A tale of two Mendocinos

Anderson Valley from Lazy Creek Vineyards. Photo Anderson Valley Winegrowers

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A wine lover’s tour of Mendocino wine region is usually comprised of a quick drive through the Anderson Valley on the way to the coastal town of Mendocino.  But that would just be skimming the surface of the diversity of Mendocino wines from the cool climate aromatic whites and pinot noir of Anderson Valley to the full-bodied cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and Cal-Itals from warm Inland Mendocino, connected by a mere 17 easy and beautiful drive over the mountain on Highway 253.  From the charming and gentrifying Anderson Valley to the rustic interior valleys, Mendocino wine country with 28% of vineyard acreage certified organic or biodynamic, is the greenest wine region in the U.S. worth exploring.

Anderson Valley

Anderson Valley is a 15-mile long, 2,000 acre appellation in Mendocino County that straddles the Navarro River as it heads northwest towards the Pacific.  With the cooling influences of Pacific breeze and fog, and elevations rising up to 2,500 feet, the appellation is well-suited to growing cool climate grapes like chardonnay, pinot noir and the aromatic whites such as gewürztraminer, pinot gris and riesling.

Anderson Valley doesn’t have the extensive winemaking tradition as Napa or Sonoma given its remote location – for a county the size of Switzerland, it still has only about 90,000 residents.  The modern era of winegrowing here began in the 1960’s with “back-to-lander” professionals like Dr. Donald Edmeades who moved here from Los Angeles and former Pacific Stereo exec Ted Bennett of Navarro Vineyards who together with his wife Deborah Cahn moved from Berkeley where they had developed a love for Alsatian style aromatic white wines in the emergent gourmet ghetto.  Bennett called Anderson Valley “Berkeley North” for its emphasis “on content, not appearance.”  Newcomers Tony and Gretchen Husch planted their first vines in 1968 and produced the region’s first commercial wines since Prohibition in 1971.

With their successes in growing premium grapes in this cool climate, the number of wineries grew in the 70’s and 80’s with producers such as Lazy Creek Vineyards, Greenwood Ridge Vineyards and Handley Cellars, but typically remained small, family-owned operations with an average of 12 acres.  Kristy Charles, President of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association, says about their organic tradition “when you live there, work there and play there, you tend to want to take care of it like it takes care of you.”

Inland Mendocino

Inland Mendocino wine country, which straddles Highway 101 from Hopland (about 30 miles north of Healdsburg) to Redwood Valley, grows a wide range of warm climate reds from cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, petite sirah, carignane, syrah and grenache, to popular Italian varietals such as sangiovese, barbera and charbono.  The area has maintained a rich tradition of winemaking going back to the 1880’s and the iconic Swiss Italian Colony which drew many Italians to the area.  In Inland Mendocino, there seems to be just 6 degrees of separation between 4th and 5th generation Italian-American vintners like those from Barra of Mendocino, Testa Vineyards, Venturi Vineyards and Giuseppe Wines, who are all related by marriage.  Paul Dolan, former head of Fetzer Vineyards and current partner in Mendocino Wine Co., is the grandson of Pietro Carlo Rossi, the first winemaker of the Italian Swiss Colony.

Maria and Rusty Martinson of Testa Ranch capture the spirit of these original families by maintaining the same grape varietals popular a century ago such as zinfandel, carignane and petite sirah, and ageing the small lot wines in the same basement where Maria’s grandfather kept a still during Prohibition.  The extended family regularly gets together for dinners where “someone is always mouthing off.”  For the humble and hardworking vintners of Inland Mendocino such as Charlie Barra who is in his 65th vintage, organic farming is just a continuation of the way things have always been done.

Mixed in with these smaller vintners are the “back to landers” of the late 20th century showing their commitment to the land and the community through their leadership in sustainable practices.  Frey Vineyards was the first organic, then Biodynamic winery in the country, McDowell Valley Vineyards was the first solar-powered winery and Bonterra Vineyards is the largest producer of organic wine.

Tim and Tom Thornhill, originally of Texas, relocated their extended families to upper Mendocino and partnered with Paul Dolan in 2004 to create Mendocino Wine Co. which now owns Parducci Wine Cellars, the first carbon-neutral winery, and Paul Dolan Vineyards, a biodynamic wine producer.  Together with its other winery holding, nearly 60% of MWC’s vineyards are Demeter-certified biodynamic or in process, and over 75% of vineyards are certific organic.  Through resource conservation and re-use practices, they earned the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award in 2007 and 2009.

For more information

For my tips on touring Mendocino wine regions, check my related post.  To learn more about Mendocino wine country and to get links to individual wineries, visit the websites of the Mendocino Wine Commission and the Anderson Valley Winegrowers.  To taste the wines of Mendocino in one place, plan to attend the annual Taste of Mendocino in San Francisco at Fort Mason.

Suggested reading

“When the Rivers Ran Red” by Susan Sosnowski, tells the story of Prohibition through the lens of the hard-working and proud Italian and German immigrants of the North Coast wine regions.