So Close, Yet So Far

Paul Blow

“We’re kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of wine regions,” says Greg Graziano of Mendocino County in Northern California. “We just don’t get a lot of respect.” Graziano, proprietor of Graziano Family of Wines, is half right. Mendocino is really like two wine regions. One half gets a lot of respect these days. The other, well, that’s the region Graziano lives in.

Driving from the coast on Highway 128 through the sparsely populated towns of the Anderson Valley—Boonville, Philo, Navarro—is a popular attraction for wine country tourists looking for the next Sonoma or Napa, tasting at Handley, Navarro, Goldeneye, and Lazy Creek. The region’s sea-chilled air provides a perfect climate for growing Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer.

Then there’s the other Mendocino, the noncoastal part. Half of the county’s wineries are there, but even more important, so are about 85 percent of Mendocino’s 18,000 acres of vineyards. Separated from the foggy coast by a wide swath of high hills, the interior valley is heated up by the sun; and rather than the delicate cool-climate varieties grown closer to the coast, here you’ll find the sturdy, thick-skinned reds, like Zinfandel, Syrah, and Petite Sirah. “Mendocino’s got at least as much old-vine Zin as any county in the state, if not more,” says Graziano.

The region’s identity crisis comes from two problems. First, anonymity: As much as 80 percent of Mendocino wine goes into the bottles of large wineries in other counties, never even getting labeled Mendocino. Dennis Patton, a Mendocino winemaker for 27 years, says, “It’s been a real bone of contention for us.”

The second problem is quality. Fifty years of farming grapes solely meant to be blended into the high-production wines of other appellations put many inland Mendocino growers in the mind-set of quantity, not quality. They would grow their grapes to minimum specifications, call in the trucks from Napa to come pick them up, and then wait for the check in the mail.

An Anderson Valley producer said to me, “I was told by a grower over there that their problem has been solely one of marketing. But I disagree. You have to have quality—consistent quality—first.” Some winemakers are taking this to heart and have produced some excellent wines. Eaglepoint Ranch has made a name for itself with Zin, Syrah, and Petite Sirah. Saracina, owned by John Fetzer (who sold his eponymous winery in 1992 to Brown-Forman), turned out its first wine, a Sauvignon Blanc, to rave reviews in 2002. In 2006, a high-quality Syrah followed.

Some good-quality wine that’s leaving the county still gets to keep the Mendocino name. Top boutique producers like Copain, Elyse, and Sean Thackrey have made single-vineyard bottlings from Eaglepoint Ranch. And despite having no label of its own, remote northern Mendocino vineyard Alder Springs has become a brand name by supplying topnotch Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay to critics’ darlings like Patz & Hall, Pax, Roessler Cellars, Novy Family, and others. It’s proof that the quality is there; these wines are a good place to start.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.