After years of standing vacant, the former Lockeford Cooperative Winery is astir again, this time as a tourist attraction promoting wines of the Lodi-Woodbridge district.

Owner Don Litchfield is banking that prices for wine grapes in the district will be enhanced as more consumers sample, and buy, the wines of the appellation at his one-of-a-kind, complex of micro-winery outlets on Highway 88 east of Lodi.

The industrial plant of 75,000 square feet of floor space and 60 no-nonsense, sturdy, rectangular concrete fermentation vats is being transformed with a Tuscan village-like ambience never envisioned when it was built in 1946.

Litchfield bought the 25-acre site and buildings in 1998. At the time, his company was correcting gasoline or other contamination issues on the environmentally “brown” property, which had been closed for a decade before.

The fourth generation of a North Dakota wheat-growing family and trained as a geologist, Litchfield first visited California in 1987. He had worked on several environmental clean-ups projects at former military bases in Europe, and he and his wife Karen, recalling sights in Germany, Italy, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, saw something more romantic behind the angular structures.

They bought the property, dubbed it the Olde Lockeford Winery, and set about seizing their dreams of a tourist attraction modeled after a Tuscan castle. Although their original thoughts were to create a museum, Litchfield said they were encouraged to go with a micro-winery after talking with Mark Chandler, executive director of the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission. Chandler has been an advocate of bed and breakfast facilities and wine tourism in the district.

‘Wine village’

“After we met for the first time,” Litchfield recalled, “Mark walked around the winery with us and then said two words, ‘wine village.’ That sparked our imagination for the whole project.”

The term micro-winery was lifted from micro-brewery, or a pub where small lots of beer are made for sale on-site. Those at Lockeford have an output of 2,500 cases or less per year. To Litchfield, “small” or “boutique” means the same as “micro.”

The wine visitors' center at Lodi, the Lodi Appellation Winery Association, and Litchfield cooperate to direct tourists between their respective sites and events. One event already being shared with the wineries is an annual sausage festival at Lockeford. He also hopes to stage other community events at his development.

Although they got the old winery at a bargain-basement price, the total investment for the redevelopment will amount to about $3 million. As he phased out of his environmental clean-up business, he concentrated his energies on transforming the complex and making wine.

Complex reworked

Doors and windows have been sawn from the 15-inch-thick concrete walls of the 60,000-gallon vats, now being decorated and furnished as tasting rooms. Slabs removed from the vats even found new uses in patios, courtyards with fountains, and other landscaping to make attractive picnic sites. Litchfield says the robust construction of the buildings is apt “to last a thousand years.”

Massive wooden doors with wrought-iron hardware and facades around windows complete the rustic, European effect. Even the plant's steam boiler, once used for brandy production, is being converted, through some novel salvage work, into a cozy wine-tasting nook.

The nerve center for the “Vino Piazza” is the old scale-house of the winery, and a visitor center and restrooms occupy other buildings. Other space houses the winemaking equipment and temperature-controlled storage for the small batches of clients' wines.

Seventy-five percent of the 1,500 tons of grapes crushed at the site come from the Lodi district, and the balance is brought in from coastal or foothill vineyards. For his own wines, Litchfield prefers grapes from close to home, supporting growers at Acampo, Clements, and other points virtually “close enough to hit with a rock,” he says.

Leases compartments

He leases the compartments, sold-out for the past six months, to 17 micro-wineries, a dozen of which are open every day for tastings of more than district 100 wines, including his own labels. He hopes to see a weekly volume of about 250 visitors, many bound for points of interest in the historic Mother Lode foothills.

In other features at the complex, Litchfield plans to plant several hundred eucalyptus trees. With stands of alfalfa, the trees will help the aerobic-evaporative processing of about one million gallons of wastewater from the winery while providing a visual, aromatic backdrop. He has plans to accept wastewater from 10 other small wineries having difficulty in getting environmental permits for disposal of their effluent water. His plans also include some estate vines.

Enthused with his own early releases, including a 2000 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, Litchfield doesn't put much stock in traditional aging practices.

“Young wine can be fun to drink. Generally, the more you age it the better, but we've experimented a bit here. My wife and I consider ourselves young-wine drinkers, just like a lot of our customers. We sold out of our 2000 and I had to bottle some of the 2001.”

So why should a local grower want to have wines made in the micro-winery? “Unless you have $1 million and several years of time to go through the county and regional water quality control permitting processes, you're not opening your own winery,” Litchfield replies.

Easy entry

“Here, it's first and last months' rent to move in, and everything is taken care of. The growers make up quite a mix, some have long been winemakers and others hire degreed winemakers.”

The growers, he asserts, are excited about producing premium quality varietals and getting a premium return at the same time. “The grape prices they are getting are at least 50 percent higher than what they'd get anywhere else. We are not interested in buying cheap fruit. We are interested in paying what the grower needs for the best fruit, not the most fruit.

So that means, he adds, some fruit will be dropped on the ground, and he would rather pay $1,000 a ton for three tons of better grapes instead of $500 a ton for grapes of lesser quality.

“Then I have a wine I can sell for $15 or $16 a bottle vs. $6 or $8. The grape price is only 50 cents per bottle, but the quality is nearly 100 percent of the potential price per bottle.”