James Cameron couldn't have scripted it better, the way 76-year-old Wanda Woock, grande dame of the Lodi wine country, pointed a finger at her gold brooch and then at a photograph of the very same brooch a hundred years back, glinting like pure Hollywood magic on a young woman's lace collar. Peering out from a gilt frame on the wall of the rustic tasting room at Jessie's Grove Winery, the young woman looked familiar. So I asked: "Is that you, by any chance?"
With a dramatic pause, as if she'd been waiting for this question, Woock smiled and said, "That's my grandmother. That's Jessie."
While my brain ran the numbers, and recalled the grove of old-growth oak trees outside--Jessie's, perhaps?--with its picnicking grounds among old farm buildings, my ear caught the sound of bluegrass on the stereo. Then Woock gestured to another photo and I got a weird tingling feeling, as if a door were about to creak open in the fabric of time. I had yet to taste the winery's Earth, Zin and Fire, despite the brochure's tease, "Our groovin' zin is your stairway to heaven," but already Woock was telling me about her great-grandfather coming from Germany in 1854, riding to California in a covered wagon, trading his horse for a useless gold claim, and then working so hard that he owned 1,000 acres by 1869. He'd built the barn we stood in by 1870, and planted his first vineyard about 10 years later. Woock's grandson, Greg Burns, runs the winery now.
The wine, of course, is what brought me out here. A friend had left a bottle of red at our house, my wife opened it while I was running errands, and she called my cell to rave. Liz never raves about wine. She grew up in a food-and-wine-obsessed family, and took away the bedrock conviction that nothing good ever comes from overexcitement about food and wine. I live in a constant state of overexcitement about food and wine, and so the moment I got home, I poured a glass and read the label.
All it said was "Cigarzin," which sounded like an obscure European principality, but when I slurped a mouthful I knew I had a serious data point toward understanding my wife. The wine was huge and velvety, with minimal puckering tannins or tart acids, and a dense, seductive rush of blueberry syrup.
While I sipped a second glass, I Googled. I learned that Cigarzin was the name of this particular Zinfandel blend--fruit paired with stogies, was it? It hailed from a winery called Cosentino that also produced a Lodi Zinfandel named, with blessed directness, The Zin.
I already knew that my wife's father loved 7 Deadly Zins (by the same Lodi winemakers responsible for 7 Heavenly Chards), and so, with no greater ambition than to stock up on wines my wife could love, I drove on a Sunday afternoon out through the San Joaquin River delta, met Wanda Woock, and began understanding that Lodi is at the same time one of California's oldest wine regions and its newest, the biggest in terms of the volume of grapes grown and one of the smallest in terms of the number of local wineries making Lodi-labeled wine.
As for the location of Lodi wine country, the nice version goes like this: If you follow the marine breezes through the Golden Gate and up through the tranquil waters of the north bay, and then over miles of bird-filled wetlands, you'll come to a peaceful, Mediterranean flatland of old Zinfandel vineyards--Jessie's Grove being the very oldest. The not-so-nice version puts Lodi wine country smack in between I-99 and I-5 in the heart of the Central Valley, bordered on the north by the Sacramento suburbs and on the south by sprawling Stockton.
Both are true, but if you tune out the old Credence Clearwater lyric ("Oh! Lord, stuck in Lodi again . . ."), surrender to the music of Lodi's own self-image, and plot the drive accordingly, you're in for a treat. The country highways radiating from the Bay Area take you right there, winding along the banks of the Sacramento, past shimmering eucalyptus trees under a sweeping sky.
Grapes grew wild around here when the Miwok hunted antelope and grizzlies prowled the foothills, and the first vineyards went in during the Gold Rush, in 1850. Prohibition shut down the wineries, but the law allowed for home winemaking, so Lodi grape farmers prospered in the 1920s by shipping grapes to the big cities. After repeal, those farmers kept it up, with a focus on grape farming instead of winemaking.