Thursday, August 26, 2021

Beyond Napa

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In 1977, my photographer friend and I visited wineries in Napa Valley, Mendocino and Monterey County, gathering material for magazine articles. Napa highlights included an interview with Joe Heitz, plus meetings with Joseph Phelps and Warren Winiarski.   Parducci Wine Cellars in Mendocino was the next stop.

One of the first wine articles I wrote was about Ivancie Cellars, a pioneer in Colorado wine making.  Dr. Gerald Ivancie's idea was to use California grapes for wines made at his small winery in Denver.  The California connection also included hiring a wine making consultant and a gape grower. 

Wines Vines Analytics
John Parducci

John Parducci, head of the leading Mendocino winery, Parducci Wine Cellars, helped Ivancie find grapes in California and had them trucked across two mountain ranges to Denver. The plan may go down in the record books as one of the most ambitious (and hare brained) vineyard-to-winery schemes in U.S. wine making.  

By comparison, wineries in western Washington purchase grapes from growers east of the Cascades, possibly making that annual trek the longest today.

The Ivancie connection was one of the reasons I wanted to meet and interview John Parducci.  There was also Parducci's reputation for speaking his mind and for being a great California wine story teller. 

So, Jack and I cranked up his tired VW Beetle and headed north to Ukiah and an extensive tasting of Parducci wines.

We met John Parducci in what passed then as the tasting room for Parducci Wine Cellars.  Two wine barrels supported the tasting bar, in a dark space for a wine tasting, but the atmosphere was bright and friendly.

Parducci poured wine after wine, while providing a running commentary on the vineyards, his non-stop schedule, in and out of his pickup truck, between the winery, the tasting room and the vineyards. All of this done while favoring a sore back he said came from riding a tractor for hours in the family vineyards. 

"Everything is automated today," Parducci groused with a trace of admiration. "When I was a teenager, my father taught me how to drive a tractor and sent me with boxes of grapes on the train to New York. I stayed with relatives in Brooklyn and went to an outdoor market, in a railroad yard, every day to sell the grapes out of a box car."  

Parducci Wine Cellars was founded just after the repeal of Prohibition, but despite winning awards in wine competitions and attracting attention from writers, Parducci wines never got the attention and acclaim bestowed on Napa wines. The lack of attention to his wines and Mendocino wines was a sensitive subject for Parducci and he never really let it go. 

In fairness, Anderson Valley, did bring well-earned national attention for Pinot Noir and aromatic white wines like Riesling and Gewurztraminer to Mendocino County.  Anderson Valley is not on any well-traveled wine trail, but the high quality of its distinctive wines have attracted visitors.

The large Mendocino AVA includes nine other AVAs, from the tiny Cole Ranch  to the larger Anderson Valley.  There are vast differences in the growing environments between the coastal influence of the Anderson Valley and the more continental environment of areas around Hopland. 

Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc grow best in the corridor between Ukiah and Hopland, Zinfandel is good along a stretch of the  Russian River in the south county.  And, of course, aromatic whites and Pinot Noir are signature grapes in the Anderson Valley.  Pinot Noir does double duty in the bubbly from Roederer Estate, one of the best producers of California sparkling wine.

Monterey County

We were reluctant to leave the hospitality of Parducci Wine Cellars, but it was time to move on, with one more stop in Monterey County.

Chalone Vineyards, in the Gavilan Mountains, rests on a ridge about 1800 feet above the small farming town of Soledad.  I had arranged an interview ( in those days contacts were still by mail) with owner-winemaker Richard Graff at his isolated mountain retreat, but we had to get directions in Soledad, as there were no signs pointing the way.  

Richard Graff - Wikipedia
Richard Graff

Soledad, in northern Monterey County, is known for lettuce and other row crops.  Chalone Vineyards, had a reputation then for its Burgundian style wines.  In the early 1980s, the small nondescript winery and sprawling vineyards were in the shadow of the Pinnacles, an imposing rock formation, with a honeycomb network of caves. The one-lane narrow road to the Pinnacles, with its many switch backs, put a strain on Jack's aging Beetle.

At the top of the hill, the blacktop turned into a dirt driveway, leading to a Quonset hut in a small grove of trees.  The rattle of the VW announced our arrival but the only thing stirring, besides a large number of birds feasting on the grapes, was a rangy dog that circled the car and then christened our presence by lifting his leg and peeing on the left front wheel.

After relieving itself, the dog backed away and began barking, so we were wary about getting out of the car.  But all the barking did was disturb the intermittent silence, broken by loud blasts from an air cannon. 

It was comical to watch.  The birds would roost on the vines pecking away at the ripe grapes, the cannon would go off and the birds would scatter, then plunge back to the vines, as though their skinny legs were attached to a rubber band.

Nature defeating human innovation was mesmerizing, but we soon became aware that there was no one around.  So we left a note and retreated down the hill to Soledad. 

The next morning, I looked out the window hoping to see clear weather as this was the only day we had for photos of Chalone.  To my surprise, the fog was so thick and impenetrable that I couldn't see the VW parked outside the room. 

Fortified with plenty of coffee and a breakfast burrito, we headed up the hill, hoping for the best, but not knowing what to expect.  The narrow road seemed even longer, or maybe it was just the dense fog.  

As we eased slowly around one of the blind turns in the road, the fog started to lift and suddenly we emerged into blinding sunlight.  Jack found a pull over and we got out to look at the beautiful sight that stretched out below us. 

Everything in the valley was covered by a brilliant white irregular bumpy blanket that reminded me of cotton batting.  We had emerged into a complete reverse of the earlier foggy surprise in Soledad. 

The dog wasn't around to greet us but Richard Graff was, as we pulled up to the Quonset hut. He apologized for not being around the night before but he had gone down to Soledad in his truck to haul water up to the vineyards. 

Graff explained that it was the limestone soil base that attracted him to the hilly remote site.  Although Pinot Noir thrived in the shadow of the Pinnacles, Graff was also making Chardonnay in the Burgundian style.  In fact, Graff and Chalone became known for the use of malolactic and oak barrel fermentation.  

Chalone wines were a testament to what was possible with those grapes in California in the late 1970s.  The 1974 Chalone Pinot Noir placed third in the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting the pitted California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay against French Bordeaux and Burgundy.


Next blog:  My Life in Wine Episode 18

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