To get to some of the most beautiful vineyards in Mendocino, it can take driving a solid 30 minutes from a main road, winding through redwoods and forestry operations, past homesteads and along dirt roads. And that’s considered accessible. There are other vineyards that are even more remote.
As a result, the people committed to growing grapes and making wine here look at the world differently. For them, it’s not about the showcase winery, hanging out with wine glitterati or dining with celebrity chefs at the latest hot spot.
It’s almost exclusively about the wine.
Some have grown up in the area, and it’s what they know. Others left and came back to restore a family legacy. And then there are those who made wine elsewhere and ruled out other suitors, putting down deep stakes in Mendocino, a vast county of hot and cold climates, old and new vines and a reputation in the wine world that’s still theirs to shape.
This is Mendocino, a region already famous for Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but one that also excels with cool-climate white wines, old-vine Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah and Syrah.
The county encompasses 2.4 million acres. Just 16,400 acres produce wine grapes, spread among 11 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). According to the Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission, Mendocino also boasts the highest percentage of certified-organic and biodynamic grapes in the nation.
Heirloom apples and pears still grow here, as do trees for the logging industry and, albeit clandestinely, marijuana—an underground business that has kept many in Mendocino afloat during tough economic times.
While established wineries like Fetzer and its offspring, Bonterra, continue to evolve and innovate, here are some of Mendocino’s new wave of wine producers worth checking out.
Jason & Molly Drew
Drew Family Cellars, Mendocino Ridge/ Anderson Valley
Jason Drew started his career in the Sta. Rita Hills as associate winemaker at Babcock Winery & Vineyards, where he fell in love with Pinot Noir. He started his own label in 2000, with a focus on Sta. Rita Hills Pinot and Santa Ynez Syrah.
But once he and his wife Molly started to get to know Anderson Valley fruit, they found themselves driving up a long, twisty road in Mendocino to look at a remote coastal property 1,200 feet above sea level that nobody else seemed to want, overgrown with heirloom apple trees.
The year was 2004, and sensing the potential of the burgeoning Mendocino Ridge, the Drews bought the hillside spot, threeplus miles west of the coastal town of Elk on a ridge that overlooks Anderson Valley to the east.
With plenty of water and well-drained soils, the couple has since planted 7.5 acres to Pinot Noir, which in the next few years will go into an estate Blossom School Vineyard bottling.
“It boiled down to two places, the Deep End of the Anderson Valley or Mendocino Ridge,” Jason says. “When we came up to this property, I was thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Everything just added up for greatness.”
They committed in a big way, living in an Airstream trailer for the first year on the estate with their two sons, aged 6 and 4 at the time. Eventually, they cobbled together the money to build a winery with living space above.
“There were a lot of people who thought we were insane,” says Molly. “We never considered doing it any other way. We can’t imagine not being here and not doing what we’re doing. The first priority was Pinot.”
At the start, Drew Family made several Pinots from Sta. Rita Hills and the Sonoma Coast. Beginning with the 2012 vintage, however, Drew will become a Mendocino-only brand, making Pinot Noir and Syrah as well as an Albariño from the only two Mendocino vineyards growing the Spanish white grape.
In all, production is about 1,500 cases per year.
“I saw a lot of wines from Mendocino that had very nice structure, and to me, structure is a big, important part of the way I want to make wine,” Jason says. “I also saw a certain element of finesse. You’d have that ethereal quality, but also have all the richness I thought was there to make high-end Pinot Noir, but not too much.”
Now sourcing fruit up higher on Mendocino Ridge, they think that their soils, which are not particularly deep or fertile, will add intensity to the wines.
“When you’re making small lots that are contained in a couple of small fermenters, you’re paying attention to the wine on a singular level,” says Molly. “There’s something unique that happens with a wine like that.”
“I call it intuition and intellect,” Jason adds. “Wine that’s made with a bit of soul and lots of love.”
90 Drew 2009 Valenti Vineyard Pinot Noir (Mendocino Ridge).
This Pinot shows cool-climate crispness but also fogfree, ripe flavors of raspberries and cherries that are deep and impressive. With a thick, juvenile mouthfeel, the wine should develop interesting bottle complexities over the next five years. —S.H.
abv: 13.4% Price: $40
Testa Vineyards, Calpella
The Testa vineyards were first planted 100 years ago in Calpella, a town off of Highway 101 between Ukiah and Redwood Valley.
Gaetano Testa immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1906, arriving in San Francisco on the day of the massive earthquake. He had come to America to seek out land to plant his own vineyards. Afterward, on a train heading north in search of fertile land, he stopped in Calpella. Like today, it was surrounded by manzanita and oak trees and rolling hills—the mark, according to Testa, of great growing land.
Today, a fourth-generation Testa, Maria, and her husband, Rusty Martinson, manage the vineyards—25 acres of old-vine Carignane, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Charbono, Zinfandel and Barbera. Certified organic, head pruned and dry farmed, some of the blocks are more than 100 years old.
“I’ve been in the vineyard since I was a little girl,” Testa says. “We farm as we’ve been taught, and that comes with pride of the family ranch.”
“Maybe that’s what is so different about this county,” she says. “The lands have stayed in the families, or, if not, the legacy of that family ranch is embraced by all.”
Testa uses about 10% of the fruit to make 2,000 cases of Simply Black (a Cabernet-based blend from Testa’s 15-acre Gusto Ranch, with additions of Carignane and Petite Sirah) and Simply White (a Sauvignon Blanc-Chenin Blanc blend), as well as a handful of other small production or limited edition releases.
It sells the rest of the grapes to other wineries, including Horse & Plow, which purchases grapes from Testa’s old blocks of Carignane, Grenache and Petite Sirah, and Coturri Winery, which sources Charbono, Carignane and Cabernet.
Neighbor Greg Graziano of Graziano Family of Wines gets Testa Primitivo, Carignane and Barbera, while Sonoma-based winemaker Leo Steen makes a Calpella Red Table Wine, a field blend of Testa Carignane and Petite Sirah.
90 Horse & Plow 2009 Testa Vineyard Carignane (Mendocino).
A very drinkable Carignane made from 40- to 90-year-old certified-organic vines, punched down by hand and given the gold-glove treatment. The result is juicy and delicious, full bodied yet somehow light on its feet, a little blueberry here, a little spice there. —V.B.
abv: 14.5% Price: $25
88 Testa Vineyards NV Simply White (Mendocino County).
This is a nonvintage blend of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, with additions of Viognier and Muscat. Its Chenin-like nose is floral and rich, and its lychee, lime and kiwi flavors swirl about before coming to a refined, perfectly crisp finish. —V.B.
abv: 13.5% Price: $20
Saracina Vineyards, Hopeland
John Fetzer is the oldest of the 11 children born to Fetzer Vineyards’ founders Barney and Kathleen Fetzer, who sold the operation to Brown-Forman in 1992.
Over time, the Fetzer kids all went their separate ways. Many started their own wine brands, perhaps none more seriously in Mendocino than John, who set up Saracina Vineyards in 2001 on the site of the former Fetzer Sundial Ranch.
Then he brought in famed Sonoma-based consultant David Ramey, who had worked at Château Pétrus in Bordeaux, and Dominus and Rudd in Napa Valley, to make his wines.
Winemaker Alex MacGregor, who John Fetzer describes as “a young guy, but an old soul,” came along in 2002 to learn alongside Ramey. He previously worked at Everett Ridge and Collier Falls wineries in Sonoma County.
“When you have someone like David Ramey helping you learn how to nurture that fruit, especially going [with] native yeast, native malolactic fermentation, not focusing on oak necessarily,” MacGregor says, “it was enticing to be able to work with him.”
At Saracina, MacGregor’s focus has been on making red blends, tapping fruit sources from the owner’s Fetzer days, from Bill Crawford’s Petite Sirah and Syrah at McDowell Valley Vineyards, planted in 1948, to old-vine Zinfandel growing in the Redwood Valley that was planted in the 1940s.
“John had vision. He wanted to show people we could compete on a stage with Sonoma and Napa, and I think we’ve succeeded with that,” MacGregor says. “There’s merit in [Mendocino] fruit if it’s nurtured along, and he wanted to take that fruit and raise the bar with it.”
“He wanted respect. His family’s been in this county forever, but they weren’t known for 91-point wines. They were known for great value.”
Saracina is also farming its own fruit better, MacGregor says, including Zinfandel, Malbec, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from a block of Kathleen’s Vineyard in Redwood Valley that John, 64, planted when he was in high school. The company also farms Syrah and Petite Sirah and purchases Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.
“Look at the people who are buying grapes up here, and it’s not just Anderson Valley Pinot Noir,” says MacGregor. “It’s McDowell Syrah, Testa Carignane, Charbono from Greg Graziano, Grenache from Larry Venturi. People are starting to realize that there’s untapped potential.”
91 Saracina 2007 Petite Sirah (Mendocino County).
Big, chewy and inky black, this well-crafted Petite Sirah is full of dark fruit—mostly blackberries—and peppery tones. The tannins stand out and yet mellow as the wine opens. A few more years in bottle should allow them to resolve. Enjoy this with a pepper-crusted steak or ravioli. —V.B.
abv: 14.9% Price: $38
Adrianna Oster Gozza, Jake Fetzer and Ben Fetzer
Oster Wine Cellars and Masút Vineyard and Winery, Redwood Valley
The third generation of the Fetzer family, the grandchildren of the Fetzer founders, is making strides of its own in Mendocino. The most visible is Adrianna Oster Gozza, the daughter of Teresa Fetzer Oster, who founded Oster Wine Cellars with her husband, Ken, in 2002.
Gozza, who has advanced degrees from UC Davis in viticulture and enology, makes a small amount of wine for her family label and is the assistant winemaker for Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley.
“I grew up around winemaking,” Gozza says. “I’m a fifth-generation grape grower on my dad’s side and third-generation winemaker on my mom’s side; I grew up playing in vineyards, playing on tractors.”
She left Mendocino to attend UC Santa Cruz, where she studied political science and briefly thought about becoming a lawyer. She then worked on a helicopter crew rappelling into remote areas, fighting fires and doing ski patrols.
She worked briefly for several of her uncles, including Danny Fetzer at Jeriko Estate in Mendocino, John Fetzer at Saracina, and Jimmy Fetzer at Ceago Vinegarden in Lake County.
Gozza settled down to help her parents with Oster, an all-organic 40-acre vineyard in Redwood Valley planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Currently, much of the fruit is sold to Bonterra, Fetzer’s organic sister brand.
“It’s second nature to me to grow my own vegetables and make my own wine,” she says. “We have a purity in Mendocino—the fruit to me is so pure, it comes through in our wines.”
Gozza grew up closest to her cousins Ben and Jake Fetzer, the sons of the late Bobby Fetzer. Gozza and Jake attended Waldorf School together, and the two now share the same passion for making wine.
After their father’s death in 2006, Jake and Ben decided to continue farming their parents’ 1,500-acre Redwood Valley ranch, which borders the old Fetzer Home Ranch. Located on the western side of the valley, it’s planted to Pinot Noir, a variety Bobby Fetzer felt would do well there.
After selling the grapes to wineries like DeLoach and Paul Hobbs and sensing the potential, Bobby’s boys made the leap to produce a bit of their own wine in 2009. The name they chose was Masút, the name of a former Pomo Indian settlement that means “dark, rich earth.”
“We always wanted to be in the family business somehow,” Jake says. “We had everybody telling us no—all of our aunts and uncles told us we were absolutely crazy to want to get into anything, but we took that on. We want to see what the potential is of this location that our dad planted.”
So far, the results are stunning. The 2009 Pinot Noir is layered with texture, a signature of friend and mentor Greg La Follette, who has been helping the Fetzer brothers get Masút off the ground.
This year, Masút will grow to about 3,000 cases and release a series of bottlings that highlight specific blocks and clones within the vineyard.
93 Masút 2009 Pinot Noir (Mendocino County).
A beautifully balanced wine from the sons of the late Bobby Fetzer, who started Masút originally to organically farm Pinot Noir with his sons. Ben and Jake do honor to their family heritage with a clean, bright bottle of high-toned cranberry and tart cherry fruit accompanied by a rich texture and just a touch of oak. —V.B.
abv: 14.2% Price: $36