March 2014


John On Wine – Drought

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on March 27, 2014
By John Cesano


Brave the storm to come, for it surely looks like rain.” ­ – 1972, Look Like Rain, Grateful Dead

Rain, water, drought, shortage, rationing, voluntary reductions, mandatory reductions; Thoughts of our current situation swirl like water about a drain. I’m a winery tasting room guy. I know finished wine, whether it is good, what notes it has and how to describe it. I know a little bit about growing and winemaking, but really just the basics.

When it comes to the crisis facing everyone in Mendocino County, not just the vineyards and wineries, I had to reach out and talk with some folks more knowledgeable than I am on the subject. I spoke with Zac Robinson, President of the Mendocino WineGrowers, Inc., the voluntary coalition of growers and producers working to promote Mendocino County grape grower and wine interests to the general public. Robinson grows grapes both inland, on the Russian River between Ukiah and Hopland, and in the Anderson Valley, and then turns them into wine for his winery, Husch Vineyard.

Robinson described the problems facing the entire community as stemming from a two year drought, stating “the Navarro River is at the lowest level ever for this date, and “things are pretty dire.” Robinson outlined measures that vineyards and wineries are taking in the face of water shortages including adding nearly 50 new wind machines, installing double drip irrigation lines, and installing soil moisture monitoring probes. This is on top of water use reductions of approximately 67 percent since the previous drought of record, 1976-77.

The fans minimize the use of sprinkler water for frost protection and later to mitigate the highest heat of summer, but at a cost as the fans are pretty noisy for residential neighbors to endure. Soil moisture monitoring probes allow more intelligent application of moisture as needed, and double drip lines involve a second irrigation drip line with emitters tasked only to the weakest vines in a vineyard. Double drip lines allow about a 30 percent reduction in water as regular summer drip irrigation can be delayed for weeks as only the vines most in need are taken care of earlier. Later pruning also reduces water demands, as it leads to later bud break and decreases the period when frost protection water use might occur.

In spite of all of the efforts by growers, Robinson shared that “holding ponds aren’t full, the watershed is bone dry, and there will be August decisions (as) we’re not going to have enough water to get the crop through the year (and) we’ll have to choose which vineyards get less water.”

All this, while most of Mendocino County’s vineyards face 50 percent mandatory reductions in water use from various governing boards and agencies.

Not to demonize the “demon weed,” but marijuana accounts for nearly the same water use amount of all of the family farmed multi-generational vineyards in the county, with marijuana acreage just a small fraction of the legal and regulated agricultural vineyards. A walk in a vineyard is a joy; a walk in much of the county a danger due to illegal growth, armed guards, booby-trapped paths, and poisoned lands.

I’m not anti-marijuana, but I support legalizing and taxing it, as well as subjecting growers to the same water restrictions grape growers face. I do oppose illegal grows on public land, diverting water, and ruining existing ecosystems. While vineyards may be the most visible sector of the agricultural community, non-vineyard agriculture (irrigated pastures and orchards) are the largest user of water in the county, using water at much greater rates per acre.

This piece isn’t meant to be an “us vs. them” piece, but a look at where we all are at, together, now and where we all should be looking to go to decrease the severity of drought consequences as a community in the future. Janet Pauli, Chair of the Mendocino County Inland Water & Power Commission, was able to provide a pretty good map for the future.

Pauli first made clear the severity of our current drought, based on insufficient rain October to present, “this is the new drought of record’ and may be a level of severity that hasn’t occurred in over 400 years based on tree ring data.” This surpasses the often recounted 1976-77 drought of record. Pauli said the path forward required progress on two tracks. The first is reoperation and the second is increased storage at Lake Mendocino.

Reoperation involves support of Congressman Jared Huffman’s Fixing Operations of Reservoirs to Encompass Climatic and Atmospheric Science Trends Act (FORECAST) so we can conserve water in our biggest pond, Lake Mendocino. Currently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers follow required water control instructions from a manual dating back to the 50s, which saw them release water in the spring of 2013 without any evidence of a storm coming in after. Assuming weather prediction is better now than in the 50s, sensible on-the-ground decisions could be made saving unnecessary future water releases from occurring.

Lake Mendocino exists as part of a larger U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control project, authorized by Congress in the 50s, and intended to proceed in three stages. Stage one was the building of the Coyote Valley Dam, completed in 1959, creating the current Lake Mendocino. Stage two involved the building of the Warm Springs Dam, completed in 1982, creating Lake Sonoma. Stage three involves coming back to raise the Coyote Valley Dam 36 vertical feet, doubling the water storage capacity of Lake Mendocino. Stage three has not happened. Pauli said that feasibility studies are costly, but needed to move forward and while $1.2 million has been brought to bear, $4 million more is needed to see the study through to completion. Funding comes from the Federal government, matched by a local coalition including Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, Mendocino County, City of Ukiah, and Russian River Flood Control groups. Next congressional action is required, and Pauli said that in the past U.S. Senator (CA) Diane Feinstein “has helped us with funding for the Feasibility Study. We believe that the project is feasible and should be championed by our elected representatives as nearly “shovel ready”. We are hoping that raising Coyote Dam might become the “water supply poster child” for increasing storage in the State of California.”

If feasible, the current estimate of enlarging Lake Mendocino is $300 million, with perhaps 25 percent local funding needed, and would require a year for authorization plus whatever time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would need to enlarge the existing dam. Similarly, Congressman Huffman’s FORECAST Act requires successful passage into law, a couple of years of studies, and another couple of years before implementation. The greatest problem about droughts is that with their end, so too ends the quest for solutions to drought conditions.

Everyone in Mendocino, Sonoma Counties face drought conditions now and should come together to act now and continue to act together in the future as a community to address ways to minimize the impacts of future droughts. According to Mendocino WineGrowers, Inc., farmers in the wine industry and wineries relying on grapes anticipate losses of up to $100 million this year due to the drought and a combination of mandatory and self-imposed responsible water reduction measures. Grapes just won’t be as plump, there will be fewer and this will lead to less wine made. Do whatever you can to conserve water now. I remember the conservation measures that existed in 1976-77 that are not in effect in homes now.

Support your local, legal, agriculture; help them through this drought by taking on extra water conservation measures at your home and business, and contact Congressman Jared Huffman and voice your support for his FORECAST Act, and contact Senator Diane Feinstein and let her know you would really love to see the Coyote Valley Dam raised 36 vertical feet as soon as practical. Consider your local city councilmember’s and county supervisor’s support for these needed protections of our beautiful county as well. As Mendocino County residents, we’re really in this together.



John On Wine ­ – Grapes or Winemaker?

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on March 20, 2014 by John Cesano

I received a great question from Toronto, Canada; Jason Gonsalves asked, “Which has the greatest impact on the quality of a good wine: the winemaker or the grapes?”

I loved the question because there is not an absolute right answer as both are important, impactful. There are clichés in the wine industry about anybody being able to make good wine in great vintages, some vintages being winemaker proof, and these notions suggest that grapes are most impactful, although I would suggest that the vintage impacts the quality of the grape and therefore vintage may be most impactful. It is also oft said that winemakers earn their salaries making good wine in bad vintages. It is true that many wines were saved by skilled winemakers in bad, or tough, vintages.

Let’s look at grapes and then winemakers. The quality of a grape, the impact the grape will have is dependent on many factors. The first factor is varietal. In hotter areas, many folks plant big reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, and see the heat bring sugar that leads to alcohol and body.

In cooler areas, many folks plant cool climate varietals like the Alsatian whites, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling, or Burgundian varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Viticulture, grape growing choices, impacts the quality of the fruit; head pruning vs. trellising, dry farming, vs. drip irrigation, rocky hill sides vs. loamy river banks, pulling leaves (canopy management) vs. leaving all the leaves, organic compost vs. commercial fertilizer, dropping fruit or not, picking by hand vs. machine.

There are many decisions made in the vineyard that affect the quality of a grape and impact the wine. Vintage matters. Remember the fires of 2008? Remember the smoke, soot, and ash that blanketed nearly all of Mendocino County? I remember soaking a bandana in water, covering my mouth and nose, and using it as a filter to breathe through on the way to my black car. Mind you, I owned a white car, but it was black. Everything was black. Grapes in 2008 sat under the same smoke, ash, and soot.

2011 was tough for a lot of folks. That was the year without a summer. I’m looking out a window in March at flowers that sprung from buds that broke in February this year. In 2011, bud break didn’t occur in many places until late May, and was followed almost immediately in early June by torrential rains which took the buds right off the vines. Vineyards that regularly harvested four tons per acre in other years ended up harvesting about a ton and a half, an enormous reduction in tonnage. After the disastrous rain of early June, temperatures remained cool, sugars were very low.

Winemakers impact the quality of wine enormously too. Name 20 Mendocino County winemakers. I’ll choose 10 and the wines they would make would be better, much better, than the wines made by the 10 I didn’t choose. Winemakers saved the 2008 vintage, reducing or eliminating the smoke taint through reverse osmosis. Winemakers made bigger red wines than the 2011 vintage grapes would have allowed with additions of fruit concentrates and color. I have been fortunate, I have seen a winemaker take good grapes from a great vintage that yielded wine that wasn’t great and let them sing with a tiny addition of tartaric acid. Winemakers have a host of choices that impact the quality of a wine: oak vs. stainless, barrel vs. staves or chips, malolactic butter vs. zero ml apple flavors, 100 percent varietal composition vs. blend, filter and fine vs. not, vineyard designate vs. mixing fruit from more than one location source, bottle age vs. truck age. Frankly, there are so many choices winemakers have, so many tools in their toolbox, that it is ridiculous to minimize the impact of the winemaker on a quality wine.

I work for Guinness McFadden, one of Mendocino County’s top growers. Organic from day one, 44 years ago, and biodiverse, Guinness has experimented and found what grows best on his farm and under what conditions. Planting cool climate grapes on his high altitude river valley property, and then treating each of many blocks like the separate micro climates they are has led to the most possible flavor for each varietal planted. Guinness dry farms some, and irrigates other; head prunes some, and trellises other, and sure enough he grows some grapes on rocky hillsides where vines fight for moisture and has other grapes planted very near the Russian River.

I used to work with Carol Shelton, one of California’s best winemakers. I tasted the results of her winemaking, over 40 releases each year, from over a dozen varietals. The top awarded winemaker in the nation, several years running, Carol worked with grapes from all over, and transformed them into amazing wines. If pressed, I would say that grapes are the first and most important factor, winemaker is second, in what makes a great wine; but I wholly respect anyone who disagrees, and there are plenty of great winemakers in the county to point to as examples of impact on wine. Thanks for your question Jason, it was great because there is no wrong ­ or right ­ answer, but an excellent jumping off point to explore some of the complexities of wine.


Get your ticket for April 5’s A Showcase of Mendocino Sparkling Wine where a dozen local producers will come together at Terra Sávia winery in Hopland to showcase their finest offerings. Graziano Family of Wines, Handley Cellars, McFadden Vineyards, Nelson Family Vineyards, Paul Dolan Vineyards, Rack & Riddle, Ray’s Station, Roederer Estate, Scharffenberger Cellars, Signal Ridge, Terra Savia, and Yorkville Cellars will all pour their sparkling wines. Enjoy smoked salmon, local oysters, pate, canapés, fresh strawberries, artisan breads, and for dessert, a delicious lavender infused sponge cake, to pair with your bubbly tastes. Classical guitarist Joel DiMauro will be perform. I’ll be there, and hope to see you there too. Tickets are $55, online, at


John On Wine ­ –
A wine dinner and Mendocino County loses a great friend

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on March 13, 2014 by John Cesano


If you read this column, you know that I love wine, and I love food, but I really love wine and food together. I’ve written about the Chef’s Wine Dinners at Crush, each one featuring a different winery or brand: Saracina, Barra and Girasole, Bonterra, and Coro Mendocino. I wrote about the crab and bubbly pairing at Patrona that featured the sparkling wines of Roederer Estate. At the insistence of you, the folks who read this column, I ate at Uncorked, pairing a variety of plates with a flight of different wines. Up next, I’ll enjoy Testa Wines at Saucy in Ukiah during a four course wine dinner on Wednesday, March 26 starting at 6 p.m. The cost is only $60, includes wine and food, but does not include tax or gratuity.

This is a working menu and may change before the dinner, but it should inspire you to call and reserve a spot at the dinner. First course: Bosc pear, ricotta and rosemary ravioli in a dreamy sauce; served with Testa White, a blend of Sauvingon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Muscat and Pinot Gris. Second course: little gem romaine, Pennyroyal blue cheese, red wine vinaigrette, white pepper cracker; served with Testa Grenache, a delicious wine with notes of light berry and spice. Third course: braised short ribs, red wine pan reduction, Peruvian potato & root vegetable gratin, sauteed dino kale; served with Testa Black, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane and Petite Sirah. Dessert, the fourth course: brown butter pound cake, caramelized pineapple, sweet crème, Testa Charbono syrup; served with Sherry. I’ve made my reservation. To join the fun, you’ll need to call too, before all the seats are gone, (707) 462-7007.


I met Virginie Boone a couple of years ago. Virginie tasted wines from Mendocino and Lake County for Wine Enthusiast magazine and then rated them on a 100 point scale and wrote a review of each. The old Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission, through Jan Mettler of Boss Dog marketing, invited Virginie up to visit some of Mendocino County’s more unique wineries and tasting rooms, and I was fortunate enough to score a visit with Virginie for McFadden. The first thing I noticed was that Virginie was relaxed, not stuffy or pretentious, but smiling and pleased to be visiting a beautiful area on a gorgeous day, and being able to taste wines made the day more joyous for her. Virginie let me know up front that she was a bit pressed for time, had a couple more stops to make and could taste perhaps four wines. I ended up pouring nearly a dozen wines, telling a little story about each, completely blowing her schedule (if you have visited the McFadden tasting room on a weekday when I’m in, then you know I do hour long experiences and not slam-bam tastings), and she was quite gracious about the hijacking of her time.

I also took the opportunity to pour a wine she had recently rated lower than I felt was right, letting her know it was our fastest selling wine; an amazingly food-friendly wine, and a wine made from the same grapes that another writer had raved about and put on his year end Top 100 Wines list. I pointed out that sometimes wines tasted through a “Parker” filter come up short but, when tasted in place, the different flavors that a piece of land and climate give to a wine can expand the envelope of what is considered varietally correct, like the way McFadden’s Zinfandel is a lower alcohol, Beaujolais-esque, sweet tart candy noted delight instead of a high alcohol fruit jam bomb.

Virginie, to her credit, ended up including McFadden as a “recommended producer” of Zinfandel in a feature piece she wrote over a year later. Virginie visited the county often, more often than many of her counterparts at other publications. She came up to the farm in Potter Valley, toured with Guinness, picked her own corn, which just minutes later was served up with wild rice salad and beef from the farm, all washed down with delicious wine and bubbly.

We ended up as an editor’s pick for Best Year End Sparkling Wine in the magazine. More widely, Virginie sat as a judge, tasting the county’s best wines at the Mendocino County Wine Competition and was open to visits to attend events like the upcoming Celebration of Mendocino County Sparkling Wine on April 5 and the spring Hopland Passport on May 3 & 4. If this feels eulogy-like, it is. Virginie hasn’t passed away, but has been asked to review the wines of Napa and Sonoma counties for Wine Enthusiast. Fortunately, Virginie also writes for the Press Democrat and hopefully her visits to our county will still inform some of the pieces she writes there. Taking over the taste, rate, and review duties for Mendocino and Lake County wines at wine Enthusiast is Jim Gordon. Jim knows wine and wine writing, as the former managing editor of Wine Spectator and the producer of the annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa. Earlier this week, I sent an email inviting Jim to several Mendocino County wine events. I hope Jim visits at least as often (more often is great) as Virginie did, and I would share that Anderson Valley is not the entirety of Mendocino County, and there are excellent wines and new styles to be found outside of Napa County, if you open yourself up to them. Welcome Jim Gordon.


The folks at SF City Voter had month long voting for Bay Area A-List Best winners in several categories, from coffee shops to brew pubs, and wedding photographers to wineries.

Over 37,000 votes were cast.

Winners for Best Wineries were announced today.

Here is a list of the top 5 vote getting wineries from each of the areas throughout the bay area:


1. McFadden Vineyard
13275 S Hwy 101 #5, Hopland, CA

2. Navarro Vineyards & Winery
5601 Hwy. 128, Philo, CA

3. Roederer Estate
4501 Highway 128, Philo, CA

4. Toulouse Vineyards
8001 Highway 128, #152, Philo, CA

5. Pacific Star Winery
33000 North Highway 1, Fort Bragg, CA


1. Frank Family Vineyards
1091 Larkmead Ln, Calistoga, CA

2. Reynolds Family Winery
3266 Silverado Trl, Napa, CA

3. Artesa Vineyards & Winery
1345 Henry Rd, Napa, CA

4. Peju Province Winery
8466 Saint Helena Hwy, Rutherford, CA

5. V. Sattui Winery
1111 White Ln, St. Helena, CA


1. The Winery SF
200 California Avenue, San Francisco, CA

2. Schug Carneros Estate
602 Bonneau Rd, Sonoma, CA

3. Stage Left Cellars
2102 Dennison St, East Oakland Oakland, CA

4. Ridge Vineyards
17100 Montebello Rd, Santa Clara County Cupertino, CA

5. Urban Legend Cellars
621 4th St, Jack London Square Oakland, CA


1. Imagery Estate Winery
CA-12, Glen Ellen, CA

2. Alexander Valley Vineyards
8644 Highway 128, Healdsburg, CA

3. Portalupi Wines
7 North St, Healdsburg, CA

4. Loxton Cellars
11466 Dunbar Road, Glen Ellen, CA

5. Deerfield Ranch Winery
10200 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, CA


1. McGrail Vineyards and Winery
5600 Greenville Rd, Livermore, CA

2. Wente Vineyards
5565 Tesla Road, Livermore, CA

3. Steven Kent Winery
5443 Tesla Rd, Livermore, CA

4. Retzlaff Vineyards
1356 S Livermore Ave, Livermore, CA

5. Red Feather Winery
5700 Greenville Rd, Livermore, CA


This is your list, collectively, a vote of the people, a popularity contest.

Nothing wrong with popularity; I find it is usually deserved, earned.


John On Wine – Wine Tasting in March

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on March 6, 2014 by John Cesano

This Saturday, Hopland celebrates St. Patrick’s Day a little early with participating winery tasting rooms serving up a little Irish cheer, and homemade Irish dishes, to pair with terrific wines and big savings from 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. St.Patrick’s Day is the day that Rich Parducci and Greg Graziano are as Irish as Guinness McFadden; everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

McNab Ridge will serve up Irish Stew, Irish soda bread, and Bailey’s Irish whipped cream.

McFadden will have corned beef and cabbage, cooked in McFadden Gewurztraminer and McFadden organic herbs. Ray’s Station is going with Reuben meatballs, Irish cheese, and Irish short bread. Cesar Toxqui Cellars will have Italian food. Naughty Boy and Graziano will also take part in Second Saturday fun.


Saturday, March 8 from 1 -4 p.m. ­ Little River Whale Festival benefiting MAPA ­ the Mendocino Area Parks Association, and the Van Damme State Park. This is a passport style event over three hours with eight locations. Tickets are $25 in advance and can be purchased by calling Little River Inn at 937-5942 or $30 at the event. Specialties from eight local gourmet chefs and local wines! Participating wineries include Alder Vineyards, Edmeades Winery, Graziano Family of Wines, Handley Cellars, Lichen, Lula Cellars, and Stevenswood Wines. Dessert & locally roasted coffee by Thanksgiving Coffee at the Little River Market & Deli.


The Wine Road is a Sonoma County winery tourism group run by Beth Costa and includes the Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and Alexander Valley, all of which surround the town of Healdsburg. Wine Road puts on the Barrel Tasting Weekends with more than 100 participating wineries in and around Healdsburg.

From the Wine Road website page dedicated to the Barrel Tasting Weekends: “Barrel Tasting is not a food pairing or themed event. It’s all about the wine … many wineries offer “futures” on their barrel samples. This is a chance to purchase wine now, often at a discount, then come back to the winery when the wine is bottled, typically 12-18 months from now. Many wines are so limited, buying futures is your only chance to purchase them. Attendees are encouraged to pack a picnic, as most wineries will not have food for this event. The ticket price includes the opportunity to sample wine from the barrel and in most cases also trying a limited number of current release wines.”

Did you notice that they mention that there is no food at the event and encourage folks to bring an entire picnic of food? That is to counter the only negative attached to the event: it has picked up a bit of a reputation as a drunk fest ­ but a very successful drunk fest. I remember attending more than 25 years ago. Barrel Tasting used to be just one weekend and it was free. Alexander Valley opened up Friday night and I would visit there first, with Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River Valley for Saturday and Sunday. The event was largely attended by folks in the wine industry and wine enthusiasts. The event has grown, and gone from free to $5, then $20, and now $30; and from one weekend to two. With 8,000 folks on the road, racing from winery to winery, trying to taste at over 100 and get value for their ticket price, there are horror stories of inebriation. Imagine it, and the reality is 10 times worse. That said, it really is just a few horribly bad apples gaining all of the notoriety, and the event really is otherwise spectacular. The final weekend of the 36th annual Barrel Tasting are this weekend, March 7-9, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. Advance ticket sales have ended, but wineries will sell tickets at the door. For a map of participating wineries, visit


Saturday, March 22 from 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. – Saracina’s Old Soul Red Blending Party. I’ve written before about how much fun a wine blending party can be, I’ve attended the Testa Barn Blend Party two of the three years it has been held, and was able to be one of three judges to help Maria and rusty choose a winner last year. Nelson, McNab Ridge, and now Saracina also have wine blending events, and all are worth attending. Saracina winemaker Alex MacGragor will lead folks through the art and science of wine blending, and then set you loose to help fashion or inspire the next vintage of the Saracina Coro Mendocino. Oops, a rose by any other name. I should have said that you have the chance to blend your own version of the Saracina Atrea Old Soul Red.

Everyone who attends and participates is a winner, as events at Saracina are known for being memorably top notch. After the hard work (it isn’t really, it is big fun) of wine blending winds down, you get to relax and enjoy Saracina wines and a family-style lunch of wood-fired pizzas and gourmet sides prepared by farm-to-table chef Olan Cox.

Given the hands-on nature of this experience, space is very limited. Please call (707) 670-0199 to grab your ticket now. Saracina is located 1.5 miles north of Hopland at 11684 South Hwy 101.


I fly to Phoenix for the weekend. Perhaps, I’ll review coach class airline wine and airport hotel lounge wine for next week’s column. In the meantime, why don’t you get out this weekend and taste some wine? There certainly are ample opportunities for a great wine weekend close to home. Cheers!