About Mendocino Ridge AVA
The Mendocino Ridge AVA floats above the Anderson Valley appellation along the Pacific Coast of California. The only non-contiguous AVA in the United States, the region consists of steep, timber covered ridgelines, jutting above 1200 feet in elevation. These majestic ridgelines receive uninterrupted sunshine as they rise above the cooling fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean. Such unique growing conditions in this AVA impart distinct flavors not captured in an other wines.
In their petition, the AVA members referred to the vineyards as “cool, sun soaked vineyards in a sea of forests”. Zinfandel has been a specialty since the late 1800s when Italians homesteaded the area and planted sun-loving varieties. Pinot Noir is now the most common varietal planted.
Excerpt from GuildSomm posted by Kelli White April 19, 2018
Slow to Grow, Slow to Change: Mendocino’s History Under Vine
Unlike in most of California, vinifera vines were not introduced to Mendocino via the Spanish. Spain’s missionaries only made it as far north as Sonoma before losing California to Mexico in 1821. Because of this, vinifera didn’t really arrive until the Gold Rush, when a population of predominantly Italian settlers began cultivating the various valleys of Mendocino. This development was extremely limited at first. According to Charles Sullivan’s A Companion to California Wine, in 1890, there were only 20 vineyards in all of Mendocino County, totaling only 204 acres of vines. And by 1891, only two wineries were registered with the state.
Mendocino’s first major viticultural push came after 1906, when the Italian Swiss Colony invaded Ukiah Valley. By 1909, 2,700 acres of vines had been planted, mostly for the Italian Swiss Colony, representing more than a tenfold increase since 1890. Prohibition brought another bump in development, when a rush of vines, mainly Carignan and Zinfandel, were planted in service of home winemakers all around the country. By 1925, over 8,300 acres of vines were in the ground.
Though Prohibition expanded vine acreage, Mendocino’s producers were slow to recover. Sullivan reports that only 14 wineries (all owned by Italian families) sprang back to life upon repeal, with Parducci the sole survivor into modern times. With home winemaking on the decline and a limited local market, most of Mendocino’s fruit was shipped out of the county and used as a blending component for wineries in Napa and Sonoma, as well as the bulk operations of the Central Valley. Even so, vineyard acreage declined until the late 1960s.
Mendocino County is perhaps most famous for its redwood groves, and timber has long been a major industry of the region. Oak tanbark, which is used to cure leather and animal hides, also brought significant business, especially in the wild coastal areas such as today’s Mendocino Ridge. The pursuit of these two products was responsible for much of the original settlement, but the nationwide urbanization that followed World War II saw a significant portion of the local population, especially in the more rural reaches, leave for the cities. Unsurprisingly, this also contributed to the decline in viticulture. It would take the back-to-the-land hippie movement of the 1960s and early 70s to bring forth a swell in Mendocino’s ranks.
Mendocino experienced its first jump in production in the 1970s, as the boutique winery movement that had already transformed Napa and Sonoma slowly spread northward. This effectively got Mendocino’s production off its deathbed; all but two of today’s wineries were bonded after 1968, according to Sullivan. As of 2018, Mendocino can boast of around 90 wineries, but even so, the region remains far richer in vineyards, with over 20,000 acres under vine. A key reason why there are fewer wineries than one might expect is the lack of tourism. Aside from the burgeoning destination of Anderson Valley, there is little in the way of hotel or restaurant presence, especially inland. It also doesn’t help that the region is a significant distance from any major city, located two and a half hours by car from San Francisco.
There is a silver lining to all this, however. First, the under-the-radar nature of the wine region means there is tremendous value for the consumer. This is true both of the wines, which tend to cost significantly less than those of equivalent quality from more established regions, and in terms of tourism. While you can certainly spend $500 a night on a room in Anderson Valley if compelled, both lodging and dining in Mendocino County are generally reasonable. In addition, when it comes to viticulture, the absence of investment can sometimes have a conservational effect. After all, since Mendocino’s farmers, especially in the inland corridor, don’t face the same pressures as growers in Napa to replant everything to Cabernet Sauvignon or other more profitable varieties, funky old-vine vineyards of all types are left alone to thrive.
Mendocino Ridge (1997)
Mendocino Ridge is a large region that spans a fair amount of dramatic and forbidding mountain terrain. Vineyards can be found as high as 2,600 feet, but only sites located at or above 1,200 feet in elevation can claim the AVA. That said, anything planted below 1,200 feet is unlikely to ripen, as the area is so chilly that fruit needs to be grown above the fog line and in full sun to thrive. Because the appellation is composed of a series of peaks, the AVA map more closely resembles an archipelago than a typical wine region.
Though the Mendocino Ridge AVA shares a border with the equally sprawling Sonoma Coast AVA, the regions are fairly distinct. Mendocino Ridge tends to feature significantly higher elevations and, instead of the sandy Goldridge soils that typify the southern Sonoma coast, is covered in what is known colloquially as “timber soils”—effectively, well-draining sandstone and loam dominated by fractured stone. Wind and rain are the primary enemies here, as both are quite extreme and conspire to curtail ripeness. Labor is also a challenge for such a remote region. Steve Alden of Murder Ridge, one of the architects of the AVA, refers to life in this AVA as “farming in the wilderness.” Indeed, my vineyard tour with him included stops to examine bear marks on fence posts, wild boar damage, and rafters of terrorizing turkeys. “I used to have statues of coyotes in the vineyards, to scare away the grape-eating turkeys, but the wild pigs destroyed them,” Alden confessed with a weary sigh.
Like many of the area’s landowners, the Aldens came to the region in pursuit of timber, which was the dominant industry up through the 1980s. They soon came to realize that logging every 20 years wasn’t going to float the property and sought to diversify. “My neighbor handed me a dormant vine and said, ‘I take this stick, I put it in the ground, and three years later everyone’s bugging me for the fruit.’” Originally, Alden planted Zinfandel, but he eventually switched focus to Pinot Noir. Indeed, these are the two mainstays of the region, though Pinot Noir brings a much greater return on value. Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot, and Riesling are also present in scant amounts amidst the AVA’s paltry 209 acres under vine.