Thursday, August 18, 2022

Marvelous Mendocino

(Handley Cellars image)

In the early days of the California wine ascendancy, Napa and Sonoma were going full throttle while Mendocino lagged a little behind.  The rising popularity of California wine was spurred on by the famous Judgement at Paris, but Mendocino didn't have a skin in that game. 

That didn't bother winemakers like John Parducci, who told anyone who would listen that Mendocino wines, especially those from the area around Ukiah, were as good as any Napa wine, just different.  Soft approachable Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots, such as Parducci Mendocino and Fetzer Redwood Valley, were benchmark Mendocino wines. 

The diversity of Mendocino, however, wasn't limited to Cabernet. On the west side of the county, smaller Anderson Valley, along Highway 128, between Boonville and Navarro, had been quietly establishing itself as the go-to place for cool climate wines like Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewurztraminer.

There's something to admire in a wine region that, in the face of consumers being Napaized, slowly and quietly were building a reputation for Pinot Noir and Germanic-style whites. 

Back in the 1990s, the odd Pinot from the likes of Navarro Vineyards, Handley Cellars, Husch Vineyards and Greenwood Ridge, came to the attention of Pinot lovers and the rush was on. 

While Anderson Valley was eager to show its Pinot Noir to the wine world, the attraction for consumers was to the north in Oregon's Willamette Valley. There was a handful of California Pinot Noirs, outside Anderson Valley, such as Hanzell, Saintsbury and Acacia, but the focus of the market for U.S. Pinot Noir then was  Willamette Valley.

Anderson Valley 

Early on, Ted Bennett and Tony Husch recognized the potential for great wines in Anderson Valley.  In the early 1970s, they left the hectic life of an urbanite and settled in rural isolated Anderson Valley, planted grapes and eventually opened wineries. 

In those days, California Gewurztraminer lacked the dry and clearly distinctive character of German and Alsatian Gewurz. So, Bennett's Navarro Vineyard and Husch's eponymous winery began making impeccably balanced Riesling and Gewurztraminer, emphasizing fruit sweetness that didn't hide the distinctive varietal character of the grapes. 

Before long, Lazy Creek Vineyards, joined the rising Gewurz movement, followed by Handley Cellars, Claudia Springs Winery, Greenwood Ridge and Christine Woods, all mid-valley near Philo. 

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were doing so well in the Anderson Valley, that the  obvious next step was sparkling wine.  In 1983, John Scharffenberger opened Scharffenberger Cellars and the French Champagne producer Roederer purchased land near Philo for Roederer Estate sparkling wines that soon earned wide acclaim and, according to some, even bested Roederer's French wines.

Today, Scharffenberger is part of the Roederer Collection. I haven't tasted Scharffenberger bubbly lately, but I can report that Roederer Estate NV Brut is a nicely balanced satisfying sparkling wine and the Roederer Estate l'Ermitage Brut  is a complex richly textured California sparkler, the equal of Champagne.

The Rest of Mendocino

The rest of Mendocino covers a lot of land, with the largest concentration of wineries between Ukiah and Hopland.  

In 1968, Barney Fetzer built a wine dynasty, with the help of his 11 children, in Redwood Valley, north of Ukiah. Today, Fetzer Vineyards, under different ownership, has a major operation outside the small town of Hopland, once the center of hop yards for local brewing.  

North of Ukiah, Parducci Vineyards operates a busy tasting room, featuring Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The tasting room was once a shady nook under Parducci's house, but a new tasting room was built to show the wide range of Parducci wines. 

Gnarly vines

East of Hopland is McDowell Valley with its single winery, on sloped bench land. In the early 1980s, the Keehn family opened McDowell Vineyards.  And while they worked to establish a reputation for Rhone-style wines, mainly Syrah and Grenache, the Keehn's also helped secure the McDowell Valley American Viticultural Appellation (AVA), establishing it as the smallest AVA in California. McDowell Valley Vineyards was one of the first wineries in California to be partially powered by solar.

Northeast of Redwood Valley is Potter Valley, a cooler area due to its slightly higher elevation.  Sparkling wine makers, such as Scharffenberger, like the grapes from Potter Valley.  The region is also known for its Sauvignon Blanc. 

Summer is now in full swing and the warmer weather is a good time to think about the lightly chilled fruity whites and structured reds of Mendocino County. 

Next blog: Portugal's Fortified Duo

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