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Anderson Valley Wine History (Part 2)

Winegrowing and winemaking are important to Anderson Valley today. But the industry is a relative newcomer. Prohibition put the local wine industry on ice during the 1920s and 1930s as vineyards fell into neglect or were pulled for legal crops like orchards or for open grazing land. Some grape growers sold their land and moved. But some families anticipated of brighter days.

The Cameron family sold its ridgetop land to John and Rosie Pardini about 1922. Despite the recently enacted Prohibition, the Pardinis planted some new vineyard. The family cellar was soon converted into a winery where John made three wines. Bruna Pardini Slotte remembered that the red wine was made mostly from zinfandel, the white from Golden chasselas and sweetwater. Her personal favorite at the time was the sweet "pink," a rose probably made from a blend of red and white grapes. When their house burned in 1927 or 1928 John built a new home nearby and continued to make wine in the cellar of the old house.

By the time Prohibition ended as a national experiment in 1933, wine growing and wine making had undergone such an eclipse that it could not recover. The railroad that had once brought lumbermen and their families up Greenwood Creek for weekends of camping, music and wine drinking was only a memory. Greenwood (renamed Elk to avoid postal confusion with another California of the same name) was itself more of a ghost town than anything else and Anderson Valley was no more prosperous than other rural Depression-era communities.

About the only thing that had improved during the 1930s was transportation. Public roads were being upgraded as part of the get America back to work projects and Anderson Valley finally got a good all-weather surfaced road. For the few growers left in the Valley and surrounding regions this meant that grapes could be trucked and sold to wineries in Cloverdale and other northern Sonoma communities. The Pinolis began selling to Bandiera, Sink and Seghesio instead of making their own wines, and other growers did the same.

Weather took its toll on the vines too. The 1940s saw a number of killing frosts that even hit the oldest vineyards hard. The Pronsolino family (which had bought the neighboring Pardini place in 1944) had to pull 50-year-old vines from its old home vineyard in 1949 because of frost-induced losses. John Pardini’s choice of a well-drained hilltop site had proven to be a wise one. The five-plus acre block of zinfandel planted by the Pardini family in 1922 is still producing award-winning wine grapes.

The post-World War II period was an exciting time in Anderson Valley. The housing boom of the postwar years hit Mendocino County square in the timbers -- and that was just fine with the loggers, mill workers and timberland owners. For the first time in decades more people were coming into the Valley to work than were leaving. Philo, Navarro and Boonville each sported several sawmills and the stores and gas stations and bars prospered.

One business that was not improved much was winegrape growing. The newcomers were mostly from the heartland of America and like the original white settlers had no tradition of wine drinking. Most of the vineyards fell deeper into neglect and wine grape acreage continued to drop.

The only exception to this trend was an experiment conducted by Italian Swiss Colony, a winery located in the northern Sonoma County of Asti. A cooperative, Colony was looking to expand (it went on to become a giant in the wine industry in the 1950s and 1960s) and figured the nearby Anderson Valley was a promising location. In 1946 the company and its associated growers bought 200 acres of flat land where Anderson Valley high school is presently located and began planting about 100 acres of Ugni Blanc and French colombard the following year.

Italian Swiss Colony also signed contracts with a number of Anderson Valley landowners promising to buy their grapes for 15 years. Colony agreed to pay freight charges plus a two dollar per pound premium if Valley farmers would plant certain high-yielding varietals. Several Valley owners accepted Colony’s offer. Among them was Rankin Rickard who planted 10 acres, five each of Golden chasselas and carignane, on his ranch just north of Boonville.

Unfortunately things didn't go well for Colony or its growers. The company had guessed wrong on its varietals and most of them were never in great demand at the winery. But the biggest problem was that the grapes never developed enough sugar to satisfy Colony’s need. At that time many wineries were looking to harvest grapes that were extremely high in sugar content, very ripe or mature, in order to make the sweeter wine popular in those days. Anderson Valley with its coastal marine influence weather just could not deliver.

Cool evenings and warm days yielded fruit with relatively high acid and moderate sugar. Worse yet, the fruit ripens slowly and late often falling victim to early autumn rains before harvest. Springtime was no better. The low-lying vineyards Colony and most growers planted were hit by repeated frosts and the only method of frost protection at the time was the expensive and often ineffective smudge pot.

Some of the damage that was attributed to frost was later found to be a result of phylloxera infestations. Mendocino County farm adviser Bruce Bearden reported that he saw considerable evidence of damage from these pesky root lice when he examined Anderson Valley vineyards for the first time in 1954. He speculated that the insect pests were brought into the Valley on the roots of the young vines planted in 1947. With economics and nature united against it, the first postwar winegrape experiment in the Valley was a failure.

Colony sold its 100 acre experiment to the Anderson Valley School District about a decade after it had begun and most growers pulled their vines. Rickard harvested the last grapes from his ranch in 1973 and pulled the vines. Colony sold off the remaining 100 acres for residential use about the same time. Only one small block of vines then owned by the Goodhue family remains from this ambitious attempt to reestablish Anderson Valley as a winegrowing area.

The modern era of winegrowing and winemaking in Anderson Valley began in 1964. That was the year that Dr. Donald Edmeades, a Southern California physician, planted 24 acres of premium wine grapes and hung up a sign that read, "Edmeades Folly." Judging from experience the Edmeades sign was not just self-deprecating humor.

However, the doctor had experts – if not experience -- on his side. Viticulturists from the University of California at Davis had recently completed a study of Anderson Valley. They had concluded that with the right varietals Anderson Valley had the soils and climate to be a successful premium wine grape growing area. No matter that the valley was one of the coolest and certainly the rainiest areas with a high probability of frost damage and a low potential for ripeness. The UC Davis experts recognized some of the limitations of Anderson Valley’s climate when they classified the Valley as Region I (Philo or lower end) and cool Region II (at the upper, Boonville end).

Edmeades decided to hedge his bet by planting four winegrape varieties. Gewurztraminer was one of those recommended by UC Davis as well suited to the climate and French colombard and chardonnay were expected to do fairly well. Edmeades’ real gamble was in choosing Cabernet Sauvignon as his major red varietal. Cabernet is noted for being a slow ripening grape, one that needs more than average heat to mature.

The skeptics, of whom there were many in the Valley, sat back and waited for Edmeades Folly to fulfill its own prediction while the young vines grew toward maturity. Within a few years the Edmeades gamble had company. Tony and Gretchen Husch bought 21 adjoining acres and planted Chardonnay and Gewurtztraminer.

The Huschs’s gambled in a different way. They bought a parcel of land on high Greenwood Ridge. Betting that the success of the early Italian winemakers was no fluke, the couple planted an eight acre vineyard with blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and White Riesling. They crushed the first ripe fruit from their Valley vineyard in 1971, founding Husch vineyards, Anderson Valley's first bonded winery since prohibition.

For the first few years Dr. Edmeades sold the fruit from his family vineyard to wineries outside the Valley. He soon decided to crush and ferment the winegrapes on his own. Although the doctor himself did not live to see his dream of producing his own wine come true, his son Deron guided the fledgling winery through its first crush in 1972.

With two family wineries producing premium wines from high quality fruit, the modern renaissance of Anderson Valley as a wine producing area got underway.

Winemaking efforts of the 1970s were not carried out on a grand scale, nor with state of the art equipment. Both Husch and Edmeades used makeshift facilities and equipment for their wineries: a remodeled chicken coop and an old Apple dryer, respectively. Early tasting rooms were places where customers were so novel that they might have to wait 15 minutes for someone to show up to open a bottle for them. The quantity of wine the two pioneer Anderson Valley wineries produced was small, with bottlings of less than 100 cases not at all unusual.

Having such limited scale production turned out to be fortunate for Anderson Valley’s under-equipped winemakers, as Tony Husch discovered during a hard freeze in the winter of 1972-1973. It got so cold that Husch resorted to using electric blankets to protect the wine he was fermenting in wooden barrels. Improvisation along with trial and error characterized those early years.

Still the quality of the early Anderson Valley wines showed promise and encouraged others try their hands at winemaking. Within a few years Ted Bennett and Deborah Kahn had planted a vineyard across the highway from Edmeades and began producing wine under their Navarro Vineyards label.

Realizing that the Mendocino Coast was a good place to sell wines to affluent visitors, Edmeades and Navarro put their heads together in 1976 and created the Mendocino Wine Guild. The Guild was a cooperative arrangement with its own label appearing on wines produced by each of the two wineries. These wines were sold at the Guild’s tasting room above the delicatessen on Main Street in the town of Mendocino. Hundreds of tourists climbed the stairs to the cozy second-floor tasting room to sip wine and enjoy the view. Among the novel offerings at the Mendocino Wine Guild were several apple wines made by Edmeades, and varietal grape juices produced by Navarro. Although the Mendocino Wine Guild experiment lasted only a year or so, it helped make Anderson Valley wines an important part of the visitor scene in Mendocino and introduced them to many vacationers for the first time. Returning home through the valley coastal visitors began stopping at the wineries for newly discovered wines to take home.

During the 1970s Edmeades introduced several other innovations into the California wine business, including the reproductions of watercolor paintings and local artists on its labels. Proprietary wines were big sellers for Edmeades with its "rain wine," "whale wine," "Queen Anne's lace," and, "Opal" breaking new ground in the marketplace.

Edmeades entered several years of turmoil and restructuring during the early 1980s and ultimately ceased production altogether. Kendall-Jackson Vineyards and Winery of Lake County purchased Edmeades in 1988. This gave the pioneer winery a new life as part of the growing Anderson Valley sparkling wine business.

The last years of the 1970s saw other Anderson Valley grape growers become involved in the winemaking business. Lazy Creek Vineyards and Greenwood Ridge Vineyards began producing estate bottled wines from their own grapes, so there was finally a true handful of Anderson Valley wineries. In 1979 Anderson Valley began a tradition of hosting the Mendocino County Fair wine competition where wines produced from grapes grown in Mendocino County were judged by a panel of wine experts.

Another milestone was passed in 1979 when Tony and Gretchen Husch sold their winery to the H.A. Oswald family. The Oswalds were already in the Mendocino County grape growing business with extensive plantings at La Ribera Ranch in Talmage.

The 1980s saw expansion of Anderson Valley wineries on a scale that would have seemed almost impossible a decade earlier. During the early 80s wineries started springing up like mushrooms all over California and Anderson Valley was no exception. Handley Cellars, Christine Woods Vineyards, Pullman Vineyards and Pepperwood Springs Vineyards all began producing wine during those years.

Pepperwood Springs was in some ways typical of the new wineries. Larry and Nicki Parsons had bought their hillside vineyard land in 1980 and had turned to winemaking as a way to make the most of their wine grapes. They got the name of the winery from springs that had been developed for livestock that were grazed on their land during the depression of the 1930s. What wasn't typical about Pepperwood Springs was that winemaker Larry Parsons was blind.

Pepperwood Springs won design awards for its labels, but they were also unique in that they sported braille writing. The small, family winery attracted a lot of attention in the news media because of Larry’s blindness.

In 1986 Larry Parsons was killed in a tragic automobile accident and ownership of Pepperwood Springs was eventually transferred to Gary and Phyllis Kaliher. Recalling one of the more unusual aspects of their pioneer efforts, Nikki Parsons remembered that Larry often had to jumpstart their 1938 vintage tractor while she towed it with their pickup truck. She also recalled that they got plenty of help and helpful advice from neighboring winemakers, that a spirit of cooperation and mutual assistance was very much a part of the scene during those years.

An important moment in Anderson Valley wine history occurred in 1982 when the French firm Champagne Louis Roederer announced its plans to build a California sparkling wine facility in Anderson Valley. Valley grapes had been going into sparkling wine production for several years. In fact, Scharffenberger Cellars of Ukiah and several other Mendocino County producers had selected Anderson Valley as an area ideally suited to growing top-notch Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for their sparkling wine in the 80s. But Roederer's decision to locate its vineyards and sparkling wine production facilities in Philo gave a big boost to Anderson Valley's prestige as a premium wine producing area.

Those pioneer winemakers of the last century would have a difficult time understanding how their modest efforts started a tradition that would eventually see Anderson Valley recognized as one of California's finest wine growing areas. Like the highway that runs through the Valley, getting to this point in the valley’s viticultural history came with many ups and downs, and a few twists and turns. But the result of those years of work have proven well worth the effort.

One Comment

  1. George Hollister January 5, 2019

    Well done, and consistent with my recollections, and information from other sources.

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