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WINE COUNTRY SPECIAL

Mendocino's time to shine

There's a joyous mood way up north, where old vines and extraordinary organic wines are flourishing.

September 27, 2006|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Hopland, Calif. — NARROW roads twist and turn alongside streams and past apple orchards, redwoods tower over everything, and you have to keep a sharp eye out for deer and wild turkeys. In Mendocino County, vineyards do not yet dominate the landscape but decorate it, scattered here and there rather than being crammed one on top of another.

This is California wine's northern frontier. Tasting rooms are uncrowded and friendly and, though mostly bare bones, the wines poured are often of astonishing quality. They are certainly of astonishing diversity. California's best sparkling wines and brandies are made here and so are Zinfandels from 50-year-old vines.

Here, it seems, in a single day's drive you can taste the entire European continent -- or at least the winemaking parts of it. Even neighboring wineries will grow drastically different grapes: It's not uncommon to find Burgundian Pinot Noir grown right next door to Apulian Negro Amaro and Californian Zinfandel. Sometimes they're even on the same property.

While California's better-known wine regions have settled into comfortable regional characters -- Napa is Bordeaux, Sonoma is Burgundy, the Central Coast is southern Rhone -- Mendocino is a joyous anarchy.

That is especially true these days as the county, which until recently served mostly as a grape-growing colony of its southern neighbors, comes into its own. Where not so long ago the name Mendocino conjured up largely undistinguished wines from giant producers, today there's a flowering of new, high-quality smaller wineries, such as Saracina, Eaglepoint Ranch, Harmonique and Lolonis. Even the big boys are making a comeback.

Growers are notably unfettered in their approach to grape selection. You can find almost every grape under the sun growing in Mendocino County, many of them in organic vineyards. Rather than focusing on two or three commercial varietals, it's not uncommon for a Mendocino vintner to feature a dozen wines, both familiar and obscure.

Greg Graziano is an extreme example. A hustling, barrel-chested 52-year-old, Graziano makes Pinot Noir and Pinot (a red blending grape from Champagne) under his French-oriented label Domaine Saint Gregory. Enotria, a label devoted to grapes from Italy's Piedmont, where his family originated, covers Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Moscato and Arneis. A line called Monte Volpe represents the rest of Italy, with Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Pinot Grigio, Tocai Friuliano and more.

And the label called simply "Graziano" is dedicated to what the third-generation Ukiah-area winegrower refers to as "traditional Mendocino wines" -- Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc.

"There's enough Cabernet and Chardonnay in the world," says Graziano, who can't wait to show visitors the vineyard of Aglianico he's just planted outside his house. "Who needs more?

"We've always been the Rodney Dangerfield of wine areas. Even Lake County gets more respect than we do. I think partly it's a cultural thing. So many Italians, because of our history, you just kept things close to the cup. But as a result, we didn't get the attention we deserved. Now maybe that's changing."

You might expect that a maker of so many different wines would be the master of none, but that is not the case. Almost everything Graziano makes is good, and a lot of it, particularly the white wines, is excellent.

Graziano has a knack for balancing mouth-filling fruit and firm structure. His Chenin Blanc is startling; most California Chenins are soft and inoffensive, at best. Graziano's has the minerality and grip of a dry Vouvray. It's like sucking on pebbles from a mountain stream.

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For white-wine lovers

IN fact, Mendocino in general is a white-wine lover's paradise, especially if you favor styles that emphasize fragrance, fruit and crispness over oak and alcohol. Mendocino could well become the home base of the growing Anything-but-Chardonnay club.

In large part, you can credit Mendocino's magical summer weather for this. Days here are hot, commonly into the 90s. But at night, things cool down dramatically. Often, there's a 30-degree swing from day to night and sometimes the difference is as much as 50 degrees.

That temperature shift allows grapes to ripen completely but still maintain a high level of acidity, a combination that results in wines with mouth-filling fruit but bracing, palate-cleansing tartness. It is unusual to find a Mendocino wine that tastes fat and flabby.

That is true whether you are tasting a cherry bright Pinot Noir, a rose-scented Gewurztraminer or a figgy, herbal Sauvignon Blanc. It sometimes seems that there's little this county can't do in terms of wine.

That's especially so with white varietals, of which more than a dozen are grown here, including not only Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but also Pinot Grigio (or Pinot Gris, depending on the winemaker's whim), Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Viognier, Semillon, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Muscat, Marsanne, Roussanne and Tocai Friuliano.

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