The Lodi Winegrape Commission marked its 20-year anniversary this year, a milestone it shared with Executive Director Mark Chandler.
The commission under Chandler’s guidance has seen remarkable growth and achievements. Once thought of as the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley jug wine growing region, Lodi now is a vibrant wine-tasting scene with scores of boutique and larger wineries. It has its own appellation and sub-appellations, and the Lodi name appears on many wine labels, big and small.
At a wine industry symposium a few years back, one wag noted that Chandler and the commission had successfully removed Lodi from the San Joaquin Valley.
The commission will have to face the challenges ahead without Chandler, however. He’s leaving to launch his own firm, which will specialize in wine marketing, education and exporting.
“It’s tough to leave. It’s been so gratifying to help Lodi build its reputation,” Chandler commented, quickly adding credit to “the team I love working with.”
Chandler said he saw a window of opportunity to go into business for himself. His background uniquely qualifies him for the wine industry: He was raised in Visalia in a grape growing family, has an agriculture degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and has worked as a wine grower, a wine maker, a manager and a marketer.
“I understand the industry from the ground to the consumer glass,” he said.
The commission’s accomplishments under his leadership are many.
In 1991, there were eight wineries in the Lodi area. Today, there are 85, and five to seven new wineries open each year.
“It won’t be long before we are talking about 100,” Chandler said.
The jug wine reputation, built on generic grapes like tokay, chenin blanc and French colombard, is firmly in the rear view mirror. Major wineries like E.&J. Gallo, Bronco and DFV Family Vineyards market wines with the Lodi appellation on the label. Zinfandel is Lodi’s signature grape, but Lodi is also the state’s largest producer of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay.
That kind of recognition builds on itself, Chandler noted: The more that consumers see and hear about Lodi, the more likely they are to try the wines. If they like them, they continue to seek them out, and wineries take note and produce more Lodi appellation wines.
The Winegrape Commission wages an aggressive marketing campaign to get the Lodi name in front of winemakers and consumers alike.
That includes bringing wine writers from around the world to Lodi to meet the growers and wineries and taste the products.
Once they see and taste what’s going on in Lodi, they are impressed.
“We’ve had a 100 percent conversion rate, whether they are from Great Britain, Korea or Atlanta,” Chandler said.
Chandler does seminars for consumer and trade associations, and when there weren’t many Lodi wines on the market, the commission had wines made and bottled as samples for wine and grape buyers.
The marketing efforts would fall flat if the wines didn’t live up to the hype, and the commission worked to improve quality as well.
“In the mid-’90s, we had a quality enhancement program. We invited winemakers to come taste wines with growers in a seminar format,” Chandler said. “We had 80 to 100 growers, and the winemakers talked about how they made wine and what could be improved to communicate the winemakers’ concerns to the growers.”
The commission’s goal has always been to increase the number of wineries in the Lodi region, and it held evening seminars for a few years with winery owners and marketers to help growers understand the business.
Sustainability is a buzz word in agriculture these days and the Winegrape Commission was way ahead of that curve, as well, starting a program in 1991. The program includes a broad range of best practices, from pesticide and herbicide use to air and water quality and human resources.
By the time the rest of the wine industry got involved almost a decade later, Lodi had already published a winegrower’s textbook on sustainability. That led to a set of standards dubbed “The Lodi Rules” and a certification process. About a quarter of Lodi’s 100,000 acres of vineyards are certified under the program.
The certification is a marketing tool, as well, Chandler noted. Some wineries pay a bonus to growers who are certified and “at the retail and wholesale level, the trade is asking for environmental credibility.”
Where does the commission go from here as it seeks a new leader?
Chandler noted that the region is leading a movement toward planting new Spanish, Italian and Portugese varietals, and the commission just launched a new consumer campaign with print and digital advertising.
Called LoCA for Lodi, CA, and a play on the Spanish word for crazy, the ads say Lodi is crazy about wine.
Exports are growing rapidly, especially in the Far East, and have the potential to smooth out the cyclical nature of the winegrape industry, Chandler said.
“We have representatives from Hong Kong, Korea and China in here regularly, touring wineries,” he said. That’s a result of trips Chandler made to Shanghai to tout the Lodi region.
“It’s all about relationships. We made those contacts, and people now are coming here,” he said.
So the future looks great for Lodi, and the commission will continue to market the region, pushing for sustainability and quality. But it will have to do it without its leader of the past two decades.
“It has been 20 years, it’s been my honor to work with some of the greatest growers in the industry,” Chandler said. “We have great leadership here. They are willing to take a risk. It’s been a great assignment for me for 20 years.”