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The Iron Stone winery, located in the Sierra Foothills.

Home & Garden: A visit to Wine Country includes grape festival celebration

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For the past month, I have been in California, spending most of my time in Lodi. Lodi has always been a farming community and during the 1930s many people from North Dakota migrated to this area. Over the years, many others followed their relatives to this community.

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Lodi is situated in a flat valley south of Sacramento and east of San Francisco. It has been a major wine grape growing region since the 1850s and it is surrounded by fruit and nut orchards as well as vineyards and wineries. There are 100,000 acres of winegrapes situated between two rivers that course their way to the San Francisco Bay.

The climate here is Mediterranean, with warm, dry summers and cool, moist winters. The average rainfall is 17 inches, occurring from November through April. The warm summer days (on average 20 days over 100 degrees!) allows the grapes to develop full, ripe fruit flavors. However, each evening, breezes from the nearby delta cool the air and help maintain the grapes natural acidity.

Rivers originating in the Sierra Nevada brought soils to the Lodi area creating a deep, well-drained sandy loam. On rolling hills to the east of the Lodi area, there is a stony loam where growers precisely administer irrigation. If the vines are stressed for water late in the spring and early summer, the flavor and color is intensified.

It has been harvest time and it was celebrated with a grape festival. I didn't witness a grape stomp, but saw one pictured in the local paper. Murals created only with grapes are the highlight of the festival. Instead of displays of wheat, corn or potatoes, there were crates of Zinfandel, Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. The Lodi region produces more of these grapes than all other California wine districts and more than well-known Napa and Sonoma combined.

Grapes were always found naturally growing and dangling from the trees along the riverbanks. Lodi is best known for its full-bodied Zinfandel wines and some of the vines are 50 to 100 years old. When prohibition came in 1919, businesses changed from making wine to producing table grapes such as Tokay. Only home winemaking was allowed, so the growers that held on shipped their harvest to those winemakers.

In 1933, there was a rebirth in the Lodi wine industry, but by the 1960s the consumer's tastes had changed, preferring table wines and later quality varietal wines. Many acres were converted to the quality wine grapes and Lodi began to supply a growing demand for premium wines.

There are over 70 wineries, including 5 major wineries, and 45 tasting rooms in the Lodi area. More than 60 leading California wineries buy grapes from this region. Although there is plenty of wine in Lodi, we did make one side trip to the foothills of the Sierra to another winery that is a little more picturesque. This is the former gold rush country, where they make their fortune now with wine instead of gold.

Of all of the wines available, the one that really intrigued me was "Seven Deadly Zins." All in all, it was not too bad to be "Stuck in Lodi Again."

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