California: Special terroir, special wines

By Ewan McDonald

Ewan McDonald finds not all good US fruit of the vine comes from Napa.

The Ceago Vinegarden, Mendocino, is a great place to spend some time. Photo / www.ceago.com
The Ceago Vinegarden, Mendocino, is a great place to spend some time. Photo / www.ceago.com

Reds, whites and green: a pretty good colour scheme for a wine-growing region. But we are not flagging Italy. This is northern California. Specifically, the county of Mendocino which, as they like to say around here, "rhymes with pinot". Noir, that is. Black gold. Set a spell ...

If you're a wine buff, and can get over Francophilia, or Kiwi chauvinism, chances are you think the Yanks' vintages and varietals start and end in the Napa Valley or its neighbour, Sonoma.

Understandable. Thanks to those being slightly closer to San Francisco and hooking up with the likes of Robert Mondavi and Francis Ford Coppola, and movies like Sideways and Bottle Shock, the impression is that's where they make wine in America. Very nice they are. Also over touristed, over priced and more than occasionally over rated.

All the above means if you live north of Santa Rosa - an undistinguished city that could pass for Hamilton except that it gave birth to Snoopy and is the gateway to the Napa and Sonoma gullies - and want to make wine, you have to accept Mendocino has a different climate and divergent terroir which gives it what marketing people like to call a point of difference.

The vintners of Mendocino County looked at the way they made their wines and styled themselves "America's greenest wine region". That doesn't mean green as in young. Prospectors from the California Gold Rush, who failed to find their fortune, planted the first vineyards on the Pacific coast in the 1850s. Seventy years later, Prohibition claimed most of the small wineries. Vines were ripped out, nut and fruit orchards planted.

In 1931, the first post-Prohibition winery was founded, others followed, steering a course towards sustainable organic production. Today, nearly 25 per cent of Mendocino's 800-plus vineyards are certified organic, following a 2004 winery-inspired campaign that saw residents vote to become the first GM-free county in the US.

It's an unusual climate: the cool Pacific fog dominates, particularly in summer. There are mountains, the vast, ancient Clear Lake and plenty of a lot of rain. This is not the California of myth: endless summers and tanning parlours.

The 61sq/km of vineyards sprout 25 varieties: big names such as cabernet franc, cab-sav, chardonnay (the biggest), gerwurtz, merlot, pinots blancs et noirs, riesling, savvy, syrah; older grapes like carignane; less familiar charbono, roussanne and California's almost native son, zinfandel.

On the shores of Clear Lake, lies Ceago, which is not a vineyard or a winery but a Vinegarden. The estate belongs to Jim Fetzer, one of 11 children of an industry founding father, and it was his share of the divvy-up.

It's in a town called Nice, which can be described as slightly smaller and no less charming than Mangakino. Driving past the welcome signs, I wonder why the Chamber of Commerce passed up being the only municipality in California that could genuinely wish visitors: "Have a Nice day."

We pass through wrought-something gates to a hacienda that is as lemon-stuccoed and terracotta-roofed and carefully architecturally placed between the lake and the hills as any multi-millionaire could wish their lifelong dream to be.

Inside, the cynicism of the last three paragraphs melts into unswerving admiration. Versailles-like mirror-image lavender gardens lead the eye to the path to the jetty where seaplanes land from Sausalito, bringing wine aficionados for tasting flights; the plants are used in oils, soaps, infusions.

Olives and walnuts, beds of artichoke, chili, capsicum, palm, herb, garlic, kiwifruit, figs ... oh, I gave up at that point ... to attract birds, bees and butterflies to gardens and vines. The small flock of sheep provide fertiliser and, in the soon-to-be-opened restaurant, mains. Grapes are hand-picked.

The acres (as they still call them in the US) have planning permission to become getaway cottages and a luxury hotel and maybe even a casino for San Francisco's elite, but the owner doesn't care for that kind of trade.

Staff enthusiastically - evangelically may be closer - explain the founding principles were handed down on tablets of compost in the Gospels According to Rudolf Steiner. Planting by the moon, fertilising by the goat's horn, harvesting by the zodiac.

I nod, smile, make small talk. I've heard this biodynamic and organic sermon before: it's what's in the glass that counts. Then I taste the 09 sauvignon blanc. The 06 Winemakers' Blend (syrah, cab-franc, cab-sav, malbec). And the 07 cab-sav. Oh, all right, just a taste of the 05 Soul of Syrah dessert wine. Holy Muscat. Steiner might have known a thing or two about kindergartens; his disciples picked up a few more things about making wine.

There is no point comparing Mendocino wines with anywhere else. For wines are the creatures of their habitat: call me a terroir affirmer.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to San Francisco up to seven times a week. Call 0800 737 000 for further
information.

Further information: Mendocino County. Click the link to find out more about Ceago Vinegarden.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a2 at 21 Sep 2014 08:06:17 Processing Time: 1099ms