Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Best Wine Buying Trip of the Season: The Organically Grown Wines at Hopland Passport (Oct. 22-23)

Hopland's Passport is the only regional wine festival in California where you can sample more organically grown than pesticide-raised wines!

Make sure your trunk is EMPTY when you go - this event is also one of the best ways to stock up on wines that are organically grown - and affordable due to the special discounts that are offered during the spring and fall Passport weekends.

I'd plan two buying trips a year - one in fall and one in spring - around Passport. It costs $45 for tickets (purchased online in advance; otherwise, pay $55 at any of the wineries) and you can easily recoup that in food and tastings alone. What makes it even better is the amazing discounts offered at a number of the leading vintners who make organically grown wine.

Here's "Pam's Guide" to what to prioritize on your weekend visit.

I recommend staying in Ukiah (10 minutes north of Hopland) at the Motel 6 - $40 a night - if you want to prioritize spending the money on wine instead of a room (which I do). I stayed there in the spring and while it was indeed no frills, it was clean, safe and very quiet and the clerk was one of the friendliest and nicest I have ever met.

If you like hot springs, check out Vichy Springs hotel ($195 a night - pricey but a favorite) or the primitive and remote Orr Hot Springs.

Many big chain hotels in the $90-100 a night range can also be found in Ukiah (Quality, Comfort, etc.).


If you don't mind driving, the best places are Diavola in Geyserville (about 30 minutes south of Hopland) or Table 128 at the Boonville Hotel in Anderson Valley (an hour drive from Hopland). (Can you tell I prefer to spend more on the dinner and wine than the hotel?)

Right in Hopland, don't miss the Bluebird Diner (a local fave and a fun spot) or the new pizza joint. In Ukiah, there's Patrona (the fancy in town place) or Oco Time for sushi - both have a wide selection of Mendo's organically grown wines.


The wineries with green underlining or bars are 100% organic - i.e. all their wines are organically grown. This includes (in order of Must-See-Ness):


Saracina*** - the most impressive winemaking team in Mendocino's Sanel Valley (Ukiah-Hopland corridor as opposed to Anderson Valley's Pinot Country) - gourmet in every way - what they produce is beautiful. The Sauvignon Blanc is a top pick in the under $20 category.

Run by industry icon John Fetzer, Saracina is raising the bar on vinification in Mendocino County - with the expert help of Napa legend David Ramey who is the consulting winemaker - and succeeding. Plus they have a great cave tour and could not be more convenient (right next to 101). Classy. Check out the modern take on ancient amphora - very au courant.

Terra Savia*** - Don't judge a wine by the winery tour. Terra Savia's been making lovely, affordable Chardonnays for generations - and their bubbly also kicked ass at this year's Mendocino County Wine Competition - tying for first place with French-owned and run champagne firm Roederer Estate of Anderson Valley.

The winery itself is a big warehouse, shared with an olive oil company (a hugely and increasingly popular combo around the state) with a selection of high-end olive oils.

During Passport, Terra Savia opens its doors to local crafts people/friends who offer their wares in the cavernous warehouse.

I am also fond of the winery's red wines - its Meritage is a very good value. Be sure to visit winemaker/proprietor Jim Milone out in his private tasting room/shed for a taste of his high-end, limited distribution Hoplander - a Cabernet that should give Napa the willies (because Hoplander is priced very reasonably).

Jim Milone rightfully calls himself a fourth-generation vigneron, a rare claim to fame in California, because he both grows the grapes and makes the wines, organically, as his Italian family has done for a 100 years in the same Hopland location, a minute off of 101 and next door to Rack and Riddle.

Since Terra Savia is not open to the public regularly (it is open by appointment), and because it puts on such a festive scene at Passport, seeing it during Passport is a good opportunity to enjoy the winery and some hoopla.

WINE BUYING - Usually they offer some discounts during Passport. Take advantage of them. I'd stock up on the Reserve Chardonnay for sure, but take your pick. It's all good stuff and mostly under $20.

McFadden Vineyards*-*** McFadden has been growing organically up in Potter Valley (about 10-15 miles north of Hopland) for more than 40 years. While you can't visit the actual vineyards, they do have a very conveniently located tasting room in Hopland.

WINE BUYING -  I would definitely snag remaining cases of their wonderful bubbly which made a very impressive showing in the Mendocino County Wine Competition in 2010 - placing ahead of world famous French champagne makers Roederer Estate from Anderson Valley - a feat not easily accomplished. I myself have bought no less than four cases of the 2011 vintage.

McFadden usually has some incredible discount deals during Passport - so don't miss out!

FOOD BUYING - Since McFadden also raises grass fed cattle on its farm, you can definitely find lovely BBQ on hand at Passport - and you can even buy some beef to take home. I love taking it out of the freezer months later and thinking fondly of which McFadden wine I want to pair with it. This year proprietor Guinness McFadden will be out back BBQing up a storm.

McFadden also makes a very, very lovely Riesling, along with many other fine wines.


Cesar Toxqui*-***
Cesar makes a number of fabulous wines, including a Pinot Noir noted English wine god Hugh Johnson praises in his bestselling pocket guide. However, many of Cesar's wines come from grapes that are either not organically grown or not certified, so it's always necessary to check with him on where the grapes for any particular wine came from.

At the spring Passport, Cesar had an unbeatable special on a case of Zin (organically raised but not certified) for $100 - wow. It's a lovely wine. I also have some of their Pinot - sometimes sourced from biodynamically certified grapes. Just ask what's what.

Jeriko* - A lovely spot - where the BBQ will be great - but not one of my favorite wineries. However, their first crop of biodynamically grown wines is coming out for the first time, so that would be worth a stop.

Green means "all wines made are organically grown"; yellow means "a few organically grown wines so be sure to ask"
Other wineries to consider (in order of a worthiness of a visit) - that have at least one organically grown wine:


Rack and Riddle - Since Rack and Riddle came to town, many Mendo wineries have discovered the joy of offering bubbly and the world is a better place for it - McFadden, Terra Savia, Jeriko, and Paul Dolan now all offer sparkling wines, opening up new markets and giving the old guard (the French-owned wineries in America) a run for the money - most have been selling out each year well before the following years' releases are available.

It's a rare treat to get inside Rack and Riddle since the facility is not open for individual tours. If you have a group of 6+, you can call ahead for a tour, but the facility is open during Passport which is good.

Campovida - more is organic, than used to be - you might think all their wines are from their green marketing spin - but the site is a modern, stylish destination retreat center. (It's especially sad that most of the wines are not organic as the site was the birthplace of Mendo's organic wine making movement in the Fetzer days.)

Since the original flower and vegetable gardens - formerly of Fetzer/Bonterra - were the landmark that led Mendo's winemaking community on to the organic path - stop in to see the garden for sure! Ask at the winery where the garden is - you can easily miss it since the location is not beside the tasting room area.

In the past, I have had many wine pourers at Campovida assure me things were organic when they were not, so be sure to ask to see the CCOF label certification or keep asking until you get a manager if you want to verify. (Don't fall for the sustainability rap if it's not organic.)

Nelson Family Vineyards - the new generation of this generations-old winemaking family is, like many of their age, taking a deep dive into organic and is currently in transition to becoming organically certified. Stay tuned. While the food they're going to be serving is organic, the wine is in transition - and that would be a good thing.


Just north of Hopland:
Nearby recommendations that are all organic: Barra of Mendocino (great Muscat, and more) and Parducci, where you can taste organic Paul Dolan wines. These are right up Route 101. A little further on, you can visit the Redwood Valley wineries - Frey and others - but call to see if they're open.

Another local favorite is Testa - call to make an appointment. Their rose is great. Their "Red" took high honors in the Mendocino Wine Competition and is also organic (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon). Testa is one of the most storied and historically authentic spots to visit - it's makes the Ken Burns Prohibition series come to life! (Since the Testa family made wine all through Prohibition and has the old stills and winemaking tools in the basement - which you can visit.)


No buying trip would be complete without a stop at the Ukiah Coop in Ukiah, which has one of the best organically grown wine selections in the entire state.

I always make a point of stopping in to stock up on Testa's Rose, Naughty Boy Rose, and Trinafour Muscat and Carignan, and other wines - all are very fine, smaller producers that are hard to find out of the area. Plus, there's always something new to explore on the Ukiah Coop's wine shelves.

Let me know if you go to Passport and send me your photos!

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