Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Farmer Ron Mansfield’s at the root of El Dorado’s wine success

We wine writers devote entirely too much space to wines and the vintners who make them, not enough to grapes and the farmers who grow them.

Well, then, let’s catch up with Ron Mansfield, who farms 300 acres of wine grapes on and about Apple Hill in El Dorado County.

Most of the vineyards Mansfield tends are owned by people who under management agreements relinquish their long-term care to his stewardship.

A big guy with a homespun drawl and laconic manner, Mansfield brings the sensitivity and precision of a bonsai artist to vines. As a consequence, on the short list of people responsible for El Dorado County’s standing as a fine-wine region he’s at or near the top.

His relationship with property owners has been especially successful in his development and care of Fenaughty Vineyard, close by Mansfield’s own vineyard and orchards, Goldbud Farms.

Grapes from Fenaughty Vineyard are grabbed each harvest by more than a dozen winemakers near and far, many of whom recognize the growing stature of the plot by including its name on their labels. Wineries that receive steady recognition for wines from Fenaughty Vineyard include Edmunds St. John and Donkey & Goat in Berkeley, Keplinger in Napa Valley, Lavender Ridge and Hatcher in Calaveras County, and David Girard, Holly’s Hill, Windwalker and Skinner in El Dorado County.

When I last visited Mansfield in 1997 it was for a story on his celebrated hand with cherries, which he still grows, as well as nectarines, apples, peaches, plums and pears. But more and more, his attention is devoted to wine grapes, including the 30 acres of Fenaughty Vineyard, planted almost entirely to such Rhone Valley grape varieties as syrah, grenache and mourvedre.

Fenaughty Vineyard occupies a long rectangular piece of property that stretches across a north-facing slope just under a ridgeline along aptly named Fruitridge Road.

Three principal natural factors help account for the popularity of the grapes grown at Fenaughty, Mansfield explains. By facing north, and by being below the ridgetop, the vineyard is relatively cool even during the summer, allowing grapes to mature slowly and evenly, intensifying their flavor.

Secondly, the patch is given over entirely to well-drained soils that capture enough moisture so that vines rarely need to be irrigated. “This is really nice soil to farm,” says Mansfield of its mix of Aiken clay loam, volcanic debris and traces of granite. “It has a high water-holding capacity, but at the same time it’s well-drained. That allows the vine to carry its crop load without any stress during the (growing) season,” he notes.

And at 2,850 feet above the American River, the vineyard is caressed by gentle, steady breezes cooling grapes and helping them dry out after rain.

Also contributing to the vineyard’s stature is Mansfield’s labor-intensive cultural practices, which involve such painstaking tasks as multiple pruning and crop-thinning.

Mansfield’s relationship with Al Fenaughty began in the 1970s. They met over a mutual interest totally unrelated to farming – harness racing. Fenaughty, who was making good money in electrical engineering in Southern California, raced horses at tracks in the Bay Area, where a former roommate of Mansfield’s at UC Davis was a trainer.

“He said he’d always loved the Gold Country, and that he hoped to buy a place and retire up here some day. He asked that if I saw a piece of land that might interest him to let him know. In 1979 I found this piece of property, and he bought it,” Mansfield says.

That wasn’t long after Mansfield, who had grown up in a Bakersfield farm family that grew alfalfa, cotton and grains, had hung out his shingle on Apple Hill as a consultant and custom farmer. A few years earlier he’d graduated from UC Davis with a degree in renewable resources.

The plan Mansfield drew up for the Fenaughty site included a couple of acres of eight experimental grape varieties, ranging from increasingly popular chardonnay to the obscure Russian variety rkatsiteli. “We were really reaching,” Mansfield laughs.

Berkeley winemaker Steve Edmunds, however, tasted some of the syrah Mansfield had cultivated and liked it so much he urged him to concentrate on developing more plots of Rhone Valley grape varieties.

Meanwhile, Mansfield’s own taste for Rhone Valley wines was growing. In 2002, he, Edmunds and fellow El Dorado County vintner David Girard toured the Rhone Valley. “That trip gave me more confidence for growing Rhones in this area. ”

Mansfield and his son Chuck already have launched their own nascent label, Four Fields, and plan to build a winery within the next couple of years. Chuck Mansfield is the winemaker at Hop Kiln Winery in Sonoma County. Ron’s wife, Carolyn, and daughter Amanda are also involved in the winery.

Al Fenaughty, meanwhile, never retired and moved to the Mother Lode. Now an octogenarian still active in the high-tech trade, he divides his time between homes in Palm Desert and Guadalajara.