Yet another wine region, Lodi-Woodbridge, is checking in. This one is in California's Central Valley, and unless you want to pay $15 or $20 every evening for dinner wine, Lodi (Woodbridge, so far as I can see, is superfluous unless you live there) is a noteworthy name.
Makers of prestigious wines up in Napa and Sonoma, and even over on the Central Coast, tend to speak of the grapes and wines of Lodi with just the slightest hint of disdain, even though these grapes, inexpensive and abundant, are the key to the high-volume, low-end wines that pay the light bill of more distinguished wineries.
The jug wines made since the end of Prohibition have come mostly from the hot, dry valley roughly between Lodi and Fresno. Gallo, still headquartered in Modesto, laid the foundation of its empire in Central Valley vineyards.
But when you see a chardonnay, a cabernet sauvignon, or a zinfandel labeled simply “California,” not Napa, for example, you can be pretty sure that most of the juice is the gift of Lodi's abundance. Only slowly, as Central Valley growers and winemakers have begun to take seriously the potential of their land, has “Lodi,” a wee bit shy, begun to appear on labels.
And what you and I should bear in mind is that rapidly improving quality is ahead of recognition. I have happy memories of sitting under some shade trees on the edge of a century-old zinfandel vineyard, the Peirano Estate, sipping what remains the best zin I've ever had.
There's not a lot of Peirano zin made, and little if any shows up on our retail shelves, but you might look for a label that looks rather like the side of a circus wagon: an ornate frame in shiny gold encloses a bright blue and greenish-yellow, a windmill close at hand, a distant mountain, and, in the same shiny gold, the name Phillips. Eventually they'll have to change the name - apparently the R.H. Phillps Winery up in the high Sierras got there first - but meanwhile they make two zins, a '99 single vineyard zin, Maley, and a '98 old-vine zin. Each is suggested by the winery to cost $18, but if you appreciate an impressive zin, that won't seem unduly costly.
This Phillips - two brothers are the proprietors - markets a broad spectrum: a '98 chard that's . . . well, another chard; a '98/'99 viognier well worth the $15 price tag; and a '99 mourvedre, at $14, that's not quite Paul Draper's Ridge mataro, but a sound second-stringer.
Remember the name, and once you've seen the label you won't need to be reminded of it again; it's one to become familiar with.
Meridian Vineyards, having discovered that restaurant wine stewards can be male chauvinists in practice if not, perhaps, in principle, handing the list to the man in mixed company and offering him the first pour, has put out a clever folder, “7 Things Every Gal Should Know About Ordering Wine,” that promises to inspire confidence and to right the gender imbalance. For a free copy, go to www.meridianvineyards.com or write Meridian Vineyards Brochure, P. O. Box 111, St. Helena, CA 94574.
Robert Kirtland is The Blade's wine critic.