Earlier this year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its 2022 Preliminary Grape Crush Report for Mendocino County. After challenging years of drought and heat waves, Mendocino County’s grape tonnage was up 31.1% at 61,479 tons compared to 49,909 tons in 2021. This is above average compared to the state of California, which in 2022 reported a 6.7% decrease at 3.62 million tons of grapes down from 3.88 million tons in 2021.
And while Anderson Valley pinot noir often steals the show, it isn’t the most popular grape grown in Mendocino County – that’s chardonnay.
In 2022, chardonnay comprised 38% of all the fruit harvested in Mendocino County. The popular white varietal saw a 30% increase in tonnage at 20,808. The runner-up for the second most popular wine grape grown in Mendocino County was cabernet sauvignon, which comprises 22.4% of total crop production and saw a 50% increase in tonnage at 13,791. Pinot noir was third most popular, making up 12.4% of total crop production. In contrast to chardonnay and cabernet, pinot noir saw only a 2% increase totaling 7,640 tons.
According to Matt Tollini, a fourth-generation winegrower whose family has been growing grapes in Calpella and Redwood Valley since 1924, the unique microclimates of Mendocino County create the perfect venue for cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. “Inland can be much warmer and has a longer growing season which cabernet needs,” says Tollini, “while Anderson Valley is much cooler, slowing the ripening process for chardonnay, which has a shorter growing season.”
The quality of the grapes and the impressive tonnage is largely a result of the weather. In 2022, the county’s wine-growing areas escaped major wildfires and smoke damage. However, high temperatures and heavy rainfall in September contributed to a complex harvest season, according to Tollini. “The excessive heat we had, including a heat wave of up to 122 degrees, fried grapes all over the county,” Tollini says. “Then we had over 3 inches of rain that started the rotting process in some varieties. It was a very difficult harvest for sure!”
After harvest wrapped up in October, winegrowers welcomed the rains that drenched the region from December through February. During this time, the vines are dormant. The rains helped replenish the water table, wash away salt that can damage roots, and fill up reservoirs and irrigation ponds. “It’s something we’ve all been hoping for,” Tollini says about the winter rains.
Rich Parducci, winemaker and managing partner of McNab Ridge Winery in Hopland, couldn’t agree more on the “interesting” 2022 harvest and vintage. “During the summer and into harvest we had weeks of blistering heat that had us thinking the grapes might `sugar ripen’ too quickly, meaning the brix would skyrocket, forcing us to pick before flavor had developed.” Parducci, like Tollini, also saw sunburned grapes in vineyards, however, “our growers did a great job of keeping the vines hydrated and dropping any compromised fruit.”
Despite the challenges, Mendocino County winegrowers and their dedicated crews harvested an estimated $108.5 million worth of wine grapes, a 29% increase from 2021.
While pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are the most popular varietals in Mendocino County, the region also produces myriad wine varietals, from 100-year-old carignan in Redwood Valley to rare pinotage of Hopland. Parducci believes there is an increasing demand and interest for lesser known wine varietals, and he says that more are being planted as availability to unique root stocks and clones increases. “Mike Lucia and Greg Graziano are both planting and growing a number of different unique varietals and having success with them,” says Parducci.
Lucia, who owns Cole Ranch above Boonville, is focusing on grapes from the French Alps, including jacquère, savagnin, and mondeuse, all grapes rarely found in the United States. These white and red grapes are in addition to Cole Ranch’s cabernet sauvignon, merlot and riesling, planted in the 1970s. Graziano’s family has been growing grapes in the county since 1918, specifically in Potter Valley, Calpella and Ukiah. Graziano grows a wide variety of grapes rarely found in California, including fiano, vermentino, montepulciano and other predominantly Italian varietals.
And while many of these varietals might not roll off the tongue like chardonnay or cabernet, winemakers like Parducci are looking forward to making their wines. “A lot of us winemakers tend to want to make different wines, it’s exciting for us,” says Parducci. And it’s not just the winemakers that are excited. “Consumers are not only more educated on these varieties, but they seem to be more adventurous,” Parducci says. “Maybe they learned about these wines from the internet, a blogger or attending tasting events. Whatever the case, they are not only willing to try them, but they are actively seeking them out. I do the same thing, it’s fun to try new wines.”
Given that approximately 2,000 tons of grapes can produce over 750 bottles, the 2022 Mendocino County vintage may possibly produce over 22,600 bottles of wine. Some of these grapes will be kept in the county, used by local producers to craft exceptional award-winning wines. Other grapes will be sent elsewhere, both in and out of California, where winemakers from the smallest boutique wineries to the largest corporations will produce their own liquid gold (or purple) from Mendocino County’s most popular crop.
As for the 2022 vintages at McNab Ridge Winery, which recently released its 2022 sauvignon blanc, made with grapes from White Oak Ranch Vineyard in Ukiah, Parducci is feeling good: “We have some real winners in the barrel.”
Note: Sarah Stierch covers food, beverage, culture, weather and breaking news for The Mendocino Voice. Contact Stierch at [email protected]. The Voice maintains editorial control.