“Exquisite,” said the waitress with enthusiastic candor from behind the counter at Corner Scone Bakery in Lodi, California, when asked to describe the blueberry muffin sample she was setting out for tasting. This word resonated the spirit of my time in this flat farming community north of Stockton. Pronounced LOW DYE, this unassuming berg has been overshadowed by its well-known cousins to the northwest.  Even though grapes have grown here since the late 1800’s, it was not until a century later that the Lodi AVA was established in 1986.

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My husband maintained an air of skepticism as we drove east, after picking me up at the Oakland International Airport. He had spent the weekend with good friends exploring the Napa wine region sampling wines at  Cade, Hess, Sinskey, and Rombauer.

Ninety minutes later, we Yelp-searched and decided on the takeout counter at La Campana Taqueria inside the La Campana Food Tortilla Factory tucked away in an industrial park. After securing our order, we took our chorizo tacos, flautas, and a chile relleno burrito supreme to the nearby Samuel D. Salas Park where we found a picnic bench in the sun. The tasty and fresh food satisfied our nostalgic yearnings for Mexican fare and refueled us for wine tasting.

We headed to the Lodi Wine and Visitor Center to pick up some maps and information. Gina Licari, Tasting Room Associate, greeted us with cheer and advised us on places we should explore. She marked up maps with daily itineraries for our short stay. Arriving on a Tuesday afternoon proved challenging as most tasting rooms were shuttered.  Most facilities welcome visitors on Thursdays, Fridays and weekends, providing opportunities to sample wines from the  more than 95  wineries in the area. Of course, private appointments can be made, but I wanted to discover what was available to the general public without detailed planning.

Our first stop was Oak Farm Vineyards, situated on 70 acres just south of the Mokolumne River. The winery building was freshly lined with vertical wood planking, adorned with a red metal roof, situated on manicured grounds. A Zen spirit lingered, ready to embrace a crowd. A wedding, perhaps? From the infinity fountain to the high chimney fireplace reigning over a spacious courtyard, the decor was both rustic and elegant. The venue signalled entertainment and community.

The wines were young, featuring a stainless steel fermented 2014 Verdelho; a light red, and an almost rosé-like 2014 Grenache; followed by a spicy, floral, and honeyed 2014 Gewürztraminer. The Corset was a medium bodied blend of 78% Grenache “lifted and supported” by 22% Petite Sirah. The Malbec 2014 carried blackberry and tobacco notes in its dark purple color with the Zinfandel (Wegat Vineyard) 2012 showcasing jammy berries and caramel notes. The garnet colored 2014 Vapor Trail made with grapes from Shenandoah Valley of the Sierra Foothills highlighted black fruit and ephemeral spice notes.

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Our next stop was Van Ruiten Family Vineyards where we tasted a dozen wines. Along with the iconic Zinfandels, I also wanted to sample some uncommon varietals for the region. The 2012 Reserve Ancient Vine Carignane from 106 year old vines carried dark berry and spice notes while the 2013 Pinot Noir exhibited bright acidity with herbs, cherry and vanilla flavors.  The 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel was definitely a crowd pleaser – very drinkable with good blackberry pie and caramel notes while the 2011 Reserve Sideways Zinfandel highlighted pepper and raisin blackberry.

By now, our room was ready at the Wine and Roses Hotel. The second floor room on the west side of the complex provided respite in the shade of cedar trees. Beware, as there are no elevators to the upper floor. My husband acted as bellman for neighboring guests. Our room painted in “grapey” purple was spacious, with a gas fireplace and French doors opening into a corner balcony above the The Spa. The aqua colored bathroom lined with polished rock flooring offered a tactile experience to the bare foot.

Wine and Roses, once a working ranch and farmhouse, now owned by Russ and Kathryn Munson for nearly 15 years, has been transformed to a luxurious B and B. Located adjacent to a multi-lane thoroughfare, across from a strip mall and apartment buildings, this place provided a welcome escape.

Inside the grounds, paths through lush flowers and trees meander throughout. Caged tropical birds twilled or spoke to guests who wandered by. Water features offer soothing respite. The Towne House Restaurant, located in an historic cottage, provided intimate dining. My breakfast the next morning of a Florentine Omelette and my husband’s Joe’s Special Scramble were prepared with refined delicacy.

That night, our friends Kathy and Russ Taylor treated us to their local neighborhood favorite: Sushi Komachi.  Here we devoured beautifully prepared “Special Rolls” of “HELLO” made with “Smoke salmon, cream cheese, avocado topped with crab salad, scallop, green onion and tobiko,” “LOLLIPOP” – “Tuna, salmon, albacore and crab salad wrapped in cucumber,” and “MIDNIGHT” – “Seared tuna, avocado, cucumber, topped with avocado, spicy crab salad and torched, tobiko, jalapeno.”

The next day, our morning run took us to Lodi Lake past the massive General Mills plant. Here we jogged into the Lodi Wilderness area on a well-tracked pedestrian path that took us through groves of oak trees, by wetlands with geese and ducks, and by a fisherman who landed a bass as we cruised by. The 2.5-mile loop was a welcome sanctuary frequented by locals.

Today’s first wine tasting stop was located within the hotel, at the Lodi Wine and Visitor Center. Gina Licari began the tasting with a 2014 Borra Vineyards Vermentino offering fresh crisp notes of lemon and lime, green apple and hints of mineral and petrol. The 2014 Harney Lane Albariño exuded green apple, zest of lemon and lime and tropical fruit with crisp freshness and yet has some slight weight. Because I had asked about Spanish varietals and the local winery featuring them, Bokisch, was closed for remodeling, she opened a bottle of the 2012 Bokisch Graciano. This black skinned grape was originally grown in northern Spain, in Navarra and Rioja. The wine was deep and dark in color with chocolate, plum, blueberry, and blackberry and a few leafy notes with soft tannins.

Gina then enthusiastically shared 2013 Michael Klouda (MK) Stem Theory with 90% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petite Sirah and 5% Petite Verdot. Stems were put back into the fermentation to extract tannins. The deep dark purple-red colored wine with aromas of red and black berries, and herbs will tame with some aging. Finally, three “Old Vine” Zinfandels: 2012 Bokisch Vineyards Tizona, 2013 m2 Wines Soucie Vineyard, and 2013 Klinker Brick Winery Old Ghost were poured to illustrate how nature and nurture can vary. Tizona carried cherry pie notes with an earthy finish while Soucie Vineyard highlighted more jammy notes combined with butterscotch and cola. Finally, Old Ghost exhibited rich cooked blackberry essences. Not only did we leave with our palates a little more educated, Gina printed a map of the Lodi AVA as well as supplied us with information on crush, pricing and an article on how Randy Caparoso had inspired six Lodi winemakers to participate in the Lodi Native Project where each wine was made utilizing ambient yeast fermentation in neutral vessels with minimal intervention, allowing for natural expression.

Finally, Gina arranged for a private tasting at St. Amant Winery. Located in an industrial area adjacent to East Bay Municipal Utility District offices, we were welcomed into a tasting room inside a warehouse by winemaker Joel Ohmart, and cellar-rat Nathan Haberkern who led us through a sampling of St. Amant’s rustically robust Iberian style wines. The 2014 Barbera had great strawberry and blackberry notes mixed with cured meat and herbs. I agreed with Nathan that this would “go particularly well with Bagna Cauda.” The 2013 Speakeasy Red blended with Zinfandel, Barbera, Souzao, Tempranillo, and a secret ingredient showed dark berry, plums and cola while the 2013 Tempranillo described by Nathan as the cabernet sauvignon of Spain, featured chewy dark berry spicy meat and tobacco characteristics. Finally we sipped the 2012 Port with grapes from Amador that showed milk chocolate and root beer hovering over dark berry flavors, and the 2013 Late Harvest Barbera (The Cat’s Meow) with zingy acidity, muted sweetness, and good “grapey” notes.

We then headed across the street to McCay Cellars, stepping into another industrial setup, but here an avant garde, funky modernist vibe greeted us. The wines were well crafted with bright acidity. The 2014 Viognier exuded notes of stone fruit, mineral and violets followed by a 2013 Cinsaut carrying essences of strawberry with ephemeral whiffs of rose petals, and the 2013 Grenache exhibiting cherry pie, earth, flint and leather. After this experience, I strongly considered shifting from a Pinot Noir lover to a Grenache admirer.

Though we arrived at the local eatery Zin Bistro 15 minutes before the end of their lunch service, we were warmly welcomed and quickly served.  In this chic and intimate restaurant, the diner had views onto the street as well as into the kitchen. My “Wild Mushroom Tartine” was filled with creamy blue cheese richness while my husband’s “Kobe Beef Burger” provided down-home goodness. Real minced pieces of garlic adorned the fries giving them a spicy punch.

We then drove into downtown and headed to Jeremy Wine Company located inside an old storefront. If we lived here, we would surely be regulars for the 2013 Jeremiah Jug Lodi wine made with 60% Zinfandel, 30% Petite Sirah, and 10% Petit Verdot with bright blackberry jam flavors tempered with vanilla notes. The 2014 Abariño showcased stone fruit, the seasonal JOY blend of Merlot and Teroldego with black cherry and plum notes seasoned with sweet spice, chocolate and vanilla, and the 2013 Primitivo Amador exhibits bright black fruits with vanilla and spice. The showcasing of fruit continued with the 2013 Tempranillo and 2013 Barbera, and so it was no wonder that a Chocolate Port was produced here.

Our tour around town took us to Cheese Central where Cindy Della Monica proudly showed us her cooking school and provided samples of cheeses. If one was not a food lover, Cindy would quickly convert any skeptic as she radiated enthusiasm and knowledge in her space filled with gourmet food items, wine, beer, local olive oils, and cookbooks.

Because our friends had worked a long day, we invited them over for takeout from Thai Spices Restaurant. We gathered in the back corner of the pool patio at Wine and Roses, and feasted on fresh “Spring Rolls,” “Som Tom” – “Traditional Thai style shredded green papaya with carrots and dried shrimp tossed with tomatoes, chili, garlic in lime juice and roasted peanuts,” “Pad Thai” noodles, “Red Curry” and “Thai Fried Chicken.” The food was fresh, flavorful, and spiced moderately.

Before we headed back to the Bay Area the next morning, we breakfasted at Corner Scone Bakery where we both ordered an egg with chipotle breakfast sandwich that came secured by a string in parchment paper, and a pumpkin scone chosen from over a dozen selections. The sandwich was a delicate crispy ciabatta encasing a delicious beginning for our day, while the scone was light and deliciously spiced. This small intimate space owned by Terrie Green and managed by Tara Miller exemplified what passion and hard work bring to be. For me when I search for places to eat, this was a gem for it was truly exquisite.

When opportunity presents itself again, we will surely return to this hamlet in the sun.