Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Navarro Vineyards

Judges of the 37th annual Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition had just finished evaluating the 250 entries.

With a few hours to kill before the awards dinner, let’s mosey up the road to see Ted Bennett.

Highway 128 through scenic Anderson Valley is dotted with wineries, including Navarro Vineyards, which Ted Bennett and his wife, Deborah Cahn, founded in 1975, two years after they bought 913 wild acres that stretch high into the hills.

Soon as Bennett strolls into the tasting room, he suggests we climb into his rig for a ride through the couple’s vineyards terraced on those hills. It proves to be a trek through history, the lessons Bennett and Cahn have learned, and the challenges they continue to face as farmers and vintners, even four decades after they agreed to pursue their affection for Alsatian wines in an untested area they were convinced had the topography and climate for such obscure cool-climate varietals as gewurztraminer and riesling.

They sold their hugely successful stereo business, moved out of their Berkeley home and built what 40 years later would be a winery celebrated for its sensitive agrarian practices, consistent awards on the competition circuit and devoted clientele. About 80 percent of the 40,000 cases they make yearly is sold through the winery’s tasting room and mailing list, which explains why the wines of Navarro Vineyards only rarely are found outside Anderson Valley.

“There’s less gewurztraminer here now than there was 10 years ago,” Bennett said while passing through a stand of the varietal. “Growers can make a lot more money in pinot noir. And why not plant more pinot noir when one of the landmark gewurztraminers is going for $20 when you can sell pinot for $50.” He doesn’t need to say is that landmark gewurztraminer is his, and that he’s sticking with it, though Navarro also grows pinot noir.

Bennett oversees 92 acres of vines on the estate just outside of Philo, 23 more in Boonville to the east. Of the total 113 acres, 45 is in pinot noir, 30 in gewurztraminer, 19 in chardonnay, Navarro’s principal varieties.

His and Cahn’s first love remains crisply refreshing Alsatian wines. “I came here to grow gewurztraminer,” Bennett said. From each harvest he makes two gewurztraminers. One is a dry and initially austere estate bottling, Navarro’s flagship wine, which generally sells for $20. The other is a delicately sweet interpretation called “Cuvee Traditional” that sells for $15. He also blends gewurztraminer with riesling for a rich yet vital proprietary wine called “Edelzwicker,” or “noble blend,” a style long revered in Alsace and Germany.

As he drives higher he talks about various trellising techniques, clone selections and spacing strategies he’s tried over the years. His quest continues.

Bennett eyes apprehensively a blue haze against distant hills, the drifting residue of a timber blaze in Oregon. In 2008 a persistent late-season blanket of smoke swaddled many of his black grapes, tainting the resulting wines, a problem not immediately recognized when the wines were released. When it was, Bennett took extraordinary steps to alert consumers, cut prices, swap releases, even dump some wines. He doesn’t say how much the efforts cost him, but it had to run into the thousands of dollars.

Another sacrifice: The several stately oak trees that rise from the middle of vineyards cost him in terms of production from vines, but he says he’s a “city kid” with an aversion to falling trees, no matter how inconvenient they prove to be.

Bennett refers often to vineyards and winery as “the Navarro project,” indicating that it’s a business always evolving and never really will be complete, a perspective with which he is entirely comfortable.

The next phase of their project for Bennett, Cahn and their two children, Aaron and Sarah, is Pennyroyal Farm, taking shape on their second parcel at nearby Boonville. Pennyroyal will be winery as well as dairy. When it is completed in the next year or two it will be entirely solar-powered and waste-free.

Today, nearly 4,000 of Mendocino County’s 17,256 acres of wine grapes are certified organically grown, believed to be the highest concentration in the country. Not surprisingly, therefore, Mendocino WineGrowers Inc., the grower and vintner group that sponsors the yearly wine competition, gives an award not only for best white wine and best red wine but for best “green” wine, a release grown and made with biodynamic, sustainable, organic or fish-friendly farming practices.

Navarro Vineyards 2012 Mendocino County Anderson Valley Cuvee Traditional Gewurztraminer won not only for best white wine but best green wine. It was one of eight gewurztraminers in the competition and the only double-gold winner, meaning that the five judges of the panel agreed unanimously that it warranted gold.

The wine is textbook Navarro gewurztraminer, its fragrant aroma running to roses and lychee; its flavor refreshingly fruity and more dry than sweet, with threads of stoniness and spice. Its acidity was zingy, calling for a platter of oysters. It was vivacious up front and persistent in finish. The .35 percent residual sugar enhances the fruit notes without adding detectable sweetness. The wine shows Navarro’s European bent in its wiry and angular build and overall balance.

Bennett likes to say that the wine reflects “decades of education” as he recalls changes in rootstock, planting density, trellising techniques and the like since he put in the estate’s first gewurztraminer in 1975. Most remarkably, perhaps, the price remains at an everyday $15, which only shows that gewurztraminer still is a tough sell in the United States, even for one from the estate long recognized as producing the most faithful take on the varietal in the nation.