When David Lucas and his wife, Heather Pyle-Lucas, established their winery in 1978, a year before Robert Mondavi bought the Woodbridge cooperative a few miles away, Lodi was virtually unknown as a wine destination. The Lucases were trendsetting pioneers.
Flash forward 40 years, and this Central Valley town, population about 65,000, is no longer “up and coming.” It’s flourishing as the nucleus of the state’s largest wine-growing appellation (550,000 acres, 110,000 of them in wine-grape production), with some 80 tasting rooms open to visitors and almost three dozen wineries permitted to hold events.
“It used to be that planners would ask, ‘Where’s Lodi?’ The notion was that it’s a hot, flat valley town, and we sometimes struggled with drawing people here. We don’t get that so much anymore; Lodi is on the map,” says Heather Isbill, director of sales and marketing for Wine & Roses, a destination hotel/restaurant/spa that helped jump-start the town’s reputation as a centrally located, upscale wine destination that delivers lots of bang for the meeting planner’s buck. Lodi is 35 miles north of Sacramento and 90 miles east of San Francisco.
Wine & Roses, a boutique property with 66 guest rooms, is the region’s premier venue for weddings, business meetings, corporate events, executive retreats and banquets. Facilities are spread out campus-style on seven garden acres that also encompass an awardwinning restaurant, the Towne House, and a 6,000-square-foot spa that has earned accolades from major publications. There’s a ballroom accommodating up to 350, an outdoor tented pavilion, numerous nooks, crannies, lawn spaces and private dining areas, plus a next-door visitor center with a tasting room, a casual café and the intimate Cellar Room for groups of up to 60.
There’s also a celebrity culinary director, Bradley Ogden, a James Beard award-winning master who moved to Lodi in 2016 for a lifestyle change, bringing Towne House executive chef John Hitchcock with him from the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I’d been buying produce from Lodi for years, but I didn’t really know where it was,” Ogden recounts. “I just knew it was at the center of a big agricultural region and that it was known for its zinfandels. Then I came here and found that it was like Napa in the late 1980s. I was in the throes of opening another restaurant, it must have been my 33rd, and I saw the possibilities, the growth potential.”
Besides running the Towne House, Ogden oversees food preparation for weddings, meetings, events and a cooking school, as well as culinary operations at the affiliated Rosewood Bar and Grill in downtown Lodi.
Ogden’s influence has helped draw foodies from around the region even as the hotel’s meeting business has grown. “When I started in 2004, our weekday business was nonexistent. Today it’s thriving,” says Isbill, adding that meeting clients include wine industry, health, agricultural and pharmaceutical companies.
With limited overnight capacity, Wine & Roses can’t accommodate all out-of-town event attendees. Other options include a Hampton Inn & Suites, Days Inn & Suites, Holiday Inn Express and Best Western, with several new properties expected to debut this year.
The biggest draws in Lodi are its wineries. Some, like the Lucas Winery, offer highly rated wines served up in small, understated tasting rooms. Others are knock-your-socksoff elaborate. Family-owned Michael David Winery started as a roadside food stand. It now produces 27 different wines, including 7 Deadly Zins, the top-selling zinfandel in the country, and wows leisure travelers and planners alike with its food operation and landscaped grounds dotted with water features and intimate garden settings. Oak Farm Vineyard, a former horse ranch, is another showstopper, with a barn for large events, a club room for smaller gatherings and a plantation-style home, perfect for photo ops, dating to 1876.
Many other types of activities are available in Lodi, from kayaking on Lake Lodi and the Mokelumne River; visiting olive oil producer Calvirgin at Coldani Olive Ranch; learning about the region’s agricultural heritage at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum; or browsing the shops in Lodi’s low-rise downtown. For a sweet treat, one of the country’s oldest A&W Root Beer stands serves up frothy floats topped with memories.