In Lodi, the Perfect Pairing of Wine & Cheese

The pairing of wine and cheese has existed for centuries, but now it seems like everyone is doing it, perhaps because fine cheeses are becoming more popular and more wineries are offering cheese plates. This trend has resulted in new cheese shops and wine/cheese bars like The Rind in Sacramento, but I decided to head to the nearby town of Lodi to experience what I’ve heard people talking about–the cheese shop and new tasting bars in Lodi’s expanding downtown.

A Cheese Shop for Wine Lovers

Cheese and Wine in Lodi, California

In downtown Lodi, a cheese shop among boutiques, restaurants and wine tasting rooms

Cindy, the cheesemonger and owner of Cheese Central, is happy to share her knowledge of cheeses and help customers select a cheese for a particular wine or beer. Customers can try a variety of cheeses and then take their purchases to try with wine at a nearby winery or tasting room. 

Cheese and Wine in Lodi, California

The friendly staff at Cheese Central offer tastings of several cheeses

Cheese Central has more than 100 cheeses, but it’s about much more than cheese. Locally made olive oil is available to taste and purchase, and in the increasing interest of sustainability, repeat customers can bring in their glass oil container to refill. Cindy is also a chef and member of Slow Food U.S.A.; she offers regular cooking classes and sells carefully selected craft beers, honey, and chutneys.

Cheese and Wine in Lodi, California

Locally made olive oil to taste and buy at Cheese Central

In Wine, What’s Old is New Again

Lodi is becoming a destination for wine lovers in Northern California, and the number of wine bars opening in Lodi’s downtown reflects the region’s increasing popularity. In my effort to discover what’s new and different, I stopped in Riaza Wines to experience their unique take on winemaking in California. The secrets to Lodi’s quality wines are that just about any grape varietal can grow there, and the winemakers are not afraid of taking risks. For winemaker Rick, this means traditional varietals from Spain are used to make Old World style wines more reminiscent of Europe than California.

Cheese and Wine in Lodi, California

All Spanish varietals at Riaza Wines tasting room

Riaza Wines is a modern wine tasting room located just half a block off the downtown’s main street. Using grapes sourced from just 4 local growers, Rick makes Spanish-style wines with varietals such as Tempranillo, Graciano and Albariño. After falling in love with Spain and learning about its wine, he decided to try his hand at winemaking in California’s agricultural Central Valley. According to Rick, “you can go out and put a toothpick in the ground and grow something–the soil is just so rich.”

It’s this rich soil and valley climate (hot, sunny days and cool nights) that allow over 100 varietals to grow here, creating a place where winemakers like Rick who want to experiment with lesser-known varietals can push the limits of what has been considered possible in California wine country. The results are adding a welcome new dimension to California wine, one that innovates and provides alternatives to the big, robust wines that California is so famous for.

Cheese and Wine in Lodi, California

A mix of contemporary and rustic at Riaza Wines in downtown Lodi

Riaza Wines provides a cozy atmosphere with stools for sitting at the tasting bar and a Spanish-style array of bar snacks like olives and almonds. For me, talking to Rick was like talking to an old college friend–he’s down to earth, reflecting a true passion for what he does combined with the modesty of someone who is excited to keep learning and trying new things. Rick has plenty to be proud of, though, as the following list of wines shows.

Cheese and Wine in Lodi, California

Rick and the red wines at Riaza Wines

2012 Verdejo: Riaza is 1 of only 4 wineries in California making a Verdejo (not to be confused with the very different Verdelho, a Portuguese varietal). It’s an unusual white wine varietal that I expect to see more of in California’s future. Rick has produced a crisp white with bright notes of lime and pear.

Tempranillo: Riaza’s tasting flight includes 3 Tempranillos, all made of 100% Tempranillo but each from a different vineyard. Tasting 3 of these together demonstrates how the terroir, including the elevation, climate, and land, produce very different expressions in the wine.

  • 2011 Tempranillo from Lodi: Due to Lodi’s heat, this is the fruitiest and most expressive of the Tempranillos and was also my favorite.
  • 2011 Tempranillo from Amador County: At 2200 ft. elevation, this comes from the Sierra Nevada foothills, producing an earthy yet fruity wine with a striking nose dominated by soil.
  • 2011 Tempranillo from El Dorado County: At 2600 ft. elevation, this one is described by Rick as a reflection of old world aromas and a new world fruity palate.

Viña Selecta: The winner of a silver medal from the 2014 San Francisco Chronicle wine competition, this blend of Tempranillos from all 3 vineyards, Graciano and Granache displays a lovely combination of fruit with earthy tones of leather, cigar and soil.

2011 Monastrell: Grown in Amador County, this is another unusual varietal that I enjoyed trying. The wine is light in color but with a much bigger palate than what the color would lead you to expect.

2011 Graciano: Another lesser-known varietal, these Graciano grapes grown in Lodi result in an elegant yet bold wine.

Rick told me that he wanted to capture what Spain is in a bottle and bring that here to California wine country. I think he has succeeded. This is one of my favorite Lodi finds, a winery that gets good results from the excellent growing conditions of this region and the innovation of the winemaker. Riaza Wines is open Friday-Sunday 1:00-6:00 and tastings cost $7. The tasting fee is waived with a wine purchase.

By the way, where did this interest in wine and cheese in Lodi come from? While I have enjoyed Lodi and its wines for some time, I recently got an invitation to experience wine and cheese pairings through an online tasting. I gladly participated, eager to learn about something I know very little about: how cheese is paired with specific wines and how a cheese can bring out flavors in wine and vice-versa. Listening to Cindy of Cheese Central and Jeremy of Jeremy Wine Co. explain wine and cheese pairings inspired me to pay downtown Lodi another visit.

Wine and Cheese in Lodi, California

The tasting bar at Jeremy Wine Co. in downtown Lodi

If you’re looking for a specific wine and cheese pairing while in Lodi, I recommend the Midnight Moon cheese made by Cypress Grove–an aged Gouda made from goat’s milk–with the 2011 Jeremy Wine Co. Old Vine Zinfandel (cheese available at Cheese Central and wine at Jeremy Wine Co. about one block away). Over the top delicious!

What are some of your favorite wine country discoveries? Any recommendations for wine and cheese pairing?

P.S. Much more about Lodi wine here.

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