Dunne on Wine

Mendocino Wine Co. saves water, earns raves

Tim Thornhill sits near clear water that flows into a reclamation pond on his Mendocino-vineyard property. For its clean-up efforts, the company has won two Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Awards and this summer was nominated for a third.
Tim Thornhill sits near clear water that flows into a reclamation pond on his Mendocino-vineyard property. For its clean-up efforts, the company has won two Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Awards and this summer was nominated for a third. Courtesy Mendocino Wine Co.

In his first career, Tim Thornhill stuck about 4,000 tensiometers – instruments that measure soil moisture and thereby help regulate irrigation – into the earth as he developed botanical gardens around the country.

“I was a glorified landscaper,” Thornhill says of his work, much of which involved monumental projects for Disney theme parks.

In his second career as an owner of Mendocino Wine Co. at Ukiah, Thornhill continues to groom landscapes. But instead of moving mature oak trees that weigh hundreds of tons, as he did for Disney’s Dixie Landings Resort at Orlando, he’s tending thousands of vines undulating in tidy rows across the Mendocino County hills.

“I knew how to grow trees,” he says. “A vineyard is 1,000 trees to the acre, that’s all.”

He’s planted tensiometers there, too, about 40 of them, amid 200 acres of vines. He also is using porometers, a tool to measure moisture in vines to help determine when they should be watered.

For taking advantage of all these gauges, Thornhill figures he, his brother Tom and their families have cut annual use of water in their vineyard by 30 percent, or 30 million gallons, since they bought the property in 2004. That savings was realized even as Mendocino Wine Co. doubled production to around 250,000 cases.

“The result is better balanced vines,” says Thornhill, confident that better balanced vines mean better balanced wines. The company’s principal brand is Parducci Wine Cellars, the label most closely identified with the site, dating to 1932.

The Thornhills also calculate that they have reduced water use in the winery itself by 20 percent, or 1.5 million gallons annually.

Tensiometers are just part of the story, and not even the chapter that most tickles Tim Thornhill. He also likes water meters. Instead of the single meter the winery relied on in 2004, he’s installed 22 others, placed to better gauge use by task and to more quickly pinpoint leaks.

But if he likes water meters, Thornhill positively loves his four “trickle towers.” Constructed of barrel racks and other repurposed equipment from the winery, the towers stagger downhill from two huge settling tanks near the winery to a reclamation pond alongside a vineyard. “They’re Rube Goldberg-type things,” Thornhill says.

As water gurgles through the towers, which range from 12 feet to 18 feet tall, filamentous fungi develop on the slats, helping eradicate pollutants that formerly stained the pond purple, destroyed its habitat and raised such a stench that motorists on nearby Highway 101 complained. “Nothing lived in it; it was septic,” Thornhill says.

At and about the pond, Thornhill drew inspiration from Rocky Mountain waterfalls and the Everglades to rig up a largely gravity-fed system of recirculation that further cleans the contents and adds oxygen. He’s keen on calling the network a “living green dialysis machine.”

Today, the pond is a model of environmental restoration. Cattails so tall they look as if they would be more at home in Fantasyland sway from the pond, also bright with mosquito fern and duckweed. Bullfrogs, turtles and fish have returned, along with so many kinds of egrets, herons, owls and the like that the pond and wetlands are a popular destination for birders.

Paul Dolan, a seasoned Mendocino County winemaker with his own environmental credentials, says of the restoration: “That’s a pretty cool environmental design.”

Dolan had teamed with the Thornhills when they bought the winery, but two years ago the parties had an acrimonious fallout that only recently was resolved. Nevertheless, Dolan speaks admiringly of the pond cleanup. “Conceptually, that was his thing. It really was his creation,” he says.

For its cleanup efforts, Mendocino Wine Co., the nation’s first carbon-neutral winery, has won two Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Awards and this summer was nominated for a third.

“Treated wastewater is reused on the vineyards and results in a measured water savings of 5 million gallons per year,” says engineering geologist Scott Gergus of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in the latest letter of nomination. “The wastewater treatment and storage pond area has National Wildlife Federation Habitat Certification and the wetland habitat is used by the local Audubon Society for its annual bird count.”

He adds: “As of June 18 of this drought year, Parducci Wine Cellars has saved 1,200,000 gallons of water as compared to previous years. Prior to the purchase of Parducci Wine Cellars in 2004, the winery wastewater pond contained putrid, black, anaerobic wastewater that could not be reused.”

For Thornhill, the vineyard and winery also represent something of a human restoration project. Stymied by attention-deficit disorder and “reading issues,” he dropped out of school at 13. “The 10th grade would have been a waste of everyone’s time,” Thornhill says.

At 16, he bought a truck and started a landscaping business. Before long, he was specializing in the development of large botanical gardens using indigenous plants. He was in demand, traveling widely and often. As he looked toward retirement, he began to mull what he could do to reestablish ties with his family. “For 35 years, I’d only see them once or twice a year, when someone died or got married,” Thornhill says.

“I used to build fantasies for other people. I asked myself, ‘What would my fantasy look like?’ It was the whole family having dinner together,” Thornhill says.

With the same gumption that had earned him a reputation as the go-to guy for seemingly impossible massive tree relocations, he started to work on his dream, first by searching the globe for a place and a pursuit that could draw in other family members.

The Mendocino County wine trade was his answer. His brother Tom, a financial planner, signed on right away. His parents, happily at home in Houston, were a more challenging sell. “They laughed. My mother said, ‘That’s sweet, honey, but we’ve always lived in Houston.’”

Thornhill, however, is a man who constantly spouts aphorisms – “In God we trust; all others are to bring data”; “There is a way, you just have to have the budget” – but the one he seems to repeat the most is, “I don't believe in can’t.”

Today, 24 family members, including his parents, live in Mendocino County or within 90 minutes of the winery. Six of them work for the winery. “That’s if we don’t count my 2-year-old grandson (Pierce), who likes to use the remote control for the hoist that dumps bins of grapes during harvest,” Thornhill says.

Give him time, and Piece likely will be pounding tensiometers in the vineyard, reading water meters and running tests on the clarity of the reclamation pond.

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 mikedunne@winegigs.com.

Parducci wines

The late John Parducci, the longtime winemaker at Parducci Wine Cellars, was adventurous and inventive, being among the early vintners in the state to release vintage-dated and appellation-designated wines. But he was most recognized for making representative and graceful wines at readily accessible prices.

That’s a legacy that continues under the direction of Bob Swain, Parducci’s winemaker since 1997. By and large, his wines are carefully measured, easily approachable, true to type and reserved in the exploitation of oak that John Parducci was so quick to criticize as an outspoken judge on the wine-competition circuit.

From a recent tasting with Swain, these were my favorites:

▪ Parducci 2011 Mendocino County “True Grit” Petite Sirah ($29): Just about the most expensive wine in the Parducci lineup, but still a bargain for its forthright fruity and floral aromas and the liberal expression of black pepper on its berry flavors. Though from a difficult vintage, this is about as complete a petite sirah as you likely are to find, a brawny yet refined extension of the clarity that Parducci long has been recognized for seizing in the varietal.

▪ Parducci 2012 Mendocino County “Small Lot Blend” Chardonnay ($13): Bob Swain eschewed malolactic fermentation in making this gorgeous and mannerly take on chardonnay, thereby retaining zingy acidity to offset the plush tropical, apple and pear fruit to distinguish its flavor.

▪ Parducci 2012 California “Small Lot Blend” Pinot Noir ($14): Suspend the usual wariness of inexpensive California pinot noir . Nearly two-thirds of the grapes that went into the wine were grown in Mendocino County, and that foundation comes through in its sunny cherry scent and flavor, supple texture and snazzy acidity. It’s a starter pinot noir, all right, but with more character and complexity than usual in this price category.

▪ Parducci 2011 Mendocino County “Small Lot Blend” Merlot ($13): Under Bob Swain’s stewardship, merlot, even from a risky vintage, is no throw-away varietal. To pump it up, he blended in small portions of cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah, enhancing its bright ruby color without distracting from the varietal’s traditionally plummy fruit. If you order merlot on American Airlines, this is the one you are likely to get.

▪ Parducci 2010 Mendocino County “True Grit” Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($30): Swain’s first cabernet sauvignon to bear the high-end “True Grit” designation, the wine is lean, clean and sharp, carrying with rare symmetry and spunk both herbal notes of eucalyptus and fruit notes of cranberries. It was made with grapes grown in three areas of Mendocino County, then aged in both American and French oak barrels that give it an intriguing current of smoke.

Want to visit? The Parducci tasting room, 501 Parducci Road, Ukiah, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. (800) 362-9463; www.parducci.com

Mike Dunne