The Nelson family grew up farming in Mendocino County midway between Ukiah and Hopland since Herman and Clara bought their home ranch in 1952. Mostly plums that yielded prunes, the farm also had some grapes already planted, French Colombard and Carignane.
Greg Nelson, Herman and Clara’s son, is now the lead Nelson working Nelson Family Vineyards, west of Hwy 101 on Nelson Ranch Road.
“I used to tell folks we were 7 miles south of Ukiah but now I just tell them to turn at the strawberries and follow the road back,” Greg told me as he shared how giving directions to the tasting room and event grove has become easier since leasing a front piece of the ranch to the very visible Saecho strawberry farmers.
Over the years, grapes were ripped out and replaced with more desirable varietals. The French Colombard made way for Zinfandel, and in 1974 the Nelsons planted Riesling which is now the oldest grapes grown on the ranch.
Greg told me that today, his son Tyler takes care of the farming, his son Chris is the winemaker, and Greg stays busy selling grapes and wine. “I knock on the door, if they decide to buy, I make the deliveries,” said Greg, as the wines of Nelson Family Vineyards are self-distributed.
While September 11, 2001 was a horrifically tragic day, Greg says the economic downturn turned into a blessing for Nelson Family Vineyards. Unable to find employment post 9/11, Chris moved back home to the ranch and became a winemaker producing his first wine, a Pinot Grigio in 2003.
A few years later, Greg figured 2006 or so, Chris, who played both classical and electrical guitar and had a love of music started promoting concerts at the grove at Nelson Family Vineyards. Now, there is a regular summer concert series, with performances the fourth Friday of each sunny month, plus other events throughout the year from weddings to charity fundraisers.
In addition to leasing land for Saecho’s strawberries, the Nelsons lease land for cattle raising and to Doug Mosel’s Mendocino County Grain Project, which grows wheat, rye, triticale, oats, and lentils. Mendough pizza often shows up at Nelson events and there are times that the pizza dough is made from flour from the grains grown on the ranch, in a wonderful but coincidental circle.
Greg said that Tyler grows grapes both conventionally and organically. Three vineyards are organic, while the others are, “fish friendly, low impact, and sustainable.”
Given the chance to pass on a message to the folks who read this column, Greg said, “we’re very grateful to the community we were all raised in.”
The gardens in front of the tasting room, originally designed and planted by Kate Frey are beautiful. Inside the tasting room Elliot Little photography graces the walls, local pottery, olive oil, and farm goods also offered, beside logo branded clothing and wines.
Greg poured the complete lineup of Nelson Family Vineyards wines for me.
The NV Brut, $28, made at Rack & Riddle in Hopland, tasted of apple cider, pear, and grapefruit. I didn’t ask, but I would guess a 60 percent Chardonnay, 40 percent Pinot Noir blend.
The 2011 Chardonnay, $21, showed light toasty oak and nice fruit, more apricot than apple. Rich.
The 2011 Pinot Grigio, $18, was lemon peel and high acid, wet river stone, and pear.
The 2012 Viognier, $21, was easy to enjoy, with edge free approachability, and light citrus playing against apricot.
The 2011 Pinot Noir, $28, exhibited classic Pinot funk, along with a light earthy cherry note.
The 2008 Zinfandel, $25, was nice. Not overly smoky or overly stripped. Soft, medium light raspberry, herb, and black pepper spice.
Barn Blend 2012, $25, is the wine made from the blend put together at the annual Barn Blend party at Nelson. This blend of Cabernet sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, and Viognier was soft, soft, soft, showing blackberry jam and herb.
The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, $28, had nice chewiness, tannin, oak, blackberry, briarwood, herb, and spice.
The 2009 Riesling, $19, comes off the oldest vineyard on the ranch. Light honey on a medium heavy body, petrol, and nectarine.
The 2009 Orange Muscat, $21, is a nice fruit basket of a wine with white pear and white peach providing balance for the sweeter orange and floral notes.
We finished up with the 2009 Ice Riesling, $25. At 16.2 residual sugar against 12.5 percent alcohol, this is a really nice dessert wine with concentrated honeyed pear, peach, apricot, and caramel marzipan. The finish narrows down to a clear apple note.
Greg shared that 2011 was a challenge in the vineyards, with a little botrytis here and there; and by contrast, “2012 was a lot easier, it was a cakewalk, it was the perfect growing season.”
Visit the Nelson Family Vineyards tasting room, at 550 Nelson Ranch Road, off Highway 101, down the road behind the strawberries. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
John Cesano has more than 200 posts about wine archived at JohnOnWine.com