October 2005 Archives

Dos Rios

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So I got this email from an editor way back east asking for a story about a brand new AVA in Mendocino, called “Dos Rios.” He wanted a description of the whole area and all the wineries in it, and suggested it could be a launching point for a story about the whole county. I read and re-read the message, wondering if he was pulling my leg.

The thing is, Dos Rios is a tiny town in white-water rafting country, rugged lumberjack country, ain’t-no-one-out-here-but-us-critters country. It’s beautiful, but has got to be one of the last places in California you would put a wine region. Wineries there would be well north of any others I’ve seen in Mendocino. Or California for that matter.

But hey – if there are a bunch of winery estates somewhere that I’ve never heard of, with a shiny new appellation that captures their commonality, let me at ‘em.

An hour later, I put down the phone after a conversation with Steve DeTevis, co-owner (with his wife Carol) of Vin DeTevis: the one and only vineyard and winery in the Dos Rios appellation. Solamente uno, amigos.

I had already looked at the application that wine regions have to make to the federal bureaucracy in order to get an appellation approved, and knew that the DeTevises' names were not on it. So for my first question, I asked Steve if he was involved in the new AVA anyway.

“Oh heck no!” he laughed. “The guy who applied for Covelo [a small valley in northern Mendocino] did Dos Rios at the same time.” I asked why. Another laugh. “Beats me.”

I asked if the appellation approval was going to be a boon for Vin DeTevis. A chuckle this time. “I doubt it. We’re just up here by ourselves, having fun.” Wouldn’t a flood of visitors to his tasting room be a good thing? Another laugh. (I wish all interviewees found me so amusing.) “It’s not like we’re doing this for money!”

Turns out the Steve and Carol found a patch of paradise at the junction of the Eel River and its Middle fork, where the water moderates the temperature and the hillsides catch the afternoon sun. They grow mostly reds and some Chardonnay. They taught themselves the wine business, and do pretty much all the vineyard and winery work themselves. “We wave at the kayakers,” Steve said, “but they don’t stop in to taste. One rafting outfit did put us on its website, though.”

I felt myself falling in love. Then I went to the Vin DeTevis website (www.vindetevis.com) and looked at the wine lineup. My heart jumped up in my chest. Cabernet Sauvignon for $15. Zinfandel for $12. Chardonnay for $8. Pinot Noir for $8. Eight bucks! I challenge you to find Pinot Noir by the glass for that price!

I remembered that Steve had called the DeTevis Cabernet Franc “killer,” and I was fully prepared to believe it from someone so genuine. It was priced at $15 for the 2000 vintage, which means it probably has enough bottle age to hit Cab Franc’s late-arriving sweet spot. Next time I’m in Dos Rios (or anywhere within 20 miles of it), I’m stopping in.

So my hat’s off to that cagey, ear-to-the-rail editor way back east. Goes to show you that your next winery discovery can come from just about anywhere --- and be just about anywhere.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

The phrase “wine is made in the vineyard” is not only the emptiest cliché in the wine business, it’s also the most annoying. Why? Because it’s either dumb as rocks or a deliberate deception.

“Any winemaker who says wine is made in the vineyard is not doing their job.” I got this blast of fresh air last week, during a coffee-and-pastry-fueled conversation with Zelma Long, an icon of California winemaking since the 1970s. “If you’ve ever tasted three wines made by different winemakers from the same variety in the same vineyard in the same vintage,” she said, “you know how different the results can be.”

I have made wine from the same varieties in the same blocks of the same vineyards as commercial wineries in Napa and Sonoma, so I know what Long’s talking about from direct experience. But almost every winery website and press kit I read mouths the “made in the vineyard” pablum. It’s lost any meaning it ever had. Grown in the vineyard, yes. Made there? No way.

This is important because at long last, an unspoken agreement between winemakers and media is breaking down. That agreement hid the fact that winemakers add all kinds of things to wine in its earliest days, from water and tartaric acid to sugar, coloring agents, and powdered tannin. Winemakers still call this “night work,” because they prefer to do it when no one else is around. They want you to think that wine is – you guessed it – “made in the vineyard.”

They also use all kinds of swanky machines to inject oxygen, remove alcohol, change texture, and more. Laurie Daniel’s article “Little Wine Secrets” (8/17/05, San Jose Mercury News) and John Andrews’ “Water into Wine” (Summer 2005, Intelligent Life) are clear signs that these practices will be exposed more and more openly.

So what does this mean? It means that we should talk just as openly about what really is being made in the vineyard. Besides winegrapes, what’s being made in the vineyard is either healthier soil and richer habitat, or money at the expense of ecology. The tiny minority that grows winegrapes without synthetic or toxic substances of any kind is replenishing what the vast majority of the industry is willing to use up.

This is why I have made a point for the last five years to write about organically and biodynamically grown wines, and recommended them to anyone who will listen. It’s not because those wines are “better” than conventionally farmed wines when they’re in your glass. They’re better when they’re in the vineyards of your planet. They are good for the earth you live on. (Five years of tasting tells me that they’re also pretty darn good in the glass, but that’s my day job.)

So I urge winemakers who use clean, green fruit to junk “made in the vineyard” and put “grown in an organic vineyard” on the website, so we consumers can vote with our wine-buying dollars for two things: a little more honesty and a lot more care for the earth.

This month's naked plug: If you see a Fat Bastard, buy one. This month, every purchase of a bottle of Fat Bastard (nicely priced French wine produced by Click Wine Group) generates a donation to breast cancer research.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.