The area is largely 50-200 feet (15-61 m) above sea level, with flat to moderately hilly topography, sandwiched between the lower foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the east, and the lower elevation (largely below sea level) freshwater marshland of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and Carquinez Strait to the immediate west.
Following the discovery of gold in 1848 in Amador County, a day’s ride from by horseback or wagon, newcomers of primarily European descent arrived to establish farms, ranches and dairies. The settlement was then named Mokelumne, for the river (mokul from the native Miwok word for river, and umne meaning "people of") that largely defines this watershed. The name was changed to Lodi (a number of early settlers having originated from Lodi, Illinois) in 1874. By the 1890s, after initial success with wheat, barley, rye and watermelon, many Lodi farmers were transitioning to grapes.
In those early days the most important grape to the Lodi economy was the vivid, pink-colored Flame Tokay. There was also a growing call for black-skinned wine grapes such as Zinfandel, Carignan, Mission, and Cinsaut, most of which were purchased by El Pinal Winery, a Stockton winery founded in 1858 and one of the California wine industry’s primary sources of plant material, shipped from nurseries in New England.
In response, Lodi growers began to establish their own wineries based on a German model (by the early 1900s most of Lodi's population on the east side of town were of German descent) where growers sell grapes to a jointly owned winery, producing products marketed under their own brands or sold to other wineries (or often, both). The first such cooperative, the Woodbridge Vineyard Association, broke ground in 1905. Several more were established in the years that followed.
Although the start of Prohibition in 1919 limited alcoholic beverage production to all but sacramental wines, Section 29 of the Volstead Act allowed every American household to produce up to 200 gallons (757 liters) of wine a year for their own consumption. Overnight, countless Americans became their own winemakers, and Lodi vineyard owners scrambled to plant more grapes to meet demand. Zinfandel remained a popular choice, as did sturdier, thicker skinned grapes such as the teinturier variety Alicante Bouschet.
Once Prohibition was repealed in 1933 and commercial wine production resumed, Lodi growers picked up where they left off. Between the 1930s and 1970s Lodi continued to be dominated by large cooperatives specializing primarily in sweet, fortified dessert wines, brandies, aperitifs, and low-priced generic table wines (i.e. “jug” wines).
In 1969 industry data indicated that for the first time since pre-Prohibition days, Americans were consuming more table wines than fortified dessert wines, but it would take another 10 years for Lodi wineries to pivot toward table wines. It was not until the late 1990s that the last Lodi grower-owned co-op was dissolved. A few abandoned facilities were later converted into wineries for table wine producers such as Robert Mondavi with the Woodbridge Winery in 1979, Sebastiani, and multi-brand companies, including Constellation, Oak Ridge, and Ironstone.
Starting in the mid-1970s, the number of small, family-owned wineries focused on premium quality wines also began to rise. Since 1991, the number of independent wineries in Lodi has grown from less than a dozen to over 80.
In the 1980s, Lodi growers began to move away from grapes like Chenin blanc, Burger (Monbadon), Grenache and Carignan towards Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. At the same time, the market for Flame Tokay was fast disappearing. An estimated 20,000 acres (8,094 ha) of Flame Tokay were uprooted and replaced by grapes supplying the growing market for varietal wines.
Today, Lodi is the source of over 20% of California Zinfandel production. There are more plantings of old vine Zinfandel (i.e. plantings prior to the mid-1960s, some dating back as far as 1889) in Lodi than anywhere else in the world.
In 1991 the Lodi Winegrape Commission was founded to market and promote the region’s grapes, and initiate viticultural research, educational and sustainable programs such as the industry-leading LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing.
In 2000 a petition was submitted to expand the Lodi AVA on its west and south sides by 93,500 acres (37,838 ha), including an additional 9,240 acres (3,738 ha) of planted wine grapes. The expansion was approved in 2002.
By the dawn of the new century local growers and vintners made it a priority to delineate these increasingly important regions, thus steering conversation towards terroir-related distinctions. This, and a proliferation of wines bearing the "Certified Green" seal for LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing, have helped bolster the region's reputation for responsible viticulture.
The process of carving out new Lodi AVAs began in the summer of 2001. In August 2006, the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) approved the usage of seven new American Viticultural Areas within the broader Lodi AVA:
- Alta Mesa
- Borden Ranch
- Clements Hills
- Cosumnes River
- Mokelumne River
To alleviate concern that usage of sub-AVAs might weaken the hard-won recognition of “Lodi” on wine labels, the petition committee advocated the use of conjunctive language, with names of sub-AVAs placed next to the name of the broader AVA (e.g. "Clements Hills-Lodi" or "Borden Ranch-Lodi"). The TTB requires that at least 85% of any American grown wine must come from any AVA indicated on a label.
Since the early 2000s there has been a significant movement towards "alternative" grape varieties and heritage grapes, notably Zinfandel, but including Alicante Bouschet, Barbera, Cinsaut, Carignan, Mission and Petite Sirah. Over 130 grape varieties are now commercially grown in Lodi.
As of 2018, Lodi represents 105,000 acres/42,492 ha out of a state total of 637,000 acres/257,785 ha*; or 16.5% of California acreage under vine.
Number of Lodi Wineries
- 2000 = 10 wineries
- 2010 = 55 wineries
- 2020 = 85 wineries