When thoughts of wine exploration turn to Mendocino County, they turn first to Anderson Valley, the long and narrow enclave bisected by Highway 128 between Cloverdale and the Pacific coast.
Anderson Valley is home to such colorful settlements as Boonville and Philo, and such enduring and popular wineries as Roederer, Navarro, Handley and Husch. Here, the noble wines — pinot noir, sparkling, riesling — largely account for the appellation’s standing.
But there’s another major wine region in the county, often overlooked or at least underappreciated. It is, however, much older than Anderson Valley as a grape-growing and winemaking district.
It’s a quiet corridor of vineyards and wineries stretching about 15 miles along Highway 101 between Hopland and Ukiah, both of which historically have been identified more with beer than wine.
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Nevertheless, we took a drive up Highway 101 from Hopland not long ago to see why it is generating at least as much buzz for wine as beer these days.
Pedigree: After the Fetzer family sold its eponymous and pivotal Hopland winery in 1992, several of the 11 children of founders Barney and Kathleen Fetzer remained in the wine trade with their own vineyards and wineries.
The oldest of the Fetzer offspring, John Fetzer, with his wife, Patty Rock, founded Saracina in 2001, initially at the family’s old home ranch in Redwood Valley north of Ukiah. They subsequently built today’s winery along the west side of Highway 101 just outside of Hopland.
The name Saracina is taken from the Tuscan farmhouse where the couple spent their honeymoon. During the wine boom of the 1980s, the site now occupied by Saracina was Fetzer’s Sundial Ranch, home to the grapes that went into their highly popular Sundial chardonnay, a heritage the couple continues with a similarly styled chardonnay of their own.
They’ve developed Saracina into an understated Highway 101 showplace. The winery and tasting room are screened behind hulking and twisting century-old olive trees transplanted from Corning, flamboyant Italian red willows and stately Italian cypress trees. Fetzer loves to scavenge and re-imagine materials, which explains the tasting room’s redwood doors from the old Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite and the low-profile equipment sheds built with stone mined from the estate.
Why here: When the Fetzer family’s original winery sold, the 11 children set about splitting up the vineyards that weren’t part of the deal. John Fetzer waited until his siblings made their choices, then ended up with the 100-acre Sundial Ranch and neighboring Atrea Vineyard.
“He wanted to prove a point,” Rock said. And that point was to show that Mendocino County has the soils and climate to yield grapes equal in quality to what was being grown in Napa and Sonoma counties. “He wanted to prove that we (Mendocino) also can be in the finest restaurants in the world,” she adds.
He’s made his point. For decades, Napa and Sonoma wineries have tapped vineyards in Mendocino County for grapes, and that exploitation looks to be growing. What’s more, young wine buyers for restaurants and wine shops are looking for “hidden jewels, something their parents or grandparents didn’t drink, whether it’s from Croatia or Mendocino,” says Rock.
Their Focus: Early on, John Fetzer got smitten with sauvignon blanc, particularly French Sancerre, and that remains a favorite style for the couple and for their longtime winemaker Alex MacGregor.
Fetzer’s Sundial chardonnay didn’t spend any time in oak barrels, a straight-forward winemaking technique that continues at Saracina. “The millennial generation is moving away from the rich and buttery style (of chardonnay) to more acidic wines. That’s what Fetzer was doing years and years ago,” says Rock.
The label “Saracina” is used primarily for single-variety wines, while the couple’s second label, “Atrea,” is principally for blends.
Don’t miss: The graceful and lively Saracina 2017 Mendocino County Sauvignon Blanc ($23); the surprisingly robust Saracina 2016 Mendocino County Unoaked Chardonnay ($20), whose vibrant fruity aroma is enhanced with the addition of 4 percent viognier; the lush and persistent Atrea 2016 Mendocino County The Choir ($20), a blend of viognier and roussanne, the best buy in the portfolio; and the exceptionally fruity, spicy and balanced Saracina 2015 Mendocino County Skid Row Vineyard Malbec ($28), which by its complexity and vigor indicates that malbec yet may find a home in California.
The particulars: The tasting room at Saracina, 11684 South Highway 101, Hopland, is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Jaxon Keys Winery & Distillery
Pedigree: Ken and Diane Wilson are most closely identified with Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley, where they planted their first vines in 1988 and established their first winery in 1993. They’ve been expanding their North Coast holdings ever since. Today, their Wilson Artisan Wines includes such boutique wineries as Mazzocco Sonoma, Greenwood Ridge, Pezzi King and Soda Rock.
About a decade ago they purchased Mendocino County’s Jepson Winery and its surrounding 1250 acres and rechristened it Jaxon Keys Winery & Distillery. A native Canadian, Ken Wilson was drawn to the site in part because it reminded him of his grandfathers and their passion for farming. The winery is named after them, Jack Wilson and Cecil Keys.
Why here: The Wilsons were drawn to the property by its wild scenery, its longtime history in grape growing (the vineyard includes a stand of 50-year-old French colombard), the site’s perceived potential for Rhone Valley grape varieties, and the challenge of restoring the estate’s 1880’s hilltop farmhouse, now the winery’s tasting room.
Their focus: The Wilsons are recognized for big and brash wines, in particular zinfandel, but with Jaxon Keys they and their winemaker Antoine Favero focus on varietal wines and blends inspired by such Rhone Valley grape varieties as viognier, grenache and syrah.
The estate also includes a distillery that houses an ancient Alambic pot still with which they transform their French-colombard grapes into brandy.
Don’t miss: The limey and long Jaxon Keys 2017 Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($18); the ripe, tropical and generously oaked Jaxon Keys 2016 Estate Chardonnay ($24); and the sweetly fruity and downright elegant Jaxon Keys 2016 Mae’s Block Zinfandel ($28), best in its class at the recent Mendocino County Fair commercial wine competition.
The particulars: The tasting room at Jaxon Keys, 10400 South Highway 101, Hopland, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Rivino Estate Vineyards & Winery
Pedigree: In the 1970s, Gordon Jahnke, a law professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, became smitten with Mendocino County while on sabbatical at the University of California, Berkeley. Jahnke, who had grown up on a Saskatchewan farm, returned to Mendocino in 1993 with visions of reviving his farming heritage with an emphasis on growing wine grapes.
At that time, he bought the 212-acre Schrader Ranch between Highway 101 and the Russian River just south of Ukiah, planted largely to pears, which he began to replace with vines. He renamed the property Rivino, a portmanteau of “river” and “vino.”
In 2003, while living on the ranch, Jahnke’s daughter Suzanne met Jason McConnell as the two waited in line to get into a cooking class at nearby Hopland. They married a couple of years later and in 2008 founded the winery Rivino.
Why here: Jason McConnell is a self-taught winemaker. “Basically, I learned out of books, and I’ve had all these people and resources around here to help me. There’s a lot of people out there who will help you,” says McConnell, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering and who before moving to Mendocino County worked with Granite Construction in Sacramento.
He’s making 2,000 cases a year, customarily in small-batch lots. All the fruit the couple uses comes from their nearly 200-acre vineyard, but they take advantage of just a small portion of the estate’s output. More than 90 percent of the grapes they grow is sold to other producers, including such high-profile brands as Navarro and Duckhorn, says McConnell. The spread is planted to seven varieties, including chardonnay, sangiovese, cabernet franc, merlot and syrah.
Their focus: The couple’s portfolio stretches across wine’s stylistic spectrum, from bubbles to stickies, but McConnell is especially keen on making sparkling wine. Despite the Ukiah area’s reputation for intense summer heat, the vineyard historically has provided grapes for sparkling wine, especially the Weibel brand, McConnell notes.
He feels the site also produces exceptional sangiovese, the only grape variety he keeps solely for Rivino. And he sees potential in other varieties not wildly popular among American consumers, such as cabernet franc and pinot blanc.
Don’t miss: Rivino’s first sparkling wine, the bone-dry and minerally Boujee 2015 Mendocino Blanc de Blancs ($38), a lean and fine-bubble blend of chardonnay, pinot blanc and viognier; the concentrated and zesty Rivino Boujee Rose Brut ($42), half the same blend as the Blanc de Blancs but with the addition of syrah for structure, aroma and color; the forward and juicy Rivino 2012 Mendocino Sedulous ($36), a floral and spicy mix of mostly merlot with additions of cabernet franc and viognier; and the sweet and fortified Rivino Portia Scarlet ($45), a long and caressing blend of merlot, sangiovese, cabernet franc and syrah.
The particulars: The tasting room at Rivino, 4101 Cox Schrader Road (at Highway 101), Ukiah, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
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.