|An overview of the appellations of Mendocino County
In an effort to increase the visibility (and profitability) of Mendocino grapes, the Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission yesterday held their Grape Growers Showcase trade tasting and seminar at the Napa Valley Marriott Hotel and Spa. This was the second of a three-city tour, with the first held last month in Ukiah and the next scheduled for May 11th in Santa Rosa.
The third annual event is focused on bringing growers and buyers together to showcase the unique qualities of Mendocino grapes. "We're trying to brand Mendocino, to get people to understand that there's more about wine than Napa and Sonoma," said Fred Buonanno, director of winery relations at Brutocao Cellars and chairman of the Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission.
According to the Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission, about 75 to 80 percent of Mendocino-grown grapes are currently exported out of the county. Much of that tonnage is anonymously used for blending, often in wines from Napa and Sonoma County producers. The Commission hopes that events like the Growers Showcase will raise the profile of Mendocino County fruit.
"In the past we haven't done a good job marketing ourselves," continued Buonanno. "Our ultimate goal is to get people out there asking for Mendocino grapes so we can expand the number of wineries in the county. Right now we are out there to convince other areas to put Mendocino on the front labels when they use our grapes."
During the lunchtime seminar, longtime Mendocino grower Dennis Patton discussed the pressures that the influx of international imports has put on bottle prices. He indicated that Mendocino grapes allow producers to maintain high quality standards while also offering them a chance to obtain fruit at a price that can compete with international imports. "To protect your position, you need to look to us in the short-term because we are sellers," he said. "We have the same level of quality and we can actually cut your costs."
However, some growers hoped that increasing Mendocino's profile would also result in higher prices for the growers. "I think the perception is that they can buy our fruit less expensively, but the payoff doesn't meet the quality of the grapes," said Lisa Sutton of Bells Echo Vineyard. Sutton's husband, Ron, said that too much of Mendocino's fruit is going into what he termed "filler wine," i.e., less expensive blends. "But events like these give us exposure and recognition for the amazing quality we have up there," he said.
"So much of Mendocino fruit leaves the border," said Casey Hartlip of Eaglepoint Ranch, indicating this is the case for a majority of his own fruit. "So, I wonder, is Eaglepoint Ranch the solution or the problem? I do sell grapes to Mendocino wineries as well, but the prices I need to achieve are with the high-end specialty producers [outside of the county]. We have been in the background for too long. I want to see Mendocino not being used in that value wine blender. I am sick of Mendocino being the 25 percent of a blend."
For grower Stuart Bewley of Alder Springs Vineyard, the showcase not only allowed him the opportunity to find "that one winemaker that stays awake at night thinking about Cabernet Franc," but also offered growers a chance to better define themselves. "People need to know about the high quality in Mendocino County," he said. "A lot of people think there are only moderately-priced wines, but we've got these amazing, special places. I don't think anybody even realizes Mendocino has gotten over a 90-point score."
In more than 30 years of growing grapes in Mendocino County, Leroy Chase of Chase Vineyards has "seen a slip in the marketplace for Mendocino wines," he said. "It used to be Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma were the three great regions to grow wine in California. While everyone else was forming commissions, we sat back. We were replaced, and that hurt. We used to think about selling our grapes in August, but those days are long gone. Now we've got to do it in March."
According to Ed Berry of Cononiah Vineyards, Mendocino grape growers are undergoing a "generational change" in how they do business. "We are more proactive in our marketing. Everyone here is not of the philosophy that if we grow it, they will come," said Berry. "But there has been an attitude change. We're coming to the buyers. We will go anywhere to talk to anyone to sell our fruit and our wines. We take nothing for granted. It's us against the world now, not just Napa and Sonoma grapes."
"I think we can go nowhere but up," said Hartlip. "With the Commission, it shows we are improving our place. I've been saying for 20 years that in the next five years, Mendocino will take off. Now I really believe it."