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Mendocino: Wine, Romance, and So Much More

by Monty and Sara Preiser

Doesn’t everyone search for that idyllic spot where cares seem to be non existent, every bite of food reminds you of Rachel Ray (or maybe Tyler Florence), and the scenery is reminiscent of a Joseph Mallord Turner seascape?  If you are a seasoned traveler, you no doubt have already adopted such a place as your own. If you are just beginning to discover the joys of a relaxing vacation, certainly you have an Eden in your imagination.

One of our own special places is, as Oscar Hammerstein so knowingly wrote, “where the sky meets the sea.” Only we don’t have to travel to the south Pacific to get there, just to the north Coast of California – Mendocino. To be fair, Mendocino does not have a monopoly on breath taking views, cool romantic weather, or stress relieving activities (like sitting on a porch and searching for a whale). Plenty of magic exists up and down this entire region’s rocky stretch of largely undeveloped (and non developable) ocean front land. But for us, Mendocino, and more particularly the county thereof, offers one more draw – a bustling and steadily improving wine community.

In June, 2007 we were pleased to be the guests of the Mendocino Grape Growing Commission, a smartly put together coalition of vintners and growers in the county. About 30 out-of-area journalists spent four days and nights traveling through parts of the county, with stops strategically planned for us to visit and learn about all aspects of this hungry for recognition Mendocino wine industry. A few of us (including your writers) also enjoyed working with local wine professionals to judge the Mendocino County wine competition at the Heritage House, where Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn starred in the thought provoking, funny, and poignant 1978 film, “Same Time Next Year” (in fact, the cottage where the couple shot the exteriors is memorialized by bearing the name of the movie). But we have jumped ahead . . . .

The tour’s first stop was the village of Hopland, where we checked in to the surprisingly beautiful and guest friendly rooms at Lawson Station (fireplace, wet bar, large marble bathroom, whirlpool, etc.). To say we were pleased at the comfort is the proverbial understatement. The room lacked nothing. Soon thereafter, we met our colleagues and hosts in preparation for a tasting of inland valley wines - Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, and Ukiah Valley.

This event was held at Saracina Winery, the new venture of John and Patty Fetzer, whose non-compete agreement with those who purchased their interests some years before has now expired, thus allowing them to once again grow grapes and make wine. The Fetzers and the Commission had set up a lovely tasting, but unfortunately the unexpectedly warm weather lasted late into the day and may have affected our opportunity to taste some of the wines at their best. Nevertheless, we thought the following to be worthy of note:

-2004 Saracina Syrah ($36) - fruit, tar, and roses with a big chewy finish
-2005 Nelson Family Zin ($23) – ripe, plummy fruit with a spicy pepper ending
-2004 Atrea (Saracina's second label) "Old Soul Red" ($26) - fun, dusty mouthful; blend of Zin, Syrah, and Petite Sirah
-2006 Nelson Family Riesling ($14) - just off-dry; great poolside refresher
-2004 Naughty Boy Pinot Noir ($26) - wild strawberries and raspberries
-2003 Milano Family Hidden Hawk Carignane ($18) - big and spicy, perfect for pizza and pasta
-2005 McNab Ridge Pinotage ($17) - enjoyable interpretation of this less common grape
-2005 Barra Pinot Blanc ($16) - bright and fruity from nose to finish

Dinner was then served al fresco at the Bonterra mountaintop property, where we were able to again try all the wines we had tasted earlier, and were given a lesson on Mendocino’s nation leading organic and “green” agricultural policies. The growers and vintners here are to be commended for putting this important environmental issue in the forefront. However, try as we might, we were not able to obtain a consensus response to the question of whether or not growing “green” (political considerations aside) enhances the taste of the wines, causes them to suffer, or has no effect whatsoever. An accurate answer will certainly be significant in the long term battle between the organic and non organic grape farmers and wine producers of the world.

Day two started with a working breakfast designed to teach us a bit about the history and potential future of the wine industry in Mendocino, which lies 90 miles north of San Francisco. In studying an area map, it is sometimes difficult to see where wine grapes might thrive, given the seemingly all encompassing rugged coast line, rough timberlands, and dramatic redwood forests. But about 63 wineries and 300 vineyards have found sites to raise Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Champagne, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. Vineyards can be found throughout the county in isolated and narrow valleys, as well as on some hillsides. And, as with all new wine producing areas, the growers and wine makers are working hard to discover what varieties grow best in what areas, and which areas should be marked off and formally designated as their own AVAs (Approved Viticultural Areas, or, more simply, “Appellations”).

After eggs and muffins we headed to Booneville, a charming little town with some fun restaurants, a brewery that makes among the finest beers we have ever tasted, and wine tasting rooms. Not too far from town, we marveled at Nature as we strolled through a park of giant redwoods and worked up an appetite for lunch. And lest we be too long without wine, for of course this was a fact finding excursion, we were then hosted for lunch at the Booneville Hotel by the vintners of the Yorkville Highlands, Anderson Valley, and Mendocino Ridge regions. The following wines made our top picks:

-2006 Greenwood Ridge Pinot Gris ($16) - crisp green apple and lime with hint of sweetness at the end
-2005 Claudia Springs John Ricetti Vineyard Zinfandel ($24) - ripe plummy fruit with lots of fresh white pepper
-2003 Baxter Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah ($45) - big and bold, layered with tar and roses
-2004 Baxter Valenti Vineyard Syrah ($45) - lush tar and spicy pepper
-2004 Baxter Francis Fashauer Vineyard Zinfandel ($32) - nicely balanced, ripe fruit
-2005 Toulouse Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir ($39) – medium body with an especially pretty finish

Sated and relaxed, we then headed to Mendocino, our destination for the final three days. The hotel chosen for us was the famed Inn at Little River, where the views of the Pacific off our back porch were nothing short of spectacular, and the fireplace in the room was nothing short of romantic. If you are not familiar with the west coast you may wonder about fire in June. Well, one of the vital factors for fine wine production is a climate featuring hot days and cool nights (sometimes a swing of 30 degrees). This differential allows the fruit to build up necessary acids during the chilly darkness, while permitting beautiful ripeness to develop in the copious sunlight of the day. Without this natural occurrence, you rarely see world class wines.

But we had to leave our stunning porch views as the Commission had arranged dinner elsewhere. Fortunately, we were not disappointed for long, as the vistas over the Pacific were just as marvelous at the Ledford House, where we enjoyed a meal designed to be enjoyed with the wine varietal of the evening – Pinot Noir provided by many of the Mendocino wineries that produce that grape. We had the added pleasure during the meal of sitting with noted winemaker and dinner speaker Milla Handley, who was recently profiled in the book Women of the Vine. As is always the case, we liked some wines that evening, and with the chosen cuisine, better than others:

-2004 Baxter Toulouse Vineyard ($45) - structured layers of wild strawberry and raspberry
-2004 Claudia Springs Klindt Vineyard ($28) - nicely balanced with a ripe finish
-2005 Handley Anderson Valley ($30) - earthy leather tones with a lasting finish
-2004 Philo Ridge Anderson Valley ($28) - elegant fruit and spice, with good acid structure
-2006 Sketchbook Mendocino Co ($15) - light on front palate, but burst of berry flavor at  the back that seems to bounce and fill the mouth

The following day brought the excitement we feel before sitting down to judge hundreds of wines entered in formal competition. The panels on which we sat were comprised of extremely qualified judges, and the wines that were entered aided us a great deal in gauging the current progress of the Mendocino wine industry. The Gold Medal winners, which were properly hard to come by with these excellent panels of judges, were:

-Cabernet Sauvignon: 2002 Lolonis Winegrowers Selection ($32); 2004 Navarro Vineyards ($35); and 2004 Valentine Vineyards Tory’s Block ($29).
-Chardonnay: 2005 Maple Creek Artevino Reserve ($32); 2005 Lolonis Redwood Valley ($18); and 2005 Bonterra Vineyards Organically Grown ($13).
-Gewurtztraminer: 2006 Londer ($24).
-Late Harvest: 2006 Navarro Gewurtztraminer ($39); 2006 Navarro Gewurtztraminer Cluster Select ($59); 2006 Greenwood Ridge White Riesling Mendocino Ridge ($25 – 375ml); and 2006 Navarro White Riesling Cluster Select ($59).
-Pinot Gris: 2006 Navarro Anderson Valley ($18); and 2006 Handley Cellars Anderson Valley ($18).
-Pinot Noir: 2005 Woodenhead Morning Dew Ranch ($50); 2005 Handley Cellars Mendocino ($22); 2005 Londer Valley Estate ($50); 2005 Londer Anderson Valley ($33); and 2005 Standish Wine Co. Day Ranch ($40).
-Riesling: 2006 Handley Cellars ($18).
-Rose: 2006 Greenwood Ridge Mendocino Ridge ($16).
-Sauvignon Blanc: 2005 Lolonis Redwood Valley ($14).
-Sparkling: N/V Scharffenberger Cremant ($21).
-Syrah: 2004 McDowell Shiraz William Roam ($15); and 2004 Bink Hawks Butte Vineyard ($40).
-White Blend: 2006 Navarro Edelzwicker Anderson Valley ($12).
-Zinfandel: 2003 Philo Ridge ($22); 2004 Graziano Family ($17); 2004 Mendocino Wine Co. Zingaro ($14); and 2005 Maple Creek Winery Artevino-Largo Ridge ($26).
-Dessert Red: 2006 Yorkville Cellars Sweet Malbec Rennie Vineyards ($18).
-Other Whites: 2006 McNab Ridge French Colombard Niemi Vineyards ($12); 2006 Navarro Muscat Blanc ($18); and 2006 Husch Muscat Canelli ($14).

Not only was our time spent in judging particularly instructive, but of course so were the other three plus days we spent immersed into the Mendocino wine scene. The result of our journey was a confidence that we came away with a solid understanding of where the wines, winemakers, and growers of Mendocino stand.

On the negative side (and sometimes it takes longer to explain a negative than a positive), some of the county’s winemakers, many of whom still reflect that never give up pioneer spirit, have not yet conceded that certain varietals just aren’t very good as they are now being grown in Mendocino, and may never be. The best illustration is Merlot, which received no positive evaluations from us, and no Gold or Silver medal in the competition. Sauvignon Blanc may also be a problematic varietal. Save one (a 2005 Everett Ridge at $16 that we tasted elsewhere), we found no wine so labeled that possessed characteristics of the grape. Once again, the judging results reinforce our conclusion, as only one Sauvignon Blanc out of many that were entered received Gold. To be clear, many of these wines are drinkable, but hardly any are identifiable as Sauvignon Blanc. 

Mendocino wineries may also have to bite the bullet and realize that there is more often than not a relationship between quality and price. Those making wine in the county are justly proud of creating products that are on the more affordable side of what they perceive as overpricing in Napa and Sonoma (the subject of another discussion). Generally, however, the core wines of Mendocino that we recommend, or that were awarded gold, are not themselves so inexpensive. Witness the Pinot Noirs ($33 - $50), Late Harvest Wines ($50 - $59 for 750ml.), Syrahs ($18 - $45), and Chardonnays (one a hefty $32). Even the Cabernet Sauvignons (not a varietal we envision to be one of the County’s best) are not shockingly low at $29 - $35. So while there are nice buys in Mendocino, to be sure, let’s face it, good products of any kind are not usually on the low end of the retail scale, and this applies to wine as well.

On the very positive side, however, one finds passionate, educated people who are dedicated to their craft and to paving the way to acceptable and quality organic, sustainable wine production. Certain climates, microclimates, and mesoclimates in the County have long been identified as desirable wine producing areas, and winemakers are in fact producing some excellent wines there, as shown above in our notes, and by the results of the competition.

Just as Napa and Sonoma are well recognized destinations for the purpose of wine tasting, we do not hesitate to recommend Mendocino County. There are plenty of good wines here for you, as an enterprising wine lover, to discover – definitely enough to set aside a two or three day trip. Couple the wine with Bali Hai beauty, and you will have an enchanted visit.

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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