California's great wine north
by David Marglin
Among California wine regions, certain names leap off the
tongue, such as Napa and Sonoma. And certain names do not, such as Mendocino
County. But over the past decade, this stretch of foggy valleys north of Napa and Sonoma
has quietly become one of the premier wine regions in America.
Unlike Napa and Sonoma, which were readily accessible in the 19th century,
Mendocino remained relatively remote until the first railroad went in, around
1910. Soon afterward, most Mendocino wineries were wiped out by Prohibition;
only Parducci, which first grew grapes in 1921, survived.
It wasn't until decades later that Mendocino County saw its second winery:
Fetzer, launched in 1968. Today both Fetzer and Parducci are successful
mass-market operations, and the two largest of what are now about 40 wineries
in the region.
Two other major players in Mendocino are the
houses of Roederer
Estate (owned by the Champagne house Louis Roederer) and Pacific Echo (formerly
Scharffenberger, owned by the Champagne house Veuve Clicquot, which in turned
is owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH).
Roederer Estate, in particular, is a
sparkling-wine powerhouse. It produces
what I'd argue is the best American sparkling wine, L'Ermitage, which retails
for $52 (you can also find it on wine lists all over). Less expensive is the
Estate Brut, which has been made for only about a dozen years. It retails for
about $25 and blows away every other non-Champagne sparkler from around the
world. In fact, it more than holds its own against many Champagnes at this
price. I serve it at home.
Other Mendocino wineries of note are Navarro, McDowell Valley Vineyards, Husch,
and Lolonis. Navarro is known for making lots of different wines well,
including some amazing late-harvest sweet
whites. (If you're visiting
Mendocino, Navarro may be the most rewarding winery to visit, both for its
quality and for the hospitality of owners Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn.)
McDowell Valley Vineyards makes an excellent and affordable syrah, which may be
because some of their syrah vines date back to 1919 (you can find it for around
$14 retail). Lolonis makes wonderful whites, especially the chardonnay and
sauvignon blanc. (Its consulting winemaker is the accomplished Jed Steele, who
buys Lolonis fruit to make a Steele zinfandel that is wildly over-the-top, and
a great cabernet, too.) Husch has been on a winning streak with pinot noir.
You can usually tell a Mendocino wine by its label: many bottles will say
"Mendocino" on the front. Some are identified more specifically by the
sub-region, or AVA (for Approved Viticultural Area). The most important AVA
within Mendocino is Anderson Valley, which was granted AVA status in 1983. This
is where Navarro, Duckhorn, Roederer Estate, and Pacific Echo are located; it
has developed a reputation as great location for sparklers. The most
interesting AVA is a new one: Mendocino Ridge, approved in 1997, which includes
only vineyards that face the Pacific and lie at an altitude 1200 feet above sea
level. At this height, they miss a lot of the fog; this is ideal for pinot noir
and chardonnay, but far less so for zinfandel, syrah, and cabernet sauvignon.
There aren't many wineries in the Mendocino Ridge AVA (Greenwood Ridge is the
most prominent) and not many acres of vines (less than 100). Steele's DuPratt
zinfandel, grown in Mendocino Ridge, is astoundingly good, and the area holds
A word of warning: these days, all the wine regions in Mendocino are becoming
hot properties. The cost of Mendocino grapes has risen accordingly, and plenty
of the big wineries are moving in, including Beringer, Gallo, Kendall-Jackson,
and Mondavi. Prices for many Mendocino wines may rise as these costs are
Mendocino may never be as well known in wine circles as Napa and Sonoma,
especially given its location and the low profile maintained by its residents.
But the region offers some of the best under-$30 wines made in this country.
Some of them are as breathtaking as the scenery, and sipping them may make
those who have been there reminisce about the redwoods and the rugged coast.
1998 Fetzer Barrel Select Chardonnay ($9.95). Smooth, silky, almost
syrupy; loads of wood,
amply ripe. Plenty of tropical-fruit notes and a candy
end. Surprisingly good for such an abundantly produced wine.
1997 Lolonis Chardonnay (Redwood Valley) ($12.49). Organically grown
1000 feet above sea level, so the grapes get plenty of
fog and mist in the
morning, then long hot afternoons and cool nights.
Not a lot of oak, which
makes for big fruit;
sort of baked apple with a nutty aftertaste. A blast of
fresh air with fish, cioppino, or roast chicken.
1998 McDowell Syrah (Mendocino) ($13.99). Plum and black fruit -- a wine
that pops, with flavors bursting all over the place. Perfect with prime rib or
a big spicy tuna or sea-bass concoction. A good one for the price.
1997 Miner Sangiovese (Mendocino) ($22.99). A bright and fruity
rendition of this hard-to-master varietal: focused, great clarity, lots of
huckleberry flavor, judicious oak,
a touch of leather on the finish.
1996 Steele Lolonis Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Redwood Valley)
($13.99/375 ml). Very soft, lots of black fruit and cedar, some spice
-- is that nutmeg? A versatile wine, and very approachable in the half-bottle
format. A deal.
1997 Mariah Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge) ($35.99). Wow! Lots of fruit,
perfect ripeness, ample oak and vanilla.
Sweet tomato essences, with a little
strawberry-shortcake kick on the end. A steep price, but one of my favorite
zins of 1997.
1993 L'Ermitage Roederer Estate ($52). Like the regular Roederer, this
wine pretty much sets the standard in its class. Never mind the money -- it's
as good as many Champagnes,
and better than most. The epitome of class, and
certainly the best wine made in Mendocino, bar none. Very smooth, light hints
of citrus, full and refreshing. I serve it to my special guests.
David Marglin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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