In Mendocino, a new voice from the east

Special to The Times

Though it goes by one name, Mendocino County, when it comes to wine, is best understood as a tale of two counties. The better-known coastal area is a romantic, rugged landscape with cool sea breezes that help create the critically acclaimed Pinot Noirs of the Anderson Valley. Behind imposing mountains is Mendocino's other half, a hot inland farming valley whose wineries produce ... well, what?

That's the problem. The warmer interior produces lots of wine, but much of it isn't identified with the county because, says longtime Mendo winemaker Dennis Patton, "only 10% to 15% of Mendocino wine is bottled by a winery here and labeled Mendocino." The rest goes to large producers in other counties that blend it into wines labeled simply "California."

Hoping to draw better attention to the region, a group of eight Mendocino wineries, including Fetzer and Parducci, has announced the first release of a new red wine category it calls Coro Mendocino.

Taking its name from the Spanish and Italian word for "chorus" -- separate voices singing the same tune -- Coro Mendocino is a collection of Zinfandel blends that are made according to formal rules and stipulations. The goal is nothing less than creating a new kind of wine that you can ask for as, say, you ask for a Bordeaux -- a wine from which you know approximately what to expect.

The No. 1 requirement for a Coro Mendocino is that the wine be made using Mendocino fruit in a bonded Mendocino winery. By using primarily grapes that have long, pre-Prohibition histories in Mendocino, the hope is that the Coro wines will express the soul and terroir of Mendocino County, becoming as emblematic of place as the blends of Chateauneuf-du-Pape are of the southern Rhone and as Chianti is of Tuscany.

The wines of the first vintage, 2001, are all concentrated and potent blends that have as their link a core of round, sweet fruit, typical of inland Mendocino. With its long history in Mendocino, Zinfandel was chosen to be the base of all the wines, but the rules allow flexibility with the amount (minimum 40%, maximum 70%).

So, Parducci's Coro Mendocino, with 67% Zin, is ruby red, plump and jammy, with loads of red fruit and plenty of spice. But several other Coro Mendocinos -- those from Pacific Star, Golden Vineyards and Fetzer -- use less than 50% Zin, and more Syrah and Petite Syrah, yielding wines that are purple in color and flavor, darker and more savory in nature.

In a recent tasting, I found all the Coro wines to be of a quality justifying the uniform $35 price tag. As a group, they're some of the most interesting wines Mendocino has yet produced.

And they certainly look the part: Except for the names of the individual wineries in white logotype at the top, the labels for all eight Coro Mendocinos are identical.

To add to the momentum, the 2002 vintage will add two more wineries, Dunnewood and McDowell Valley Vineyards, and Patton believes two or three more will join in the following year.

What is more interesting than any of the individual wines, though, is the project itself and what it means, if anything, for California wine. Europe's appellation control laws evolved over hundreds of years as winegrowers figured out, first, which grapes grew most successfully in their regions and, then, the proper ways to combine them. Over time, geographical areas such as Rioja, Chianti and Chateauneuf-du-Pape became synonymous with the wines they produced, the region (an aspect of terroir) being more important than the individual grapes used in the wines.

In California, the emphasis has always been on grape over region, making the Coro project a radical departure from the norm. But it also poses a question: Can you create in an instant what took centuries to evolve in Europe?

Probably not. Though there may be 80-year-old Zinfandel vines in Mendocino, that's a short period of time in winemaking history. The best places to grow grapes and the best grapes to grow in such a place are still being revealed.

But the Coro Mendocino project has already benefited Mendocino winemaking by encouraging participating winemakers to improve their wines. Each Coro bottling had to be approved in rigorous tasting sessions by the entire group before it was released.

"The unforeseen benefit was that it pushed us all to make better and better wine," says Bob Swain of Parducci. "None of us had ever cooperated like that before. Tasting and tasting with my colleagues, I learned so much."

But the fact that, of the 50 wineries in Mendocino, only eight were involved in the initial movement highlights the geographical rift in the state. There were no members of Coro from the Anderson Valley, the county's most celebrated growing region. Indeed, the focus on Zinfandel is a de facto exclusion of the Anderson Valley, which, due to its cooler climate, primarily grows Pinot Noir and aromatic whites. With the geographical divide comes a cultural one, as some winemakers in the rest of Mendocino feel that the Anderson Valley, which has its own winegrowers association, has branded itself as its own entity and not necessarily as a part of Mendocino. One winemaker put it to me this way: "I love their wines, but I think that those people on the other side of the mountain think they're better than we are."

Zin is in -- for now

Alan GREEN of Greenwood Ridge Vineyards is a member of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Assn. and says the schism is an unavoidable fact of living in a county that's so geographically diverse. "I went to a couple of the original meetings when they were just formulating the concept, and this problem was discussed at the time," he says. "I didn't have an idea, and nobody had any ideas, for a wine that could include the rest of the county. But it doesn't mean we're the Hatfields and the McCoys. There's no animosity."

Patton asserts that winegrowers in the Anderson Valley can always buy Zinfandel fruit from the other side of the county to make their own Coro blends. But when I asked Green if this was likely, he was doubtful: "Never say never. If we had the varieties, I think we'd jump on the bandwagon, but I can't see buying fruit just to be a part of it. I'm mostly interested in the grapes we grow. We've planted an acre of Syrah, and we'll see how that comes out. The Coro philosophy is Zin only, but maybe they'll open that up."

Indeed, no one is claiming that Coro is a fixed entity; in fact, quite the opposite. "We can change it every year, if we want," says Patton. "And we fully expect that it will change. This is just a beginning."

A beginning for Mendocino, but what about the rest of the state? Might other regions -- Paso Robles, say, or Lodi -- take a look at what Mendocino is doing and create their own signature wines? Not likely, says Jason Haas of Paso Robles' Tablas Creek Vineyard, which makes excellent Rhone-style red and white blends.

"I love the idea, but I can't see it happening here. At least not for a long time. If they'd done this 10 years ago in Paso, it wouldn't have included Rhone varietals. We're still just figuring out what grows here."

Coro Mendocino has a lot of that sort of figuring out to do as well. The first vintage made some interesting wines, but none were precise enough for me to see the "family resemblance" that the project coordinators claim to have created. But as the winemakers learn how to play with the varieties and refine their blends, the wines will have more definition, more coherence.

The Coro project is a bold start. And even if Coro Mendocino wines have a way to go, the inaugural vintage of 2001 must be considered a success: It got our attention, didn't it?

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