Lodi wine industry eyes agri-tourism boom

Time was when practically no one wanted, in the lyrics of a popular song, to be “Stuck in Lodi Again.” But things are changing for the prim San Joaquin County town on Highway 99 between Stockton and Sacramento and its wine grape industry.

Keyed to a charming regeneration of downtown businesses and freshly cobbled streets set off by the centerpiece of a restored railway station, the community is promoting agri-tourism, once largely the province of the toney North Coast grape country.

Anyone who hasn't visited Lodi and its environs in the last five or 10 years will delight in the transformation. Acres of ancient, six-foot, gnarled Tokays and squat, dry-farmed Zinfandels and Carignanes are gone, replaced by legions of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc vines trellised at an alert dress-right-dress.

No small part of the change has been driven by the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission, established by district growers in 1991 to supply marketing, promotion, research, and education.

Executive director Mark Chandler, observing nine years on the job, talked about the commission during the recent 49th Annual Grape Day at Lodi.

Huge increases

Over the last decade, grapes in the district nearly doubled to 75,000 acres, the number of wineries buying grapes there tripled to more than 60, and the number of wineries in the district doubled to nearly a dozen. Wine appellations rose from six to nearly 100.

Wine grape value of the district shot from $75 million to $300 million, and while prices have fallen from 1997 highs, average grower returns increased from less than $300 a ton in 1991 to $570 a ton last season.

The future for the district's 600-plus growers, Chandler said, “is more wineries for more recognition and visiting tourists, and that adds up to higher prices and returns to growers. It gives us the critical mass to grow our regional reputation.”

Others have found, as Chandler noted, growing grapes is one business, making wines is another, and selling the wine is something altogether different. In response, the commission plans to launch an educational program this spring to train interested grape growers to vertically integrate their businesses.

And of those shying away from the wine industry, he asked, what about opening a bed-and-breakfast, a restaurant, or maybe a café at the old home place?

Kara Dondero, manager of the Lodi Wine Visitors Center, said it is busy too, assembling all sorts of attractions, from tastings of wines made from district grapes to demonstration vineyards and grape growing “boot camps” to initiate urban consumers.

The center, which drew more than 150 visitors during slow January Saturdays and Sundays and forecasts up to 1,000 during weekends this summer, has taken ads in wine publications and on highway billboards. It's all with the intention to market district wines to the San Francisco Bay Area and far beyond, she said.

Tourism is a powerful economic tool, agreed Sharon Dais, executive director of the Lodi Conference and Visitors Bureau.

Dais, a local native, said the grape and wine industry of San Joaquin County draws 66,000 visitors who leave $8.6 million each year. Tourism in California is on a track, she added, to more than double in the next 10 years.

Tourists are eager to get away for a nostalgic outing, to enjoy a quality product along with an experience recalling simpler times and putting them in touch with the land.

The blend, agri-tourism, can be really big business, she said, as it meets twin purposes of income to farmers and preservation of the agricultural base.

What's happening in and around Lodi is unquestionably refreshing as it shucks the old “stuck” image. It doesn't have all the answers, but perhaps it helps lighten the load of darker concerns of agriculture throughout California.

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