On these trip visiting 3-4 wineries a day and dining with another 2-3-4 winemakers at night, I’ve always looked for a good story to tell. Now I admit many of these stories have been told before, but some are not well known and a few go untold.

Thursday’s three winery visits in Mendocino County, California, gave me 3-4 great story ideas. It’s going to be fun sorting out the options.

Is the best story the iconic wine name you all know, the young hispanic winemaker, the fourth generation Italian woman carrying on the family tradition, or the most iconic name in organic wines?

The old editor in me says that’s not a bad list of options.

I generally don’t write in narrative or chronologically, but lets do it from the top down. When I’m out traveling, I consider this more of a journal.

Our day began a Jeriko wines just south of Ukiah. The name Jeriko probably doesn’t mean anything to you but if I said the owner/winemaker was Danny Fetzer would that help? Yes, THAT Fetzer.

The Fetzer name is widely known. When they started making wine they exploded from 40,000 cases to more than a million in what may have seemed like no time at all. The family sold the iconic brand in 1992 to Brown-Forman. The Fetzer children, including Danny, had a non-compete clause for 8 years. So Danny finally started his label Jeriko with his first vintage of 2000.

Danny was a gracious host in his beautiful tasting room. We started with two sparkling wines.His 2005 Brut Rose ($48.95) wss dynamite bubbly made from Pinot Noir. We tasted his Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sangiovese, and Cabernet. Then we tasted barrell samples of Grenache and Pinot from the 2010 vintage. There is no better wine education than tasting through a wine lineup with the man or woman who made the wines.

See additional photos from our visit to Jeriko Vineyards.

Next was just one of the greatest wine experiences I’ve had with a visit to Testa Vineyards. Making a very long story short, Maria and Rusty Martinson are fourth generation wine maker producing old style wines on property first settled by Maria’s great grandfather in 1912.

They make the wines much as grandfather Gaetano did calling the red “Black” and the white wine “White.” The tasting room, if you will, is an old barn with a 1959 pickup and antique tools Maria’s grandfather once used.

All of the family turned out with Mom making gnocchi for lunch, aunts pouring wine, and children helping with the chores. It was a one-of-a-kind experience no million dollar Napa tasting room could ever duplicate.

I had the Black with lunch a blend of Cabernet, Petit Syrah, and Carignan. It was a very nicely balanced wine that paired perfectly with lunch.

Maria gave us a full tour of the guest house and the old cellar where her family started making wines. Maria is the winemaker working with nearby Parducci Vineyards. Her husband Rusty has a construction business but works the vineyards. They have two daughters in college and two teenage boys at home. Charlie, a 17-yeard old high school senior, said he hopes to become a fifth generation winemaker.

See more photos from our Testa Vineyards’ visit.

We made our last winery stop of the day deep in the countryside at Frey Vineyards – the first organic winery in the country and the maker of the first certified biodynamic wines in the U.S. Katrina Frey, married to one of 12 children, walked us around the property with nephew Daniel. The story is almost lore in this region. Doctors Paul and Beba Frey moved to the Redwood Valley in 1960. They planted grapes late in the 60s.

They use the Farmers Almanac, a wide array of farm animals and no sulfite to cultivate the family wines and traditions. They own nearly 1,000 acres but only farm about 150. Nine of Don and Beba’s children live on the property today. We met Beba very briefly during the tour. She made cookies for the visiting wine writers with wheat grown on the farm and still answers phones in the morning.

Frey is one of the area’s biggest producers with 82,000 cases last year. The wines are distributed all across the U.S. and are big in many portions of Europe, mostly Scandinavia.

We tasted the value priced wines and they are different. The Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Cabernet all are priced $10-$20. Without sulfites, Katrina recommends the whites be consumed within six months of bottling and the reds 5-8 years. They are lighter and different than traditionally produced wines.

They don’t get many visitors deep in the valley and it’s a very different experience than any other winery visit. But the Freys are icons who have earned their industry status with family-owned and operated farming for nearly a half century.

Thursday night’s dinner was again over-the-top great. We dined at Branches in Ukiah with Guinness McFadden, McFadden Wines, and Cesar Toxquil who makes wines under his name.

Our menu: Filet Mignon pizza and spring rolls for appetizers; house salad with a tart citrus dressing; a choice of veal, prime rib or chicken for dinner. I had the Mesquite grilled porterhouse veal chop with garlic braised Blue Lake green beans, roasted Yukon potatoes, Jack Daniels glaze. Dessert was a decadent flourless chocolate cake.

I’ll be walking back to Indiana, skipping the flight I think.

The wines were some of the best of the trip thus far. McFadden’s Riesling and Pinot Gris were incredibly well blanced with a richness I normally associate with bigger Chardonnays.

Both winemakers poured Zinfandel and both were some of the best food Zins I’ve ever enjoyed. For me, one of the biggest highlights of trip was Toxqui’s Heirloom 2 – a blend of Merlot, Cabernet, Zin, and here’s the surprise – Pinot Noir. I liked it a lot. Cesar’s wine ranged from $18-$24. He has a great story. He is also working as a winemaker with Danny Fetzer.

We have even more winery visits lined up for today, Friday. We end up tonight in Mendocino for the Wine and Crab Festival and will spend the next two nights on the coast. Will try to get the daily roundup online tonight instead of the next morning.

I have a lot more material and some great photos. I’ll be adding more to the blog when I return next week. (NOTE: I’ll add live links to all the wineries and restaurant later today or this evening!)

You think consuming all this great food and selection of wines is easy?

Ok, don’t answer that!

Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com