Grape Growing – The California Appellation Series 1983 – 2013: North Coast

Christopher Sawyer • A journalist, wine consultant and sommelier based in Sonoma, California.

Wine Business Monthly – April 2013

There’ s an on-going debate about which member of the BeatlesNorth Coast AVA Map from 2012
was more talented, John Lennon or Paul McCarthy. It’s a fair question. But
imagine if neither one of them had the supporting cast of fellow musicians,
George Harrison and Ringo Starr, to help showcase their musical talents on
stage. A similar discussion was happening in Northern California in the 1960s
and 1970s when wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma County were rising to
the top echelon of the American wine spectrum and needed high-quality
grapes at a fair price to help them get there. In many cases, the solution was
to source grapes from nearby vineyards in Mendocino and Lake counties.

In 1983, this convivial connection of Napa and Sonoma County vintners,
with growers in the seemingly unknown regions of Mendocino, Lake and
smaller portions of Marin and Solano counties, resulted in the granting
of the North Coast appellation, a wine-growing region that now covers 3
million acres of land in Northern California.

Over the past three decades, this same landscape has been broken into 46
separate sub-appellations, new wine country destinations have emerged, and
vintners and growers in Mendocino and Lake counties have become serious
players in California’s thriving wine industry. For those reasons, this segment
of the California Appellation Series 1983-2013 is focused on the impact these
two counties had on the creation and fulfillment of dreams in the North
Coast AVA.

So why does the North Coast appellation matter? For starters, this noble
designation helps separate wines made with fruit grown in Northern California
from wines made with fruit from other widespread regions, like the
Central Coast, the Sierra Foothills, Central Valley and even the more generic
California appellation seen on labels, especially for wines in the value price
category. Secondly, the North Coast appellation also has extra clout on its side because two of the most successful wine-growing regions in California, Napa Valley and Sonoma County, are part of this special multi-county appellation.

Lastly, in many cases, producers from Napa and Sonoma are those buying
high-quality fruit from Mendocino and Lake counties to give consumers
more bang for the buck.

     UC Davis Viticulture and Plant Science advisor Glenn McGourty, who
has overseen both Mendocino and Lake counties since 1991, said many
lessons have been learned in the AVA along the way.

“When I started, people were so desperate to get new vines in the ground
in the 1970s and 1980s that they didn’t do enough homework on what were
the appropriate varietals to plant in specific soils and climate conditions. But
thanks to the choice of better sites and the use of cleaner plant material,
modern trellis systems, better farming techniques and new technology, the
quality of grapes grown in each county has increased to a world-class level,”
said McGourty.

There has been plenty of growth as well. Since the late 1980s, the vineyards
planted in Mendocino have risen from 12,000 to 18,000 acres. In Lake
County, the numbers have jumped from 3,000 to 8,700 acres over the past
two decades. Each county has its strengths and more room to grow.

In the Vineyards

Much of the credit for the creation of this unique multi-county appellation
can be traced back to the Redwood Valley of Mendocino. In the old days,
the region was a patchwork quilt of vineyards and small farms operated by
immigrant families. In the 1950s, 50 percent of the vineyards in Mendocino
County were located in this valley, which straddles the headwaters of the
Russian River west fork, a few miles north of Ukiah.

By the late 1960s, over 75 percent of the fruit grown in Mendocino County
was used in wines made by the Italian Swiss Colony. The remainder of the
fruit was typically sold to other large-scale producers, including Geyser
Peak, Christian Brothers, Louis M. Martini, Robert Mondavi, Wente Bros.
and Parducci. But when Heublein Inc. acquired the colony in the early 1970s,
the focus of the farmer began to shift from growing average grapes used in
jug wines to a more assertive effort to grow high-quality grapes for sale to
premium wineries.

While many of the core growers are still the same, the composition of the
vineyards is very different. Today, the 35-mile radius of the region is blanketed
with 900 acres of white grapes, primarily Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and
Pinot Blanc, and more than 1,500 acres of red varieties, including Zinfandel,
Petite Sirah, Carignane, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Barbera, Syrah, Merlot and
Cabernet Sauvignon. Over time, the trend also spread with newer plantings
of Pinot Noir and other specialty varieties in Anderson Valley, Yorkville
Highlands, Mendocino Ridge, Potter Valley and the greater Ukiah Valley.

Lake County has a strong tradition of growing grapes and making wine
as well. At the beginning of the 20th century there were 26 wineries in the
region and more than 3,600 acres of vineyards. However, the growth was
restricted because railroad service never came to the county, and the interest
in wine came to an abrupt end when Prohibition hit. As a result, the vines
were replaced with pear, prune and walnut orchards as their main cash crops.

The second wave started in the 1960s when a small number of growers
followed the farm advisory recommendation to plant Cabernet Sauvignon
and white Riesling grapes. By 1973, there were more than 2,000 acres of
vineyards planted in Lake County.

View of Clear Lake and Mt. Konocti from Shannon Ridge Vineyards in High Valley, Lake County

View of Clear Lake and Mt. Konocti from Shannon Ridge Vineyards in High Valley, Lake County

Among the early pioneers were Myron Holdenreid, a fifth generation pear farmer who planted his first 30 acres of Zinfandel vines in 1966 and started Wildhurst Winery with his wife Marilyn in 1991; the Magoon family, who planted grapes in the Guenoc Valley south of Middletown in 1963 and established Guenoc Winery in 1981; lawyer Jess Jackson and then-wife Jane Kendall Jackson, who purchased a pear orchard in 1974 and began developing vineyards that would eventually lead to the establishment of KendallJackson Winery in Lakeport in 1983; and Jed Steele, the original winemaker for K-J from 1983 to 1991, who launched his own Steele and Shooting Star brands in 1993.

Today, 8,700 acres of vineyards have been planted in the county, and much of this has been helped along by the establishment of five specialized appellations or sub-regions within the borders of the county: Guenoc Valley (1981), Clear Lake (1984), Benmore Valley (1991), Red Hills, Lake County (2004)and High Valley (2005).

The result has been the continued investments in vineyard development
in Lake County by premium producers based in Napa and Sonoma counties,
including Beckstoffer Vineyards, Beringer, Louis M. Martini, Sutter Home,
Robledo and Gallo, as well as a long list of wineries, including Duckhorn,
Francis Ford Coppola, Geyser Peak, Hess Select, Honig and Bogle, which
have taken advantage of the opportunity to purchase quality grapes from
specialized growers in the county.

The Players

One of the masterminds behind the creation of the North Coast appellation was Charlie Barra. The son of immigrant parents who moved to Mendocino from Piedmonte, Italy in 1910, Barra was born in the small town of Calpella, six miles north of Ukiah, in 1926. As a senior in high school in 1946, Barra grew his first grapes on which he eventually made three times the amount of money as the principal’s regular salary by year’s end.

Often referred to as the “Dean of Mendocino Viticulture” by his peers, Barra now farms 200 acres of 10 varieties at his family’s ranch, Redwood Valley Vineyard. In the 1960s, Barra began converting his 150 acres of French Colombard, Carignane, Alicante Bouschet, Grey Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Zinfandel to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Bordeaux varieties.

“When people like Karl Wente and Robert Mondavi came all the way uphere to tell me that focusing on these varietals was the way to go, I listened. You know what? They were right,” said Barra, who celebrated his 67th vintage in 2012.

After establishing a reputation for growing high-quality Chardonnay, Pinot
Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes for top vintners in Northern California
in the 1960s, Barra pushed his aspiration to raise the price of grapes per ton
by starting an association with other grape growers in the region. “My goal
in the beginning was to bring everyone together,” recalled Barra. “If you help
the growers, then you help the industry.”

     To give their fellow winegrape growers a united voice against the small
handful of grape buyers who dominated the market, Barra and Ernie Butow
of Butow Vineyard founded the North Coast Grape Growers Association
(NCGGA) in 1963. At its heyday in the early 1980s, the NCGGA organization
was more than 700-members strong and very active in the community.

     Until the group disbanded and became part of the California Association
of Winegrape Growers, the organization lobbied for a variety of special
causes, including varietal percentage change in wines from 51 percent to 75
percent and for pricing regulations that said a grower and winery had to
agree on prices before grapes were crushed. They also used funds to purchase
promotions and advertisements in magazines, proclaiming “North Coast
grapes produce California’s finest wines.”

     With the backing of Congressman Don H. Clausen and fellow board
members Butow, Gene Frediani of Calistoga and Sonoma wine pioneer
Eugene Cuneo, Barra submitted the application for the North Coast appellation
in 1981.

     With a big impact on the political and economic strata of the wine
industry, Mendocino was a virtual shoo-in to have the North Coast appellation
approved in their favor. But the one thing standing in their way was the
grape growers in Lake County.

     One of the Lake County growers who remembered the tension is Walt
Lyon, whose family planted their first Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard northeast
of the town of Kelseyville in 1967. Like other growers in the county,
Lyon wanted to be a part of the NCGGA. But the Mendocino and Sonoma
County growers fought against Lake County coming into the association.
“They wouldn’t even let us attend their meetings,” quipped Lyon, who sold
his grapes to Robert Mondavi at the time.     

The only hope was getting Lake County on the petition for the North
Coast appellation. So after accumulating some funds, Lyon and a small
group of other grape growers from the county rallied to make their case to
the BATF. They hired wine historians to prove they had been delivering fruit
to the cream of the crop wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties; gathered
testimonies from viticulturalists from the universities who said the quality
of the grapes were on par with those from Mendocino, and attended federal
hearings with BATF at the courthouse in Santa Rosa.

     In the end, the work paid off as Lake County, as well as the northern part
of Marin County and the smaller sub-regions of Green Valley, Suisun Valley
and Wild Horse Valley in Solano County, were included when the North
Coast AVA was approved in September 1983.

Climate     

Over the past 30 years, lines of distinction have been drawn in Mendocino and
Lake counties based on the climate conditions where the grapes are grown.     

In Mendocino, a large concentration of fruit sold to wineries outside the
county is grown in Redwood Valley, an area known for its unique mixture
of fine-grained alluvial soils, gravelly loams and the rare iron-rich Redvine
Series soils. With a massive diurnal swing from 90s to 100s during the day
to the low 40s at night, it’s classified as a Region II Climate. During growing
season, this dramatic temperature drop helps preserve the acidity of the
grapes while still keeping the phenolic content relatively high. Red variety
clusters commonly hang on the vines until late October or early November,
which allows them extra time to mature. There are variations of these climate
conditions in the greater Ukiah Valley, Talmage Bench, Potter Valley and
other inland areas as well.     

Overall, Anderson Valley is one of the coolest regions in California and gets
chilly and foggy the closer you get to the ocean. With warm days and cool
nights, the fruit tends to have high acidity and moderate sugar. At a minimum
of 1,200 feet, Mendocino Ridge is above the fog but more exposed to winds
blowing in from the ocean while the isolated interior region of Samel Valley
is warm during the day and cooled by the nearby Russian River at night.

In Lake County, the climate is influenced by high elevation and the
largest natural body of water in California, Clear Lake. Estimated to be
21/2 million years old, North America’s oldest lake acts like an oversized air
conditioner that quickly cools the area down 50 to 60 degrees in the late
afternoon. This dramatic drop in temperature helps preserve the flavor
and intensity of the grapes, as well as providing the county with one of the
cleanest air ratings in the state.

In general, the combination of hot days and cool nights adds up to a yearly
heat summation level of 2,700 to 3,200 degrees, a range comparable to Santa
Rosa in Sonoma County (2,900) and St. Helena in Napa County (3,200)
while the high elevation of the vineyards, averaging between 1,800 to 2,700
feet, helps protect the area from fog and mildew. In spring, the breezes help
eliminate the need for frost protection while cold winter and dry summer
months reduce the amount of pesticides used in the region.

This combination of high elevation and clean air allows for greater exposure
to UV light. The extra UV triggers thicker grape skins, deeper concentration
of tannins and intensive wines with higher phenolic levels.

The Varieties

Chardonnay is the widest planted grape variety in Mendocino. Although it’s
planted in all 10 of the sub-appellations in the county, the largest concentration
is the interior areas in the deep gravelly soils along the Russian River
and special sites in Anderson Valley and Potter Valley. In addition to being
used to make bottled wines, some of the grapes are picked early to make
sparkling wines, and the rest are sold to the bulk market.

According to McGourty, the varietal has become the true life blood of
the county since the early 1990s. In the California Preliminary Grape
Crush Report, 24,386 tons were crushed in 2012 in Mendocino. “When
the replanting was happening in Sonoma and Napa counties, the wineries
came north looking for more sources to tap into. What they found was
high-quality fruit planted along the Russian River that was simply too
good to resist,” he said.

North Coast

In addition to plentiful plantings of Sauvignon Blanc in the warmer
regions, other white grapes planted include Alsatian varieties such as Riesling,
Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris in Anderson Valley; Italian varieties like
Arneis, Tocai Friulano and Cortese in Potter Valley and Redwood Valley; and
Viognier and other Rhône white varieties in MacDowell Valley.

     For red wines, Pinot Noir is widely planted in the county, particularly in
Anderson Valley and the high elevation vineyards in Mendocino Ridge and
Potter Valley. Cabernet Sauvignon is the second-most planted red grape
variety, with the best examples planted on rocky hillsides or gravely soils
in the interior areas of the county. Merlot, Syrah and Grenache vines are
planted in a variety of areas as well.

     But what really sets the interior regions of Mendocino apart from most
of the other wine-growing regions of California is the preservation of old
vines and the unique ability to grow Mediterranean-style red grapes. In
addition to Italian grapes like Sangiovese, Barbera, Charbono and newer
plantings of Nero d’Avala and Negro Maro, there were still plenty of old
heritage plantings of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignane that survived
the replanting of vineyards in the 1970s and 1980s. This combination of
factors makes the area an ideal place to grow hearty, workhorse styles of big
reds that feature rich or robust flavors, earthy, jammy and spicy notes with
pleasurable levels of acidity.

In Lake County, the main white grape is Sauvignon Blanc, with smaller
portions of Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne and Riesling planted at a
variety of other sites. When grown on well-drained alluvial soils, the flavors
of Sauvignon Blanc are very distinctive. Many of the wines released from
the region have bright fruity flavors, layered with notes of fresh citrus, wild
herbs, subtle spices and bracing acidity.

     For red wines, passion for Cabernet Sauvignon is what brought most new
growers to the area. On the southwestern corner of the lake, the Red Hills
District features a mixture of deep red volcanic soils with varying degrees
of gravel content and high levels of rock fragments, particularly shiny
black obsidian mixed in the topsoil or lodged beneath the earth’s surface.
As a result, the Cabernet clusters are generally tight and compact with tiny
berries that typically feature mountain fruit flavors of wild berries, cherries,
dark chocolate, spice and earthy or flinty notes associated with the rich
volcanic soils.

One of the most pristine sites is the Snows Lake Vineyard, which was
originally developed by George Meyer in 1997 and recently purchased by
E&J Gallo in September 2012. Currently, Cabernet makes up 70 percent of
the grapes grown on the property. Other varieties include Zinfandel, Syrah,
Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Barbera. The 800 acres of vines are
separated into a network of small blocks that are custom designed with the
appropriate rootstocks, clones, trellis systems, spacing and row direction
to meet the needs of premium producers like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars,
Cakebread and Rosenblum, which have purchased fruit from the ranch.

Another large-scale developer in the region is Andy Beckstoffer, the largest
independent grape grower in Northern California. After planting more
than 1,000 acres of vineyards in Mendocino from 1973 to 1998, Beckstoffer
started searching for properties in the Red Hills district in 1995. Since then,
his company has gone on to plant more than 1,300 acres of vineyards at the
Amber Knolls, Red Hills and Crimson Ridge vineyards over the past 15 years.

Other vintners and growers that have invested in large properties in the
area include Kendall-Jackson, Beringer, Rob Bartolucci, Nils Venge and the
Greer family.

In the mountains east of Clear Lake, Clay and Margarita Shannon began
planting Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Barbera, Tempranillo and  various Rhône and Bordeaux varieties in High Valley in 1995. Most of the vineyards are located on steep slopes that trickle down each side of the ridges and deep red volcanic soils that were originally generated by the now extinct Round Mountain Volcano, located north of the property. While a large percentage of the grapes are sold to fine producers in Napa and Sonoma counties, the rest are used to make wines for Shannon Ridge, a winery the family founded in 2002.

Large deposits of obsidian rock

Need obsidian? Large deposits of these shiny black rocks can be found in the solis of Red Hills District in Lake County.

“In the past I saw a lot of potential in this county, and that is what led us to
invest in developing vineyards in areas that had yet to be explored,” said Clay
Shannon. “Today we’re starting to see this toil pay off with a large amount
of really fabulous wines being made with the grapes we are growing that
actually mention the name of our vineyard or the county on the labels. It
may be just a beginning, but it is certainly a process that has us moving in all the right direction.”

 

Innovative Prowess

In the vineyards, the innovations began long before the North Coast AVA was
approved. Among the mavericks to lead the way was Barra, who was one of
the first to use a cordon-style trellis and catch wire in the 1950s to open up air
channels and provide greater light exposure for the fruit (when most growers
were head-pruning their vines). In the 1960s, he converted frost protection in
the vineyard from windmill and smudge pots to overhead sprinkler systems.
More recently, Barra was one of the first to use high-pressure water pistols to
make holes for planting new vines and developed cement end posts to replace
creosote-soaked wood stakes at the end of the rows.

     Another innovator to help the cause was Beckstoffer, who began using drip
irrigation in Napa Valley and in his newer plantings in Mendocino County
in the 1970s. His management team has gone on to introduce new innovative
techniques for vine spacing, bench graft production and new vineyard
technology used to keep close tabs on the status of each individual block.
Beckstoffer believes that the use of innovative technology has been a key to
Red Hill’s road to success. “In Napa Valley, growers were able to reach a higher
level of quality based on a ‘physical’ technology. We learned to manipulate
vines, adjust spacing and select the appropriate clones for the conditions the
vines were grown in,” he said.

     “Because it’s so young, Red Hills not only began with all that knowledge,
but we’re also using integrated computer technology to collect data, create
graphs, measure moisture and pin-point temperatures throughout the
vineyard. This is pioneering, and we know it.”

     On a larger-scale is the use of sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming
practices in the vineyards in both counties. In 1979, Butow replanted a 2-acre
parcel of vines, and in 1981 it became the first certified by the California
Certified Organic Farms (CCOF) in Mendocino County. Many others
would follow, most notably the Frey, Fetzer and Barra families who put the
organic and biodynamic farming processes on the map to stay. Currently,
Mendocino represents 32 percent of the state’s organic winegrape acreage.
Over the past decade, the concept has spread to Lake County as well.
Between the villages of Nice and Lucerne is the headquarters of Ceago
Vinegarden, a winery started by Jim Fetzer after his family sold Fetzer
Vineyards in Mendocino to Brown-Forman in 1993.

     Fetzer said that the combination of the unique types of soil and microclimates
were the main factors that interested him in moving his operation to
Lake County. Today, the Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon
grapes grown on the Ceago estate are farmed biodynamically, which
includes the meticulous use of compost, eco-friendly sprays, cover crops and
animal integration to strike a harmony between the vines and nature.

     “This is a unique area that until now has been relatively untapped. What
we’re seeing today is a lot of focused people that have come here because
of its natural originality. It’s definitely not the next Napa; it’s too diverse,”
Fetzer said

In the Cellar

The emphasis on viticulture has helped improve the quality of the finished
wines as well. At Brassfield Estate in High Valley, the white wine program
features a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, a food-friendly, Northern Italian-style
Pinot Grigio and a proprietary white called Serenity, a blend of Sauvignon
Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Gewürztraminer. Oak does not play a major role in
any of the white wine programs. Instead, stainless steel is being used with
many of the fresh styles of white wines made in both counties.

On the red wine end of the spectrum, American oak barrels are a trademark
of many of the blended red wines made in Mendocino County. An expert on
this topic is Dennis Patton, winemaker and proprietor of DNA Vineyards,
who has been making wine in Mendocino since the mid 1970s. In 2012,
Patton and his wife Andrea Silverstein crushed 3,400 tons of Mendocino
fruit to use for their wines produced for national accounts, including Trader
Joe’s and Wine & Spirits Guild.

     “When I got in the business in the 1970s, there was only one American
cooper, and they were from the whiskey business. So the barrels were pretty
rough. Today it’s become much more sophisticated. This is because the French
coopers have come in and upped the quality of American-made cooperage.
Now we’re talking about wine from high-elevation vineyards and talking
about the tight grains in the barrels from specific forests in Minnesota.”
When asked what barrels he prefers, Patton said it all depends on the style of
the wine, the different toasting levels and the flavor his clients want to achieve.

The Future of the North Coast     

With the rising success in the vineyards comes a price. It’s a new phase in
the life of many growers who have exceeded the North Coast stereotype by
growing more super-premium grapes than they have in the past. As a result,
many of the mentions of “North Coast” on labels have been replaced by
“Mendocino County,” “Lake County” or the names of the smaller appellation
or in some cases the vineyard designate where the grapes were grown.

So in many ways, the North Coast appellation is downsizing in a congenial
manner. Some growers are paying more attention to the flavors of their
grapes that were previously lost in big blends. Others are spending more time
fielding calls from energetic boutique winemakers who want to purchase a
few rows of fruit. Some are even considering making their own wines for the
first time. And on the more extreme end, there are even geeky winemakers
like the Coro Mendocino group, who have devoted time and energy to craft
ultra-premium wines that showcase the diversity of styles of grapes grown in
a particular region.

To blaze the trail for these new adventures, there are spirited organizations,
like the Lake County Winegrape Commission and the Anderson Valley
Winegrowers Association, to help promote the regions, the growers, the
wineries and the finished products.

     “To me, the North Coast represents the crown jewels of California winemaking.
We’re proud to say we have the tradition and the climate and soils
that really set us apart from the rest of California,” said McGourty. WBM

 

 

 

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