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California Dreaming. Part Three

Text and Photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

This feature on the winemakers and wines of northern California is presented in three parts:

Part 1 - setting the scene and Sonoma profiled
Part 2 - Napa vineyards, wines and producers
Part 3 - Mendocino vineyards, wines and producers

Frey Vineyards

Frey Vineyards' rustic charms. Click photograph for larger version.


Without a doubt, Mendocino's wine industry sits in the shadows of its southerly neighbours in Napa and Sonoma. Winegrowers here told me they are paid lower prices for their fruit, whilst others complained that attracting the traditional pool of Mexican vineyard labour was becoming harder and harder. And yet splashed across the front page of The Wine Spectator in my hotel room there it was: "The New Frontier of Californian Pinot Noir: Mendocino's Anderson Valley." If this is a hot spot for California's dream variety, then surely things can't be all that bad?

Driving through Mendocino's sun-dappled countryside one passes fields of fruit, nuts and vegetables that stretch for miles. Here there is none of the gloss and none of the superficiality that can sometimes blight the world's more fashionable wine routes. In many ways this is the 'old California', the sometimes rustic, slightly hippyish scene that I first saw when I visited in the 1980s, but which is now long gone from much of the State. Bigger than Napa and Sonoma put together, Mendocino runs all the way to the Oregon border and whilst still only a day trip from San Francisco, the extra effort needed to get there helps maintain its undoubted charm.

Mendocino naturally

If Mendocino means anything to European wine drinkers, it probably means organic. Frey Vineyards whom I would visit that morning was the USA's first all-organic winery, whilst the giant Fetzer Vineyards really put Mendocino on the UK map with its popular and biodynamic Bonterra label. Parducci, also on my list of visits that day claims to the the worlds first carbon-neutral winery too. Sitting in Frey Vineyards charming winery garden as assorted dogs run back and forth, various Mrs Madrigal lookalikes patiently tend the garden, and bluebirds and hummingbirds flit around constantly, it is easy to see that a huge part of Mendocino's charm - and its strength - is the strong beat of its rural heart and its people.

map Viticulture in Mendocino began in the 1850s, much of the intial planting done by Italian immigrants. As recently as 1997 there were only 36 wineries in operation. Today that number is 90-plus, with almost a third farming organically. Most are family-owned, by families with a long heritage in the area. Sited along the Russian and Navarro Rivers, this is a large and sparsely populated wine region, mountainous and much of it covered in forest. Weathered sandstone and volcanic soils predominate, with some red soils containing higher amounts of clay and with sandier, deeper amd more fertile soils on the valley floor. The climate here is Mediterranean, with cool, damp winters and warm and sunny summers. As with much of California's wine country, the Pacific is a major influence, with fog and winds moderating temperatures especially towards the coast.

Across Mendocino's 10 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), around 16,400 acres are planted to wine grapes with the predominant white variety being Chardonnay, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and then sizeable plantings of Gewurztraminer, Viognier and Chenin Blanc. For red wine varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir dominate, with Zinfandel just a little behind, along with Merlot and Syrah. Of its 90-odd wineries, 10 are currently certified Biodynamic, a further 21 are certified organic and many more farm organically and environmentally without certification.

Mendocino producers and wines

The Anderson Valley is one Mendocino hot-spot, mainly because of its Pinot potential. But for my one day visit to the county I headed for another great AVA that lies along the Russian River, the Redwood Valley. The Redwood Valley houses some of the county's longest-established wineries, and is the AVA with the biggest acreage of organic vineyards in California.

Frey Vineyards

The first organic, and the first biodynamic winery in the USA, Frey's down-home setting is a little piece of old Californian heaven.

6 wines tasted

Barra of Mendocino

Having grown grapes in the valley since 1945, Charlie Barra may now be in his 80s, but he still heads up this family wine estate.

15 wines tasted

Parducci Wine Cellars

Larger than life Texan Tim Thornhill started in landscape gardening. Now he has big plans for one of Mendocino's most famous names.

9 wines tasted

Part 1 -
setting the scene and Sonoma profiled
Part 2 - Napa vineyards, wines and producers
Part 3 - Mendocino vineyards, wines and producers