America’s Wine Regions: Mainly Mendocino

The American wine scene is incredibly deep and wide. There are thousands of wineries (more than 11,000 in 2023, according to Wine Business Monthly) producing tens of thousands of different wines with prices ranging from two bucks to several hundred dollars.  Wine is produced in every state and the District of Columbia, too.

Spoiled for Choice

This explosion of American wine is noteworthy for many reasons, especially in the context of history. Don’t forget that commercial sales of wine were illegal during Prohibition and are still heavily taxed,  regulated, and often discouraged in many parts of the country.

The widespread production of wine is also challenged by what the economist Robert H. Frank called The Winner-Take-All Society in his book of the same name. When consumers have a choice (and wine consumers have an incredible abundance of choice), it is natural for them to begin to look for the best choice and to focus on that once it is identified. (Wine critic numerical scores reinforce this process, of course). Add in the band-wagon effect as transmitted through the internet (think Yelp rankings of winery visits) and pretty sonon attention is firmly focused on a relatively small number of favorites with most of the rest left behind.

It was easy to see the Winner-Take-All effect when Frank’s book was published in 1995. It is easy to see it now, too, and it represents one of several powerful forces for consolidation in the wine industry. There may be more than 11,000 wineries all across America, but most of the wine is made by a small number of large wineries in California. The winner doesn’t take it all in terms of market share, but lots of smaller wineries struggle a bit for market traction and attention.

Think Local. Drink Local.

Sue and I try to seek out local wine producers when we travel and we are fascinated by what we discover. A recent Wine Economist column on Arizona Wine Revisited has inspired us to highlight Mendocino County, California. It isn’t a new wine region — quite the opposite! But, sitting just north of the bright lights shining on the Napa and Sonoma valleys, Mendocino has suffered from the downside of the winner-take-all situation.

Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy summed up one part of the Mendocino story in their 2013 book on American Wine. 

Only in the last two decades has Mendocino County won acclaim for its wines; previously it was known for selling its grapes outside the county. In the early 1900s Mendocino didn’t have railroads or river systems with which to deliver finished wines to San Francisco, where they could be sold. So growers transported their fruit by wagon to the Italian Swiss Colony co-op in Asti (Sonoma County), where they were ” lost” in large, inexpensive blends. … Those discouraging days are finally over.

Some of those early Italian Swiss Colony wines cited Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino (great billing!) as the source of the grapes. But that, I think, was before the advent of American Viticultural Areas and their regulations. Soon these wines were designated “California” and Mendocino sort of fell off both the label and the consumer radar. The wine wars became brand wars and brand Mendocino struggled.

But, as American Wine notes, Mendocino is back. Although lots of Mendo grapes are still “exported” to other parts of California to make popular wines, home-grown producers are getting recognition, too.

Sue and I sampled wines from three Mendocino producers during a pair of “Mendocino weeks” at our house: Husch Vineyards, Graziano Family of Wines, and Ettore Winery. Although this only scratches the surface of Mendocino wine, these wines show some of the many faces of the region.

Both Sides Now: Husch Vineyards.

Husch Vineyards dates from 1968 and became the first bonded winery in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley in 1971. The Oswald family purchased the operation in 1979 and it has stayed in the family ever since.

Husch wines show two distinctly different faces of Mendocino County. The Anderson Valley’s cooler climate yields elegant Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and a Dry Gewurtztraminer with a loyal following. Warmer inland vineyards produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Old Vine Zinfandel, and Chenin Blanc grapes among others.

The wines are impressive, but the Dry Gewurtztraminer, off-dry Chenin Blanc, and Old Vines Heritage red wine blend of Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, and Carignane from the historic Garzini Ranch vineyard, are special favorites. We are fans.

All in the Family: Graziano Family of Wines

If Husch Vineyards is old by contemporary California standards, Graziano, founded in 1918, is positively historic and makes a point to honor its history in its wines. After 70 years as  growers, Greg Graziano started making wine, too, in 1988. I think he realized his grapes were too good to let them disappear into other wineries’ big vats. The wine family today includes four labels: Saint Gregory, Monte Volpe, Enotria, and Graziano.

The Saint Gregory wines exploit cooler vineyard sites and include Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The Graziano wines, on the other hand, highlight the old vines planted by the family in warmer spots, including the California classic trinity of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Carignane, plus a lovely Chenin Blanc.

The Monte Volpe and Enotria labels honor the family’s Italian heritage with wines made from traditional Italian grape varieties such as Sangiovese, Vermentino, Negroamaro, and Aglianico (Monte Volpe) and Arneis, Dolcetto, and Barbera (Enotria).

Obviously, the wines are very different from one another, but they share a certain undeniable family resemblance that I characterize as “Italian sensibility.” What do I mean by that? Well, Italian wines are just different, with their lifted acidity and the way they call for food to pair with them. Greg Graziano is the dean of Mendocino winemakers and I think the winery and its distinctive sensibility is likely to stay “all in the family” for decades to come.

Fresh Faces: The Ettore Winery

Mendocino continues to attract and inspire winemakers. Ettore Biraghi is one of the fresh faces on the scene. Born in Lombardy, Ettore began his winemaking career in the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino. He owns, with business partner Franco Bruni, Tenuta Agricola Luigina winery in Stabio, Switzerland. Ettore visited California in 2015 to learn about its vineyard regions and discovered Mendocino. His winery opened in 2019 and the first organic wines were released a year later.

We have tasted two of Ettore’s wines. The Cabernet Sauvignon, from Sanel Valley Vineyards vines of 21 to 29 years of age, would compete very well in a lineup with Napa Valley Cabs of twice the price (Mendocino wines in general are very good value  for quality). We also sampled the Chardonnay “Zero,” which is made without added sulfites using a process called “Purovino.” I thought it was a bit weird and didn’t much remind me of Chardonnay, but Sue thought it was interesting. More research required.

Mendocino has a long history and, I think, a bright future. As noted above, we have just scratched the surface, but it is a start and we encourage you to pick up where we left off.

Watch for a series of occasional columns about America’s wine regions. Colorado and Michigan are next on our agenda.

One response

  1. After spending most of my career in Washington state, I’m now making wines in Mendocino county, the Anderson Valley specifically. I agree that it’s an incredibly underrated region.

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