The Early Years: Indian Country and Fur Trapping

The advance of Spanish missions in California stopped in 1824 at what is now the town of Sonoma. Thus, the main driver of early wine production up the coast from Mexico had no impact on Mendocino County. In fact, its populace was solely Native American until 1830. In that year, Mexican land grants led to settlement of the Russian River Valley and parts north by European settlers. [BHEMC & HAV]

Settlers soon started to arrive in increasing numbers; by the time California became a U.S. state in 1850, Mendocino was already sufficiently well-established to be delineated as a county. Relatively low in population, it was administered by Sonoma County, rather than having its own government.

As the 1850s progressed, Indian reservations were established. The Native Americans were either resettled within them, pushed out of the area, or killed. The western settlers wanted plenty of space for their cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs. [BHEMC]

In addition to ranching, other early industries included fur-trapping, initiated by Russians coming from the north, and lumber. Migrants arrived from the gold fields of the Sierra foothills too. And it’s said that a substantial proportion of the remote, North Coast settlers were actually running from the law. [BHEMC] Even today, the wilderness of Mendocino County is a haven for people seeking solitude, or places where marijuana fields will go undetected. 

Wine in Mendocino County

It’s not known exactly when viticulture and winemaking first came to Mendocino County.

There’s no doubt some settlers planted grapes before the late-1800s; however, it was for their own use or to trade with other locals. At that time, there was no wine industry, as there is today. In 1890, there were only 20 vineyards in the county, comprising just 204 acres (83 hectares). In 1891, only two state-registered wineries existed. [Charles Sullivan’s A Companion to California Wine]

Mendocino was too remote to practically transport grapes or wine beyond, to other counties. Nor was it a tourist destination like Clear Lake in Lake County. And the “marginal climates” that we now love for their crisp Chardonnays and ethereal Pinot Noirs, would only have discouraged nineteenth-century settlers. Clearing forest is hard work, all the more so back then. You wouldn’t do it to plant crops that won’t readily ripen or deliver a fairly quick return on investment.

But, around the turn of the century, some farmers arrived who were enthusiastic about growing winegrapes. Many of them Italian-American families, they planted mixed vineyards for field blends in viticulturally hospitable parts of Mendocino County. [HAV] Italian Swiss Colony, a huge producer, had a bigger impact though. They bought land near Ukiah in 1906 and began planting. By 1909, the county’s vineyard acres numbered 2,700 (1,093 hectares). 

Soon thereafter came Prohibition. Not even the isolation of Mendocino County prevented visits from government agents, ax in hand, to destroy vines and barrels.

Some producers persisted for a while, making wine allegedly for home consumption that somehow found its way to others. Plantings actually increased dramatically, with fruit being sold to home winemakers. By 1925, Mendocino County accounted for 8,300 acres of vineyard plantings (3,359 hectares).

The end of Prohibition (and the continuing Great Depression) actually decreased demand for both grapes and wine from Mendocino. Its remote location was once again a considerable hindrance, relative to Napa County, Sonoma County, and the Inland Valleys. Fourteen wineries opened shop upon repeal. Among them, Parducci Wine Cellars is the only producer to operate continuously from the end of Prohibition into the modern era.

Planted acres gradually fell out of production. Most new attempts to develop vineyards failed, including those by Italian Swiss Colony in the 1940s and 1950s. [HAV] Mendocino County-native Charlie Barra, however, did succeed, selling producers sought-after grape varieties from his 175-acre (71 hectare) Redwood Valley Vineyard. 

Starting in the 1960s, Mendocino County became a destination for those looking for escape.

Young people, many of them college-educated, looked to “drop out” and “get back to the land.” They left their urban homes to farm, raise livestock, and strive for self-sufficiency. Some came as couples or small groups of friends; others established communes. Many had strong commitments to ecology and organic farming. That agenda has only strengthened in Mendocino County since.

Dr. Donald Edmeades is credited as being the first modern wine success in Mendocino County: In 1963, he planted the right varieties in Anderson Valley. U.C. Davis professors Winkler and Amerine had recently classified the valley as Region I-II, suitable for cool and moderate climate grapes.

Edmeades installed Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, French Colombard and, daringly, Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1972 his son, Deron, established the Edmeades winery and hired Jed Steele as viticulturist and winemaker. The wines were good. In 1980, Steele was also among those who began working to establish the Anderson Valley AVA. Steele left in 1982 to become the inaugural winemaker at Kendall-Jackson. Edmeades eventually fell silent and was acquired by Kendall-Jackson in 1988. 

A few others soon followed Donald Edmeades in planting. The Husch family planted eight acres (three hectares) of Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Noir in Anderson Valley in 1968. Three years later, in time for their first crush, they established the first bonded, post-Prohibition winery in Anderson Valley. Husch sold its 6,000-case operation to the Oswald family, who owned other Mendocino County vineyards, in 1979. That family’s third generation still owns and operates Husch very successfully. 

In 1968, the Fetzer family began making wine on the east side of Mendocino County, in Redwood Valley after purchasing a 720-acre (291 hectares) ranch there 10 years prior. The Fetzers added grape vines, then converted a sheep barn into a winery. Steady progress was made, with Fetzer well-established as a good quality-price ratio brand by the mid-1970s. Fetzer’s volume hit 245,000 cases per year in 1981, one million in 1986, and 2.3 million in 1991. Fetzer sold part of its operations to Brown-Forman in 1992, who sold to Concha y Toro in 2011. Most of the Fetzer family remain in the wine business to this day, operating a variety of brands in Mendocino County. 

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Anderson Valley’s wine business really gained traction, when several small wineries, notably Handley Cellars, Scharffenberger Cellars, and Pepperwood Springs Vineyards, opened for business. [HAV] Milla Handley had been assistant winemaker to Jed Steele at Edmeades.

But the real game-changer was the arrival of Champagne Louis Roederer, attracted by the northern Anderson Valley’s cool climate, ideal for crisp sparkling wines. In 1982, Roederer began work on vineyards and a winery. [HAV] Roederer Estate has been a huge success, helping elevate the area’s reputation, and is one of the largest vineyard owners in the AVA. 

Another key producer there is the Goldeneye Winery. Napa Valley’s Duckhorn family established it to focus on Pinot Noir. Today, in an AVA dominated by Pinot Noir, Goldeneye wines are by far the most widely distributed in the United States and may form most consumers’ expectations for the region.

Mendocino County wine as a whole has continued to move forward since the 1980s and has built reputations for both quality and environmental responsibility.

Yet, due to its remote location, the number of wineries is still relatively low. As much as 55% of fruit goes to wineries elsewhere [MSM], including top producers making vineyard-designate wines from it in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. 

In 2000, a number of local wineries launched an initiative called Coro Mendocino, a nod to the area’s heritage of mixed black vineyards. Every year, each member winery produces mixed black wine using 100% Mendocino County fruit and following a strict protocol. Each wine needs to succeed in four blind tastings by winemaker panels before release. All wineries use nearly identical labels, focused on the Coro Mendocino identity.

In the twenty-first century, Mendocino County’s wine industry continues to advance in important ways. Increasing consumer awareness, and improving wine quality are key goals, along with furthering sustainability. To help build mindshare for Mendocino County around the world, the Mendocino WineGrowers, Inc. recently created a conjunctive labeling program, approved by local stakeholders in August 2019. The program is now in process to become law. All wines made from AVAs wholly within the county will need to include either “Mendocino” or “Mendocino County” on the label. Exceptions are those labels designating AVAs with names that include “Mendocino,” such as Mendocino AVA and Mendocino Ridge AVA. This should be effective for bottles labeled on or after January 1, 2023.

There is also a new AVA pending for Mendocino County. The petition for the Comptche AVA was accepted as perfected on May 26, 2020. The town of Comptche is located north of western Anderson Valley and almost at the same latitude as the town of Mendocino. The most prominent vineyard there is Oppenlander, which has produced distinctive and highly acclaimed Pinot Noir for decades.

Quality throughout Mendocino County is being improved through replanting of vineyards, as needed, with optimized varieties, clones, rootstocks, and orientation. Meanwhile, the age of healthy and appropriate vines continues to increase, which should enhance wine complexity and concentration.

Key Milestones

1850 - California statehood. Mendocino designated a county

1906 - Italian Swiss Colony establishes vineyards in eastern Mendocino County

1909 - Mendocino County has 2,700 vineyard acres (1,093 hectares)

1925 - Vineyard acres peak at 8,300 (3,359 hectares)

1932 - Parducci Wine Cellars established

1963 - Donald Edmeades establishes vineyard in Anderson Valley

1968 - Husch and Fetzer establish vineyards

1971 - Husch becomes first winery in Anderson Valley

1980 - Frey Vineyards, the first organic winery in the U.S., founded

  1. - Champagne Louis Roederer establishes estate in Anderson Valley

1983 - Anderson Valley, Cole Ranch, and Potter Valley AVAs approved

1987 - McDowell Valley AVA approved

1996 - Fetzer sells 2.1 million cases

- Goldeneye Winery establishes its Anderson Valley estate

         - Frey Vineyards becomes first US winery to be certified biodynamic

1997 - Mendocino Ridge and Redwood Valley AVAs approved

1998 - Inaugural Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival

- Yorkville Highlands AVA approved

2000 - Coro Mendocino initiative begins

2004 - Mendocino AVA approved

2005 - Dos Rios AVA approved

2006 - Inaugural Alsace Varietals Festival (now Aromatic Whites Festival) in Anderson Valley

2006 - Covelo AVA approved

2012 - Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA approved 

 2014 - Eagle Peak Mendocino County AVA approved