Thursday, June 25, 2015

5 Wines to Order Now: California State Fair's Winners - Gold AND Organic

Hundreds of wineries across the state sent in thousands of wine bottles this year to compete in the annual California State Fair wine competition. Announced last week, some of the best organically grown wines took top prizes. Amazingly, most are affordable. And, on this list, even the splurge wines are worth the price.


2012 Bokisch Vineyards, Double Gold, Best of California, Best of Class ($20)

A Spanish wine grape that used to be used only for blending, Lodi-based Bokisch was the first winery in the United States to bottle this varietal on its own. As soon as I tasted it, I bought 6 bottles. If you haven't tried it, let this award be your excuse.

Markus Bokisch, half Spanish, runs a vineyard management company in Lodi, and with his wife Liz makes 3,000 cases of wine a year under the Bokisch Vineyards label. Check out their two Albarinos, too - and of course, don't miss their Garnacha.

Petite Sirah
2013 Green Truck, Double Gold ($15)

Wow - what a surprise. Some grower in Mendo must be pretty happy right now. Who had those great grapes? Who made this wine, really? We'd like to salute you.

It's nice to see that the people who didn't rip out their Petite Sirah vines to plant Cabernet still get some respect in the world, isn't it?

This is a supermarket wine so look for it there.

Pinot Noir
2012 Benziger Family Winery, Arbore Sacra ($75)

Benziger Family Winery's Sonoma Coast site in Freestone stands as a testament to their amazing Biodynamic farming. While other wineries say they must use pesticides and fungicides out there in the  coastal areas, Benziger alone persists in resisting that approach - and, look at this - makes great wine. This particular Pinot has racked up quite a lot of awards. And even at the California State Fair.


2013 Shooting Star ($13)

It doesn't say it on the bottle, but this wine is solely sourced from organic vines, the grower tells me.

NV, Galleano, Mary Margaret Cream Sherry ($40)

Sherry and sweet wines are what made California's wine industry for about a 100 years. The Mission grapes - yes, Mission Grapes - that go into this organically grown sherry are from 70 year old vines growing in Mira Loma and 95 year old vines. Galleano is the Sturbridge Village of wineries - only it's still a going concern, not a museum run by a nonprofit.

This sherry is made in the style of a Pedro Ximenez-Olorosa, from rare Golden Chasselas/Palomino and Mission varieties. Galleano is one of the very few vineyards that still grows them.

Galleano family receiving another award for their Mary
Margaret Cream Sherry 
This is a sherry master's very best sherry, a tribute to their "nona."

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

If You Missed It...The Volker Eisele Tribute Video

Environmental leader and land preservation activist Volker Eisele's life is celebrated in this moving video. (He passed away earlier this year). The irascible politico's friends and neighbors describe him in knowing and loving detail.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Grgich Hills Estate's Ivo Jeramaz on Old Vine Cabernet

I'm working on converting all of the apps to books...and the Napa wines and wineries are my current focus.

After doing a section of the Sonoma book on old vines, I went back and revisited the Napa wines in the apps and realized there's some real Napa old vine gems that are farmed organically.

None has a video about itself, though, save one: Grgich Hills' video featuring Ivo Jeramaz, talking about the special old vines found in the winery's Yountville vineyard.

Enjoy hearing him talk about these Cabernet vines, planted in 1959 and thought to be the second oldest Cabernet vines in Napa Valley.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Sonoma Wine Grape Growers Seminar, Part 2: Streams, Pesticides, Drought Issues - Government Officials Tell It Like It Is

Sonoma wine grape growers face new state regulations on water issues and on pesticides used near schools, state and county officials told growers Friday. Officials spoke to several hundred growers at the Sonoma Wine Grape Growers Annual Seminar held at Shone Farm in Forestville.

Sonoma County Ag Commissioner Tony Linegar updated the group on new county guidelines on riparian corridor management designed to protect streams. "There is no removal of vegetation from 200 feet from the top of the bank for new plantings," Linegar stated. Existing vines are grandfathered in, he said.

Sonoma County Ag Commissioner Tony Linegar
Linegar defended growers against complaints from some Sonoma residents who don't like the wine industry. "I've worked in three counties," he said, "and even with wine grapes, we're still very diversified. We've got a $100 million dairy industry and a $30 million nursery industry."

"I ask people, tell me what crop uses less water and pesticides and has a greater return per acre to the farmer than wine grapes," he said. "I'm all ears." The crowd reacted with spontaneous applause.

"We're the last real agricultural county in the Bay Area," he said.

Linegar provided an update on the issue of schools and pesticides, outlining his opposition to recent developments at the California Dept. of Public Health and California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation.

Linegar said he disagreed with the data in the California Dept. of Public Health 2014 report on schools and pesticide exposure.

The report did not cover Sonoma County, but zeroed in on counties with the highest rates of pesticide application, primarily in the Central Valley. Ventura County was the county with the most school children located near agricultural pesticide applications.

In response, State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, who represents Ventura County, in 2014 put forward legislation SB1411, that would give agricultural commissioners the authority to prohibit pesticide application within a quarter mile of a school.

The bill failed, but Linegar said the California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation was now expected to issue new regulations and would soon be holding public hearings around the state on this issue.

"I fought tooth and nail against this," said Linegar.

A calendar for the first round of hearings has been published and is available on the CDPR web site. No North Coast sites have yet been included in the calendar.

On a more positive note, Linegar said the European Grapevine Moth (EGVM) was not found in Sonoma and by 2016 could be out of quarantine. "Chilé lost the battle," he said, "and they will be spraying and managing for this pest forever, which increases their costs." In addition, he said, all Chilean blueberries and plums now had to be fumigated before being imported into the U.S.

Researchers are still investigating pathways that brought the EGVM into the U.S. "We're looking at equipment as a potential pathway from Europe," he said.

Linegar warned that the stink bug, already established in California - in Los Angeles and Sacramento - could affect vineyards. "It has the potential to mess with wine grapes," he said. "It's a pretty serious pest. It's already beyond eradication in California, so we'll be monitoring for it."

Dr. Thomas Harter, of U.C. Davis
Groundwater expert Dr. Thomas Harter, of U.C. Davis, spoke on the new Groundwater Sustainability Management Act and how it will affect grape growers.

"Where this drought is different from previous droughts," Harter explained, "is that cumulative precipitation over the last 14 years has been low. In the last 14 years, only 4 years were at or above average levels." He said the last four years had been the driest since the 1920's.

"Groundwater levels are lower than they have ever been before," he said, "as the consequence of groundwater overdrafts."

Harter compared subsidence risks in Sonoma and the Central Valley. "In Sonoma, we see about 0.1 to 0.2 inches of subsidence, which is arrested now, " he said. "Sonoma is nothing like the Central Valley where there was 6-12 inches of subsidence in this year alone."

Harter provided a detailed view of the recent legislation on water which describes a three step process that will be implemented locally to manage groundwater. Phase 1 calls for the establishment of local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies for each basin that is a medium or high priority. Phase 2 requires the local agencies to make a Groundwater Sustainability Plan. And Phase 3 requires the plan implementation.

"The goal is transparency, transparency, transparency," he said. "If locals don't manage the groundwater well, the state will step in."

Harter pointed to Santa Clara county as a success story where groundwater recharge was successfully accomplished through county action.

Asked about groundwater monitoring techniques, Harter said the remote sensing of satellite technology has a critical role in understanding subsidence, which can be measured within a few millimeters of accuracy. "Aircraft and satellites are better suited to measuring consumptive water use, but they may only be accurate to within 1-10 percent.

"Satellites are good at understanding groundwater fluctuations for large regions like the Central Valley but not as effective for Sonoma Valley," he said. "We have to be monitoring existing wells to better understand the local impacts."

The last two speakers on the agenda were Andrew Hughan, public information officer for California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife and Dee Dee D'Adamo of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Hughan is currently overseeing media outreach on the drought in coastal communities and is focused on the plight of salmon. "Sonoma is one of the big three," he said, "with Oroville and Shasta as the other two."

"Sonoma is in a State of Emergency. Everyone helps," he said. "This is about your land, your water, your fish."

"The Russian River is the number one priority right now," he said. "And I'm here today to ask for your help. We'd like access to your land to save the fish when fish rescues are needed."

"We're not asking for any reduction in water use on crops," he said. "We are asking wineries to sign Voluntary Drought Agreements. What that says is that you agree to stop watering ornamentals and not to wash cars and sidewalks."

"Fish rescues are not an excuse for regulatory access," he said. "We just want to rescue the fish."

Andrew Hughan, California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife
Hugh said water regulation is coming, but there may be preferential treatment given at that time to those who sign voluntary agreements. "Plus," he said, "you'll get great media attention. I have reporters every day calling me for drought stories. It's national news. Sign a voluntary agreement, and write "Media OK" and we'll tell the media about you. You could be on national television."

Hughan's accompanying slide showed logos from major media broadcasters including CNN and social media outlets Facebook and YouTube.

Dee Dee D'Adamo from the State Water Resources Control Board, the final speaker at the seminar, represents Central Valley agricultural interests on the state agency, but is originally from Napa, where she grew up as the daughter of wine grape growers.

"We are looking for voluntary agreements, whereever possible," she told the growers. "This is a critical situation. The voluntary agreements are one way to help."

"Some of the challenges that we face are that we don't understand all that's going on in the water system," she said.

D'Adamo said a new regulatory package would be released this week.

"Several wineries have participated in voluntary activities," she said," including Gallo and Jackson Family Wines and about 20 landowners who have signed voluntary agreements. We have to get those numbers up. Voluntary actions will avoid curtailments."

"When people look at the news and they see that urban areas are being asked to reduce consumption by 25%, or even as much as 38%, they say, 'how come ag isn't doing more?'"

Haghan said growers and wineries will be able to put on their web site that they signed a voluntary agreement.

The state is also beefing up enforcement on water diversions, Haghan said, saying that 15 new positions have been created to enforce the law against marijuana growers'  water diversion. "We've got 340 wardens and 50 percent of the are on marijuana enforcement this summer," he said.

In answer to a question from an audience member asking why the state hadn't increased water storage, D'Adamo said, "there are no silver bullets. Desalinization, conservation, storage - we need all of them."

"We are in a new normal - climate change - and there will be more droughts, followed by flooding. Recharging our aquifers will be beneficial."

Speaking during the following Q and A, Katie Jackson, Family Representative of Government Relations and Community Outreach at Jackson Family Wines, said, "It's better for growers to cooperate and collaborate to get around the need for requirements. A voluntary agreement can exempt you from a conservation order. Everyone wants to keep curtailment on the back burner."

Auction Napa Valley Showcases Napa's International Wine Culture

Experiences showcasing exquisite wines, rather than lots of wines alone, took center stage at the 2015 Auction Napa Valley, the country's biggest wine charity auction, with prestigious, luxury brands offering bidders access and experiences money alone (outside the charity event) can't buy.

It's a heady, tantalizing list of amazing adventures blending wine, culture and travel.

Overall the auction raised just under $16 million, just slightly behind 2014's record.

Here's a brief recap of what top vintners (with organic vines) offered and what was raised for Napa Valley charities.

By chance, these four wineries highlight Napa's international connections, and include owners from France and South Korea as well as Vienna, with a trip to Austria in the company of the former U.S. Ambassador to Austria.


This 38 acre Biodynamic estate nestled under the Palisades in the Vaca mountain range at the eastern edge of Calistoga is home to one of Napa's most coveted benchland spots - the Eisele Vineyard. Renowned for its grapes since the 1970's when Ridge Vineyard made a legendary 1971 wine from its grapes, the vineyard converted to Biodynamic farming during the 13 year period from 1990 to 2013 when it was owned by Bart and Daphne Araujo.

Now the estate is owned by the French business magnate, Francois Pinault, who also owns the luxury brands Christie's, Gucci, Yves St. Laurent and more. He is also the owner of Chateau Latour in Bordeaux and other elite wineries in Burgundy and the Rhone. The estate technical director Helene Mingot continues the Biodynamic farming practices; Jeff Dawson continues in a consulting role.

The LotRaised $550,000

Araujo Estate contributed an two night stay at the estate, a vineyard tour for 6, an al fresco lunch at the estate, and a blending session with the winemaker who will make a personal blend for the winner bidder.

The bidder then takes home 6 magnums and one case each of the current release as well as the personal blend.

Capping off the day is dinner at the Pinault residence (furnished with modern art from Pinault's internationally famous collection) with Frederic Engerer, CEO of Pinault's wine brands (including Chateau Latour). The menu features organically grown garden produce from the estate and Eisele wines spanning five decades.


With consulting winemaker Philip Melka, Korean business magnate Hi Sang Lee has created an elite, superstar winery (at an estimated cost of $25 million) making wine from three distinct Napa sites. The winery rose to international attention and fame first for its 100 point scores from Robert Parker for 2007 and 2010 Lotus Vineyard vintages.

The Lots: NA

Three couples will enjoy a two night stay at DANA Estates in Rutherford, with dinner prepared by the famous "Iron Chef"  Masaharu Morimoto and wines from the estate proprietors' libraries.


The new kids in town, from Texas, have been making quite a splash in Napa over the last few years and this year had the honor of hosting the barrel tasting event. Long time Democratic Party supporters, the Hall's brought their personal panache to their lot, trading on Kathryn Hall's term as Ambassador to Austria to create a unique offering.

With 200+ acres of organic vines in Napa (and another 78 in Sonoma's Alexander Valley) and a Leed certified winery, the Halls have Texas-sized green credentials as well as a world class art collection and lots of Texas (read: Cab-drinkin') friends.

The Lot: Raised $120,000+

The winners of this lot get two trips - one to Napa to enjoy the HALL estate and wines and another to Austria to be wined and dined by Riedel, makers of premium wine glassware, and a stay in Vienna, where Kathryn Hall will take them on a walking tour of the city.


Another storied site that's been planted to vines for more than 150 years, Staglin Family Vineyard has been one of Napa's top Cabernet producers since 1988. It has a long history of wine philanthropy and has raised more than $160 million for health research through annual concerts and more.

Located in Rutherford below Mount St. John, the highest point of the Mayacamas Mountains, it's also home to one of the town's oldest homes - the Steckter House, originally built in 1864.

The Lots: $375,000

Ten bidders received an estate tour and tasting, a two night stay in the Steckter House, and nine liters of custom bottle wine, a special cuvee from the estate's oldest vines.

New: Glen Ellen Green Tour Features a Garden, a Park and a Winery

Vary your day in Wine Country with a docent-led Glen Ellen Green Tour featuring one botanical garden, one state park tour and picnic lunch, and a tour of a very green winery.

A new regional ticketing process makes it possible to visit Quarryhill Botanical Garden, Jack London State Park and Benziger Family Winery for $59. Tickets must be booked online two weeks in advance and include a picnic lunch.

Quarryhill's famous for its collection of 20,000 plants and flowers on 25 acres in the foothills of the Mayacamas. Its Asian plant collection is one of the finest in the world and preserves rare and endangered species collected in the wild.

Jack London State Park is the former home of the famous American writer. Before that time, it was a major winery producing thousands of gallons of wine in the late 1800's for Kohler and Frohling. Jack London's house and a museum showcase the writer's legacy as well as his interest in green farming practices.

The third stop on the self-driving tour is Benziger Family Winery, known for its Biodynamic leadership and tram tours.

For details, click here.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Forestville's Emtu Estate Wines: Sonoma MicroWinery With Gourmet and Global Connections

Visit Emtu Estate Wines, and you'll find yourself driving down a semi-suburban street a few minutes away from the center of Forestville. Friendly black dogs greet you, with tails wagging, outside the owners' home. 

Go to the "tasting room" and you'll be seated at a picnic table next to the tiny winery, looking out over proprietor John and Chris Mason's three acres of vines. 

The two have what is one of Sonoma's tiniest boutique wineries. But from this humble abode, they make wine deemed world class enough to be served in to the creme de la creme of Bay Area diners. Their small lots of $40 Pinot Noir go directly to Chez Panisse and A16. 

They also sell to a small email list of Emtu fans, winery visitors and, since the launch of a new web site this spring, online.

John Mason: Emtu's co-founder, vineyard manager,
winemaker, tasting room director, and delivery man
The label's foundation's were laid when John Mason bought the rundown Forestville property in 1997. "It was basically abandoned when I got it," Mason says.

In 1999, he took a leave of absence from his job as a paramedic for the Berkeley Fire Dept. to work in Kosovo to help with relief efforts there. He got hooked on disaster relief, and he and Chris, a former nutritionist, started spending part of each year working on international relief efforts around the globe.

But when he spent time back in Forestville, he developed ambitions that were more local than global.

"I decided after awhile that I wanted to do something agricultural with the land here," says Mason. 

The Masons began working on the vineyard in 2003. From the start, they were certified organic. A third of the vineyard is planted to Dijon clones 115; two thirds is Pommard. They fill in replacement vines with Dijon 667 and AS1.

"We get about 3-3.5 tons per acre and make about 350-400 cases a year," Mason says. 

Two years ago the county's general plan changed, enabling the Masons to build a tiny winery adjacent to their house and the vineyard. Mason constructed a modest straw bale structure that houses four  small tanks and three barrels. The three foot thick walls keep the interior temperature constant and cool.
About as green as you can get: the winery is made of straw bale;
the roof is covered in solar panels.
Though Mason's taken classes at local institutions on viticitulture and wine making and worked at Marimar Torres, he credits a stint in Mendocino as his most formative wine education experience.

"I was working for Farmecology Labs in Hopland for awhile," he says. "The company does vineyard monitoring, looking at water use, insects and more, I'd visit a 100 different vineyards a week in a season and see the practices, talk to the vineyard managers and field crews and look at the vines. That formed my philosophy."

Which is...? "That irrigation and canopy management are the most important aspects of making wine. Wine is made in the vineyard."

Mason didn't water for 6 years. Now the two water the baby vines.

Mason says he thinks most Sonoma growers overwater. "Most vineyards in Sonoma could be 100% dry farmed," he says. "People fear their vineyards won't thrive," he says. At a minimum, he says, Sonoma growers could improve irrigation monitoring to better manage water.

When the Masons started their vineyard and winery venture, they'd hoped it would fund their relief efforts. Though that hasn't panned out (since the recent downturn), and they rely on family and friends primarily to fund their nonprofit, the two still divide their time between the winery and working on international relief efforts. And what profits there are from the winery go to their nonprofit.

"I've been involved in the building trades for most of my life," says John,  a native of San Diego. "I enjoy contributing my skills in relief areas." This fall the couple will head to an earthquake striken village in Nepal. 

"We've helped in a number of earthquake areas," says Mason, who is a a logistics expert as well as a builder, "In Peru, after their earthquake, we helped the locals to adopt safer building construction methods. It meant a change from their traditional ways." 

To date, the couple has worked in Sumatra, Thailand, Cameroon, Indonesia, the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan (in Central Asia), Haiti, Peru, and Pakistan.

Back home on the ranch, Emtu Estate Wines makes two different wines - a Pinot Noir ($40) and a rosé of Pinot Noir ($20). 

The 2013 Rosé - dry, crisp, tart, with spice notes
The Emtu Pinot Noir
How did Emtu manage to place its wines at Chez Panisse? "We just went to dinner there, and left a bottle of our wine for the wine director to try," says Mason, "with a one pager about what we were doing. Three weeks went by and we thought, well that was that. But then the phone rang and it was Jonathan (the wine director) saying they'd like to carry our wine on their list." Later A16 followed suit.

While Mason makes trips to Berkeley to deliver wine, he's now getting focused on the fall trip to Nepal. "We'll be going to a village 50 miles outside Katmandu where we have a connection to a woman running a local orphanage there."

The orphanage, which was built according to more modern construction methods, Mason says, is one of the only buildings in the village to withstand the earthquake. "We'll be helping the village rebuild so it can withstand the next earthquake."

Friday, June 5, 2015

Sustainability: Sonoma Growers Push Back On Transparency, Forge Ahead in PR

When it comes to divulging how much water, nitrogen, energy, and other inputs are used in growing wine grapes, Sonoma growers aren't sure how much information they want to share with the wineries they sell to or the retailers who sell their wines, county and state wine industry leaders said today at the annual Sonoma Wine Grape Commission grower seminar, tradeshow and BBQ.

Commission President Karissa Kruse, who is leading the charge to have 100 percent of Sonoma's wine grape growers certified under the Wine Institute's California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance's program, said retailers' sustainability programs ask wineries who buy Sonoma growers' grapes, "a lot of questions."

Karissa Kruse, speaking at the Sonoma Wine Grape Commission's annual
grower seminar
"Walmart asks the wineries where are the grapes from?, " she said. "How many acres? How much water was used? What type of pest management was practiced? What type of canopy management?"

"The information they request is taboo from a grower's perspective," Mike Rowan, a grower, added. "I don't like to give up that information and I don't know of a farmer who does."

Said Kruse, "My answer to that is that through our own sustainability program, we can create a Sonoma County report card, that shows that countywide we're good farmers, versus giving away your detailed farming practices to Walmart."

Speaking later in the program, John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, agreed, saying that information requested by Walmart's sustainability program was "confidential."

 John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers
"I'm concerned about them having to know how much nitrogen was used, the amount of water used," he said.

"Providing people with that information reveals your cost structure. It might be used to unfairly criticize your practices, or to start demanding you reduce your prices. If you have a 17% margin, someone might think it needs to be reduced to 12%."

Aguirre predicted that the government would get involved. "We're ultimately going to see a day when government will get into defining sustainability standards," he said.

A grower in the audience (who works with the commission's sustainability program) also weighed in on the issue of transparency, saying that some Sonoma growers were reticent about getting involved in the Sonoma growers' own California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance certification program due to privacy concerns.

Currently, the commission says the owners of 43% of the county's 60,000 acres of vineyards have participated in the self assessment components of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance program and another 33% of acres have been certified sustainable under the program's guidelines. The self assessment program does not require growers to share information with others.

In other business, Kruse provided members with an update on how the Commission's sustainability marketing program is going, saying it provided 300 million impressions to consumers across the country, including 73 features stories on sustainability responsible for 75 million impressions.

"We have national partnerships with Food and Wine, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal," she told the crowd of several hundred growers.

Kruse also pointed out that the Commission received government grants totally $900,000, including a $750,000 grant from the California Dept. of Food and Agriculture to support marketing.

"What does OPM stand for?" she asked the crowd. "....other people's money. For every grower dollar invested, we've been able to get 25 cents in grants."

She also said the commission had integrated its marketing efforts with those of the vintners and tourism groups in the county (and the 17 AVA organizations) into unified planning and promotional events. "We have media trained 40 vintners and growers," she said, "and put on 53 grower programs for 3,000 attendees last year."

Before she ended her talk, Kruse was asked about and recapped the commission's newest marketing initiative. "Sonoma is a Superbowl sponsor for the 2016 game in San Francisco," Kruse said. "I'm thinking it's like baseball and apple pie - the Superbowl and wine."

Kruse said some features already planned for the publicity campaign included showing how wineries are saving water and how the Superbowl as an event has also addressed this issue. "We'll also show consumers what they can do to save water at home, too," she said.

Earlier in the program, during Q and A with three representative members of the commission, the group addressed issues with community public relations. Lise Asimont, Director of Grower Relations at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, said her West County neighbors were not always so friendly to her when she told them she worked for a winery. Asked why, Asimont replied, "I love living in West County, but people there don't understand our right to use glyphosate, or Roundup."

Kruse said the commission needs to do a community survey to find out what local perceptions are. "We should do some real education on the community," she said. "A lot of times the people you hear from are people who don't have jobs or something, people who just want to vent."

(The growers also heard from state and county authorities on water, pesticide, and other issues. Those topics will be covered in a separate post.)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Mendocino's Hidden Treasures: 9 Great Old Vine Wines

I'm writing about Mendocino for a new book project and taking a deeper look at the diversity within this community of organic growers.

Mendocino's organic growers famously comprise 4,000 acres, or a quarter of the county's 16,000 acres in vine.

For most of these growers, the emphasis is on growing the grapes that go into everyday organically grown table wines from Bonterra and Frey. Others who were growers for decades - Barra and McFadden, for instance - became vintners themselves in the late 1990's and early 2000's.

Cosmopolitan wine connoisseurs have devoted a lot of attention to Anderson Valley wines. Closer to the ocean, this region is well known for Pinot Noir and sparkling wines but only one estate winery - Handley Cellars - makes any organically grown wines.

But here's what's on almost no one's radar - Mendocino's organically grown old vine beauties. The 9 featured in this post are all from vineyards that are certified organic. (It was the old Italians who taught the hippie kids who created Bonterra and Frey Vineyard how to farm organically in the first place.) Some of the old vine vineyards were never farmed any other way.

The county's old vine cousins across the border in Sonoma get a lot of love and attention. (They're worthy of attention - just not all of the attention). It's time to put things right and give Mendo credit where credit is due.

Seven of the wines are from Calpella, Redwood Valley, Talmage and Ukiah. Talmage and Ukiah are hot. Redwood Valley is more of a mix of very warm days and cool nights. (This valley once produced 50 percent of all the wine grapes in the county). Two wines are from the cooler climate Potter Valley (east of Redwood Valley).

Wine geeks will be impressed with not just the obscurity of these wines, but, far more importantly, their quality.

Let's hope these boutique winemakers keep getting access to this fruit. It's great to see that these historic vineyard grapes get bought by the likes of Saldo and Liocco who make them into hearty reds - but who blend them with other vineyards.

It's the little guy wineries listed here who are preserving the unique sense of place that's the gift of single vineyard bottlings.

Get your hands on some of these beauties - gems that express the soul and history of these unique places - before the vines and the wines are gone, gone, gone.


Only one of these vintners, Testa Vineyards, is open to the public. This historic vineyard and ranch is open to the public regularly; its current hours are Friday-Sunday from 11-5. Check the web site for details.

On Father's Day each year (June 21 this year), Testa Ranch gets festive, along with 7 other Redwood Valley wineries, celebrating the annual Taste of Redwood Valley This year the regional event features a pasta cookoff with local chefs participating. Attendees will get a chance to vote on the best pasta of the event. A special Friday night dinner will feature some of the old timers, including 89 year old Charlie Barra, sharing their adventures in their wine careers - precious moments indeed.


REDWOOD VALLEY - Niemi Vineyard 

• Carignane, Trinafour Cellars (150 cases, $23)
• Petite Sirah, Trinafour Cellars (50 cases, $27)

Fine wine winemaker Alex MacGregor hails from Canada, and makes wine by day at Saracina, one of inland Mendocino's best wineries. Founded by wine industry pioneer John Fetzer, the winery is one of the few wineries in inland Mendocino to vinify its wines using only native yeasts and using concrete egg vessels.

MacGregor was inspired by Mendocino's old vine treasures and focuses on them in his own wine label Trinafour Cellars, which takes its name from his father's birthplace in Scotland. He makes less than 500 cases a year, but these unique wines are definitely worth seeking out.

Tuesday's "Taste of Mendocino" tasting event in the city was a rare opportunity to taste these small lot wines which are available at few wine stores, even in the Bay Area.

Alex MacGregor talks with a wine buyer from Oakland's
BayWolf restaurant at the Taste of Mendocino event Tuesday
MacGregor makes a total of five wines, including two fabulous reds from Alvin Tollini's Niemi Vineyard in Redwood Valley, northeast of Ukiah - a Carignane ($23) and a Petite Sirah ($27), both fermented on native yeasts.

If you think you don't like Petite Sirah, try this one - it's surprisingly restrained and complex.

Today Niemi is still owned by Alvin Tollini, whose Finnish grandfather first planted vines on the site in 1915. (The Finns later intermarried with the larger local Italian population.)

After losing the initial vines to phylloxera, the family replanted; some of the Carignane vines in the vineyard date back to 1948.

I found the Carignane for sale at the Ukiah Natural Foods store (hands down the best place in the state to find organically grown, boutique wines, since many come from local Mendocino growers). Both wines are available by contacting Trinafour Cellars directly.

CALPELLA - Testa Vineyards

• Charbono, Testa Vineyards (150 cases, $40)

Testa family - archival photo
Once a mainstay of California growers, the now historic Charbono grapes has been reduced to a mere 89 acres.

Maria Testa Martinson's son Charlie
mans the wine press
Twelve of those precious acres are at Testa Vineyards in Calpella, where they were planted around 1950 by winemaker Maria Testa Martinson's Aunt Lee.

Though her family's been growing grapes in Mendocino since 1912, Maria is the first to make them into wine.

Her Charbono celebrates her family history and is made in a very traditional fashion - by hand. After bottling, the wines are stored in the cellar Maria's great grandparents built in the 1920's.

Maria Testa Martinson
The wine won a gold medal in the Mendocino Wine Competition.

Testa's Charbono is available from the winery. It's also sold at Ukiah Natural Foods.

TALMAGE - Mattern Vineyards

• Zinfandel - Split Rock Ranch, Cesar Toxqui Cellars (200 cases, $34)
• Zinfandel - Mattern Ranch, Marr Cellars (180 cases, $17)

Talmage (East Side)

Winemakers Cesar Toxqui and Bob Marr have both found their way to Mattern Vineyards, an old vine vineyard that's certified both organic and Biodynamic. The vines date back to the 1930's.

Cesar Toxqui, a Mexican born vintner, celebrated his 10th anniversary as a winery owner with his 2012 Split Rock Ranch Zin.

Bob Marr makes wine in Woodland, sourcing his small lot wines (total production: 800-1,000 cases) from a variety of vineyards in northern California. He considers himself lucky to get fruit from Mattern.

I found the Cesar Toxqui at Ukiah Natural Foods (for $19.45). Vintage Berkeley often carries Marr's wines; you can also find them for sale in Winters at Rootstock where you can place an online order. Each wine is also available directly from the individual wineries.

POTTER VALLEY - McFadden Vineyard

• Zinfandel-Les Enfants Terrible-McFadden Vineyard, Dashe Cellars (489 cases, $26)
• Zinfandel-Old Vine, McFadden Vineyard (1,000 cases, $24)

Started in the 1970's in Potter Valley, McFadden Vineyard
is located at the headwaters of the Russian River. A cool climate region, McFadden grows mostly white wine grapes and has only few red varietals - just Zin and Pinot Noir (the latter on on a south facing hillside). The 7 acres of Zin were planted in 1971.

Both McFadden Vineyards and Dashe Cellars make delightfully light Zins from these vines.

McFadden's old vine Zin is one of the lightest Zins you'll find. To call it Pinot like would be a stretch, but let's just say it's light on its feet and very food friendly. It's made in Mendocino. Personally, it's my favorite of McFadden's still wines.

Down in Oakland, the very accomplished fine wine producer Dashe Cellars also makes a light style Zin from the same grapes.

Dashe, which was recently featured in the New York Times for its traditional Zinfandels, has been making a series of light Zins it calls "Les Enfants Terrible" - the French term describing what it calls a Beaujolais style Zin.

After an absence of 3 years, 2014 Dashe was fortunate enough to get old vine Zin grapes from McFadden again. This wine is made using carbonic maceration.

To give you a sense of what the wine tastes like, here are the winery's tasting notes: "100% Zinfandel (even though it tastes like Gamay!)."


Both wines are available from the individual wineries and at better wine stores locally.


WESTSIDE - Cox Vineyards

• Rendezvous Rosé - Carol Shelton Wines (2,100 cases, $15)
• Zinfandel - Carol Shelton Wines - Wild Thing (11,000+ cases, $21)

Acclaimed zinfandel specialist Carol Shelton is one of the few winemakers outside the county to recognize and commercially value the old vine Zin from Mendocino in a major way, producing more than 13,000 cases of wine from vines above Ukiah.

About 80% of Shelton's "Wild Thing" Zin and her rosé comes from the historic old vines of Cox Vineyards on the west side of Hopland (just south of Parducci).

Said the Press Democrat in a recent review of the Zin (which was a pick of the week in the wine country newspaper), "The zin is a knockout, muscular yet balanced. It has aromas and flavors of cherry, dark cherry, plum, cracked black pepper and a hint of caramel."

Cox has 300 acres of certified organic vines. The oldest vines were planted in 1956.

The 2011 was one of Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines list.


There are other old vines that produce beautiful fruit at Barra of Mendocino in Redwood Valley that I wasn't able to get details about before launching this post. Look forward to a postscript about them soon.

In the meantime, if you're a fan of old vines, the upcoming Taste of Redwood Valley is a great excuse for visiting this part of Mendocino and getting to know its historic and untouristed nooks and crannies.


Four more wines from Mendocino come from old vines, but aren't marketed as such.

• Riesling, Chateau Montelena (cases NA, $25)
• Riesling, Dashe Cellars (521 cases, $22)
• Riesling, McFadden Vineyard (168 cases, $18)

The Potter Valley vines of Guinness McFadden are said to be the old Riesling vines in Mendocino County.

McFadden sells grapes to two other vintners, Chateau Montelena in Napa and Dashe Cellars in Oakland/Healdsburg, as well as bottling its own.

The 14 acres of vines were planted in 1971 and 1974.

• Sauvignon Blanc, McFadden Vineyard (1,500 cases) $16

The 24 acres of Sauvignon Blanc vines at McFadden were planted in 1974.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

IN PHOTOS: A Taste of Mendocino Showcases Local Wine and Cheese Purveyors

Mendocino's well known for its two major wine regions - Anderson Valley and the inland valleys surrounding Ukiah (including Hopland, Eagle Peak, Redwood Valley and Potter Valley).

 Once a year as a region, it puts on a trade show and tasting for SF's wine crowd, inviting in sommeliers, wine merchants, wine buyers and restaurant wine directors to peruse its many attractions - from the annual Anderson Valley fair - with its apple competition and sheep farming activities - to the Little River Inn in scenic Mendocino.

 This year, as usual, the vintners with organic vineyards were a standout, presenting a variety of wines ranging from everyday table wines from Bonterra, Barra of Mendocino and McFadden Vineyard, to fine wines from Masut and Handley.

Old vine lover and vintner Alec MacGregor was on hand, providing a focused tasting of his five small lot wines sourced from some of Mendocino's 65+ year old vines.

A new cheese company in Anderson Valley also came to town - Pennyroyal Cheese. In part, it's the offspring of Navarro Vineyards, a long time Anderson Valley vintner. Its cheeses complement a variety of wines perfectly with distinctive and delicious flavors. (I succumbed at the free tasting and bought three to take home).

 The vintners invited attendees to two varietal panels - one showcasing the 6 different Pinot Noir appellations in the county and the other on Chardonnay.

 Enjoy these photos of the day's events.

Martha Barra and Katrina Kessen of Barra of
Mendocino; the 25,000 case winery's largest markets are
Chicago (Whole Foods) and restaurants in New York 
The largest organic brand in the world,
Bonterra makes more than 350,000 cases of organically
grown wines each year. Chardonnay tops the list.
Guinness McFadden of McFadden Vineyards, is a
long time (40+ years) grower who's also a vintner.
He sells his grapes to major brands (Riesling is a specialty)
and, under his own wine label, sells 5,700 cases on the
east and west coasts.
The pleasure of tasting at a regional event is meeting
micro-producers who make as little as 500 cases of
wine; Alex MacGregor from Trinafour made my list
of the best wines of the day for his Niemi vineyard
Carignane and Petite Sirah (pictured below)

One of Mendocino's many charms is the diversity of
farming in the county - including apples from
Anderson Valley; here the county fair is represented;
in addition to apples, sheep farming traditions
are on display at the fair (in Sept.) 
My favorite food discovery of the event - Pennyroyal
Cheese from Boonville, which has 6 delicious
sheep and goat's milk cheese to choose from...
Perfect for pairing with wine: Pennyroyal's aged Tomme... 
Its younger tomme...
...its take on brie.... 
And Laychee - its fresh goat cheese
Pinot Noir workshop panelists (from L to R) Jason Drew of Drew
Family Wines, Jacob Fetzer of Masut Vineyards and Winery, and
 Jason Ruppert of Alder Springs Vineyard
The trade tasting was well attended by wine merchants (from small shops
to Costco's local rep) and restauranteurs

The 6 AVAs included McFadden's Pinot from Potter Valley (far left) and
Masut's reserve Pinot (center right) from Eagle Peak AVA

Masut's Pinot Noir, from the Eagle Peak AVA