After a few years of drought, this year’s rains seemed intent on making up for past failings and every day brought torrential pouring. In between what felt like an endless succession of days with showers of felines and canines, on the one single day filled with sunshine and blue skies, I visited Parducci Wine Cellars. The abundance of photography in today’s winery feature is owing as much to the beauty of Parducci’s vineyards and winery as it is owing to an incredibly rare clear and warm day, filled with color and the promise of Spring.

Parducci Wine Cellars Sign

Parducci is at the north end of Mendocino County’s only city of size, Ukiah, and is an iconic winery in the north coast. I grew up seeing bottles of Parducci Petite Sirah on the tables of my Italian family’s other Italian friends. Parducci was a genuine touchstone winery for an Italian American growing up in the wine country of California’s north coast.

A decade ago, the reputation of Parducci was on the wane. While occasionally making wines that tasted good, most wines produced were not wines I would willingly purchase. The tasting room itself was dark, overcrowded with ill considered dusty tchochkies no one would conceivably purchase; the experience of tasting wines at Parducci felt oppressive and left me feeling depressed.

At about the same time, I was noting that the initial attempts to make Organic wines by a number of wineries were being met with dissatisfaction in the marketplace. Nearly all Organic wines faded quickly, having little to no cellaring potential. By the time an Organic wine had aged and mellowed, it wasn’t very good anymore.

After a February Petite Sirah tasting, Dark & Delicious, with 45 Petite Sirah producers pouring their wines, I wrote favorably about Parducci’s True Grit Petite Sirah, I liked it very much, it was delicious. In response, both Parducci vibe director Selina Luiz and Parducci marketing and sales coordinator Kelly Lentz invited me to visit the winery for a taste and tour.

Through the front door, tasting room on the left and divano (lounge in Italian) on the right.

When I accepted their invitation and set a date I was not expecting great things. Oh, how I revel in having my ignorance smacked out of me by great wine after great wine…but we’ll get to the wines in a moment; first, it is time for some recent Parducci history.

John Parducci left Parducci, then later started a different winery in 1999, after not seeing eye to eye with partners in an investment group. A couple more quick ownership changes led to a businessman trying to run the winery from Chicago. The timing of the changes in ownership coincides with my Parducci tasting room visits that left a negative impression.

I did not know that the winery was no longer Parducci family held, but the lack of hands-on family owners walking the vineyards and tasting the wines are likely the cause for the unfortunate fall in quality I had experienced.

Paul Dolan, Tom Thornhill Jr. and his sons Tim Thornhill and Tom Thornhill III formed Mendocino Wine Company, and in 2004 they bought Parducci. Together, the Dolan and Thornhill families are committed to operating their business in an environmentally sustainable way. Together, they have both grapegrowing and winemaking experience and are intimately tied to the land of Mendocino County.

Parducci is a completely different winery than the place I visited only 10 years earlier. There is a justified pride in virtually everyone that works there. Parducci isn’t just about making wine that tastes good, Parducci is doing it in the best possible way as stewards of the Earth.

Parducci and their Mendocino Wine Company partner brand Paul Dolan Vineyards share this dedication, bordering on religious zeal. Working with local neighbor Mendocino County farms, grapes purchased come from family owned farms. The grapes are grown in a fish friendly manner. The grapes are often CCOF certified Organic grapes. Some of the wines are even Demeter certified Biodynamic wines. Water is captured, naturally filtered and stored for reuse. Power use has been decreased and many energy needs are met through capturing and using solar energy. Packaging and labels are lighter, smarter, degradable, recyclable, and earth friendlier. Offsets have been purchased and the winery is carbon neutral. Pomace and composted waste is used in the vineyards for fertilizer. In a nutshell, Parducci and Mendocino Wine Company are the greenest wine operation in the United States.

This isn’t a northern California hippy ethic run wild, this is the cutting edge of forward thinking smart business. Mendocino Wine Company, Parducci, and Paul Dolan Vineyards aren’t just making wine for today, but creating a business that will be in place 100 years from now for future Dolan and Thornhill family members to continue to sustain profitably.

When droughts force extreme water conservation measures, and focus environmental concerns about fish deaths due to water being pumped out of rivers to protect against frost damage to crops, Parducci has created a ready reserve of usable reclaimed water. Parducci has demonstrated greater vitality in plants fertilized with free compost and pomace versus expensive synthetic chemical fertilizers. Owls living in boxes on the property naturally protect the grapes from hungry birds and replace nasty pesticides. Energy prices never go down, but Parducci is less reliant on the grid for power.

Grapes on the left with pomace and compost are more vital than grapes on right with purchased fertilizer

I was impressed beyond all expectations, beyond imagination. More than one person acknowledged that Parducci had experienced a dimming between the Parducci family ownership and the Dolan/Thornhill families’ ownership. Mendocino Wine Company, Parducci, and Paul Dolan Vineyards employees were all smiling, proud and happy. There is a palpable difference that can be felt when comparing either the general vibe or wine quality under absent owners and the family run local ownership provided by the Dolan and Thornhill families.

I had the honor of tasting wines with the winemaker, Bob Swain. Bob carved out a huge and generous chunk of his morning to taste wines with me, and the tasting was set up in the divano (lounge). First, let me say that my concerns about the quality issues of previous Organic wine attempts by other wineries were answered by the wines themselves. All 11 wines I tasted were delicious. Bob explained that dedication and commitment in place, the efforts to make sustainably responsible wines must always be viewed with making wines that are marketable.

Bob Swain, winemaker for both Parducci and Paul Dolan Vineyards

Rather than making 100% Organic wine, Parducci makes wines from 100% Organic grapes. The difference? The wines may have added sulfites, a naturally occurring wine ingredient, if needed to ensure a safe and healthy shelf life. Sustainable and green winemaking is not a business suicide pact. Making even “green”re wines that don’t taste good is not part of Parducci’s green business model.

Bob poured wines from both Parducci and Paul Dolan Vineyards from the Mendocino Wine Company.

Here’s my tasting notes:

2007 Paul Dolan Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Mendocino County $18 - 13.5% alc. 3,900 cases made. CCOF certified Organic. Citrusy. nice acid. Hella food wine. 100% stainless. Crisp rich fruit. Stone fruit.

2008 Paul Dolan Vineyards Chardonnay, Mendocino County $18 - 13.5% alc. 4,140 cases made. CCOF certified Organic. No malolactic. 20% barrel fermented oak, 80% stainless steel. Pear and apple. light cream. Nice structure. No flab.

2007 Parducci Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley $25 - 14.5% alc. Bottled exclusively for Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Warm, round, rich cherry. Light tartness balanced by dark fruit. Smooth texture. Nice spice box component.

Bob Swain in the divano, tasting room in the background

2007 Paul Dolan Vineyards Filigreen Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley $33 - 14.5% alc. 180 cases made. Filigreen Farms. 100% Organically grown grapes. CCOF Certified. Demeter Biodynamic in all but name. Our bottle was slightly, so very slightly, some people would not notice slightly, paired with food it might not matter slightly, corked. Still, the wine was tastable, nice vanilla nose. Cocoa. Dark cherry berry fruit with oak.

2007 Paul Dolan Vineyards Pinot Noir, Mendocino County $30 - 14.5% alc. Just nosing this wine made me smile, wonderful Pinot aromas. Jammy cherry and stone fruit, less wood. Fruit powered Pinot with aromas and flavors of cherry, berry, with a kiss of oak, toast, cream, and vanilla. Lush, elegant, drinkable.

2005 Parducci Grenache, Mendocino County $25 - 14.5% alc. Nice dark garnet. Berry & Cherry fruit nose. Flavors of strawberry with rose petal. Lush, yummy juice. Dense with fruit and spice flavor, with a floral fruit and spice nose. I could nose this all day long and be in ecstasy. Nice, fun, good. A Rodney Dangerfield wine; the varietal gets no respect, but we’re talking about a huge star here.

2007 Paul Dolan Vineyards Zinfandel, Mendocino County $25 - 14.5% alc. 2,925 cases made. CCOF certified Organic. Bright jammy raspberry, pepper, and spice. Straight ahead Zinfandel.

Great wine starts in the vineyard, in this case a CCOF certified Organic vineyard.

2006 Paul Dolan Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendocino County $25 - 13.5% alc. 2,950 cases made. CCOF certified Organic. “[EXPLETIVE DELETED] me, that’s good!” Nice tannin tickle. Blackberry, earthy, stone, mineral, leather. Big, round, full. Deee-lushious. Okay, I made up a word, but I had to, this wine is worthy of new descriptors.

2006 [Paul Dolan Vineyards] Deep Red, Mendocino County $45 - 14.5% alc. 770 cases made. 100% Demeter certified Biodynamic. 100% Dark Horse Vineyards; 57% Syrah, 31% Petite Sirah, 12% Grenache. Deep Red represents the winemakers attempt to best capture the best expression of the single vineyard for the vintage. Plum, blueberry. The land and varietals are both speaking with an earthiness from the vineyard and spices from the Syrah, Petite Sirah and Grenache.

2005 Parducci Coro Mendocino $35 - 55% Zinfandel, 20% Syrah, 15% Petite Sirah, 10% Grenache. A host of Mendocino County winemakers have joined together to each produce a special Zinfandel blend that sings of the Mendocino County earth it comes from, their effort’s branded individually, but each being named Coro Mendocino (Coro is chorus in Italian). Red fruit. Raspberry from the Zinfandel and strawberry from the Grenache have the loudest voices. Supporting notes of cedar and spice are carried by the Syrah and Petite Sirah. A lovely and exciting harmony.

2006 True Grit Parducci Petite Sirah, Mendocino County $30 - 14.5% alc. Big, but nicely structured integrated tannins. Beautiful berry fruit. To me, this is Parducci’s flagship varietal, and you can taste Mendocino County terroir in each sip. I love this Petite. Just an incredibly drinkable wine for a wine so big. Huge burstingly ripe blackberry, cherry and pepper notes are balanced by chocolate, vanilla and caramel. A real fruit bomb. Really long, lingering finish.

The eleven wines from Mendocino wine Company I tasted

Tasting with Bob was a huge treat. I was thrilled to find that Parducci, once the pride of Mendocino County wineries, was again making great wines – possibly the best wines they had ever made; and were doing it all in an environmentally friendly way.

Here are two important notes about prices: wine club members save about 20% off most wines, and wine shops and markets often have sale prices on wines, so shop well.

After my tasting, Selina Luiz and Kelly Lentz took me on a tour of the lower home vineyard. I already knew a lot about the things they were telling me about the basics of grape growing, but I will never pass up an opportunity to walk through a vineyard on a beautiful day.

Mendocino County beauty abounds

I did learn that Parducci manages their water flow precisely, with gauges throughout the vineyards to help determine when vines really need water. The winery has experienced both a water savings and a more deliciously “happy” grape.

These vines have been getting plenty of rain. Later in the year, they will receive water only when they really need it.

If you live in or visit wine country in February – April, you will often see cover crops grown in the area between the rows of vines. These cover crops keep the vines from growing out of control, allowing the vitality to flow to the grapes when they come later, rather than the vine when there are no grapes. The cover crops also fix nitrogen and can be turned back into the ground providing nutrition for the grapes.

Cover crops can include clover, mustard, lavender, and fava beans

The folks at Parducci are justifiably proud of co-owner Tim Thornhill’s water reclamation, cleaning and purifying system. 100% of water used at the winery is reclaimed and recycled. Initially pumped up a hill to two holding tanks where gravity and active enzyme processes begin to clean used water, gravity and mother nature take over, and the water flows down the hill, through marshes and cleaning channels, to a wetlands area, where waterfalls and pumps provide the final aeration. Think of Willy Wonka, but instead of chocolate Tim Thornhill has made dirty water clean and reusable again, and created an area of beauty in an of itself. The fresh water wetlands have brought a large variety of wild animals to add to the diversity the flora provide.

This willow tower helps filter water traveling from hillside tanks to the wetlands below.

Water is channeled slowly by plants and grasses which consume waste and leave the water cleaner for the passage

Tim’s water recycling project yields visual benefits

Kelly stands at the edge of the water filtering marsh of tall grasses and plants.

One of four Willy Wonka-esque waterfalls that aerate the water

After our vineyard and wetlands tour, Selina excused herself to attend to other tasks – that evening Parducci and Paul Dolan Wines hosted a Sauvignon Blanc tweet up and meet up – and Kelly carried on, taking me on a tour of winery grounds.

A beautiful piece of functional art. The only thing more beautiful would be a bocce court. Hint, hint.

Kelly unlocked and showed me the old cellar tasting room under the original Parducci house. The old cellar has been turned into a museum.

A 50th Anniversary commemorative large format bottle of 1980 vintage Parducci Cabernet Sauvignon

Kelly took me to the actual wine cellar, where wines are aged. Something not regularly seen at other wineries is the large collection of oak containers; not mere barrels, but enormous vessels that reach floor to very high ceiling.

More than triple my height, each of these casks is larger than the Pods contestants on Fox Reality’s Solitary live in.

These “baby” tanks are 1/5-1/4 the size of the monsters previously pictured.

A nice walk in the sun brought us back from the cellars to where the day started for me. Along the way, I had to take one more outdoor picture to show how beautiful the day was.

I am a visual person, and the day was filled with gorgeous colors popping against the greenest of greens

Back inside, we visited the tasting room which was bright and had a nice selection of items for sale than complimented the wines. Most wineries are not packed early midweek during the rainy season, so I asked Kelly to jump into a shot where there were two folks tasting. Now there are three.

A selection of wine books, food treats, vineyard clothing and other items available for purchase with wines

The tasting room crew caught between smiles

Three folks lined up at the tasting room bar. I see people are on their reds.

I had a really good time at Parducci. The wines were all great. Bob Swain was incredibly generous with his time and free with his commentary which I valued greatly. Kelly Lentz and Selina Luiz were wonderful hosts and terrific representatives. I came away impressed with the value of local family ownership of a winery, it has made such a huge difference for Parducci. I also am amazed and impressed by the Dolan/Thornhill dedication to environmental sustainability and economic success. In just six short years, they have outpaced every other winery in America and are a model for others to borrow from. If being green is the new religion in wine, they are the leaders of the church, and I am a new convert.