The Boston Phoenix
April 20 -27, 2000


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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 sparkling wine 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 much promise.

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 absorbed.

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. You'll see.

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 wine[a]

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