What’s true of this whole county is also true of Mendocino County’s Legendary Zinfandel Vineyards, which are largely off the beaten path. It is particularly true with the historic high-elevation sites that are at the Ciapusci, Gianoli, Perli and Zeni ranches off Fish Rock Road, which runs along the windy, timber-laden ridge that separates the scenic route from the Yorkville Highlands and Anderson Valley appellations, from the Pacific Ocean in the southwest corner of the county. The same can be said about the Talmage Bench, a series of special vineyards planted in the early 20thCentury that are located in the warmer inland area, east of Ukiah. Here are profiles of some of these unique sites and passionate people preserving the legacy of these vines for the future.
Nicknamed “Islands in the Sky®” for the small collection of 18 cool-climate vineyards, hidden up at 1200 feet or higher and only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean: The Mendocino Ridge is the only non-contiguous appellation in America and one of the original testing grounds for working with Zinfandel vines planted in cool-climate conditions in the late 1800s at the Ciapusci, Gianoli, Perli and Zeni ranches.
After the original vines were established by the Italian immigrants, some of these pioneer families earned a reputation for crafting bootleg wines and brandies during Prohibition. To keep this legacy alive during tough times, the families raised sheep cows, grew fruit trees, chestnuts and Christmas trees, and sold timber from these properties until the renaissance of the wine industry occurred in the 1970s. The preservation of these mature vines paid off when the natural intensity and distinctive flavor profiles of fruit from the old vines was captured in a series of separate bottlings that were made by the Philo-based Edmeades Winery, one of the pioneer brands of Anderson Valley, started by Dr. Donald Edmeades and his family in 1972. The success of these wines inspired a new wave of vineyards planted in the 1980s and 90s, and laid the foundation for Mendocino Ridge to become its own appellation in 1997.
Defining Terroir: At a minimum 1,200 feet: the temperature is cooler during the day and warmer at night, which often results in a 10-degree difference from the conditions on the valley floor. These cool, sun-kissed locations above the fog line result in high levels of natural acidity, with plenty of time for each cluster to develop complex flavors before being harvested in October or early November. The well-drained “timber” soils are a mixture of sandstone mixed with loamy clay, fractured rocks, and earthy tones created by integration of leaves and needles from the surrounding forest. This remote location protected the original vines from the spread of phylloxera grape virus, which decimated California vineyards in the 1890s. With annual rainfall averaging above 50 inches, most of the Zinfandel vines are dry-farmed and own-rooted. At last check, there were 209 acres planted, including some of the older plantings in Mendocino County.
Located at 2,000 feet and nine miles from the ocean, the Perli Vineyards is one of the most unique sites on the ridge. Before proprietor Steve Alden began developing the current vineyard in 1994, the original vines were planted by Santo and Rosie Perli before the turn of last century and the property is also home to the ruins of the original homestead built by the Zeni family before they relocated down the road. “Our goal is to capture the character of the vines and a true sense of place,” says Alden, who crafts a special vineyard designate with fruit from the estate for his family’s Murder Ridge label.
At 2,600 feet, the Mariah Vineyards is the highest site in the AVA and home to 14 acres of prolific Zinfandel vines. ““The coolest of the hot areas is what we were looking for. No guts, no glory,” laughs proprietor Dan Dooling, who purchased this spectacular site with his wife Vicki in 1978 and planted the first vines in 1981. After selling the grapes to Edmeades, the Doolings joined forces with Paul Dolan of Fetzer and Brown-Forman to establish the Mariah brand in 1991. Packaged in a stunning etched label and priced at $50 per bottle, this became the first high-end Zinfandel that raised the bar for Mendocino County. After buying the brand back and selling the wine in small allotments of the annual release to top restaurants like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and online, Dooling sells most of the other grapes to Seghesio Family Vineyards, which bottles a limited-release from the site each year.
Perched at 1,600 feet on the south-west facing side of the slope, the first vines at the legendary DuPratt Vineyard were planted in 1916. After catching critical acclaim as part of the Edmeades single-vineyard program in the 1990s, the majority of the fruit is now sold to Mike Officer of Carlisle Winery. On a larger scale, the popular DuPratt heritage clone was developed at the UC Davis vineyard.
As the winemaker at Greenwood Ridge and Edmeades before starting the Anderson Valley-based Witching Stick brand he co-owns with his wife Anne Faushauer, Van Williamson is a seasoned veteran who has worked with fruit from the finest Zinfandel vineyards on the ridge since 1988. For that reason, he appreciates the bright, ripe and vibrant wild berry-driven characteristics that shine in the wine he makes exclusively with fruit grown at the family’s estate property down the road from DuPratt. “At 1,300 feet, this vineyard gets a perfect balance of sun, fog, and airflow due to its close proximity to the coast. So, when you compare the deep and warm notes of dark fruits, floral aromas and earthy spices you get from the Perli Vineyard and other higher-elevation sites, there is more red fruit and savory notes in ours. With that being said, both wines share the traits of cool-climate conditioning, low yields, and true mountain character in each sip,” says Williamson.
Located along Mills Creek Road, a couple miles east of downtown Ukiah, the Talmage Bench is home to a large concentration of Zinfandel vines planted by Italian immigrants in the early part of the 20thCentury. After 1906, most of the grapes were used to make jug wines or sold to large-scale producers like Italian Swiss Colony, Christian Brothers, Louis M. Martini, Robert Mondavi, Wente Bros. and the Ukiah-based Parducci Winery started in 1932. But that has changed considerably since then thanks to the new emphasis on growing high-quality grapes that are used by local artisan wineries or sold to ultra-premium producers outside the area.
Defining Terroir:Rising from the eastern shores of the Russian River to 2,000 feet on the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains, the soil profile is a mixture of gravely clay loam at the base and more compacted sandy soils with the perfect balance of low magnesium and rich calcium deposits at the higher elevations. Warm and sunny until the mid-afternoon, the daily temperature is balanced with maritime breezes blowing in from the northwest in the late afternoon. This natural transition allows the clusters to preserve fresh flavors, bright acidity, and layers of spice leading up to harvest.
Owned and farmed by Lorenzo Pacini, the heritage of this legendary vineyard dates back to 1910. In the modern era, the Pacini family sold the higher segment of the property to Jed Steele, who helped lift the recognition of this historic site by bottling the wine separately, under his eponymous label. After buying the property back, Lorenzo’s organic farming approach, attention to detail, and the development of the unique Pacini clone of Zinfandel has been magnified by his family’s partnership with the Historic Vineyard Society (HVS), a grassroots organization focused on preserving the legacy of old vines and the integrity of wines made with fruit from these historic vineyards. This commitment to quality has paid off with an impressive list of wineries that now buy fruit from this unique property, including Steele, WALT/BACA Wines, Von Strasser, and Bedrock Wine Company.
As a third-generation member of one of the most famous winemaking families of Mendocino County, Rich Parducci’s love for the Zinfandel grape has resulted in the development of a special series of wines he makes at McNab Ridge Cellars. The higher-end category is the limited bottling from the Conaniah Vineyards, which is crafted exclusively with high-quality fruit from a two-acre parcel at the Berry Family’s historic “Cherry Tree Block”: It features the rare Jim Lighter clone from UC Davis planted in the early 1980’s, at 750 feet on the eastern foothills. On the palate, the fresh flavors of blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry and bittersweet chocolate are energized with vibrant acidity. “People behind the vines. That’s what it’s all about,” says Parducci.
When Husch Vineyards owner Zac Robinson purchased Garzini Vineyard in 2012, their bright future involved rejuvenating the past. The first question was to unravel that rich history, research suggests the Zinfandel vines were planted in the 1930s-1940s. To preserve that legacy, cuttings from the old vines were grafted onto classic St. George rootstock. Before, Husch was best known for Pinot Noir made in Andersen Valley: To create a fusion of warm and cool climate, the Husch 2018 Old Vine Zinfandel is made with estate fruit and fermented in open-top fermenters like the Pinot Noir wines. Modeled after the Coro wine, the flavorful Zinfandel notes are layered with Petite Sirah and a splash of Carignane. According to Robinson, who grew up down the road from this historic vineyard, “It is like little Italy with a Mendocino twist inside the bottle”.
About Christopher Sawyer: As a sommelier, journalist, consultant, wine critic and public speaker, Chris has traveled the world following fresh trends in wine and participating as a judge in international wine competitions. He invites you to join him on the adventure at sawyersomm.com.