winery near Lodi.
"When they start putting Lodi on the label, that is a validation that this is a region that has desirable characteristics," said Pat Patrick, chief executive of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce. "We like to think that transcends ... just the grapes."
Boosters extol the small-town charm of Lodi, population 60,000, and the evening Delta breeze that cools grapes and residents. They show off a rebuilt main street whose wide, tree-lined sidewalks fill on weekends with wine tourists.
Chic new shops have brought wine, chocolate and lingerie to a once-dead downtown. In the works: nightclubs, a brew pub and bed-and-breakfasts.
A well-stocked wine tourism center will cater to more than 35,000 visitors this year, a number tourism officials aim to double by 2007. "People are hearing more about Lodi, and I think it's directly related to the wine," Patrick said.
Even the city's police officers wear a plump bunch of purple grapes on their pins and patches, which Capt. Jerry J. Adams proudly points out during a coffee break at Tillie's. "It does our image good," he said.
Perhaps best-known for its Zinfandels, Lodi-Woodbridge leads all California wine districts in production of the top five premium wine grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Zinfandel.
Still, for decades the region's grapes have been mixed with those from other regions and marketed as "California" wine.
That is changing, as the number of Lodi-area wineries has jumped from eight to more than 50 in the past 13 years and the number of wine grape growers has risen to 750.
Canandaigua announced in mid-September that its Talus Collection would prominently feature the name of Lodi, which the company called "an up-and-coming wine region ... boasting a classic Mediterranean climate." The line will sell for about $8 a bottle, in the mid-priced range that has seen the strongest growth of any wine segment in recent years.
Gary Glass, the company's vice president of marketing in Concord, said the move is in response to Lodi's fruity wines — some of which are similar to the wildly popular Australian imports — and Lodi's acceptance by the wine industry press.
"Lodi is working well for a number of varieties," Glass said. "You get wines that are playing very much into the style ... that consumers are looking for right now."
Mondavi executives tend to agree. The company plans to sell its interests in high-end wineries in Napa and around the world to focus on its lifestyle lines, anchored by Woodbridge and Robert Mondavi Private Selection, which sell for less than $15 a bottle.
The Woodbridge Merlot and Chardonnay are among the country's top-selling wines. Mondavi's lifestyle wines account for 94 percent of the company's volume and 81 percent of its revenues.
Lucas and others have been trying for nearly three decades to get the attention that now is flowing Lodi's way. "Everyone in the business knew (about Lodi), but the consumer didn't," said Craig Rous, director of operations at Bear Creek Winery in Lodi.
Lodi-area growers voted in 1991 to assess themselves about $1 million a year for a commission to promote the industry. That effort - coupled with improved grape-growing practices - increased Lodi's exposure as it gained credence for fine wines and not just bulk grapes.
At Global Wine Partners in St. Helena, industry analyst Vic Motto said Lodi is mimicking successful wine districts through efforts to create a unique image and sense of place. "You will see growth in the areas that can distinguish themselves," he said.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.
Published: October 27, 2004
Original article is here.