Eugene Joseph McGuinness (Guinness) McFadden, built like a bear, is pawing across desks littered with files while dancing gracefully through stacks of books scattered about his office on the second floor of a rambling barn in the far northern stretches of Mendocino County.
McFadden retrieves a cherished keepsake, blowing off the dust and brushing aside the cobwebs. It’s a small framed get-well wish and autograph from Joe DiMaggio, given to McFadden’s mother when she explained to the Yankee Clipper in a New York restaurant that 9-year-old Eugene couldn’t meet him himself because he was home with the mumps.
McFadden grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City, seemingly destined for urban life, but for more than 40 years now he’s been a farmer in a far-off corner of California’s Potter Valley.
“It’s turned out pretty well,” says McFadden of his choice to grow things as we climb into his dented and dusty pickup truck for a tour of his 550-acre spread straddling the Russian River just southwest of Lake Pillsbury.
As we ramble across the valley floor he points out plots of rosemary, oregano, thyme, basil and other herbs for his McFadden Farm line of dried herb mixes. We pass a trailer heaped with newly harvested garlic. Amid a cluster of outbuildings a crew is making wreaths and garlands of bay leaves. His herd of cattle roams high on the hills flanking the barn.
Lower on the hills, and here and there across the valley, stretch his 160 acres of wine grapes. About half his vineyard is planted to sauvignon blanc, but he also tends substantial plots of chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling.
Everything is farmed organically, and over the past four decades his stewardship, combined with the benevolent climate of Potter Valley – warm days, cool nights, plenty of sunshine – have helped create demand for his grapes among winemakers far beyond Mendocino County. For nearly 30 years Chateau Montelena Winery in Napa Valley, for one, has used McFadden fruit for its highly acclaimed small-production Potter Valley riesling.
Until 2003, McFadden was content to grow and sell his grapes. Then he added wine to his portfolio of farm products, marketing it under his eponymous label. This summer, one of his releases, the McFadden Vineyard Mendocino County Potter Valley Cuvee Brut ($25), was named best sparkling wine at the State Fair commercial wine competition.
Larger sparkling-wine houses such as Gloria Ferrer and Korbel have tended to dominate the higher awards at wine competitions. The McFadden, however, won over judges for its intricate yet forthright combination of fresh, rich fruit, feathery texture and stimulating acidity.
The tribute was bittersweet. The wine was the last made by Raphael Brisbois, who died last year. The French winemaker for sparkling-wine producers Piper Sonoma and Rack & Riddle had become acquainted with McFadden 15 years earlier when Piper Sonoma was buying McFadden’s chardonnay. Nowadays, McFadden’s sparkling wines are made by Penny Gadd-Coster of Rack & Riddle in Alexander Valley. McFadden’s still wines are made by Bob Swain at the Mendocino Wine Co. of Ukiah.
McFadden had plenty of the non-vintage sparkling wine made in 2011 and 2012, but held off making any with the 2013 vintage because it wasn’t selling fast enough for his tastes. That changed with the State Fair award. Save Mart Supermarkets alone ordered 100 cases soon after the award was revealed. (Nugget Markets also stocks the wine.)
McFadden’s drift west and away from city life began when he left New York for the University of Notre Dame, where in 1960 he lettered in wrestling and earned a degree in history.
Upon graduation, he joined the U.S. Navy, where over the next nine years he completed tours in Portugal, where he learned Portuguese and developed a taste for fine wine, and Vietnam, where he learned Vietnamese and earned a Bronze Star as the captain of a river boat.
When he left the Navy in 1969 he enrolled in Stanford University Business School, but soon sensed that corporate life wouldn’t please him, so he dropped out and headed to Napa Valley.
“It was boring,” says McFadden of his short stint at Stanford. “Nine years in the Navy didn’t prepare us for corporate life,” he said of he and other veterans on campus.
But once in California, he had started to entertain notions of growing grapes. “I thought it would be interesting to start a vineyard,” McFadden adds. While living in Napa and scouting for land he took several short courses on “pruning, budding and stuff like that.”
Even in 1970, however, choice vineyard land in Napa Valley had been pretty well picked over, he felt. “There was nothing interesting, so I pushed north.”
He saw potential in Potter Valley, though its agriculture at that time ran more to pear orchards than vineyards. Nonetheless, he began to plant vines on his initial 15-acre plot. The sauvignon blanc thrived, the cabernet sauvignon not so much, so he got rid of it. In addition to Chateau Montelena with his riesling, other wineries that have done well by McFadden grapes include Sterling Vineyards with sauvignon blanc and Alexander Valley Vineyards with gewürztraminer.
In 2004, he introduced his own line of wine, starting with 300 cases of pinot grigio from the harvest of 2003. This past year, he released around 8,000 cases under the label McFadden Vineyard.
In the meantime, McFadden made his extensive and varied spread largely energy self-sufficient. He’s installed about 300 solar panels and built a 300-kilowatt powerhouse along the Russian River, and sells excess energy to Pacific Gas & Electric Co. “When we started that in 1983 we had a three-page contract. Now it’s up to 110 pages,” says McFadden.
He and his late wife reared five children on the farm. Most of them are following their own pursuits these days, though his son Jameson is involved in opening distribution channels for the wines.
Looking forward, McFadden says, “I want to do more of the same, only do it better.”
Even better sparkling wine? Next year’s competition circuit will weigh in on that.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.
McFadden Farm Stand & Tasting Room, where visitors can taste wines as well as buy other products from the farm, including herbs, honey and cuts of grass-fed beef, is at 13275 South Highway 101 in the middle of the Mendocino County hamlet of Hopland, 40 miles south of the farm. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.
In addition to the mouth-filling and complex Brut Cuvee and its subsequently released sister sparkler – the lean, vibrant, fruity and persistent Brut Rose ($32) – visitors shouldn’t leave before tasting these especially noteworthy wines:
▪ McFadden 2013 Mendocino County Potter Valley Chardonnay ($16): An exceptionally fresh and representative interpretation of chardonnay, which grasps the grape’s sweet fruit and zesty acidity without being at all tricked-up with oak.
▪ McFadden 2013 Mendocino County Potter Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($16): Laced with suggestions of grass, grapefruit and green apples, this zippy take on sauvignon blanc shows why the varietal is McFadden’s flagship wine.
▪ McFadden 2010 Mendocino County Coro ($37): About a dozen Mendocino County wineries make their individual versions of “Coro,” a premium wine based on the county’s heritage grape variety, zinfandel. Supplemented with petite sirah and syrah, the wine is vibrant with suggestions of boysenberries and strawberries, spicy with several twists of the pepper grinder, and firm with tannins that will be no problem when it is paired with a slab of beef out of the farm stand’s freezer.
▪ McFadden 2011 Mendocino County Potter Valley Late Harvest Riesling ($18): Anyone missing fresh apricots in the middle of winter will find relief in this bright, fragrant and decidedly sweet (10.2 percent residual sugar) dessert wine.