How a California wine region is ‘growing futures’ by turning vineyards into state-of-the-art classrooms
Jim Fields and Emmeline Zhao | August 2, 2023
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The primary industry in Lodi, California, is agriculture. About 40 miles southeast of the capital city of Sacramento, this land flanking the Mokelumne River is blanketed in grapevines dating back to 1850. But in this grape-producing powerhouse, which produces 20% of all of California’s wine grapes, just 80 independent wineries stand. Farmers sell most of their crop to other winemakers in other regions, especially Napa County and its 475 wineries producing more than 1,000 different brands.
Lodi’s position as a region that grew and sold its grapes — rather than making its own wine — was solidified in the 1920s during Prohibition. When other winemaking regions crumbled, Lodi flourished by capitalizing on one provision in the Volstead Act of 1919 that permitted every head of household to make up to 200 gallons of fermented fruit juice for their own consumption. In the blink of an eye, Americans across the country all became winemakers. Lodi’s farmers quickly turned their businesses from growing grapes for local winemakers and co-ops to growing and shipping grapes to home winemakers across America — and the model stuck.
Over the past three decades the crop value has quadrupled in Lodi, and the number of independent wineries is edging up, in an effort to encourage wine tourism and local winemaking — and, in effect, creating a career pathway for area students. The nonprofit group San Joaquin A+ partnered with the Lodi Unified School District, Delta College and the Lodi Winegrape Commission to design a technical education curriculum and internship pipeline to prepare students for careers in the winegrowing, winemaking and hospitality industries. The program, Growing Futures, is now in its first year, and has been described as an innovative solution to the skills gap, a financially rewarding career path for many young people, and a much-needed economic boost for family farms.