The Consummate Wine Man
by Marshall Newman, February 11, 2014
John Parducci, the legendary Mendocino winemaker, died on February 4th at age 96. In a real sense, he was the name and face of Mendocino wine in the modern era, laying much of the groundwork for the wine renaissance to come, and providing reassurance and guidance along the way for those who followed in his footsteps. He was the consummate wine man and a good man, and in a fair world he would have lived forever. In a way, his long life suggests a glimmer of fairness, because while he may not have lived forever, he certainly lived a long, full life.
While Parducci Wine Cellars was headquartered north of Ukiah, John Parducci knew Anderson Valley. Indeed, he bottled the first wine to feature a local appellation: the 1969 Parducci Cellarmaster Selection Philo Cabernet Sauvignon. Parducci almost certainly purchased the grapes from Dr. Donald Edmeades and he must have been impressed with the results; only his best wines received the Cellarmaster Selection designation. I had a bottle in my cellar for several years but drank it before I began keeping detailed cellar books. My inventory notes say only, “Drank 10/76. Fully aged. Nice fruit. Excellent.” Compared to some of my notes from the era (there is no wine snob like a young wine snob), that was high praise.
Parducci — along with his brothers — helped his father build the family’s namesake winery while still in his teens and he became the winemaker in 1940. When I first became aware of him in the late 1960s, he was a winemaker much in tune with Mendocino County’s traditional wines, like Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Petite Sirah (“Pet,” as many winemakers of the era called it) and — of course — Zinfandel (“Zin,” then and now). But he also was taking Parducci Wine Cellars in new directions by making Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. It was a time of experimentation and he was one of several winemakers — among them Bob Mondavi (Robert Mondavi Winery), Louis P. Martini (Louis M. Martini), Brad Webb (Hanzell Vineyards), Richard Graff (Chalone) and Dave Bennion (Ridge Vineyards) — exploring California’s wine potential.
I first got to know John Parducci in the mid-to-late 1970s, when I interviewed him at the winery for Redwood Rancher, a now long-defunct agriculture magazine that served Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties. He was a relaxed, gregarious guy and when he realized I knew a bit about wine, he warmed to my questions and provided great — if occasionally very detailed — answers.
The interview lasted nearly two hours. Then we drove into Ukiah to have lunch. When we returned to the winery, he took me on a tour of his private cellar. It was clear his wine tastes were broad; not only was there an impressive range of California wines, many doubtless acquired in trades with other participants at wine tastings, but there also were wines from around the world, including vintage upon vintage of Port and Sauternes. Last but not least, he sent me home with a few bottles, including a special, experimental lot of Zinfandel on which he wanted detailed feedback. I can barely remember the article, but the interview was unforgettable.
I would see him at various wine events, especially after I began working in the industry. One of the last times I saw him was in the late 1980s, during a weekend visit to my parent’s summer camp near Philo with the girl I would eventually marry. We were driving through Boonville and there he was in front of the old J.T. Farrer building (which was to become a Parducci tasting room, except the plan fell through), standing on a ladder fixing an exterior light. We stopped and chatted: he was busy, but not too busy to spend a few minutes with an old friend. To this day my wife marvels that this famous and revered man in his 70s would be standing on a ladder doing electrical work for his winery. I think it speaks well of John Parducci that the fame and reverence didn’t matter but the work and the wine did. Mendocino County was lucky to have him for as long at it did.