Mendocino County Takes The Lead

Ξ April 29th, 2010 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries |

On April 27th I had the distinct pleasure of attending the 2nd annual Taste of Mendocino, America’s Greenest Wine Region at the Golden Gate Club in San Francisco’s Presidio. This well attended, downright crowded event, was a revelation. Living for far too long in the shadow of Napa and Sonoma, the membership of the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission (MWWC), some 84 wineries and 343 winegrape growers strong, has decided enough is enough. Among their multiple initiatives is the effort to put their wines and progressive green credentials before the American public. In this time of environmental concerns, climate change, debates over ‘natural’ and biodynamic wines, of the American consumer’s evolving palate, Mendocino County has a wisdom and a vision accumulated over generations that will benefit us all to learn. From the website:
“Founded in 2006, MWWC is dedicated to sharing knowledge of the singular attributes of the winegrapes, wines and wine estates of Mendocino County with a diversity of audiences around the world.
Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission members benefit from research and education programs that emphasize positive relationships with winegrape and wine buyers within our own organization and extending into communities around us. Collaboratively, we place a strong emphasis on organic grape growing and specialized viticultural techniques appropriate to the dozens of grape varietals grown in our 12 diverse regions.
Mendocino County’s authentic “green” credentials are unsurpassed by any other wine region in the world. From pristine wild lands and coastline to multi-generational hands-on family farmers and winemakers, this is a region that has been at the forefront of the sustainable, organic, Biodynamic and fish friendly farming movements.

Now, whereas the county’s narrative is compelling, able to persuade drinkers to look for the region’s many and varied wines, it is the quality of what is in the glass that will keep them coming back for more. And let me tell you, the wines I tasted, only a fraction of those on display, were among the finest domestic efforts I have ever enjoyed. The acid levels were wonderfully high, the tannins firm, the oak judiciously used. The fruit was, dare I say it, pure?
Of course, these are general considerations. Mendocino County AVAs and growing regions are very different; I must confess I was somewhat perplexed at the event’s format. The differences between the Potter Valley and the Anderson Valley are enormous. And a few producers, a very few, disappointed. But with respect to varietal correctness, I was simply astonished as I moved from table to table. Expression after expression were true, soulful realizations of the their grapes. Syrahs were restrained and beautifully perfumed; Pinots, boldly fruited and transparent in the Burgundian style; the Cabernets, exquisitely balancing fruit, lower alcohol, acid and tannins; the Petite Sirahs again showcased that variety’s beguiling sensitivity to terroir; and the Zinfandels, a grape much abused these days, were tightly wound, almost abstract when compared to the awful alcoholic fruit bombs regularly detonating on our dinner tables. Perhaps most surprising were the Merlots, a grape I had largely abandoned. No longer.
These are but a handful grapes grown throughout Mendocino County. Indeed, owning to the geological complexity of the county, its boundaries seemingly drawn by a demented cartographer, it is obvious why dozens of varieties may call this region home. Yet it is also true that for this very reason that experimentation with varieties is enthusiastically embraced here. As with the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, it is very clear that California’s great learning curve of matching grape to place, vine to terroir, is being successfully realized in Mendocino County. A great many of the region’s producers are farmers, the highest compliment one may offer; true American farmers, respectful of the land, attentive to its rhythms and its greater wisdom. For they know better than most that it is only with such a disposition that honest wines may be made.
Here are a few specific producers who caught my attention. I will mention, with one exception, only the reds.
Albertina Wine Cellars. Though fruit forward and with softer tannins than I prefer, the quality of their Cabernets was quite high.
Barra of Mendocino. All organic, they offered a Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, and a Sangiovese, all very good.
Bink Wines. The wines of Deb Schatzlein, present at the tasting, were among the finest of the afternoon. She makes Syrah, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and ‘Melange’, a Bordeaux-style blend. Made in small lots, I strongly recommend you sign up for her wine club. I might add that her reserved demeanor, whether from shyness or the tiresome obligation to pour her work for a room full of strangers, added to her charm. Like many of the producers in attendance, they are not your practiced ‘happy talk’ B.S.’ers, but very down to earth people, if I may put it that way.
Chiarito Vineyard. Winemaker John Chiarito offered a Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, and a transcendent Nero d’Avola. (Mr. Chiarito is the first to plant this variety in the US.) All brilliant. I was given a taste from one of the last bottles of his long sold out 2003 Negro Amaro. Out of Ukiah, he is doing superb work. Hats off!
Lolonis Winery. The moment I stood before their table, a gentleman placed a cloth Ladybug, their logo, on my shirt. After tasting their excellent Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet, I turned to go and ran into Petros Lolonis himself, a man of great dignity and gravitas.
Terra Savia. Winemaker Jim Milone makes a 100% Chardonnay sparkler that was equal parts finesse and play. A serious wine!
Paul Dolan Vineyards. It is hard to find the words to describe these world class wines. I won’t try. My advice? Get on the list. These were the finest domestic wines I have tasted in a very long time. And the prices for most of Dolan’s efforts are laughably low. Amazing juice.
It was at this point, only an hour into the tasting, that I was called away to the seminar The Grape Grandparents of Mendocino County. Hosted by MWWC President Dave Batt, it featured UC Davis Coop Extension advisor Glenn McGourty, winemakers Alex MacGregor, Charlie Barra, Greg Graziano, Steve Sterling, and Bob Blue. Below are accounts of three of the speakers. A full account of all remarks will be presented here at a later date.
—–Glenn McGourty, Advisor for the UC Davis Cooperative Extension
“We’re not allowed out in public very often. We dance, we sing, we drink wine, we have a good time!
Everybody knows Sonoma and Napa, but there’s a large area on top of that called Mendocino and Lake County. That’s our territory. Size wise, it’s a combination of the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island put together.”

Mr. McGourty went on to describe Mendocino County as sparsely populated, about 90,000 souls. It is 100 miles long and 60 miles wide. Most of it is in the Russian River and Navarro River watersheds, and a little bit of the Dry Creek watershed from Sonoma County. It is a very mountainous region owing to the ongoing collision of the North American and Pacific plates. The regions of the county vary widely. The Pacific Ocean is a big air conditioner with the temperature a steady 50 F. Elevation is gained as one moves inland. The relation of an area to fog affects local climate. Fog brings cooler temperatures. Areas beyond the fog are, of course, warmer, with more moderate temperatures for areas above the fog. In the Anderson Valley fog is present almost every day in the summer time. Yorkville Highlands is above the fog, where the Dry Creek headwaters are. The Mendocino Range define the westside of the Russian River to the Hopland area, where nearby lies Lake Mendocino, the headwaters of the Russian River. Also framing the region are the Mayacama Mountains, at once the westside of the Napa Valley and the eastside of the Russian River Valley where Mendocino County begins.
Italians first grew grapes in Mendocino County, but only for family consumption. Hops were the principle crop in the late 1900s. Greeks grew grapes as well, the Lolonis Family, for example. Prohibition killed the approximately 20 wineries then in existence. [Parducci survived owing to its production of sacramental wines.] It was, in any case, always a race to drink the wine before it became vinegar. Low tech was all that was used. They weren’t making wine for Robert Parker! Mendocino has kept the old that was good, and they’ve added to it. Head pruned vines, simple farming, organic by default, light shakes of sulphur twice a year was about it. Carignane emerged as popular variety. It sustained good yields, an extra ton over Zinfandel. The important point to take away is that, apart from home winemaking, commercial wines were initially grown for the bulk wine market. The region’s history of these early days is that of the evolution from bulk and jug wines to varieties. [For supplemental information please see this.]
To illustrate these last two points we turn to two speakers. The first provides a thumbnail sketch of a kind of winemaking that continues Mendocino’s organic tradition, organic avant la lettre; the second speaker delves into deeply respected regional themes.
History in a glass.
—–Winemaker Alex MacGregor on the 2007 Trinafour Carignane, Niemi Vineyard, Redwood Valley
“This is of Finnish, not Italian origins, from a Finnish colony that bought property in the ‘teens and in the 1920s planted grapes, then ripped them out after World War 2 and replanted in the 1950s on St George rootstock, dry farmed. It’s never been sprayed. By default it’s farmed organically, but it has since been certified organic. These vines used to yield 7,8,9,10 tons an acre. By the time they got to 60 to 65 years old, they’re yielding 2 to 3 tons an acre. It’s definitely not a sexy clone unless you say ‘Carignane’. A neat history in a bottle. I try basically not to screw it up. It’s farmed by Alvin Tollini; his family has been farming for 3 generations. I make it with native yeast fermentation, native malolactic, there is no fining, no filtration, there’s no new wood. The only trick that I use in this wine is that it goes on top of a little bit of dried Petite Sirah skins, ripasso style, from Petite in the same vineyard, about 10%. They are not dried on mats like Amarone. I dry them in a tank, with heat, and once they’re really, really without moisture left, I’ll put the Carignane on top of those skins for 3 or 4 days and then drain to wood. It’s pretty straight forward.”
From Jug Wine to Varieties.
—–Charlie Barra [his oral presentation has been edited]
“My family migrated from the northern part of Italy, from the Piedmont district, in 1900. And they were grape growers over there, my grandfather, like my dad. And they came first through San Francisco and the earthquake, then they moved to Santa Rosa; they finally moved to Mendocino county to grow grapes because the area was very similar to from where they came. The terrain and climate was very similar. They planted small vineyards there, selling grapes to larger wineries who then made vin ordinaire and jug wine. That was their primary market. Then along came Prohibition. They had quite a difficult time; and without resources, I don’t know how they ever made it. But they did. Sometimes I have a suspicion that they converted some of their wine into alcohol, but I’m not sure about that! That all happened during the 30s. That was quite common with Italian families who moved into the Mendocino County area. (They moved into other areas, too.)
We were a very small grape growing area because we are a very cold climate. The Mendocino climate is very unique. Hardly anywhere else where they grow grapes that has a climate similar to what we have in Mendocino County. Very warm days, good for growing fruit; very, very cold nights, which is very good for preserving the balance in the fruit that determines the quality of the wine that you’re going to make. Now, as a grower, I like to take a lot of credit for what I do because I work very hard. I would point out that I just finished my 64th harvest! As a grower, you don’t miss a harvest. The reason you never miss a harvest is that you get paid once a year. You had better show up!
The climate that we have is unique, very consistent; it’s the kind of climate that you can grow many different varieties of grapes. But in the beginning, when they produced vin ordinaire, they grew Carignane, Alicante, Palomino, [unclear], all those varieties, and they sold them to large wineries for jug wine. That went on for quite a few years. And because of our very cold climate, you could not plant vineyards on the bottomlands. The most productive lands in Mendocino County were not planted to grapes. They were planted to hops, pears and prunes. That’s what we had on the bottomlands. They could withstand the frost better than the grapes. Grapes were only planted on the hillsides. Where I grew up, I was born in Calpella, just north of Ukiah, all of the vineyards were on the hillsides.
Mendocino County did not get into the varietal wine business, like those you’re drinking, until at least 75 years after Napa had already made a reputation, before we even got started in the wine business. This is why you don’t hear about Mendocino County. But you’re going to hear a lot about Mendocino County when it comes out of the bottle! It’s superior, it’s very easy to drink, and has more flavors than any wines that I have ever tasted.
I was born in 1926. I grew up in a vineyard. Ten years ago I could prune a vine as well as anyone else. In fact, when I graduated from high school they gave me a pair of pruning shears for a present! In my senior year, I was 19 years old, of course, World War 2 was going on, and grape prices were very good. I had the opportunity to lease a large Zinfandel vineyard growing on a hillside, 1945, from an Italian who was retiring. So I had to make a deal with the high school principal to go to school half a day. So I started farming in 1945; and in that year I made 3 times as much as the principal! He was making $3,300 a year. And I made over $10,000.
I had very difficult years, but I also ended up owning over 400 acres of vineyards and a pretty big winery in the county. I finally had to sell 200 acres of vineyards because it was cutting into my fishing time! Then in 1950 I decided to plant a vineyard all my own. I bought a 150 acres out in the Redwood Valley. You’ve got to remember, this was all borrowed money because my family had absolutely no resources. I planted varietal grapevines, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, some Cabernet, Petite Sirah, things like that. In doing this I made friends with Bob Mondavi. Unfortunately, when the grapes came in I had no market because nobody was buying varietals from Mendocino. So I had to sell my varietal grapes that were producing 3 to 4 tons an acre, to the larger wineries as vin ordinaire at $40 a ton, which was very difficult to do. Then about 3 years after production started Bob Mondavi and the Wente Family came up and made me a deal that they would use all the varietals I could grow if I would deliver them to Livermore and Napa. I was willing to do it, except that I didn’t know what they were going to pay me. I asked what the price would be. They asked what do you get now? I said $40 a ton. They told me that if I delivered them to their wineries they would pay me twice as much. So that got me started in the varietal wine business. That was 60 years ago. By that time Napa had already made its reputation. But we’re catching up very quickly.
I don’t have any problem withe the varietals we’re growing. In the case of Pinot Noir, we have Pinot Noir planted in lots of different locations. We’d always bring samples to wineries for selling our grapes. At one time, by the way, I was growing 600 tons of Pinot Noir, and I couldn’t give them away. We’d take these samples to a winery. And the winery, without knowing where they came from, would choose the Mendocino Pinot Noir, without exception.”

The seminar started a little late, and went over its alloted time. Regrettably, I had less than an hour left to taste through more than a dozen producers. The tasting room was now jammed. There was simply no way, especially with family obligations back in Santa Cruz, that I could intellectually engage the wines, let alone their makers. I decided to flee, but not before asking Charlie Barra one question, the answer to which might serve as a coda for Mendocino County producers as a whole.
Admin Mr. Barra, could you say a bit about your aversion to pesticide use? Were you ever visited by pesticide dealers?
Charlie Barra I could tell you all kinds of stories. I’ll tell you this. My best friend operated a pesticide warehouse and sold for large companies. He would come on the ranch and try to convince me why I had to use pesticides on my fruit. He would scare the hell out of me! He’d say he’d gone to such and such a ranch and saw what I had. He then said he went back two weeks later and it was a complete disaster! They scare you into buying pesticides. Fortunately I didn’t listen very well, until one day I told him to get his fanny off my place and don’t ever come back again. I threw my best friend off the ranch! Because it was all salesmanship. If I can grow grapes without pesticides, and I’m not an expert on pesticides, but if I can do it, anybody can do it. You just have to make up your mind. Yeah, in the beginning there was a little fingernail biting. But in the end, it’s good for everything around you, your health, your wildlife, and I feel good about what I am doing. That’s very important, to know that you’re not destroying anything. I won’t say it has anything to do about wine quality. I don’t even care about that. I care about the environment and the people around me. We need more of that in this country.
Am I raving in my enthusiasm for Mendocino County wines? Maybe just a bit. But for someone whose palate often feels a stranger in California, I have at long last found another region, in addition to the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, my taste preferences may call home.


4 Responses to ' Mendocino County Takes The Lead '

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  1. Jay Gordon said,

    on May 6th, 2010 at 7:56 am

    This is a brilliant overview of the wine industry in Mendocino County. It’s an education in this important aspect of the cultural heritage of Mendocino County.

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on May 6th, 2010 at 8:12 am

    Thank you, Mr. Gordon. I hope my piece, with others to come, helps promote the region’s superb wines and cultural riches.

  3. Pecos said,

    on July 20th, 2010 at 10:28 am

    Hi, Pecos from Terra Savia here. I just stumbled upon this blog post. It’s great to see Mendo County getting some props. Check out our blog and facebook page for upcoming Mendocino County events. Thanks!

  4. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on July 20th, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Hi, Pecos. Will do!

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