Few San Joaquin success stories can rival that of Lodi grape growers, winemakers and tasting room hosts whose efforts have propelled an unheralded wine region to prominence. Once dismissed as fit for the jug, Lodi products now can be found on the tables of China’s affluent new consumers and menus in Bordeaux.
Locals say their success is owed in no small measure to education and marketing programs initiated by Mark Chandler, former executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission.
“We have a lot to be proud of over the last 20 years with Mark’s leadership at the helm,” says Brad Lange, grower and owner of Lange Twins Family Winery and Vineyards. “He did an admirable job making Lodi a recognizable name throughout the nation. Twenty years ago, growers would have felt that impossible to achieve. Mark brought us together and created a common theme of moving forward.”
Chandler is more modest about his achievement.
“I gave them a little guidance and then got out of the way,” he says of the commission. Consumer appreciation and “demand for our wines, here and abroad” did the rest.
How big that demand would be today and how large the Lodi wine industry would have grown without Chandler is another consideration. Under his guidance, for example, the Lodi Rules workbook for environmentally conscious farming techniques and third-party, sustainable certification made Lodi a model for nationwide emulation.
During Chandler’s tenure, the Lodi Wine and Visitors Center opened its doors, and Lodi began its highly popular series of community festivals, such as the Wine & Chocolate Weekend, Zinfest and The First Sip.
Before he left office at the end of 2011 to create his own marketing firm and tend his vineyard, Chandler helped devise a new promotional ad campaign and welcomed delegations of Asian trade officials. His thinking blended robust vineyards, brand recognition and marketplaces.
Kyle Lerner, co-owner of Harney Lane Winery, saluted Chandler’s “visionary leadership” as one of the chief reasons the Lodi appellation has become “the backbone of the California wine industry.”
Largely due to what Mark (Chandler) has done, we’ve grown from a region mostly unknown to consumers to one confident in growing, selling and competing in the California and national marketplace.
Kyle Lerner, co-owner, Harney Lane Winery
“Largely due to what Mark has done, we’ve grown from a region mostly unknown to consumers to one confident in growing, selling and competing in the California and national marketplace,” Lerner says.
Lodi-label wines reflect that momentum. The trademark Zinfandel has been joined by award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, with new tastes, including Albarino, Syrah, Tempranillo and Viognier, joining the lineup.
The eight local wineries with which Chandler began working now number 85, with 750 growers cultivating more than 100,000 acres — more than Napa and Sonoma combined. Lodi is no longer so anonymous that visitors have to ask the way.
“Now there are over 200,000 visitors a year at local wineries, with people coming from every state and many countries around the world,” Chandler says. “It’s very gratifying to see the increase. Lodi has truly become wine country. ”
The growth of vineyards, wineries, tasting rooms and tourism continue. So do the marketing strategies and techniques with which Chandler helped drive Lodi’s world outreach.
“Mark placed the Lodi growing district in an enviable position and put it on the cusp of exciting future opportunities,” says commission Chair Robert Lauchland. One of the most promising opportunities arrived last winter with officials from Shanghai and Hong Kong. The exuberant Chinese wine market augurs bright possibilities for Lodi wines, evident in the reaction of Lu Rong Hua, director of the Wine Monopoly Bureau of Shanghai, to local Zinfandel and Tempranillo.
“These types of products can be quickly embraced by Chinese consumers,” Hua says.
The quality and pricing of local products are key factors of demand, Chandler says, along with the comfort level visitors enjoy at unpretentious, family-operated tasting rooms. The pursuit of wine happiness remains a constant in hard times as well as good.
“The economy is improving, and people are feeling a little freer about enjoying the affordable luxury of a bottle of wine,” says Chandler, who recently helped initiate LoCA, a print and digital campaign designed to get the word about Lodi out to those who have yet to hear. Connection is the key to sales.
“There is a need for more awareness in the marketplace. Our campaign perfectly positions our wines and our community exactly as they are — fun, real and approachable. The response from consumers to the Lodi label has been extremely positive. Consumers are beginning to discover that Lodi is part of the quality of life.”
While some oenophiles commend Lodi as “the new Napa,” locals say the down-home hospitality of old Lodi remains the centerpiece of visitor welcome, matched with the sustainable cultivation, smart pricing and astute promotions of “the new Lodi.”
Put the two together and you have the Mark Chandler formula for success.
“People in our tasting rooms travel to Lodi as a wine destination and are amazed to discover we’ve been growing grapes for 100 years,” Kyle Lerner says. “Consumers are discovering a brand new wine region and discovering Lodi for the very first time. It’s a very exciting trend, and we hope to see more of that in the future.”
City dwellers driving past the expansive cotton fields and scattered farmhouses along Highway 43 to Corcoran might get the feeling they’ve left California. A haze of dust, bugs and little particles of cow dung blanket the road between Fresno and Bakersfield. Even on a nice day, wiping debris from a car windshield begins to feel futile.