Wine Regions: April 2006 Archives

It looks to me like there are two kinds of wine regions: those that raise their hands overhead in victory or clap them in self-congratulation (Napa, sometimes Sonoma, and lately Lodi), and those that wring their hands in concern or scourge themselves (long list).

One of the hand-wringing areas that caught my attention was Mendocino County, mostly because I used to visit a lot for the scenic beauty, fly fishing, and, every now and then, wine. The lament I heard all the time was the same: “We don’t get no respect.”

It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but I finally got it clear in my mind. The growers in Mendocino did one of three things each fall: (1) ship their fruit in trucks to one of those hand-clapping, back-slapping places such as Napa or Sonoma where it got buried in a wine with a Napa or Sonoma appellation on the label, (2) sell their fruit to Fetzer, which made good mid-priced wine with Mendocino on the label, or (3) make their own wine that sold for a low price or mid-price no matter how good it was.

And no matter which route they took, they didn’t like it.

Now that Fetzer’s cutting back on production or putting more wine into brands based in Paso Robles and “California,” there’s less of option 2 for people in Mendocino to wring their hands over, which means more of options 1 and 3.

Here’s the bad news: option 1 isn’t going way anytime soon. The marketing people like to say that Napa and Sonoma have more “brand equity” than Mendocino and therefore the “highest and best use” of Mendocino’s grapes is to go into the other counties’ wines. The truth is that Napa and Sonoma have ten to twenty times as many wineries as Mendocino, those wineries have hundreds to thousands times more customers, and they therefore have an insatiable thirst for cheap, good fruit – Mendocino’s specialty.

Here’s the good news: option 3 is looking pretty darn good these days. I have recently run some benchmark, whole-appellation tastings in Mendocino County, staffed by winemakers, wine buyers, wine writers, even some of those clever marketing people. The best thing about these tastings has been the astonished, relieved looks on the judges’ faces.

WineCountry.Com Food Editor Heather Irwin attended a couple of these tastings, and didn’t hide the fact that she was expecting “a train wreck” from the latest one. (She wasn’t the only one who had that apprehension, just one of the few to cop to it. Remember, a lot of these people are hand-wringers from way back.)

But the fact is, the wines rocked.

It used to be that if you got a couple of dozen Mendocino wines together on the table, you could count on a handful that made you snicker, a handful that made you say, “Well, not bad,” and a bunch that you forgot an hour later. Sometimes the same winery would have a wine or two in all three categories. It was that random.

Not any more. One tasting I did in December had 38 Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs from 2003: no corked wines, no cooked wines, no cock-eyed wines. And a whole bunch of really sleek, elegantly powerful wines, the kind you wish you had a case of. (And which you could conceivably have a case of, because they’re not overpriced and oversubscribed yet.)

Another tasting, with 32 Yorkville Highlands wines, just a few couple week ago, included reds, whites, and rosés. Chardonnays, Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, Syrahs. Not a dud in the bunch. Just one good wine after another, including some eye-openers from rare white grapes.

They’re going to be releasing the third vintage of Mendo-only “Coro” red blends from all over the county in June, and I can tell you from crawling all over the first two vintages that these wines are not just really well made, they’re a whole ton of fun to drink.

So lately I’ve started wondering when the growers and winemakers in Mendocino are going to stop their sobbin’ and start shoutin’ out a little. They’ve got the fruit, they’ve got the wine, and they’ve still got all that scenery. (And all those rivers with all those fish!) They really need to update their attitude, and I’m feeling like it’s only a matter of time at this point.

Before they do that, though, the rest of us should drink up hearty while prices are still low and the wine’s still easy to get. Got to make the “highest and best use” of our wine-buying dollars, right?

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

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