Wine + Peace
Story by Kathleen Willcox

Finding Mendocino

Part I: The Garden

Mendocino: Through Time and Terroir

The first in a three-part series on the history and culture of winemaking in Mendocino County, California. Pictured above: Frey Vineyards’ CEO Katrina Frey.

October 22, 2021 — After a deep (if short) sleep in one of the many serviceable name-brand hotels circling San Francisco International Airport like a chain-link fence, I slid into my rental, a Chevy Spark, which felt more like riding a firecracker than driving an actual vehicle. I nosed my way northward along Highway 101 to Mendocino, a county containing 11 distinct American Viticulture Areas (AVAs), or officially recognized appellations. With nearly a quarter of its vineyards certified by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), Mendocino County also happens to contain the highest concentration of biodynamic and organic grapes in the United States. 

Mendocino has long been a top source for affordable, organic fruit among celebrated winemakers in Napa and Sonoma. Yet for a region whose wealth of heritage vines and sustainably farmed grapes has made it an indispensable asset to California’s natural wine movement, we still know startling little about its history, culture and geography.

According to Bernadette Byrne, Executive Director of the regional marketing organization Mendocino Winegrowers, more than half of the grapes grown in Mendocino are trucked away to be produced and bottled elsewhere (and sold at a premium). Clearly the grapes are good: so why do the wines actually produced within the county itself, often by pioneers of organic viticulture and winemaking, retail at one third the price of their southern counterparts? And will it always be so?

These were the questions on my mind as I drove north along highway 101 toward my destination. Out my window, a stylized, Seussical landscape of rolling hills and blue skies — a reminder of how vast, remote and beautiful California still is, despite the teeming pockets of relentless commerce. 

Mendocino AVA, the county’s catchall wine appellation, was established in 1984 and covers over 275,000 acres. The V-shaped region encompasses several distinct sub-AVAs, but can be broadly understood has having two main identities: Inland Mendocino and Coastal Mendocino. The Inland area, which stretches from Hopland to Laytonville along highway 101 includes (from south to north) McDowell Valley, Redwood Valley, Potter Valley, Dos Rios, and Covelo AVAs. This area has deep winemaking roots; Italian immigrants began settling in its valleys and tending vines starting in the late 19th century. Here mediterranean varieties like Carignan, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Grenache dominate. 

Then there’s Eagle Peak AVA, which fans out across highway 101 just west of Redwood Valley. Created in 2014, this appellation is located in the heart of Mendocino County, but is technically distinct from the Mendocino AVA.

The other arm of the V is the westerly Coastal area, which runs along Highway 128 from Yorkville straight up through the town of Navarro. Coastal Mendocino — cooler with higher elevations and marine influence — includes the sub-AVAs of Mendocino Ridge, Yorkville Highlands, Anderson Valley and Cole Ranch. This area has recently gained critical and popular notoriety for their sleek Pinot Noirs, aromatic whites and experimental plantings.

Inland Mendocino


My first stop was Hopland, population 920 — not far from where the country’s biodynamic and organic winemaking movement began.

“It all started in a garden, really,” said Katrina Frey, executive director of Frey Vineyards, with characteristic understatement. She gestured around to the new, cutting-edge winery that was being erected along West Road in Redwood Valley, following the decimation of her home ranch and winery in 2017’s Redwood Complex Fire. Soon this south-facing parcel, tucked into forested benchland, will be home to a fully operational metal, solar-powered winery and crush pad — a 43,000 square-foot wonder of green engineering and construction. Hard to believe that Frey went from farming organic cabbage for $25 a week with her first child strapped to her back to producing 200,000 cases of certified organic wine annually. 

Frey grew up in Vermont and spent much of every summer working with her grandfather in his perennial garden. She attended Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana, and after graduation, she became involved in Vietnam War activism. Like many progressively minded young people of her generation, Frey was drawn to California; she eventually moved there in 1973 to begin an apprenticeship with Alan Chadwick, the British horticulturist who many credit with introducing biodynamic farming to the United States. It was here that she met her future husband Jonathan Frey — then a fellow pupil — and Alan York, a biodynamic apostle who would later leave Chadwick’s tutelage to spread the good word to winegrowers across the country.

Mendocino 4

Katrina Frey (foreground) with sister-in-law Tamara Frey (left) and mother-in-law Beba Frey in 1980. Courtesy of Frey Vineyards.

“That garden changed so much — not just for me, but for so many of us in Mendocino,” Frey recalled. “He [Chadwick] was very influential. After apprenticing, we got married, and quickly learned that cabbage wouldn’t pay the bills. So we decided to pursue value-added agriculture in the early 1970s.” 

More of that characteristic understatement. Frey Vineyards would go on to become the first Demeter-certified winery in the United States (in 1996). And despite the winery’s stratospheric success, Frey’s diehard devotion to biodynamic principles have never waivered.

Frey: “We have 1,000 acres under vine, and we work with growers all over California who are certified organic and biodynamic.”

This provides a window into the scale of production that organic and biodynamic producers in Mendocino must wield to create delicious and ecologically sound wines that retail for well south of $20 a bottle. It also presents a sobering economic reality: even at 1,000 acres, Frey must still purchase grapes from third-party growers outside of the region to achieve these price points. “We’d love to get to that point, and we work with growers to convert [to organic and biodynamic] — we incentivize them,” she said.

York’s pioneering garden activism also inspired Fetzer Vineyards to pursue organic and biodynamic winemaking in the 1980s. York, who died in 2014, helped convert their farming practices. Founded in 1968 (and purchased by Viña Concha y Toro for $238 million in 2011), Fetzer has become the largest grower of organic wine grapes in California (according to the CCOF), with about 960 acres under vine, including 260 that are certified biodynamic. Most of this fruit is used to produce Bonterra, Fetzer’s organic wine brand, first released in 1992. With an estimated production of 500,000 cases annually, Bonterra sells more wine made from organic grapes than any other winery in the U.S., much of which retails for $12-$16.

Mendocino: Through Time and Terroir 2

Walking the vast vineyards of Bonterra outside of Hopland, winemakers Jeff Cichocki and Sebastian Donoso pointed out large gardens, insect corridors, blossoming cover crops, and owl boxes — all in place to ensure a biodiverse habitat, and a holistic environment for grape growing. Indeed, in a moment between questions and answers, I noted the intense buzzing, chirping, and cawing — a symphony of insect and mammalian life. All was in stark contrast to the neatly mowed, weeded and silent expanses of mono-viticulture commonly found in wine country.

The care the team takes in the fields can be tasted in Bonterra’s wines.

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“We produce at a large scale, but we approach our winemaking like smaller wineries do,” said Cichocki. “We have a serious wood program, and Sebastian and I spend most of our time tasting and determining blends that we think will best reflect Mendocino terroir.”

In addition to the value-driven lines, there are single vineyard offerings like The McNab, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and old vine Petite Sirah, that earns raves from critics and retails at $50.

It’s gratifying to taste such precise evocations of the land, a reminder that the terroir of Inland Mendocino — the vineyards across Ukiah, Hopland, Talmage — deserves to be celebrated.

Winemaking was introduced here by Italian immigrants who began cultivating vines in Mendocino in the 1800s,” said Hoss Milone of Brutocao Family Vineyards, a fourth-generation winemaker who began helping his family in the vineyards at age five. For decades, small-scale wine production was the standard in Mendocino; it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the region’s plantings expanded beyond a few thousand vines. The grapes that thrived are the same ones that thrive now — hearty red varieties well-suited to the warm climate: Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignan, Barbera, and Syrah. 

Our conversation about Mendocino’s winemaking traditions led us to the topic of Coro, a producer association created more than two decades ago to showcase the region’s heritage varieties.

Mendocino Part I

“Around 2000, Mendocino winemakers saw an opportunity to show what the region was capable of, and really celebrate our winemaking roots and history,” Milone said. “Most of us in the industry grew up here and are the descendants of the people who really established winemaking in Mendocino, and we wanted to honor that.”

Coro, Milone explained, was named after the Latin word for chorus. It is the first wine of its kind in the United States to set blending and aging parameters distinctive to its region. Coro is set up as the overarching brand, with participating producers receiving secondary billing, analogous to a vineyard designated wine — or like Vigno, an association devoted to old-vine Carignan in Chile’s Maule region. Coro stipulates that a wine must be made from 100% Mendocino County grapes, and Zinfandel must account for 40-70% of the blend. In honor of “Old Italian” field blends, up to nine other named varieties may be added, including Syrah, Petite Sirah, Carignan, Sangiovese, Grenache, Dolcetto, Charbono, and Barbera. There are also strict barrel and bottle aging parameters. 

Perhaps most nerve-wrackingly though, each Coro wine must pass four separate blind reviews by a panel of participating winemakers before it is accepted and certified. 

“It’s brutal,” Milone admitted. “But that was part of the point. We wanted to raise the bar for winemaking here, and we knew if we exchanged brutally honest feedback on each other’s wine, that we’d get better. Every year, we do.” 

This is part I of a three-part series on the history and culture of winemaking in Mendocino County, California.

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

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