Historically, the agricultural products most closely identified with the steep and narrow ridges of southwest Mendocino County have been Douglas fir, redwood and apples (its inclusion in the Emerald Triangle aside). However, a few gutsy grape growers have been tending small and scattered vineyards in the region since the late 1800s.
Though vineyards in the area still are small and scattered, they help form the nation’s most curious wine appellation, “Mendocino Ridge,” the only formally designated American Viticultural Area to be made up of a series of non-contiguous ridges and peaks.
To qualify for inclusion in the appellation, a vineyard must be at least 1,200 feet above sea level, the line above which Pacific fog rarely encroaches. Thus, “Mendocino Ridge” is known more poetically, popularly and promotionally as “Islands in the Sky,” each mountain top floating like a sun-lit castle surrounded by a protective gray moat.
“We’re on the edge here,” says Jason Drew as we amble about his vineyard and apple orchard at the far northwestern reaches of Mendocino Ridge, 5 miles above the coastal settlement of Elk.
Drew is speaking geographically, but his words also apply to the gamble that he and his wife, Molly, are taking in staking their livelihood on such a remote and isolated if stunning setting.
As to geography, their 7 acres of pinot noir is believed to be the most westerly commercial vineyard in the continental United States.
As to the risk ... farming in Mendocino Ridge isn’t without its distinct challenges. During spring flowering of vines, cool winds and wet weather aren’t uncommon along the ridge tops, jeopardizing pollination. As if to drive home that point, Jason Drew pauses between rows hung with skinny clusters of pinot noir. A warm winter led to bud break and flowering a month earlier than usual. Then came a cold and damp May. “It was foggy, wet and windy, just horrible conditions all of May,” he recalls. He calculates that he’s losing between 50 percent and 70 percent of his crop.
The Drews introduced their Drew Family Cellars in 2000 while they were living in Santa Barbara County, where he was associate winemaker at Babcock Vineyards and she was a full-time mother while also keeping the books for their new business.
His route to winemaking began years earlier as he earned a degree in agricultural ecology with an emphasis on viticulture at UC Santa Cruz. He eventually followed that up with a master’s in enology at Australia’s University of Adelaide. “I wanted to close that circle. It felt like an organic process to go from viticulture to winemaking,” Drew says.
In 2004 they wanted to return to Northern California. Both had grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and his vineyard and cellar stints had included a stretch with Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn of Navarro Vineyards in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. “They were hard-working and passionate, and I saw those things equate into a successful winery business. It was a model that showed it was possible. If you have those two things, you have a leg up,” says Jason Drew.
He also was lured to Mendocino Ridge by its proximity to the Sonoma coast, then gaining recognition for the caliber of its pinot noir, which with syrah constitute Drew’s winemaking passions.
In 2004 they bought their 26-acre parcel, mostly given over to apples, and in 2005 moved onto the property. Since then, he’s been making wines with grapes bought from other growers, but in 2011 the couple took out some of the apple trees and put in the 7 acres of pinot noir. The apples that remain are sold for vinegar and brandy, though the Drews are using some for a hard cider they may eventually introduce commercially.
Though Mendocino Ridge has been recognized traditionally for zinfandel, it’s gaining traction for pinot noir and syrah, to judge by medals at wine competitions, positive critical reviews and sales.
The Drew Family lineup tilts heavily to the two varietals, which while uniform in their luminous fruit, limber builds and reserved tannins, stand out for their individual representation of site and Drew’s gentle winemaking philosophy, which includes wild yeasts and natural malolactic fermentation.
His Drew Family Cellars 2013 Anderson Valley Fog Eater Pinot Noir ($45) is meaty yet graceful, bright with raspberries and cherries, grounded with a sense of mushrooms and truffles. The Drew Family Cellars 2013 Anderson Valley Morning Dew Ranch Pinot Noir ($45) is a leaner and more accessible but no less complex take on the varietal. The Drew Family Cellars 2013 Mendocino Ridge Valenti Ranch Syrah ($45) was my favorite wine in the portfolio, spiking syrah’s dark, gamy and hefty fruit with so many twists of the pepper grinder I thought I might sneeze.
While Jason Drew makes mostly red wines, he has added a white to the portfolio, the spirited and refreshing Drew Family Cellars 2014 Mendocino Ridge Valenti Ranch Albariño ($25), every bit as crisp as one of the apples in the orchard just outside the winery.
In talking of his stylistic goals, Drew says his basic principle is to have his wines transparently represent vintage and place. To get that, he relies more on what the maturing grapes tell him of tannin development, acid quality and pH levels than on sugar content, the customary measure of ripeness.
“Structure is everything in the wine, and acid and tannin weigh more heavily in that than sugar,” Drew says. “Nine out of 10 times the flavor is there if I have that structure. I also like freshness a lot, and the wines have to be able to pair well with food.”
He steps over to pull a sample from a barrel that holds the first wine from the couple’s own vineyard, pinot noir from the harvest of 2014. The wine is deeply colored and lavish on the palate, but with charm, kick and grit.
Drew is positively giddy about how the wine is developing. “I couldn’t be happier with the aroma, the textures, the fruit profile, the amount of acid and tannin. It’s everything I’m looking for – concentrated but also reticent.”
An observer wonders if Drew is about to start dancing a jig, perhaps not advisable up on Mendocino Ridge, out on the edge of the winemaking world.
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 dmichaeldunne@
Drew Family Cellars
Drew Family Cellars has no tasting room on Mendocino Ridge, but it does have a tasting room in the Anderson Valley settlement of Philo. It is housed in the Madrones commercial complex, 9000 Highway 128. It is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Monday.