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Mendocino Grows a Grape for Every Palate

Narrow roads twist and turn alongside streams and apple orchards, redwoods tower over everything, and you have to keep a sharp eye out for deer and wild turkeys. In Mendocino County, vineyards do not yet dominate the landscape but decorate it, scattered here and there.

This is California wine's northern frontier. Tasting rooms are uncrowded and friendly and the wines poured are often of astonishing quality. They are certainly of astonishing diversity. California's best sparkling wines and brandies are made here and so are Zinfandels from 50-year-old vines.

Here, it seems, in a single day you can taste the entire European continent. Neighboring wineries grow drastically different grapes: It's not uncommon to find Burgundian Pinot Noir grown next door to Apulian Negro Amaro and Californian Zinfandel.

While California's better-known wine regions have settled into comfortable regional characters &

Napa is Bordeaux, Sonoma is Burgundy, the Central Coast is southern Rhone &

little Mendocino is a joyous anarchy.

Until recently, the county served as a grape-growing colony of its southern neighbors,and the name Mendocino conjured up undistinguished wines from giant producers. Today there's a flowering of new, high-quality smaller wineries, such as Saracina, Eaglepoint Ranch, Harmonique and Lolonis.

Growers are unfettered in grape selection. You can find almost every grape under the sun growing in Mendocino County, many in organic vineyards. It's not uncommon for a Mendocino vintner to feature a dozen wines, both familiar and obscure.

Greg Graziano is an example. Graziano, 52, makes Pinot Noir and Pinot (a red blending grape from Champagne) under his French-oriented label Domaine Saint Gregory.

Enotria, a label devoted to grapes from Italy's Piedmont, where his family originated, covers Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Moscato and Arneis. A line called Monte Volpe represents the rest of Italy, with Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Pinot Grigio, Tocai Friuliano and more.

The label called "Graziano" is dedicated to what the third-generation Ukiah-area winegrower refers to as "traditional Mendocino wines" &

Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc.

"There's enough Cabernet and Chardonnay in the world," says Graziano, who can't wait to show visitors the vineyard of Aglianico he's just planted outside his house. "Who needs more?

You might expect that a maker of so many different wines would be the master of none, but that is not the case. Almost everything Graziano makes is good, and a lot of it, particularly the white wines, is excellent.

Mendocino in general is a white-wine lover's paradise, especially if you favor fragrance, fruit and crispness over oak and alcohol.

Credit Mendocino's magical summer weather for this. Days here are hot, into the 90s. But at night, things cool down. Often, there's a 30-degree swing from day to night, sometimes as much as 50 degrees.

That temperature shift allows grapes to ripen but still maintain high acidity, which results in wines with mouth-filling fruit but palate-cleansing tartness.

That is true for a cherry bright Pinot Noir, a rose-scented Gewurztraminer or a figgy, herbal Sauvignon Blanc. It's especially so with white varietals, including not only Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but also Pinot Grigio (or Pinot Gris) Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Viognier, Semillon, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Muscat, Marsanne, Roussanne, and even Tocai Friuliano.

Though Mendocino County is bigger than Rhode Island or Delaware, much of it is mountainous, and grapes are grown in two small areas.

The historic home of Mendocino wine was the upper Russian River, around Ukiah. In the 1970s, growers planted vines on the other side of the coast range west of Ukiah, in the Anderson Valley.

The interior area, which includes Redwood, McDowell and Potter valleys, has been home to grape growers for more than a century. Tucked away in the McDowell Valley is a vineyard of head-pruned Grenache and Syrah vines, as thick and gnarly as apple trees, that was planted in the 1890s.

Most of these older vineyards were established by Italian immigrants such as the families of Graziano and Charlie Barra, who owns Barra of Mendocino winery. The grand old man of Mendocino wine, the 79-year-old Barra this year is supervising his 61st harvest in the county.

"I started working grapes when I was 10 years old and had my first harvest when I was 18," he says. "When I graduated from grammar school my dad gave me a pair of pruning shears. I've never missed a harvest."

During Prohibition (1920-1933), growers shipped grapes such as Carignane and Alicante Bouschet back East for home winemakers. Or they made wine quietly on their own.

After repeal, many growers sold their grapes to wineries in other areas; today, 75 percent of Mendocino's grapes are crushed outside the county.

The rest went to the county's two big winemakers &

Parducci Wine Cellars, founded in 1931, and Fetzer Vineyards, founded in 1968. Both grew huge under family ownerships: Fetzer topped the 2-million-case mark in the early 1990s.

As a result, Mendocino was slow to develop the high-profile operations that started in Napa and Sonoma. When you're getting good prices selling grapes, why go to the expense of starting a winery?

But both big wineries were sold &

Parducci in 1972 and Fetzer in 1992 &

and the businesses suffered. The ensuing cutbacks resulted in local growers getting stuck with grapes but no buyers. This spurred growers like Barra to start their own wineries.

"What winemaking does for a grape grower is take a perishable commodity and make it nonperishable," says Barra.

The county is seeing a boom of new small wineries. There are 11 tasting rooms around Hopland, and more than 20 west of town in the Anderson Valley. Not only that, both Parducci and Fetzer are on the upswing.

Though Fetzer wines are made mostly from outside grapes, the company's organic label Bonterra, sourced almost entirely from Mendocino vineyards, has rocketed to 170,000 cases in sales, with the 200,000 mark on the horizon.

Parducci was bought in 2004 by Mendocino Wine Co., and is also transitioning to organic and biodynamic vineyards. One partner is Paul Dolan, the former president of Fetzer who helped implement its organic program.

Partly because of Dolan's leadership, partly because of Mendocino's back-to-the-Earth nature, organic grape-growing thrives here. Bonterra winemaker Bob Blue estimates that almost one-third of the vineyards in the county are organic.

"Mendocino is way beyond every other appellation," he says. "We started small, but it's really turning into something."

The Fetzer family itself is back in the wine business. Since an eight-year noncompete restriction in their sales contract ended in 2001, four family members have started independent wineries in Mendocino.

The largest is owned by John Fetzer, who took over the family business in 1981 after his father died. His new winery, Saracina, is probably the closest thing to a Napa-style landmark that Mendocino has.

Fetzer signed famed winemaker David Ramey as a consultant. The winery, which had its first release in 2001, focuses on Rhone varietals, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel.

"We decided on these grapes because I was talking to David and he told me we'd both be old men before we made a mark in Cabernet or Chardonnay from this county," says Fetzer. "So the first wine we released was a Sauvignon Blanc and now we're proud to have it on the wine list at the French Laundry (restaurant)."

Until Saracina got going, most of the buzz in Mendocino came from the Anderson Valley.

Populated by a few hardy wine pioneers until well into the 1980s, it has gained luster with the addition of Roederer Estate, which released its first sparkling wine in 1988, and Goldeneye, the Pinot Noir project by Napa Valley's Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, which had its first release in 2000.

The oldest winery under the same management in the Anderson Valley is Navarro Vineyards, started by Ted Bennett and wife Deborah Cahn in 1973. Their innovations helped shape the character of the Mendocino County wine business.

Both the popularity of Alsatian grape varietals such as Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Riesling, and the trend toward small wineries favoring direct sales over retail distributors can be traced to Navarro.

Both came about by accident.

Bennett and Cahn, a Berkeley couple, based their winery around Gewurztraminer because it was their favorite wine. But they had trouble finding stores that would carry their wines.

"That's the reason for the tasting room," Bennett says, "so we can show people these weird wines we have and let them taste them. Then we can make the sale."

Navarro's "Old Vines" Chenin Blanc is a big, rich wine, full of tropical fruit and pear flavors. It is also a remarkable value, at $11. It is also scarce as the winery sells out almost as soon as it is released.

Because of the acidity, these wines can go the distance. A 1983 "Cluster Select" sweet Riesling was the color of iced tea but alive in the mouth, the fresh fruit flavors having transformed into flowers and nuts.

Today, Navarro makes about 45,000 cases of wine, about a quarter of which is sold through restaurants. Of the remaining sales, about 85 percent comes from the tasting room, wine club, or phone or Internet orders to the winery.

The winery gets 100 percent of the money on direct sales rather than sharing it with distributors and retailers.

Despite charging modest prices for their wines &

the most expensive current release, the 1998 Pinot Noir "Methode a l'Ancienne," is only $29 &

Navarro is happily profitable. Many small wineries in the area are now working to develop their own wine "clubs"; meanwhile, offbeat varietals such as Gewurztraminer are so popular that Mendocino County hosts an International Alsace Varietal Festival every February.

County wine growers and vintners also have formed Mendocino Winegrape Wine Commission to promote their products &

the first in the state to represent both. assessing a $10 fee for every ton of grapes sold or processed in the county, the commission is expected to have a $500,000 war chest to begin advertising next year.

With that kind of push, Mendocino won't stay a secret much longer.

"In a way, we're really lucky," says Greg Nelson, a second-generation Mendocino grape grower who started Nelson Family Vineyards in 2003.

"People just couldn't get enough Napa Cabernet, so why should they grow anything else? But we didn't have that in Mendocino, so we've always been looking for something new that might catch on."