Mendocino, Calif. – Our traveling group of wine journalists started Thursday on a 2,000-acre ranch in the Ukiah Valley, made its way through the Anderson Valley, and ended the day eating fresh Dungeness crab.

Yes, they treat us well. And I haven’t even got to the view outside the window 8 feet from where I’m writing this Friday morning! Well, that would be the view in the photo above!

One thing that has made a big impression in the two full days of winery visits is how seriously these producers take caring for the land. Many of the vineyards represent only a small fraction of the total ranch property owned by these family wine operations.

Nelson Family Vineyards was our first stop and such an operation. Chris Nelson gave us a tour of the property and talked about how his parents moved up to Mendocino County from Silicon Valley. The ranch is 2,000 acres but just 168 are planted in vineyard. They also raise cattle; grow strawberries, pears, Christmas trees and pears. Only 300 acres of the ranch are farmed at all.

One thing that is so much fun and educational is going out onto the property with the winemaker and learning the farm to glass process. We tasted the Nelson Riesling (light, mild fruit, and perfect for food) and Cabernet Sauvignon right in the vineyard where the grapes are grown.

We tasted nearly the full line of Nelson wines which were nicely balanced. His white wines were beautiful, the reds a touch light for my taste but still well made. He has a couple of nice – and not over the top – dessert wines including an Orange Muscat. The family originally planted the Orange Muscat grapes at the request of Napa icon Robert Mondavi.

Our mid-day stop was at Maple Creek Winery and very fun visit with vintner and artist Tom Rodrigues. Tom is a noted artist and talented winemaker. His most recent estate Chardonnay is one of his signature wines. His efforts win critical praise at 90-plus points from major wine magazines. The 180-acre ranch is breathtaking from Tom’s home atop the property’s highest point. The land features wild boar and edible mushrooms.

Tom treated us to lunch with a four-mushroom soup, wild boar sandwich with wine reduction, and a dessert of candy cap mushroom cake that tasted like maple.

The Artevino – combining art and wine – Chardonnays were the best in two days of tasting. Tom also makes a white from a grape called Symphony. The hybrid grape was developed in 1963 as a cross between Muscat and Grenache Gris. It was very floral and might remind many wine drinkers of a Gewurz.

Tom’s wit plays out in his wine labels, which he also designs for several other wineries, and in his wines. Let’s say he likes cowboys and baseball. I enjoyed his floral Bucking Blanco white with Symphony, Chardonnay , and Flora much more than the 100 percent Symphony. I’ll definitely get to add a couple new grapes to my “grape list” after this trip.

Just a note on Tom’s art besides wine labels, you’ve probably seen his work. Still an amateur baseball player at 57 years old, his painting of Negro League star Cool Papa Bell hangs in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Moving closer to the coast, our next stop in Anderson Valley was Toulouse Vineyards – known for its popular and award winning Pinot Noirs. Owner and winemaker Vern Boltz talked us through the tasting and explained how he used small amounts of Pinot that had alcohol levels extracted to lower overall alcohol content in his wines.

We jumped aboard a couple of small four-wheel farm “scooters” and toured the scenic property. One of our first stops was a 1,500-year-old Redwood and then the beautiful farm pond that helps frame the hillside vineyards.

Vern is clearly a fun guy, greeting nearly every customer that entered the tasting room while we were there.

The best wine to my palate was a gorgeous Pinot Noir Rose that was rich with Pinot flavor and not just the usual strawberry hints.

Friday was also our busiest day with a final stop and Claudia Springs Winery. Bob and Claudia Klindtfounded the winery in 1989 and make 2,000-2,500 cases annually. Their Zinfandel has won consistent honors.

There story is so compelling because both were social workers before and after moving to the Anderson Valley. Eventually, they were able to turn their focus to winemaking.

“I grew up in Montana,” Bob said, “and in Montana only sissies drank wine.”
They moved to the area in 1994 after driving up on weekends for five years. They are deeply invested in sourcing local grapes and trying new things. Brother Jim Klindt joined the operation and manages their vineyard.

Bob said Zinfandel had always been a favorite wine but learned quickly he needed to make Pinot Noir. We barrel tasted his latest Pinot and Zin before going up to the tasting room. Both were gorgeous and full flavored wine.

The day was capped with our arrival on the coast and joining the Fort Bragg crab feed at 8 p.m. It’s a west coast tradition of salad, hard bread and cioppino – or for the land-locked, fish stew. Bibs, booze, and heaping pots of spicy broth and fresh dungeons crab isn’t a bad way to end a long day.

(Photo: Part of our group chowing down on fresh crab!)

Today we start off with a visit to Pacific Star Winery which overlooks the Pacific. Then we head back down to Fort Bragg for more crab. Tonight we dine in the private residence at the owners of Barra Winery – again overlooking the ocean. Sunday it’s a long trip home.

Again, these blog posts are more of a journal while on the road. I’ll write more about the wines and about visiting the area in future posts. Also, I’ll be adding a bunch of photos!

Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com

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