- Mendocino County
- Anderson Valley
by Marshall Newman, January 23, 2013
This trip back to the Anderson Valley of my youth, from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, began with a review of the region’s grape and wine industry before and during my earliest days in the valley that appeared in the December 19, 2012 Anderson Valley Advertiser. Having covered the first two waves of local wine industry development, it is time to tackle the current, third wave, which commenced during my time in the Valley. I began a cellar inventory in the early 1970s (it is still in use after all these year) and so am able to augment my memories with brief notes on some of the Valley’s earliest wines.
The third wave of vineyards began in 1963 when Dr. Donald Edmeades planted the first of 23 acres on property he’d purchased three miles north of Philo. He apparently posted a sign on the highway that said “Edmeades Folly,” though I can’t recall seeing it.
He may have been right to call his vineyard folly, as one of the grape varieties he planted was Cabernet Sauvignon, which struggles to ripen in Anderson Valley’s cool climate. Fortunately, he hedged his bet by also planting Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer, grapes much better suited to the region. For the first several years, Edmeades sold his grapes to wineries outside the region. The first wine to bear an Anderson Valley identity was the 1969 Parducci Philo Cabernet Sauvignon; a special bottling produced by John Parducci — the dean of Mendocino winemakers, then and now — from Edmeades grapes. The bottle I tasted in 1978 was superb.
Edmeades Vineyards began producing wine under its own label in 1972, the same year Dr. Edmeades died and his son, Deron Edmeades, took over management. The earliest Edmeades bottles recorded in my cellar notes were 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Under Winemaker Jed Steele, Edmeades produced a range of varietal wines, some interesting blends with names like Rain Wine, Whale Wine and Opal, and a few “artist” labels.
Inspired by Ridge Vineyards, which used some of them for its “Mendocino” Zinfandel bottlings in the early 1970s, Steele sought out the remaining pre-Prohibition Zinfandel vineyards on the ridges — Ciapusci, Zeni and DuPratt-DePatie (now just DuPratt) — and produced some exceptional single-vineyard Zinfandels.
I stopped to taste at Edmeades on a regular basis in the late 1970s. Jed Steele, a bear of a man with a full beard, often poured the samples. My favorite was “Anderson Valley White,” a Chardonnay-based blend (typically with a bit of Gewurztraminer and/or Riesling) bottled under a plain label, it was a great casual wine. After Edmeades Vineyards was sold to Kendall-Jackson in the late 1980s, Steele stayed on in the KJ organization for a couple of years. He quickly became disillusioned and left. In 1991 Steele established Steele Wines in Lake County, where he continues to make fine wine today.
Tony and Gretchen Husch established Husch Vineyards on the old Nunn Ranch north of Philo — where family friend, occasional hired hand and Nunn relative Andy Rooks lived before his fatal tractor accident in 1965 — in 1968. The Oswald family, already grape growers near Ukiah, bought Husch in 1979. I think I visited the Husch tasting room only once during this era, but I must have bought a few bottles, because I have tasting notes on the 1980 Husch Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc (good stuff) and the 1980 Husch Anderson Valley Chardonnay (unimpressive). I used to see Winemaker Hugo Oswald III at various wine events in the early 1980s.
Tony Husch also planted the original Greenwood Ridge Vineyard on Signal Mountain in 1972, but soon sold it to Allan Green, who lived on the adjacent property. Green sold the grapes to other producers for a few years before establishing his winery in 1980. I remember good Rieslings from here almost from the beginning. However, the Greenwood Ridge tasting room on Highway 128 wasn’t built until the late 1980s, right about when my time in Anderson Valley dwindled to a handful of visits each year. The Greenwood Vineyards California Wine Tasting Championship (1983-2012) was a brilliant bit of marketing that I am sad to see has been discontinued.
In the early 1970s, a new vineyard and small winery — essentially a plain building with a few wood upright tanks inside — went in north of Philo across the road from Edmeades: Navarro Vineyards. On Memorial Day weekend of 1976 (funny how some dates stick in memory), a couple of friends and I stopped by for a visit. We met owners Deborah Cahn and Ted Bennett, who — lacking a tasting room — invited us up to the house to taste their first vintage. The Gewurztraminer was delicious and I took home a bottle. Unlike the current Navarro Vineyards label, with its vintage “vine, barrel and winemaker” etching, the original Navarro Vineyards label featured a central element that looked a bit like a stylized diadem, or maybe a bowl of flowers. My cellar notes also include a 1975 Navarro Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, which likely was made with purchased grapes.
Ted and Deborah proved to be savvy winemakers and savvy marketers. In wines, they focused on cool-climate varieties; Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In marketing, they first focused on restaurants — I remember Deborah telling me about lugging samples to San Francisco restaurants in the rain — and later focused on direct sales and the tasting room. In a real sense, they pioneered the marketing approach many small wineries use — with varying levels of success — today.
Anderson Valley grape growing and winemaking expanded into the eastern hills the early 1980s with the addition of Handley Cellars, which originally focused on producing Zinfandel from Alexander Valley, and Pepperwood Springs, where blind Founder/Owner/Winemaker Larry Parson created a Braille wine label before his death in a car accident in 1986.
Perhaps the most important newcomer to Anderson Valley during this era was Roederer Estate. After a long search, French Champagne house Louis Roederer purchased 500+ acres a few miles northwest of Philo in 1982. The state-of-the-art Roederer Estate winery was built (I think) in 1987. I visited Roederer Estate soon after it opened in 1988 and remember looking at the huge case storage area, which was perhaps 10% full at the time. I was impressed by the ambition it represented, an ambition since realized in Roederer Estate’s success.
Much has happened in Anderson Valley’s wine industry after I went from Valley resident (full or part-time) to occasional visitor in the late 1980s. Some of it is good, like the growing reputation of the region’s wines. Some of it is bad, like the usurping of water needed to keep the region’s creeks and river viable. All of it will influence life in Anderson Valley for decades to come.
I end my look back on Anderson Valley grapes and wine on an ironic note. For 25 years, my primary vocation has been writing public relations, marketing and other materials for the wine industry. Over that time, I have written hundreds of press releases, piles of back labels, several petitions to establish American Viticultural Areas, plenty of web content, a handful of newsletters and lots of other material. My clients include wine producers — both major and minor — throughout the state. Ironically, with the exception of a few Edmeades back labels written for Kendall-Jackson, I have never had a winery client in Anderson Valley, the place where I (mostly) grew up. Go figure!