Dunne on Wine

A lonely Mendocino outpost yields wines of uncommon authority

Paul and Jackie Gordon with their dog, Cookie, in their Mendocino County vineyard
Paul and Jackie Gordon with their dog, Cookie, in their Mendocino County vineyard

Not all vineyards in Mendocino County are at the end of long, lonely and tortuous roads, just the ones I visit.

So it was in August that I found myself once again stirring up dust on a winding and climbing goat trail, pausing to unlock gates with combinations sent me earlier, wondering whether I’d get lost, trapped by a wildland fire or detained by an armed cannabis farmer.

On the other hand, I was thinking I might run into one of Mendocino’s famously reclusive residents, like Thomas Pynchon.

No such luck, but as compensation after about 5 miles I broke the top of a ridge and saw before me rows of syrah, grenache and mourvèdre undulating across the nearby hills of Halcón Vineyards.

This is the remote aerie of Paul and Jackie Gordon, natives of England so smitten with California wines they weren’t content to indulge their interest with just the occasional bottle. In 2004, eager to grow grapes and make wine, they began to search for potential vineyard property, focusing on Mendocino’s Anderson Valley because it was yielding the sorts of wines they found most captivating.

“You know what they say about needing a big fortune to make a small fortune in the wine business,” says Paul. “We started with a relatively small fortune.”

“And now we have a trailer,” finishes Jackie, gesturing to the small and boxy hilltop quarters they occupy on visits to Halcón from their full-time jobs and home in Sunnyvale. She said it with a quick and robust laugh that suggested the long drives and days in a trying setting hadn’t tarnished the romantic allure of the wine trade. Neither has a farming background; he works in wireless engineering, she in real estate.

Their Mendocino retreat may be rustic, but the view can’t be beat. From the trailer they look west across Boonville to a seemingly perpetual bank of fog snuggling up against the Coast Range.

Up here, at 2,500 feet, the sunshine is generous, but cool breezes stretch out the growing season so long that the Gordons are among the last growers in the area to bring in each year’s crop.

The length of the growing season helps account for the acclaim that has attended the couple’s early wines. Other factors include the site’s varied and impoverished soils, the unusually tight planting scheme they chose for their blocks of vines, and the hands-on stewardship they bring to the vineyard. The trek from Sunnyvale is three hours, but they and their dog, Cookie, a Maltese/Yorkshire cross, make it often so they can be assured that planting, pruning, composting and the like are done just as they want them done.

“This was a lifestyle choice in the true sense. We love working in the vineyard,” says Paul Gordon.

They bought the 162 acres in 2005 and started at once to plant varieties of grapes that yield their favorite styles of wine, from France’s Rhone Valley. Today, they tend 15 acres in four blocks.

They named the vineyard Halcón – Spanish for hawk – after Hawk Butte, the highest point of the property. (The name Hawk Butte already had been appropriated by another winery.) Halcón is within the Yorkville Highlands, an American Viticultural Area that straddles Highway 128 just southeast of Boonville.

The Gordons came to grape growing and winemaking as energetic and hopeful novices, starting by brushing off the advice of a longtime local farmer who urged them not to buy the property because it was too windy and cold, with soils too thin and poor to support any kind of crop.

Nevertheless, they jumped in, and starting with their first wines off the 2009 vintage quickly established Halcón as a go-to brand for meaty, balanced and creatively laminated wines based on Rhone Valley grape varieties. They were helped along by such seasoned tutors as winemaker Wells Guthrie of Copain Wines in Russian River Valley, Carole Meredith and Steven Lagier of Lagier Meredith Vineyard on Mount Veeder in Napa Valley, and Scott Shapley of ROAR Wines in San Francisco, a custom-crush winemaking facility where the Gordons truck their grapes for processing.

“People have been very generous with their advice,” Paul Gordon says. “You wouldn’t get that in Bordeaux or Burgundy, though you might in the Rhone Valley.”

The Gordons and Shapley take a fashionably minimalist approach to their winemaking. They favor wild over cultivated yeast for fermentations. They use little new oak and prefer larger format puncheons, which restrains the impact of wood on the wines.

And they are keen on whole-cluster fermentation for a third or so of any given wine, a technique that involves crushing grapes with their stems, giving the finished wine a richer mouthfeel and more spunk and complexity, including an herbal note.

Stylistically, the Gordons want their wines to seize the fruitiness for which California is recognized but deliver it with the lean and agile build more closely associated with Europe. “We want them to be California wines, but France is our model,” Paul Gordon says.

One unusual characteristic of Halcón wines is that they are shy bloomers. When a bottle is opened, aromas and flavors build gradually rather than rush out in a torrent. By and large, however, patience is rewarded with wines exuberant in their statement of place and pedigree. They swagger but don’t disrupt, striding across the palate with richness and grace.

My favorite is the Halcón 2014 Yorkville Highlands Esquisto ($30), an expansive and racy blend of 65 percent grenache, 30 percent mourvèdre and 5 percent syrah, which in its volume and sunshine adds up to a dramatic portrait of the rugged landscape that gave rise to the wine. The 2015 is similarly blended, but the growing year was more difficult, complicated by drought and a damp spring, resulting in lower yields but an even spicier and more intense wine. It won’t be released until next spring. (“Esquisto” is Spanish for the “shale” that helps constitute the Halcón property.)

The Halcón 2014 Yorkville Highlands Estate Alturas Syrah ($32) will make people wonder why no one thought to plant syrah in that spot earlier. This is one exceptionally vivid syrah, its aroma and flavor as startling and graceful as a deer bounding across the Mendocino hills – cherries and blueberries one moment, pepper and pork belly the next. Paul Gordon says he likes a feral edge to his wine, and this has it in its suggestions of truffle and mushroom.

While Halcón has been recognized principally for its Rhone-inspired reds, the Gordons have gone off-site for the black grape most closely identified with Mendocino County, pinot noir. The Halcón 2014 Mendocino County Oppenlander Pinot Noir ($35) is all fresh cherries and finesse, one of the more aromatic of the Halcón wines right from the outset. The Halcón 2014 Anderson Valley Wentzel Vineyard Pinot Noir ($38) is more direct and razory, its sunny cherry fruit abuzz with acidity.

The Gordons make just one white wine, the current version of which is the Halcón 2013 Mendocino County Prado ($32), a tightly wound yet substantial 50/50 blend of marsanne and roussanne from the cool and celebrated Alder Springs Vineyard in the county’s northern reaches.

Halcón wines, generally made in lots of 75 to 200 cases, have a fan in Eric Stumpf of the Wine Consultant in Citrus Heights, who began buying wines from the Gordons so early he was handed the very first invoice they issued. “It was exquisite, and perfectly balanced. We sold about 20 cases of it in a flash,” Stumpf says via email, of the 2012 Esquisto he stocked. “Halcón goes down as one of our best ‘discoveries.’ 

Halcón wines also can be bought through the couple’s website, www.halconvineyards.com.

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@gmail.com.