Mendocino – Wineries-to-Watch List

Drink Pinot, taste the forest

If you are like me, then you dislike buying what other people try to sell you. Retailers tend to stock the same bottles, from the same distributors; a rather unromantic and uninspired experience. One of the joys of wine is the opportunity to discover, often through travel, truly wonderful winemakers that nobody else knows about.

So, if you are looking for the rising stars of Mendocino, here are my favorite, hard-to-find and rather unknown (especially on the East Coast), small producers of Anderson Valley (AV) and Mendocino County (MC)* wines. Each winery selected is a diminutive and independent, often family-owned operation either located in or buying grapes from Mendocino County vineyards for single-designation wines.

Please note a couple of points about AV and MC wines. Most are not cheap or even mid-range in price. Pinot Noir is a finicky grape, tough to grow successfully, and production from small wineries is extremely limited. Consequently, expect to pay in the range of $30-$65 a bottle.

When buying Pinot from the area, keep an eye out for the following vineyard designations on the label. These sites have established reputations for producing excellent fruit:

  • Oppenlander Vineyard
  • Londer Vineyard
  • Morning Dew Ranch
  • Monument Tree Vineyard
  • Weir Vineyard
  • Wiley Vineyard

­THE LIST

Black Kite

Named after the red-eyed endangered hawk that floats above the valley, Black Kite is a small, family-owned producer of Pinots out of the North end of the AV. Their wines have received a lot of professional press for their power and elegance, and their line-up features four block designated, single vineyard Pinots that you can purchase individually or in a pack, if they haven’t sold out.  Put yourself on the mailing list if you want a shot at next year’s vintage of “Angel’s Hawk”, a wine that sold out after a 95 pt review from Wine Spectator.

Wine to Find:

Stony Terrace 2009  One of the heftier AV Pinots in body and alcohol, yet this wine manages to keeps its balance. The bottle was open for three days, developing in complexity, and moving from assertive on day one to soft yet firm by the third. The palate echoed purple flower aromatics, saturated black cherry and black raspberry fruit, with layers of spice filtered through tannins so fine, a Turkish-coffee barista would be proud.

Baxter

Two generations of winemakers, Phil Sr. and Phil Jr., are crafting sincere, graceful Pinots sourced from single-vineyard AV and other MC sites, including the outstanding Oppenlander Vineyard. Their secluded, scenic location on the beautiful Greenwood Ridge must be a source of daily inspiration for their expressive winemaking style, which combines a minimal intervention philosophy, old-world techniques and an ultimate goal of purity of fruit.  They absolutely nail it.

Wine to Find:

Oppenlander Vineyard, 2009  This bottle was assertive with vibrant red raspberry and cherry fruit; layers of sexy tannins, smooth like the silk purse of a Chinese Empress, yet full of finesse from the mountain air acidity. Hints of savory earth and wild herb are followed by a lightly spiced finish.

Drew

Drew family wines, crafted by husband and wife team Jason and Molly, were the first I tasted during my visit to Mendocino that left me speechless. Their wines are the antithesis of ripe Pinots overloaded with oak, and lacking finesse or a connection to the land. Drew renewed my faith that some California vintners were still producing earthy, sensual Pinot with a profound sense of place. The wines are stunners.

Wine to Find:

Weir Vineyard, 2009  Take a mouthwatering journey across the forest floor. This Pinot offers prominent notes of mushroom, loam and wet pine needle, laced with cinnamon stick and wrapped in bright, pure red fruit. Silky, lush and lingering. (2010 is the current vintage available from this vineyard)

Couloir Wines

Named after steep mountain gorges, Couloir wines was founded by Jon Grant, a backcountry ski enthusiast who developed an equal passion for wine while in the restaurants of Utah, and later the cellars of Napa.  Jon’s wines showcase his artistic interpretation of Pinot Noir from unfamiliar but exceptional single-vineyard sites.

Wine to Find:

Oppenlander Vineyard, 2010  Lighter in body, this wine was squeaky clean with pure fruit and earth flavors. Redolent of freshly pressed, tart red cherry and raspberry juice and a delicate, sassafras and spice finish.  Gentle, smooth tannins and a bright frame of acidity showcase a wine that is honest about its source.

Waits-Mast

Wine lovers turned winemakers, Jennifer Waits and Brian Mast took the leap into professional winemaking that many of us wish we had the cajones to do.  They fell in love with Pinots from the Anderson Valley, having spent many a trip up there, tasting and learning.  They did their homework, seeking out the best fruit in the region for their various bottlings.  Oppenlander was added to their portfolio after tasting the Baxter’s wine; a wise move.

Wine to Find:

Oppenlander Vineyard, 2009  Fresh, focused and elegant offering beautiful aromatics of rose petal tea, lavender and red fruits. The palate echoes the nose, with baking spices; tart red pomegranate and cranberry; and plump, ripe raspberry with a swirl of fresh, churned earth. Like a ballerina – delicate, nimble yet sturdy.

Brogan Cellars

Garagiste Pinots crafted by Margi Williams, the daughter of revered, now retired Burt Williams of Williams-Selyem.  She has a deft hand with Pinot, despite working out of a makeshift facility (following in her father’s footsteps) in the Dry Creek Valley.  She has since improved upon her digs, with the former winery garage now serving as storage and a tasting room, and the winemaking moved to Hopland. She produces a line of RRV Pinots plus wines using fruit from her father’s AV vineyard and other MC appellations.  These bottles are impossible to find on the East Coast.  Get on her mailing list or try to catch her in person while out there—her jovial style makes for a merry visit.

Wine to Find:

My Father’s Vineyard Margi’s Reserve, 2009  Medium-bodied, elegant and smooth, this wine shows deep aromatics of dark red and black fruit, dried fig, raisin and notes of mocha. Spice, cedar and a pervasive earthiness result in an appealing wine that is more delicious dirt than fruit.

Woodenhead

Owner/winemaker Nikolai Stez has been producing beautiful Pinots and Zins for years, tucked away off the tourist circuit in Sonoma.  His foundation in fermentation began as a boy making a traditional Russian drink “kvas” using a recipe from his parents. He later graduated from home winemaking enthusiast to an assistant position with Burt Williams of Willams-Selyem fame.   It was inevitable Nikolai would open his own winery.  I have been on their mailing list for several years now, but only realized after a trip to the Anderson Valley, that he produced an AV wine from the Wiley Vineyard site.

Wine to Find:

Wiley Vineyard, 2007  Second to last release of this wine ever, so try to snag one.  Beautifully structured with silky tannins, the wine is highly aromatic showing dark fruit, lavender and hibiscus flower on the nose, followed by flecks of black fruit, cherry, red berries and a hint of tart pomegranate on the palate. Notes of wet tea leaf and a vein of earthy loam linger like an old friend.

Shandel’s Oppenlander Vineyard

Generations of the Shandel Family

The fifth generation owners of Oppenlander Vineyard, an outstanding source of Pinot fruit in Comptche, have been making a few cases of their own wine, winning awards and quietly selling them to the local community. I should probably kick myself for writing this in a public space, but their 2006 Pinot (served and sold by Glendeven Inn) was hands down one of the best Pinots for the money I have come across in years.  Try to get your hands on a bottle, but you will have to work for it. The Glendeven will ship, but for a whopping $60/bottle plus cost of the wine ($30).  Try calling the owners instead at 707-937-5594. Or better yet, just go to Mendocino and put a few in your suitcase.  A one-of-a kind treasure.

Wine to Find:

ANY!

That sums up the list based on wines I have tasted, and I have plowed through many. However, this is an ongoing project. If you know of any other small producers that deserve acclaim, please email me. I will continue to develop this list as I make new discoveries.

* Most Pinots I tasted and recommend are from Anderson Valley fruit, an AVA within the broader Mendocino appellation.  Overall, Mendocino County has 9 more AVAs: Mendocino AVA, Yorkville Highlands, McDowell Valley, Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, Dos Rios, Covelo, and Mendocino Ridge and America’s smallest AVA, Cole Ranch.  Two are pending approval: Ukiah Valley and Sanel Valley.

1 Comment

Filed under Mendocino and Anderson Valley

One response to “Mendocino – Wineries-to-Watch List

  1. It is too bad you missed wines bearing the Ferrington vineyard designate.

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