Lodi wine commission’s executive leaves to ‘write a new chapter’

Mark Chandler, the Lodi Winegrape Commission’s executive director since its inception in 1991, retired at the end of 2011 after 20 years on the job.

Chandler and the commission steered the Lodi wine industry through challenging times that included a years-long wine glut, an economic recession, and the threat of the vine killing glassy winged sharpshooter. And it was an environment he appreciated.

“As a marketer this was a classic assignment,” Chandler said of his time with the commission. “We accomplished many goals, among them improving awareness of the region and elevating Lodi in the world of fine wines.”

During Chandler’s tenure the commission developed the Wine and Visitor Center in Lodi, established the Wines of Lodi Wine Club, created a Lodi Wine App, put in place the Lodi Rules of certified green sustainable winegrowing, and recently rebranded the wines of Lodi with the “LoCA” logo.

“The Wine and Visitor Center is unique, the only one in California and one of only two in the entire country, the other being in New York,” Chandler said.

Today, the Lodi area has more than 100,000 acres planted to winegrapes farmed by 750 growers. The region’s annual yield of about 600,000 tons of grapes – with a value exceeding $300 million – comprises 20 percent of California’s winegrape production, which is more than Napa and Sonoma counties combined.

“When I began work with the commission in 1991 there were eight wineries in the area,” said Chandler. “That number has grown to 85 wineries and I expect more than 100 wineries will be established in the near future.”

The Lodi wine industry has created thousands of jobs, boosted tourism with events such as Zinfest, Wine and Chocolate, Treasure Island Wine Fest, and The First Sip, and has benefited from the commission, growers and wineries being united in marketing and selling Lodi appellation wines.

A recent study by Stonebridge Research Group of Napa revealed the massive economic impact of the Lodi wine industry: $409.5 million in wine tourism, $1.6 billion in wine sales, more than $300 million indirect and direct benefits, and $325 million paid in taxes.

Before the boom, the early years were definitely different, said Chandler.

“Lodi was known as an anonymous producer of fine wines for larger wineries to use in jug and boxed wines,” he said. “We’ve transformed Lodi wines and now they are included among the top 100 wines by Wine Enthusiast Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle.”

Booming business or not, Chandler said that after 20 years, he’s “ready to write a new chapter in my career” and will continue to work on domestic and export development in wine education in the United States and abroad.

“I’m rooted in Lodi with 180 acres of winegrapes,” he said, adding that he expects to be involved in “marketing, public relations, export development, and Lodi wineries.”

A Visalia native, Chandler’s family has farmed grapes, citrus, treefruit, and olives for seven generations. He earned his bachelor’s degree in agriculture business at California Polytechnic State University and graduated from the California Farm Bureau Federation Agricultural Leadership Program. He and his wife Jan have two adult children and Jan is president of two agricultural oriented businesses in Lodi.

“Lodi reminds me of Visalia … only it’s much cooler here,” Chandler said. “Lodi’s warm days and cool nights are perfect for our wines.”

Chandler is exiting his position during an expansion of the global wine market, which is good news for Lodi wines.

“The U.S. is now the largest wine market in the world and the worldwide competition for the U.S. market is fierce. Lodi must continue to promote and build awareness overseas to continue increasing market share,” he said.

“Lodi is known as a haven of quality and reliability,” he said, attributes which will serve the area well as the domestic market grows and the export market continues to develop rapidly. “Lodi will do very well in exports. China is looking for major volume and I’ve been over there three times promoting Lodi wines.”

He said the wine industry could be “surprised by export growth in the Scandinavian countries – Finland, Sweden, Norway – which want Lodi zinfandel and lots of it.”

Chandler attributes his success to putting a high priority on teamwork and performance and “having long-term employees who are committed to the program.”

Most of all, Chandler said he is “proud of the leadership” he and the commission provided in “sustainable viticulture that is now known worldwide. This is directly attributable to our growers.”

“It’s been a great privilege to be here to represent the best growers in the county,” Chandler said. “It’s been an honor to work with such great people.”

A nationwide search for Chandler’s successor is underway.