Go Mendocino

I flew to Mendocino with an open heart. Not just because after a year-plus of lockdown, being frisked at LAX was downright soothing—why yes, I’d LOVE to put my arms up and pose for the body scanner, shoes and sweater off, mask on! Pat me down? Sure why not? I’ve been lonesome for a frisking. Then I touched down in the perfectly petite airport in Santa Rosa, and realized LAX has just given me Stockholm Syndrome over the years. Enough about that. I’ve been harboring a penchant for Mendocino. And also, Anderson Valley which is part of Mendocino that’s…I’ll get there. Come with me. I didn’t know what this story would be. I knew the area was settled in the 1800’s by Italians. I knew a lot of the wineries were passed down for generations. Would legacy be the theme of this piece? Would aptitude for Italian varieties, bocci ball courts and cypress trees be? Or would I talk about how Petite Sirah is a surprise Mendocino gem? As I frolicked from winery to winery, looking for a thread, I learned that the Fetzer family played a big part in shaping what Mendocino is now—for landscaping with cypress trees, yes, but more importantly for spearheading the region’s propensity for organic viticulture. The Fetzer family is another whole article, but what I am going to write about now is: FAMILY. My thesis, if you will, is that the earth connects the winemakers of Mendocino like family. The land is, dare I say, the matriarch/patriarch (need I gender it?) the winegrowers uphold. They work together to maintain, represent, and respect it. Much like when you meet a family, and everyone is SO different, yet somehow you can tell they are family—this is the feeling I got tasting the wines there. All were unique, all with their own approach to how to represent the land, but all worked together to showcase the breathtaking environment in their own way. A family full of rebels, to be sure, but family all the same. I didn’t sense that the wineries were in competition. Rather, I heard example after example of how they work together, from loaning tractors to making sure the tourists get maps to other wineries. There also seemed to be lots of crossover. Many winegrowers and winemakers and proprietors all crossed paths working both for themselves and others. All in support of raising up the region. Oh! And the other theme I ran into there was “We are not like Napa!” I concur. They absolutely are not. I mean, I’ve had some Napa fun but it was a different flavor of fun. Yet, as much as Mendocino winegrowers may differentiate themselves from Napa, they’d like a bit more attention. A few more visitors. I do hope they get such traction, provided they can maintain what makes this region so different from Napa. Mendocino is more boundary pushing, more homey, more like raising a glass with—here we are again—family. I don’t want them to lose that. Part of what can make visiting wine country so exquisite is the authenticity. But if tourism gets out the control in a region, well, it Napa-izes. However, I believe the spirit, the gratitude to the land, the undercurrent of individuality, and the verve of the Mendocino winemakers is deeply rooted. Would sprawling fame and monetary gains ever turn them into another Napa? I hope not. I encourage you to go there. Visit the wineries. Taste the wines. I believe in you, Mendocino. Don’t f*#k it up. Now, allow you to take you with me on my trip, winery by winery, you’ll learn how this region is family. My first stop was to park my car at Stock Farm Hotel in Hopland. I was greeted in the parking lot by Bernadette Byrne, the executive director of the Mendocino Winemakers. She welcomed me with the warmth of someone who can’t wait to share their favorite book (tv show, movie, fill-in-the-blank what is important to you). We bonded on both having pink sunglasses, and I dropped my bags in my room, mourning the fact that there was no time for the big luxurious tub. But wine awaited! As I walked into the Brutocao Cellars tasting room, winemaker Hoss Milone was still gathering together wines for me to taste and making up a box for a waiting patron – striding across the room, he invited me to make myself at home and tapped his earbud, “I’m listening to you,” he said. “Oh no my podcast!” I responded hoping it didn’t make him think I was too much a goof, and also happy he knew what he was getting into tasting with me. I’m my own person. Which, as the trip continued to validate is, perhaps why the region really resonates with me. Aside from being Brutocao’s winemaker, Milone is the president of the Mendocino Winegrowers, and along with walking me though his own wines, clued me in on a lot of how the region operates. In his Brutocao wines, Milone expressed his desire for drinkers to “taste what I taste in the vineyard”. He also imparted the importance of respecting not just the land his grapes come from but how it affects “the stream next door”. Brutocao was also the first of a few wineries I encountered that bottled both a Zinfandel and a Primitivo — which I thought were the same grape? It seems they are and they aren’t. So you can take the grape out of Italy but you can’t take the Italy out of the grape unless you change its name? I’m not a scientist, but I can tell you the wines were different. Milone also introduced me to Coro Mendocino, which is “essentially a consortium”. The name comes from the Latin for chorus, because they (the winemakers) are “separate voices singing the same tune”. In order to receive the Coro seal, a wine must be made from a minimum of 70% Zinfandel along with 9 other varieties, all grown in Mendocino County. The Coro winemakers gather and blind taste each other’s wines four times before each one earns approval of the Coro seal. It sounds like an exclusive club, but Milone emphasized how much the tasting sessions led all participating winemakers to help each other level up to the quality deserving of the Coro seal. If on tasting number one a wine doesn’t make the grade, well then there are three more chances to get it right. The second stop of my first day was at Saracina Vineyards , one of many Fetzer founded wineries. The winemaker, Alex MacGregor, was ready and waiting with an ATV to take Bernadette and I through the vineyards to a vantage point. En route, he pointed out some of Saracina’s out-of-the-box plantings like Alicante Bouchet , as I tried to not be distracted by the view revealed by each turn of the trail. The estate pays attention expressing the best of the land not just in terms of wine—they also grow olives, and make honey. Maybe my opinion was colored by the fact that the view the ATV took us to had a bottle of rosé of Malbec waiting? But nah, I was drinking in words as eagerly as I was tasting the wine. Beyond expressing the land in a multitude of ways, I loved that MacGregor was putting his own spin on things—playing with varieties as he saw fit. From there it was off to Frey Vineyards , a family-owned winery now in its third generation. They were first to be certified Demeter biodynamic AND certified organic winemakers. We were met by the first of the trip’s several hefty and friendly winery dogs. I’m not a dog person but LOVE vineyard dogs. We tasted at Frey’s all-new-still-being-built winery. The old one was trounced by Tubbs fire, all the better to endorse their ultimate devotion to winemaking that that treats the land right, seeing as our warming climate exasperates problems like fires. On a non-wine-related note, the tasting table held a lovely bouquet of flowers including a Lady Banks rose and an iris. Before we tasted wine, we all were making “tasting notes” on the flowers. I hadn’t sniffed an iris since smelling my mom’s flowers in St. Louis. Meanwhile Bernadette was like “how spicy is this Lady Banks Rose?” And like wine geeks, we debated whether it was more clove spicy or allspice spicy. Good times, good wines. The last stop of the day was dinner at Patrona, a restaurant in Ukiah where we were met by Jen Petrey of McNab Ridge . Honestly, the dinner was not the focus, but they did have great fries. I got the story of the winery’s former winemaker, and his aversion to over-oaked wine to the point that when he passed away, the family rejected a beautiful oak casket in favor of stainless steel. An eternity in oak definitely be over-oaking it. The McNab Ridge portfolio included some less-expected pleasures, like the French Colombard that had the perfect pinch of residual sugar, and the Petite Sirah . But I was reminded of what I was getting an inkling of—the family spirit of the region—when Jen, whose business card cites her as sales and marketing manager, talked about pitching in on the bottling line earlier that day, as the winery was short-handed. Asking about it later, she said that both at McNab and in Mendocino at large, people lend a hand when and where help is needed. Truly there was no ego around of who does what there. Back home to Stock Farm I noticed that the rental car I’d driven from the airport was the only one in the lot. And there was no one else I’d encountered. I was the sole person there, I think. I resisted my urges to run The Shining-style through the halls—should I have? Red rum! Bright and early the next day Bernadette took me to Campovida Vineyards , another Fetzer-founded property. I met with owner Anna Bueselinck, and winemaker Matt Hughes. Matt was a recent addition—he told me he was happy to join them as Anna and Gary, who have owned Campovida for eleven years now, have been a lunch pad of sorts for winemakers. They share a hands-off ethos. “It’s ridiculous to think we own the land. We steward it,” said Anna. Matt agreed that it was about letting the vineyards shine, from their passion for the certified organic vineyards to not using new oak. Did this passion show up in the wine? You bet. I was thrilled to try, amongst other things, the elegant lightly perfumed rosé, a Grenache that was light yet filled with boozy raisins and blueberries, and a nimble Sangiovese . The Sangiovese I sipped whilst wandering the Campovida grounds, which include not just beautiful Cypress trees, but multitudes of extraordinary gardens that were planted and landscaped to bring visitors’ appreciation to what the environment has to offer. There was one pathway called the “learning arbor” planted with (if I recall correctly) 12 different types of apple tree. There was a cork tree, so visitors could see where corks come from. There were stoic stone walls, and joyous fountains, and more Lady Banks roses, and it was so magical I must go back for more. Someone I know, please have an event there? Or should I plan my own? Dreams. Oh, and also shout out STEEP coffee shop. Thank you to Campovida for bringing me coffee that day. I may or may not have been triple fisting their wine along with a stellar cold-brew coffee, plus water to cleanse ye olde palate. And that was just stop one. Next up was Graziano with Greg Graziano himself! Greg has been at it 43 years, and there are now 5 labels under the Graziano umbrella. I honestly don’t know how Greg does it and also handles, well, everything, but I had a grand time tasting with him. His lines are the perfect balance of showcasing the land and, ya know, doing things the way he sees fit. Which is making sure the wines maintain freshness, even with age. I tasted a dizzying number of wines in my short time in the tasting room, and seeing as his daughter Alexandria is continuing in his winemaking footsteps, am bracing myself for yet more sprawling tasting marathons in the Graziano family tradition. Next, I met with Maria Martinson at Testa Vineyards , where my perspective of the region as a family grew even more. Maria is the fourth generation in her family growing the grapes, but the first to both make and sell wine—and I got the feeling her pet wines are the ones called “Black” and “White”. Both are blends. Because in her Italian history all the wine label variety-snobbery was silly. So when she started making wine, she stuck it to them with a red called Black and a white named White. She’s a member of Coro as well—and reiterated that as a reluctant winemaker, she learned oodles from the group. They took her in like family. A family full of notes and thoughts that she said helped her grow immensely. Of course, in all family there will be disagreements, and Maria had a bit of a bone to pick with winegrowers selling grapes for prices she deemed too low. I saw her beef. Her grapes are good. She needs to keep selling them for what they are worth, not what other established and funded enough wineries are offering to drive her prices down. I would write more here but also encourage you to take a listen to my podcast The Wine Situation for more on my visit with Maria and a tasting of her Zinfandel—episode here ! After a somewhat harrowing (for me) drive over the twists and turns into Anderson Valley, I was curious to see if it would be similar in spirit to the rest of Mendocino. We first met with Sarah Wuethrich, the winemaker at Maggy Hawk , a winery named for the proprietor Barbara Banke’s prized racehorse. Sarah poured us a pétillant naturel too good to spit. Once again, I found myself at the top of a hilltop, braving a wind windy AF—but this city rat likes her micro-doses of nature. So, what of the family vibe in Anderson Valley? Before I had to ask, Sarah told me she was involved with a group loosely called the Terroirists, and that troubles me, and I think maybe to her too based on the slight hesitance in her eyes as she uttered the word. Terrorism is a real thing I am not into getting punny with. Name aside, Sarah says the inspiration behind of the group is all about getting together to share wines and help each other. Part of that does have to do with identifying and delineating what makes the terroir of different parcels of land yield unique wines. Although as she acknowledges winemaking can play such a hand that may be an exercise in futility. To wit, Maggy Hawk tasked her to make four Pinot Noirs that were distinct, and even with her approach of “letting them show off without dressing them up too much” I can verify that she achieved her objective. Clones, when and how to harvest, cold soak or no, stem inclusion, how much and what sort of oak to use…one can show off the land but at the same time the winemaker’s fingerprint will always be a factor on what ends up in the bottle. Next, Bernadette and I made a very-very quick stop at Goldeneye Winery for a fleeting flight of Pinot Noir. The winemaker Katey Larwood was not free to walk us through the wine but—again another spectacular view, some terrific Pinot Noir, and being as both the winemaker and assistant winemaker (Kristen McMahan) are women, AND the wines fabulous, I need to learn more. Last stop of the day was at Thomas T Thomas Vineyards . As so many of the wineries in the area have family legacy, I was eager to meet an up-and-coming talent, and hear their take on their place in the region. Thomas T. Thomas is a polymath and (my words) a scholar of life. From painting, to music, to winemaking he has many talents. He channels his vision and intellect into his wine, which is just one aspect at of his artistic oeuvre, but seems to be what he’s focused on right now. Albeit, it is his art on the well-thought-out labels. It stands to reason he will always be an artist at large. He initially fell for wine in Burgundy , and decided he needed to try to grow grapes. I loved seeing the land he fell for—in true artist style he trusted his instincts—it was the first property he saw. He honed his skills tasting and reading and at first sold his grapes before making his own vino in 2017. After a tasting of his line-up of Pinot Noir we brought my pet pick to Lauren’s. Where I got more fries. What can I say? The ultimate test of wine is how well it pairs with fries. Also, he generously shared his life and how he manages having much to handle (winemaker, husband, father, painter, musician—the list goes on). The wine, the winemaker, and the conversation were all invaluable. Thomas dropped me at the Anderson Valley Inn. The inn is medium rustic, depending on your definition of rustic. No TV, no microwave, no shampoo bottles to pocket…but there were games and books. And then! There on the bedside table I saw a stack of what looked like a journal or so. Opening the top one I found they had a register of sorts—a journal left for visitors to share their experience. The last entry was from January 2020. I GOT TO BE THE FIRST POST-PANDEMIC ENTRY! I felt like I was part of history. On to the last day! The visit to Fathers and Daughters Cellars was dreamy. A lot in this trip felt like I must be starring in a hip cool kid (but like a wine-knowledgeable hip kid) highlight reel made to entice visitors. As we hopped out of Bernadette’s truck, the kids (whose kids I’m not entirely sure, maybe some of the daughters with wines named for them?) offered us lemon (I think Meyer) lemonade, then frolicked off to let us adults do our thing. Our thing was to hop in ATVs when at the moment we started driving, like he’d been trained to lead us, Cotton, the vineyard dog galloped in front of us, occasionally slowing enough to tempt us to run him over (odd powerplay, Cotton) to a gorgeous hilltop point. Fabulous pet nat of Chardonnay was poured and pastries were served. And hipster-fab as Meyer lemonade with a view sounds, everyone was so down to earth. Norman, the vineyard manager, brought all the grounded perspective. He knows the land inside out. I asked him (at this point I confess was asking leading questions to see if my theory about family spirit was correct) if he felt there was kinship between wineries. He said yes, and added, “We call each other on frost nights”. Next up was lunch with Lulu at Handley Cellars . And omigosh I love Lulu. I love her approach. I love the history. She was not immediately ready to carry at the family winery, her mother having founded Handley. She was headed her own way—although it was involving farming. When she did turn to wine, she worked as far away as Spain. But she was lured back to the land. I do not blame her. I asked why she thought is there such a spirit of cooperation and community there. “It’s not easy to live here,” she responded. That makes sense, but I could see things not going the way they have for Mendocino and its subregion of Anderson. In adverse conditions some people push back, hog the good stuff, or try to come off as superior. But not so for the winemakers I met. They chose the other way. The way where a rising tide lifts all boats. The spirit of family. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ 2018 Brutocao Bliss Vineyards Estate Bottled Chardonnay So fascinating on many counts! And also, delicious – all lemon balm and fun. This has gone through total malolactic fermentation but whatever strain of bacteria carried out the process does not produce those buttery notes associated with the process. It is rather more citrus-y. Also, when it was quite cold I got so much oak on it. Closer to room temp more apple and crème brûlée. That is the fun of taking your time with wine; it tells you many stories. 2019 Saracina Day Ranch, Hollywood Hill Pinot Noir My notes had devolved a smidge faster than I’d wish at this point—I had jotted down “I love cola and giving.” This really had all the cherry coke notes I adore in a Pinot. I’d have stayed there and had a glass if we hadn’t had more places to go! 2019 Frey Chardonnay No sulfur added here! This has a texture to it that takes me back to breathing the air in Mendocino. It has depth and fullness, accentuated by red apple and cantaloupe. 2018 McNab Ridge Family Reserve Largo Mendocino County Cabernet Sauvignon At the end of my dinner, I was offered my pick to take the remains with me and much to my surprise I was like, gimme that Cab! McNab’s slays. All colors of fruit, just enough acid and just enough oak? A perfectly balanced Cab who knew such a thing was a thing these days? 2016 Campovida Dark Horse Ranch Grenache I’m a sucker for good Grenache, and Grenache that can age a bit? Even better. It smells like boozy raisins in the right way and blueberries and had all the textural dexterity I want out of a Grenache that knows its way. Fattoria Enotria Moscato Elevato So this is actually Graziano. That is, Enotria is under their umbrella. And I could show you many Graziano picks but this was the most unique. It is distilled, then they add more Moscato so it is sweet with a bite and it made me say, “Those almond cookies!”. We all agreed it would go brilliantly with amaretti. Absolute delight. 2016 Testa Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel Lol realized in my editing I included the 2015 in a Women in Wine piece but down with touting more Testa. It is modest up front then subtly sneaks in sensory information, and you are like hey! This wine has a lot to say but it won’t make a fuss out of it. It will just subtly make its way in; the tannins are present but not loud, then it has layers of stewed, dried and fresh fruits then boom! You’re like oh hey, this has 15.9 percent abv and some spice going along. Reminds me of Testa’s winemaker, not ostentatious but powerful, in touch with the earth. It does its own thing. 2019 Maggie Hawk Edmeades Vineyard White Pinot Noir I loved seeing winemaker Sarah Wuethrich’s four distinct takes on Pinot Noir (as a red) but as I couldn’t choose a favorite of the red pinots, chose to showcase this, ahem, blanc de noirs aka white wine from red grapes aka don’t be so shocked. Ivory satin stained with smushed raspberries that were garnished with mustard greens (just a pinch). I feel maybe I’ve cited ivory satin so much, but it depends what form it takes. This one was a button-down shirt, made for business and play. I’d wear this wine anywhere. 2018 Thomas T Thomas Vineyards Estate Grown Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Thomas has three tiers of Pinot Noir, and I love that the ‘T’ on the label gets smaller with each. We tasted the wine before dinner and I suggested (Thomas most modestly was going to let our dinner wine be whatever was available at the restaurant) we take this one. My notes say “lavender and cola like wine you can taste, and it’s not lean but that can marry with food”. Which it most certainly did! 2017 Fathers & Daughters Cellars Ella’s Reserve Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir There are a few generations at play here—Kurt Schoeneman owns Ferrington, one of the winery’s chief vineyards. His daughter Sarah and Guy Pacurar are part of the business, and there are wines named for their daughters. Feminist in me wants to call it Fathers and Mother/Daughter and Daughters, but I get what they are going for. Oh yeah tasting notes. There were darker cherry notes than a lot of the Pinots I’d tasted thus far and the cola was verging on Dr. Pepper. I love Dr. Pepper, and if you don’t, maybe this can teach you to love it. 2020 Handley Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Rosé I love everything here. Along with Testa I also featured a Handley wine in my last article about women in wine. But this was the first time I got to have the rosé! It was quite red rose floral in a white pepper sort of way, all carried along by a Queen Anne cherry wave. 2019 Maple Creek Winery Artevino Rosé of Pinot Noir And another face of rosé from Anderson Valley, albeit this is Yorkville Highlands—a subregion of a subregion! This is a completely different rosé expression of Pinot Noir. It was a smidge cloudy with a hint of a sparkle and tasted of cherries, roses, and licorice. I’m mad for it. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Want to read more from Ellen? Check out her recent articles: Ellen in Lalaland, Almost Post-Pandemic Style May Flowers Ma Sherry Space Wine Guilty Pleasures You can also listen to Ellen's podcast , The Wine Situation here . Check out her recent transcripts of the Final Five questions: Wine Situation Final Five! With Alissa Bica Wine Situation Final Five! With Philippe André

Testa Vineyards

Italian Heritage Old Vine Zinfandel 2016

Somehow manages to be understated yet powerful. It packs a punch but like, a gentle punch. All the fun classic dried and fresh fruit and spiciness with a lasting finish. Sip slow, enjoy the journey. — 3 months ago

Ron, MaJ and 17 others liked this
Ron R

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Nice big smile.

Maggy Hawk

Edmeades Vineyard White Pinot Noir 2019

Winemaker Sarah Wuethrich knows her Pinot in and out in all ways/shapes/and forms. Including making a red grape a blanc wine. It was satin smooth but you pick up the red fruits and slight spiciness to boot. J’adore. — 3 months ago

Jason, Serge and 10 others liked this

McNab Ridge

Family Reserve Largo Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

So excellent. Just the right amount of oak to accessorize the fruit (blackberries, raspberries, all the colored berries you could desire!). Just the right amount of acid to keep things from being too weighty. — 3 months ago

Severn, Ron and 8 others liked this

Maple Creek Winery

Artevino Rosé of Pinot Noir 2019

If the art style looks familiar, Maple Creek’s winemaker also makes Far Niente ‘s art. And what’s in the bottle is art too. Licorice, roses, cherries, and a hint of effervescence. — 3 months ago

Josh, barak heller and 16 others liked this

Fathers & Daughters

Ella's Reserve Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017

A delight for sure. It was dark cherries and Dr. Pepper and orange peel. And if someone doesn’t make a Dark Cherry/Orange flavored Dr. Pepper I guess…I’ll have to drink more if this which I hope to do anyway but…still someone should make that. — 3 months ago

Jason, Serge and 10 others liked this

Fattoria Enotria

Enotria Moscato Elevato

Distilled with added moscato and it tastes like…amaretti! Get yourself some cookies and a glass of it. You may not think you like sweet wine but…you’re gonna learn. — 3 months ago

Serge, David and 7 others liked this

Handley

Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Rosé 2020

Queen Anne cherries. Red roses. And a bit of white pepper. If you have the sort of synesthesia where you taste things in visions and visions give you tastes then that’s what you would see and taste. And if you’ve not got that you’ll still probably taste that. Lovely and light. — 3 months ago

Jason, Josh and 12 others liked this

Thomas T Thomas Vineyards

Estate Grown Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2018

This is the middle tier in Thomas’ line-up and I fell hard for the lavender cola vibe. Took it to dinner. It is poised well on its own but versatile on the dinner table. — 3 months ago

Jason, Josh and 11 others liked this

Campovida

Dark Horse Ranch Grenache 2016

I’m a sucker for great Grenache. If it can age all the better. Boozy raisins and blueberries. — 3 months ago

Serge, David and 10 others liked this

Frey

Chardonnay 2019

No sulfur and pristine as can be! It has a certain texture to it that made me think of breathing the Mendocino air—like all these things are growing and yes, wine is a living thing! Depth. And red apples and cantaloupe. — 3 months ago

Severn, Ron and 9 others liked this