Thursday, September 21, 2023

My California Wine Adventures 5

"My California Wine Adventures 4" told of my visits to Heitz Wine Cellars and Joseph Phelps Vineyards, neighboring wineries along Taplin Road in the Napa Valley.  Closing out my first trip to California as a wine writer is my tasting and conversation with the godfather of Mendocino wine. 

John Parducci                    Ukiah Daily Journal

With the Phelps interview now in the bank, Jack and I got back on the road early the following morning, for the drive from the Napa Valley across the western hills that divide Napa and Sonoma, to Santa Rosa and then north to Ukiah. In a day or two, we would retrace part of that route on our return to San Francisco for flights to San Diego for Jack and Denver for me.  

Parducci Wine Cellars is a few miles north of Ukiah, off highway 101. The winery was founded by Adolph Parducci in 1932, making it the oldest Mendocino winery in continuous operation. John and his brother George were in charge of wine making and marketing when we arrived in the late 1970s. But the controlling interest of Parducci Wine Cellars was no longer in Parducci hands. 

In 1973, the brothers Parducci needed operating cash, so they sold majority ownership of the family business to a California teachers investment firm.  It was a decision that didn't sit well with John, and his wife, Margarett, and he grumbled about the issue as we tasted some of the many Parducci wines.  Brother George was at the winery the day we were there but he left meetings with visiting writers up to his brother.  

Understanding John Parducci

I mention this division of responsibilities because it helps to explain John Parducci, a farmer at heart, who always wore his emotions on his sleeve.  John was cranky but sympathetic, angry but gentle and always generous with his time, experience and knowledge.  He was an outspoken seat-of-the-pants winemaker.

Still, he raged at what he saw as the marketing take over of wine making. He was also angry about the lack of recognition for Mendocino as a wine region, the attention to high-priced wine at the expense of affordable wine and he sadly complained about the loss of the old world practice of a glass of wine with a meal.

Parducci's idea of a wine and food event was sitting around the kitchen table enjoying Margarett's cooking with a glass or two of Parducci wine.

Parducci Wine Cellars in Transition

The ownership arrangement with Teacher's Management Institute eventually collapsed, and management of Parducci Wine Cellars temporarily returned to the Parducci family.  Eventually, Parducci Wine Cellars became a brand of Mendocino Wine Company. 

John Parducci passed away in 2014, at the age of 96. In the late 1970s, he was still active at the winery, although John suffered from a bad back.  "When we were planting the first vineyards, I drove the tractor, bouncing around all day and it jarred my lower back," Parducci told me with the look of a man accepting his fate but still complaining about it. 

Over the years, John Parducci fought a number of battles; he opposed the advocates of only bulk wine and won the distinction of being the first person in Mendocino County to bottle a varietal wine. And, he was always looking to the future. 

In the early days of quality Mendocino wine, there was only Parducci Wine Cellars and Fetzer Vineyards and a small number of wineries in Anderson Valley.  John Parducci was a pioneer and the last of the Prohibition era winemakers. He knew what the people wanted and worked his entire life to give it to them.

 A Parducci Wine Tasting

Tasting wine with John Parducci on his home turf was an experience I recall as, "If you like that wine, wait 'till you taste this one."  The tasting took place in a space under the front porch of a house on the property. There was a long bar, dirt floors and a cooler box for the white wines. 


Parducci served as bartender, pulling red wines from a shelf under the bar, or reaching behind him to grab a white wine from the cooler. He seemed to have an endless supply of current vintage and aged wines in this makeshift tasting room.  And, every wine he opened jogged his memory about growing up in the wine business. 

When Parducci was 14 years old, his father sent him east by train to sell grapes to home winemakers during Prohibition.  He stayed with distant relatives in Brooklyn and every day went to the rail yards to sell grapes out of a boxcar.  

"You were just a kid," I said, astonished.  "Were you scared to be on your own that far from home?"

"I was too afraid that I would do something wrong, to be scared," Parducci looked at me and grinned, then he opened a bottle of red wine without a label, poured me and himself some and waited while I took a sip. 

"What is it," he asked, taking a long pull of the wine in his glass?

I wasn't sure, so I said, "It's not Cabernet or Pinot Noir," so my guess is Petite Sirah."  It was one of the first varietal Syrahs in Mendocino. 

John Parducci said the one thing he wanted to see happen, was to put affordable wine in the hands of more people...and he did. 

Full Disclosure: The trip to Ukiah, as well as other California wine adventures, took place more than 40 years ago, so these remembrances are based on interview notes and bits and pieces from my memory, such as it is.


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