The town of Hopland in California’s Mendocino county is on Highway 101, 101 miles north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
The town is rural, with a small town charm comprised in part by a measure of genuineness that city people who work and live in cubicles flee to find.
Hopland, named long ago for the hops grown and kilned to make the area’s beers, is now a town better associated with wines.
16 winery tasting rooms are located in or near the center of Hopland, and wineries from 15 miles north in larger Ukiah, Mendocino county’s county seat, are trying to join Hopland’s tourism group and be considered Hopland wineries and take part in Hopland wine events.
Wine is made from grapes and grapes are grown by farmers. It is the growing of grapes, the farming in the area, that best gives Hopland the down home character visitors perceive. Unlike the amusement park environment of boutiques and high end restaurants found in the counties to the south, Hopland has a few basic eateries, filled with real working men and women.
Hopland’s grapes are grown in an area also known as the Sanel Valley. There is no monolithically thought of grape grown in Hopland’s Sanel Valley, because the area is as diverse as the roughly individualistic farmers who make their living off the land.
With vineyards on the rocky slopes of Duncan Peak to vineyards on the bank of the upper Russian River, head pruned and trellised, irrigated and dry farmed, organically grown or raised biodynamically, planted to field blends or single varietal, the myriad grapes that are grown and the multitude of styles of wine produced from each of these different varietals makes for the greatest concentrated diverse wine tasting experience in the United States.
Of note is the greenness of the offerings in and around Hopland. In an industry where many supermarket brands of wine are made from plastic fertilizers, toxic pesticides, and poisonous insecticides, mass produced in environmentally hazardous monocultures, where only 2 percent of wineries produce wines made from certified organically grown or certified biodynamically raised grapes, roughly 25% of all the wines poured in Hopland’s tasting rooms are genuinely green.
As Pam Strayer wrote on Organic Wine Uncorked, “Wines made with pesticides contribute more than 450,000+ pounds of Roundup to California each year. That just can’t be a good thing for an ecosystem.”
I’m biased, working for McFadden Vineyard, but here’s the way all wineries should strive to be: McFadden Farm up in nearby Potter Valley not only grows 750 tons of grapes organically every year but is a family farm, growing and air drying organic herbs, raising organic grass fed beef, selling 100% pure wild rice, and more green, healthy, farm treats. With both solar panels and a hydroelectric plant on property, McFadden Farm has to look behind them to find the wineries that brag about being carbon neutral.
Okay, stepping off my soapbox, I have to say that McFadden Farm produces fewer than 5,000 cases of wine and the efforts of a million case winery to be carbon neutral are substantially more involved than for what is more a Farm than a winery.
Parducci Wine Cellars, a Ukiah winery with a satellite tasting room in Hopland at the Solar Living Institute, has a commitment to the environment, a passion that is palpable, and is a shining example that doing things green, the right way, can actually end up saving money as the focus on reuse, reduce, and recycle ends up costing less than wasteful use and unnecessary spending.
Parducci is a huge winery. Their wines are uniformly delicious. They are carbon neutral. Relying on natural compost has allowed better tasting wines from healthier vineyards as unnatural fertilizers have been eliminated, and at a substantial cost savings. Similarly, reclaiming and naturally filtering all run off water from operations has made for a healthy ecologically diverse biome in the midst of their home vineyards, while reducing consumption of water – again, generating a cost savings.
Fetzer Vineyards is the 800 pound gorilla of Hopland area wineries, and was recently bought by Concha y Toro, a Chilean wine company demonstrating terrific green business sense with Fetzer. Fetzer produces millions of cases of wine, and this year I saw more organic grapes headed to Fetzer from local family vineyards than ever before. Of course, I believe that certified organic grapes make great wine, but the energy savings in sourcing as much of your needed grapes locally for a giant winery like Fetzer, as trucks travel shorter distances and use less fuel, is enormous.
Occasionally, I taste wines at events with other wine writers, and I abhor the elite wine snobbery I too often hear when the wines of Fetzer are discussed. Because Fetzer’s wines are produced in enormous quantities and are widely available throughout the country in stores and restaurants, there is a bias against Fetzer; the assertion being that good wine, wine worthy of tasting, can only come from small hand crafted wines with limited distribution costing an arm and a leg.
Let me call bullshit on that. I will agree that spending five times what you would spend on a bottle of Fetzer’s wines will allow you to select a spectacular bottle of wine – if you know what you are doing. You can easily spend an enormous amount on a not very good bottle of wine if you don’t know what you are doing, but you can’t buy a bad bottle of Fetzer wine and buying affordable wine rocks.
I was sent a six bottle assortment of Fetzer wines last year, and was impressed with the quality of the wines. The Riesling, which I have heard described as cloyingly sweet by people who admitted not having tasted one from Fetzer in over a decade, had the petrol notes I associate with quality collectable Rieslings costing much more and terrific balance between sweet notes and acid. All of the wines were good, well structured, all were drinkable, and all had fantastic QPR, or Quality/Price Ratio – they are great value wines.
The only knock I have with Fetzer, and something I imagine Concha y Toro will address in time, is that they don’t have a Hopland tasting room.
I would love to see a tasting room, right on highway 101 in downtown Hopland, where Fetzer could pour their wines. The wines of their all-organic sister winery Bonterra could be poured in the same location. Allowing people to taste wines regularly lets folks know how good the wines really are.
Another Hopland vineyard and winery without a Hopland tasting room is Topel Winery. Mark and Donnis Topel make some amazingly great wine, but chose to situate their tasting room in a location with greater traffic.
I shared a table with Mark at a wine event last year, and it worked out great, as I poured McFadden’s Sparkling Brut, amazing white wines, and delicious reds, and Mark poured his spectacular reds which are denser than McFadden’s style. The result was pretty nice as there was a compatible flow.
Mark and Donnis saw to it that I had the opportunity to taste their wines last year, dropping off a bottle here and there. I also tasted a half dozen Topel Winery wines during the event we worked together.
I once described the red wines of Topel Winery as being possibly the best from Hopland, but that is unfair to Topel’s wines. Mark and Donnis produce some of the best wines anywhere. Lush, dense, rich, multi noted, yet completely drinkable. Gorgeously balanced wines. I love the Cabernet Sauvignon, Meritage, and Estate Blend red wines from Topel Winery.
Every vineyard, every winery, every tasting room in Hopland has a story to tell. I hope to tell a few of those stories this year – better yet, capture the words of the farmers, winemakers, and tasting room managers and pass them on along with some notes on some of the great wines being poured in Hopland.