Wine + Peace
Story by Kathleen Willcox

Finding Mendocino

Part II: The Coast 

Mendocino Part II 1

The second installment of our three-part series on the history and culture of winemaking in Mendocino County, California. Haven’t read Part I? Find it here.

November 3, 2021 — It’s about a 35-minute shot from Inland Mendocino to the coast — a northwest ascent along the roly-poly Route 128 through sun-singed hills, farmsteads, and redwood forests. Tracing the Navarro River’s path to the sea, the narrow highway bisects the Yorkville Highlands and Anderson Valley AVAs, home to the unincorporated settlements of Boonville, Philo, and Navarro. Locals refer to the county’s westward reaches simply as the Deep End, a remnant of Boontling, the near-extinct language invented there in the 1890s. Yet to the rest of the world, it’s the murderers’ row of Mendocino winemakers, the primary source of the region’s renown.

In the first installment of this series I introduced the Mendocino AVA: created in 1984 and roughly the size of Rhode Island, it’s the largest of Mendocino County‘s 11 legally designated appellations. Despite their many distinctive qualities, the AVAs of Mendocino County can be grouped into two main categories: Inland Mendocino, where old-vine mediterranean varieties span largely undiscovered AVAs like Redwood Valley and Potter Valley; and Coastal Mendocino, where appellations like Mendocino Ridge, Yorkville Highlands, and Anderson Valley are turning out sleek Pinot Noirs, traditional-method sparklers, and aromatic whites.

Established in 1983, the Anderson Valley AVA contains 2,457 planted acres and elevations reaching 2,500 feet. Its average annual temperature is 53 degrees, and during the growing season daytime and nighttime temperatures differ by a whopping 50 degrees. Not surprisingly, grape varieties range from alpine to Alsatian. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling all flourish there.

Anderson Valley’s roots are similar to Inland Mendocino’s: the first vineyards were planted by Italian immigrants in 1894, with commercial viticulture gathering steam in the the 1940s. However, it wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that the counterculture winegrowing movement really took off.

Mendocino 1Husch Vineyards winemaker Brad Holstine in 2020.

In 1967, Tony and Gretchen Husch bought the 60-acre Nunn Ranch on Highway 128 and planted eight acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer where apples and grains once grew. In 1971, Husch Vineyards became the valley’s first licensed winery.

“No one thought grapes would grow well here,” said Zac Robinson, a third-generation farmer whose family bought the land from the Huschs in 1979. “But it soon became clear that the climate and soils were very well suited for Pinot Noir and aromatic whites.”

The pioneers of Anderson Valley — Husch, Edmeades, Navarro Vineyards, Lazy Creek, Greenwood Ridge — were the ones who saw the potential for transcendence in the hills and hollers home to hardscrabble apple and sheep farmers.

But what turned the rest of the world onto the Anderson Valley was when Scharffenberger Cellars and Roederer Estate arrived (in 1981 and 1982, respectively) and began cranking out almost laughably inexpensive sparkling wines — coastal evocations of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that put Champagne on notice. 

What most impresses me about Anderson Valley is the degree to which the region has retained its ethos of youthful idealism. Considering the high demand for quality domestic bubbles and restrained, terroir-driven Pinot Noir, the region could easily have chosen the route of complacency, as has been the case with many critically recognized regions. Yet despite the accolades and the stready stream of visitors, Anderson Valley has stayed true to its humble rootsEven in the heart of the region, one still finds refreshingly inexpensive and personal tasting experiences, at a quarter of the price to equivalent offerings in Sonoma or Napa.

Mendocino Part II 2Mark Wentworth, winemaker/proprietor of Wentworth Vineyard & Ranch. (By Lucille Lawrence)

Since founding Wentworth Vineyard & Ranch in 2018, Mark Wentworth has been determined to show off some of Mendocino’s heretofore undiscovered peaks and ridges. The high-profile newcomer is employing organic and biodynamic practices to farm two estate vineyards: The Nash Mill Vineyard outside of Philo in Anderson Valley, and Wentworth Vineyard, about a ten-minute drive from the town of Elk in the far western reaches of the Mendocino Ridge AVA.

The seriousness of Wentworth’s mission to reveal new dimensions of his home regions is plainly evident in his lineup of estate-grown Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gruner Veltliner. But he’s out to effect change in more literal ways too, as evidenced by his efforts to update the legal definitions of the territories he farms. He is currently involved in a project that includes thorough soil and climate analyses to determine whether any sections of Anderson Valley merit official subregion status.

The study, similar to the one in Paso Robles that led to the creation of 11 sub-AVAs in 2014, has not been without controversy. But if successful, Wentworth’s efforts will surely serve to further elevate the region, with a corresponding boost in marketability. (Some assessments show that the creation of sub-AVAs can correspond to a 25% increase in bottle price).

“I’m working with several other winemakers in the Anderson Valley to systematically study the terroir here,” Wentworth said.

The Anderson Valley’s wine community is unusually tight knit, and Wentworth and others are loath to rock the boat by divulging the minutiae of the sub-AVA debate. In general, the pioneers and the newcomers appear determined to not merely present a unified front to the world — but to live it.

Mendocino: Through Time and Terroir 5Anderson Valley icon: the late Milla Handley of Handley Cellars.

Milla Handley, who died of COVID-19 last year at the age of 68, was the handshake between past and present personified. Among the first women to graduate from UC Davis’ fermentation science program (1975), she continued to blaze a trail in Anderson Valley, becoming, in 1982, the first female winemaker in the U.S. to establish an eponymous winery: Handley Cellars.

“When Milla heard I moved to the Valley and wanted to make Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gewürtzraminer, she tracked me down and took me under her wing,” Wentworth recalled. “She was so generous with her time and knowledge, and I spent so much invaluable time in her vineyard, learning about her ecological growing practices and the history of the valley.”

Today Lulu Handley (the younger of Milla’s two daughters) and her husband, Scott Peterson, carry on the family legacy. Similar to Wentworth, they view stewardship and forward progress as intertwined — a responsibility that’s as much about carrying on their forbearer’s pioneering spirit as it is about preserving the past.

“My mother was so ahead of her time in terms of winegrowing practices, but also her style and approach to life, and we want to honor and continue that,” Handley explained. “If we just blindly repeated what she did, that wouldn’t be doing her legacy justice.”

Keep an eye out for their first vintage of Pinot Noir Blanc and a range of terracotta-aged bottlings, due out in 2022.

After several days on the ground, Mendocino’s past and present had come into stark relief. However, one piece of the puzzle remained missing: the future.

Kathleen Willcox is a freelance writer based in Saratoga Springs, New York, who explores the intersection between food, wine, sustainability and social justice.

Stay tuned for Part III of our three-part series that explores the history and culture of winemaking in Mendocino County, California. Photos courtesy of Husch Vineyards, Wentworth Vineyard & Ranch, and Handley Cellars.

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