Exploring the gateway to the Lodi wine region

Things are often initiated through a glass of wine.

The Oak Farm Estate Vineyard Tasting Center in Lodi. (Courtesy)

Things are often initiated through a glass of wine. I had intended to explore the Lodi region for years but became distracted by other nearby appellations in Napa and Sonoma Counties. Then, within a week, I tasted the dry, aromatic 2018 Sidebar Kerner Mokelumne River ($25), and the highly reviewed 2016 Oak Farm Cabernet Sauvignon ($22-25) from one of Lodi’s largest producers.

The kerner, with origins in Germany, is sourced from the Mokelumne Glen Vineyard in Lodi’s Mokelumne River sub-appellation and the cabernet sauvignon, with small hints of petit verdot and petite sirah, originates from the Oak Farm Estate Vineyard in the Mokelumne River and two other local sub-appellations.

I recently had an opportunity to meet with Dan Panella, Oak Farm co-owner and third generation farmer for a quick lesson on the virtues of the local wine country.

The Panella family first arrived in Lodi more than 80 years ago, operating a trucking business before venturing into grape growing. They purchased the 70-acre historic Oak Farm in 2004, and began an aggressive re-planting program on 60 acres under vine. Today, Oak Farm carefully cultivates 14 different grape varietals, taking full advantage of Lodi’s unique terroir.

The Lodi region, which is divided into seven distinct sub-regions, was designated as an American Viticulture Area (AVA) in 1986. Of more than 500,000 acres in the AVA, 103,000 are currently under vine serving eighty bonded wineries.

With a wine history that dates back to the 1850s, Lodi shares a Mediterranean climate similar to European appellations along the Mediterranean Sea, with warm days and cool nights. Located between San Francisco Bay and the Sierra Nevadas, it’s flat, the soils and microclimates are diverse and water is readily available.

Located in northern San Joaquin County, Lodi also has the distinction that the cost per acre of land is significantly lower than in Napa and Sonoma Counties, something that eventually affects the price of everything, from grapes to a bottle of wine.

Although the appellation is probably best known for its old vine Zinfandel, Lodi and Oak Farm also produce Old World varietals like merlot, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and others.

With over 4,000 cases produced, the Oak Farm Vineyards 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) is their most readily available wine and, with integrated flavors and soft tannins, is widely recognized as a top value-priced cabernet sauvignon. The low-production 2016 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) is also a good buy.

In addition to a crisp tanginess, the flavors of the Oak Farm Vineyards 2017 Sauvignon Blanc ($19), aided by some aging on lees, are balanced with softer tropical fruit, resulting in a rounder wine. The 2018 Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc ($26) uses a well known clone from New Zealand that, matched with the sandy loam soil and extended aging in French oak barrels, delivers a vibrant bouquet and rich, concentrated tropical fruit flavors.

In addition to two small production releases from the nearby Hohenrieder and Mohr-Fry Vineyards, most of Oak Farms zinfandel marks a contrast between the full- bodied, but restrained 2017 Zinfandel ($25) and the aromatic, plush “fruit bomb” known as the 2017 Vapor Trail ($34), combining grapes from the Sierra Foothills with those of Lodi.

Two weirdly unique, but palate pleasing blends from Oak Farms include the 2016 Tievoli ($20-22), a blend of zinfandel, barbera and petite sirah and the syrah- dominant 2017 “Corset,” ($28) with added grenache zinfandel and malbec. Both are fun, complex wines for the price. Dan pointed out that Tievoli is “I love it” spelled backwards.

The white fiano grape is native to southern Italy and Sicily but Oak Farm sources it from Clarksburg near the Sacramento Delta. The 2017 Oak Farm Fiano ($25) won Gold at the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Aside for their diverse assortment of wines. Oak Farm offers one of the most complete tasting experiences in Lodi. The new hosting facility, with modern features that reflect the past, is surrounded by vineyards and has a central courtyard where musicians entertain and customers picnic with a bottle of wine and offerings from local food trucks. They present themselves “as the winery that gives you the Napa experience without the inflated prices.”

Oak Farm wines offer exceptional wines in the medium price range. Tasting and enjoying country food at one of their weekend concerts is a good way to begin a weekend of exploring the Lodi wine region.

Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at sfewine@gmail.com. He is a guest columnist.

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