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California’s Wildest Appellation

California’s Wildest Appellation

Bears, murderers, and endless switchbacks won’t stop producers from making amazing wines on the Mendocino Ridge

Mendocino Ridge | Photo Credit: Murder Ridge Winery

On a chilly afternoon in February, as clouds gathered over mountains thick with redwoods and Douglas firs, grower and winemaker Steve Alden stood at 1,700 feet and looked out over a block of Pinot Noir planted on a plateau in the northern reaches of California’s Coast Ranges and recounted the dastardly tale that inspired its name, and the name of his wine label, Murder Ridge: “In 1910, Peter Gianoli killed Joseph Cooper on this spot and stole his wine.” It wasn’t the only homicide here. Before the legalization of cannabis, workers dropped off by ruthless employers would squat on Alden’s land to cultivate weed. One had a fatal run-in with his harvest crew.

Crazy things happen on the Mendocino Ridge. The nation’s only non-contiguous appellation is wild, remote, and difficult to farm. Estates are so alpine and isolated that producers call them “islands in the sky”—a nickname actually trademarked by one Mendocino Ridge producer, Mariah Vineyards. The AVA covers a quarter-million acres, but less than 100 are planted. Alden owns 2,000 acres and farms just 30 of his own and 5.5 acres at his neighbor’s ranch. His head-trained Zinfandel is planted on a 60-degree slope. Mountain lions roam his land. Weed and mildew pressures are constant, and his grapes are a buffet for bears, boars, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, deer, and wild turkeys. 

No wonder Alden coined the term “farming in the wilderness.” It took me an hour and a half to drive 15 miles from the coast, bumping and corkscrewing along unpaved road to get to his Perli Vineyards. The journey was worth it. Wines from the Mendocino Ridge can be glorious—the whites supremely mineral; the reds a delicious balance of earth, spice, and acid. For his own wines, Alden prefers to hang the fruit longer than winemakers who buy from him. He picked his 2021 Murder Ridge Final Confession Pinot Noir at 24 Brix. It’s full of dark chocolate and unripe black plum flavors with an ashy edge, but its refreshing finish keeps you coming back for more.

This is all due to the AVA’s location. By definition, Mendocino Ridge grapes grow above 1,200 feet within 10 miles of the ocean in this eponymous northern California county. Located above the line of fog that has given the better-known Anderson Valley to the east its famed diurnal swing, Mendocino Ridge is all about its coastal influence—so much so that growers have petitioned the TTB to rename the appellation Mendocino Coast Ridge. Says Minus Tide Wines’ Brad Jonas, “The ocean moderates temperatures. It’s a long, even, cool growing season. There’s a lot of sunlight and not a lot of heat. We’re picking Chardonnay and Pinot sometimes into October.”

Brad Jonas, Miriam Jonas, and Kyle Jeffrey | Photo Credit: JJ Ignotz

Jonas sources those varieties from Manchester Ridge Vineyard, 2,000 feet up and 3.5 miles from the Pacific, where it’s usually 20 degrees cooler than in the Valley. These conditions  help bring elegance, though patient winemaking also contributes. Minus Tide’s 2021 Manchester Ridge Chardonnay  is lemon-lime lean but with a custardy mouthfeel. “A marker of Mendocino Ridge fruit is high malic acid,” Jonas explains. “It looks like it won’t make drinkable still wine, but after 13 or 14 months in neutral oak, where the malic acid converts slowly to lactic acid, you’re looking at super acidic, mineral Chardonnay that also has richness and texture.” 

Fermented naturally with 40 percent whole clusters, then aged in neutral oak, his Pinot Noir offers cherry and earth, citrus pith, and an intriguing hint of prosciutto, meaty and briny. “I always get salinity from this vineyard. That’s proximity to the ocean,” he says. Most exciting is his Syrah, especially after aging. Made with at least half whole clusters from the 1,800-foot apex of organic Valenti Vineyard, Minus Tide’s 2019 Syrah is filled with smoky spice but with a floral aroma and lithe, bright fruit. The grapes struggle to ripen; sometimes he harvests at Halloween. But that gives the phenolics time to develop. “If you like that peppery character, Valenti has it in spades,” says Jonas. It’s a wine that feels like it will age forever.  

Acid and tannins, the structural elements that come from this terroir, give the wines staying power, particularly in the Ridge’s northernmost vineyards. “Perli Pinot Noir is our softest, from the ripest area of the AVA,” Witching Stick Wines’ Van Williamson told me when I tasted with him at the home he shares with his wife Anne, who planted their adjacent 6.5-acre plot in 2000. Called Fashauer Vineyard, it climbs up an 1,800-foot-high, dry-farmed slope 35 miles north of Perli. “We’re much cooler here. Our vineyards are more tannic with more acidity,” he says, “so the Pinots are built for age.” A vertical tasting from Fashauer showed phenolics that developed from a deep cranberry in the 2019 to a mushroomy, roasted nut quality in the 2018—“It smells so much like a Jean-Jacques Confuron Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru that other winemakers thought it was French in a blind tasting,” Williamson told me—to a woodsy 2017 whose earth-and-berry taste was perfectly poised between ripe and restrained. “They get 30 percent whole cluster,” he says. “I like the way the tannin brings out the fruit.”

Mark Wentworth in his vineyard | Photo Credit: Lucille Lawrence

“Grapes here develop really thick skins, given the lengthy ripening,” says Mark Wentworth. That helps the tannin structure. He planted Wentworth Vineyards in 2015. “The redwoods were the beacons that brought me,” he says. The appellation was just seven years old. “You could go to Sonoma Coast and be one of many, or you could make your way further north, grow cool-climate varietals, and be part of the early days of the region.” He planted 8.5 acres of organic Chardonnay, Grüner Veltiner, Aligoté, and 12 clones of Pinot Noir. The parcel “has dramatic topography with a mix of aspects: south-facing, steep terrace sections, slightly north-facing, ridgetop saddle,” says Wentworth. “It’s diverse land, and I wanted the diversity of genetic material to add complexity.” 

Wentworth’s 2021 Pinot Noir comes on in bright and brooding waves, from cranberry to black raspberry to a tealike finish. To give visitors to Mendocino the chance to experience it, he is opening a tasting room in the Anderson Valley, which is more accessible by car. Though he trucks his grapes to Dry Creek in Sonoma to vinify them, he hopes to eventually build a winery on his property. But for tourism, “the remoteness is not desirable to a lot of folks.”

Indeed, none of these winemakers has a tasting room on the Ridge. The Boonville wine bar and market Disco Ranch offers Mendocino Ridge labels, like the 2021 Lussier Signal Ridge Pinot Noir, with its espresso shot finish and well-integrated oak. And Witching Stick has a tasting room in the Valley, as does Baxter Winery, where you can sip the Pinot Noir that Phillip Baxter makes from Valenti Vineyard. Its strawberry aroma belies its tannin, blood, and bramble flavor. Though he doesn’t farm, Baxter’s winery is next to Valenti, and the coastal climate aids his vinifications. He ferments his Chardonnay outside in the cool air in open-top barrels where it stays on the lees, sometimes up to nine months. “That keeps the yeast in suspension, constantly layering in riper flavors,” he says. Beneath a bristling acidity, the wine gains toasted rice notes. The grapes come from Oppenlander Vineyard in Comptche, just north of the Mendocino Ridge. With vineyards just as high and close to the ocean, the brand-new appellation has similar promise.

If you want to taste Mendocino Ridge wines on the Mendocino Ridge, you have to book an appointment with Jason and Molly Drew. In the AVA’s northwest corner, Drew Wines’ 26-acre Faîte de Mer Farm is a fairytale of verdancy, with cider apple trees, an unruly garden, and 10 acres of dry-farmed, organic Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and recently planted Gamay and Chenin Blanc, ringed in coastal redwoods, with a slim, blue view of the Pacific three miles away. I arrived in a downpour, the bare vines dripping, the cover crops a-glisten. April to November, the microclimate here is a temperate rainforest. Jason pointed to a barrel full of water. “Our rain gauge,” he joked. 

Molly and Jason Drew | Photo Credit: Leigh Ann Beverly

“When Italians moved up here in the 1800s, they were thinking, ‘We want water, so let’s go to higher elevations. We’re gonna have better drainage. We’re not going to deal with frost. We can dry farm.,” he explained. The farmers were benefitting then, as now, from plate tectonics. The Pacific Plate is subducting under the American Plate, the theory goes, and the Gorda Plate is subducting under both right around here. “That’s what’s pushing these ridges and opening channels for the maritime current that keeps conditions cool. A lot of flavor at low alcohol and sugars. That’s the defining part.”

 Weathered sandstone, basalt, chert, milk quartz, shale—“It’s all getting pulled and tugged and shoved, creating what we call the Mendocino Mélange, which is lots of different soil types.” The churn pushed up rock from the ocean floor. Among the sediments are the remains of microscopic sea creatures called radiolaria. The Drews named a fascinating Pinot Noir after it. The 2022 Faîte de Mer Radiolaria is full of forest and wild herbs, watermelon rind, baked mustard, and a hint of cumin, with a long, tobacco-leaf finish. It is savory as can be, but with vibrant, cherry–citrus peel acidity. 

“We wanted property that was close to the ocean, so we’d have texture, acidity, and energy,” says Jason about buying their piece of the Mendocino Ridge back in 2004.  “It was nerve-wracking because people told us that we were not going to ripen fruit here.”

Now, with climate change bringing disasters like the 2020 August Complex fire that caused smoke taint in Anderson Valley vineyards, Molly sees the wisdom in this decision. “We feel like we made an investment early in something that is going to be beneficial to us for the long run because the ocean moderates temperatures here,” she says.

But farming and making wine on the Mendocino Ridge has more intangible advantages, too. “There’s this intimate, authentic feel here,” says Jason. “We’re connected to the atmosphere and the cosmos and our Earth, just pulling it out and playing with it. So we feel lucky, though it’s a pain in the ass. And we get to drink the wine. So that’s a benefit.”