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.

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