North Coast Journal bannerCOVER STORY

HUMBOLDT COUNTY'S
GRAPE EXPECTATIONS

by TERRY KRAMER

Photo of winemakers in vinyardIT'S A HOT AFTERNOON IN the vineyard and late summer sunlight angles from the southern sky. Like a covey of quail kicking up dust, more than 50 winegrowers and aficionados follow the farmer down a seemingly endless row of trellised wine grapes; dark, sultry clusters peak out from a canopy of crisp foliage. A warm, stiff breeze causes the farmer to clutch a straw hat to his head as he eagerly waves the other hand about his vines. This scene is not in the Napa Valley but in a Hoopa vineyard during an August tour organized by University of California Extension Farm Adviser Deborah Giraud.

An annual event, this year a record number of people turned out to tour 23 acres of vineyards in Salyer, Willow Creek and Hoopa and learn from local growers about the successes and dilemmas of growing wine grapes in Humboldt County. Commercial viticulture is quickly taking root in small patches of river and creek valleys nestled between the steep tree-studded slopes of southern and eastern Humboldt County.

Veteran winegrower Joe Collins of Briceland Winery has witnessed an upswing in the business since he began making wine more than 25 years ago.

"Maybe 10 years ago there were five acres locally. Now (in Southern Humboldt) there are more than 25 acres. They are very small vineyards, but it's growing and people are putting in more grapes all the time," he said.

Giraud estimates there are about 65 acres of grapes in cultivation county-wide, spread out in Hoopa, Willow Creek, Orleans and Southern Humboldt. And there are eight wineries.

"There have been more and more little vineyards going in," Giraud said. "I've been getting dozens of inquires. Right now I've got 75 people on a mailing list interested in wine-grape growing in Humboldt County. When (grower) Daryl Mason planted right out there on the Highway 299 in Willow Creek, it became very obvious grapes were going in. It's becoming more and more visible," she said.

It's a gamble to invest tens of thousands of dollars and endless hours growing wine grapes in a climate where capricious weather can produce late spring frosts and early fall rains, times when grapes are most vulnerable. But microclimates of slow-warming summers and cool nights in eastern and southern Humboldt County are what contribute to the distinctive character and complexity of a fine wine grape. In addition, cheap land, compared to Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino wine regions, along with abundant, almost free, water has helped spark the burgeoning wine industry.

According to Collins, the availability of land and water gives the Hoopa area the potential to burst into a prime wine grape region.

"In this Hoopa Valley there is a lot of flat land and a lot of free water. Two months ago I was in Mendocino at a little pinot noir conference and I talked about Humboldt County. These guys down there are looking for land where they can put in some vineyards because it is real restricted in the Booneville area and Mendocino. Well, this is like the Booneville climate and these people are going to want to come here. In 10 years you wait and see you could fill this place up with vineyards and get good quality grapes," Collins said.

The wine grapes best suited for the short growing season of Humboldt County are pinot noir, chardonnay and merlot, according to Giraud. These varieties take less time and heat to mature. But she cautions that just the feat of ripening will not guarantee a grape's quality.

"There are many factors that contribute to a good grape. You need sugar/acid balance. You need the tannins, the flavor component. Just because a grape is ripe doesn't mean it is going to make excellent wine. It's a real combination of things, " Giraud said.

Ed Oliveira, owner of Oliveira Winery in Arcata and a commercial winegrower for 25 years with two acres in Salyer, has been tending a half-acre patch of merlot for as long as he has been making wine.

"It's such a short growing season. You'll get a good crop two out of five years," he said. But, he added, "Late summer/early fall rains can destroy a wine grape, causing bunch rot," a mold that enters the clusters of grapes and ruins the crop.

Local growers also have to contend with deer, bear and birds, Oliveira added.

Whitethorn grower Tasha McCorkle (see separate story) purchases grapes from the Napa Valley, in part because local grapes are not available in the quantities needed. Hoping for more Humboldt vineyards to be planted, she says successful viticulture involves using good clones, cuttings from vines that have been known to produce good wine.

"Growers should talk to the wineries where they want to sell the fruit and learn about the clones first. Make sure the variety is going to ripen, and make sure it is a clone that is going to produce a good quality of wine. There are plenty of (wine grapes) out there that are just kind of nondescript. They are not going to make anything special.

"It is a lot of work to plant the grapes, take care of the vineyard. New growers in this county are going to be in the same situation as I am, in that they are going to be small. You can't make it and compete with big growers who produce nondescript grapes. You better grow something special," McCorkle said.

Collins agreed. "In order to compete in the market you have to have a really good product, so you have to grow the very best grapes that will make the very best wine."

Bob Hodgson of the Fieldbrook Winery said since the Central Valley produces "plenty of mediocre grapes for cheaper wine, the market niche (for Humboldt growers) is to grow the best in the nation here, and they're just starting to do that," he said.

Hodgson buys grapes from five or six growers in Humboldt, Trinity, Napa and Mendocino counties. He has produced wines for the past 22 years that often win national and international awards. Last month he won Best of Region at the California State Fair one of the top 10 wines of the competition out of 2,000 entries a cabernet-merlot blend he calls Medallion. The grapes he used were grown in Trinity County.

But in spite of these successes, he cautions, growing the best grapes and producing award-winning wines locally does not guarantee top prices on the supermarket shelves.

"Humboldt is not part of the `North Coast' appellation. `North Coast' stops at the Mendocino County line," he said.

"Recently I sent samples of some young Trinity County wine to a broker and was offered $20 a gallon until they found out where the grapes were grown," he said. The offer was lowered by $3 because of tightly controlled federal wine labeling laws.

Most Humboldt and Trinity county grapes are classified as "other California" and must carry the same generic "California" appellation on the label as Central Valley growers such as Gallo.

Up to 15 percent of "other California" grapes is allowed to go into a blend of, for instance, a Napa Valley wine. But once the percentage is more than 15, the Napa Valley designation is lost and the wine has to carry the "California" designation.

"Wines made from Napa grapes can command phenomenal prices. A good run-of-the-mill Napa Valley wine costs $30 to $40 a bottle. Even if we beat them in state competitions, which we have done, we cannot get $40 a bottle for our wine.

"But we are getting $20 right now for wines that win those competitions," Hodgson said.

Winegrower Daryl Mason, who in the last three years has planted 20 acres of wine grapes in Willow Creek and Hoopa, has found a marketing niche by producing organically grown grapes and wine. His fruit is grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers, and his wine is made using the wild yeast on the berry with no sulfites.

"I am going to set myself apart from the thousands of other wineries in California. If you try to meet the competition head on, especially with the big players down in Napa and Sonoma, well, it's an uphill battle. But if you find your own niche this generation in particular has a propensity to buy organically grown fruits and things of that nature well, that's the way to go," he said.

Some of Humboldt County's wines do command top dollar in the San Francisco Bay area and premium restaurants as far away as St. Louis and New York, but often cannot be found on wine lists here.

McCorkle, who distributes 90 percent of her wine to upscale Bay area restaurants and markets, thinks the problem stems from a lack of education on the part of the local consumer.

"It's hard to sell wine in Humboldt County because most of the people are not trained to know what good wine tastes like. Maybe that's an overstatement. Most just don't have the background so they are not going to say, `I feel confident enough to pay for this wine,' " she said.

Recently Collins has been marketing his wine in the Bay area with some success, seeing it sold for as much as $40 a bottle in some restaurants.

In his case, federal laws work in his favor. Collins, Oliveira and the Patterson Road Vineyard applied for and were granted their own tiny appellation for Willow Creek grapes.

"You can have a name like Willow Creek merlot or Willow Creek cabernet on the label that gives you brand identification. It's the singularly most marketable aspect of this area," Mason said.

Although there are just 65 acres of vineyards throughout the county, competition for the high-end wine market is stiff and producing more wine than consumers demand locally can cause problems, Hodgson said, citing the Oregon wine market as an example.

"The premium wine grape market still is a relatively new industry that has been growing phenomenally up there, but nobody lives in Oregon," he said jokingly. "If you look at the population, it's just tiny, so they have had to find a market for their grapes and wines outside the boundaries of Oregon."

Difficulties aside, new vineyards continue to pop up in Humboldt County. Seeking advice from vineyard owners participating in the August tour, novice grower Bruce Nelson stood in his recently planted Willow Creek vineyard, a flat stretch of land with row upon row of drip lines and wire trellises with skinny, young vines peaking out from plastic grow tubes. With a chocolate hound dog tugging on one hand and a silver can of Bud Light in the other, he said , "I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm doing it anyway."


FROM ROSE PETALS TO MERLOT

by TERRY KRAMER

BROWSE THE WINE MENU AT THE Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco and you will find a premium chardonnay bearing the Whitethorn Winery label. In fact, many trendy San Francisco Bay area restaurants like Chez Panisse, French Laundry and the Rubicon feature Whitethorn merlot, cabernet and pinot noir. All are crafted by the hands of owner/winegrower Tasha McCorkle from her winery in the sleepy Southern Humboldt community of Whitethorn.

In stark contrast to a big-city restaurant, the winery itself is an unpretentious 50-foot-long building, smack in the middle of a dusty construction yard. Cool and bright inside, there rests on the concrete floor a collection of winemaking accoutrements: sinks, hoses, tubes, pumps and carboys, all contrasting sharply with the elegant 60-gallon handcrafted, French oak barrels stacked pyramid-style along one wall. The petite, 43-year-old McCorkle scrambles gingerly up the pyramid of oak wine barrels, pops open a bung and siphons an inky liquid into a goblet. Merlot. She tastes; she smiles.

"One of the things that interests me in winemaking in the first place is how you are tied in with the rhythms of nature," she explained. "Every year the weather affects the quality of the grapes. There is this cycle in the vineyard from when they first blossom, when the fruit forms, tasting the fruit to decide when it will be ripe. Then the harvest time, a distillation of everything that happened that year," McCorkle said.

McCorkle buys her grapes from specially chosen vineyards in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Working in tandem with each grower, she oversees the culture of the grapes, starting from when vines sprout their first shoots in the spring to pruning the leaves that shelter the fruit during summer to sampling grapes to determine harvest time. To this winegrower it is crucial that she go into the field and monitor the culture of the grapes.

The bulk of McCorkle's grapes come from the vineyards of Larry Hyde in the Carneros region of the Napa Valley. Hyde appreciates McCorkle's input, she said.

"Some growers don't want to do that. But most, if they are charging a lot for their fruit and they are trying to do a high quality job, they are willing."

Raised in Whitethorn on her great- grandfather's homestead since the age of 2, McCorkle began making wine out of rose petals, elderberries and blackberries at 15 after she quit high school.

"My dad used to tease me and say that I must be the head of the household, because (making wine) was only legal at that time if you were head of the house. You could make 200 gallons of wine legally a year," she said laughing.

She learned carpentry skills from her father, who owns Whitethorn Construction Co., working with him until she was 20. Still passionate about winemaking, McCorkle decided to return to school.

"I had all these books on winemaking that had all this organic chemistry and stuff, and I wanted to at least learn the science so I could understand the books," she said.

Since one of her sisters was attending San Francisco City College, McCorkle moved in with her and for seven years worked days, taking night classes in chemistry at the college.

Realizing that working a harvest

is crucial to understanding winemaking, McCorkle spent a harvest season in the Anderson Valley at Edmeades Vineyard under the aegis of noted winemaker Jed Steele. Hands-on experience was important to McCorkle prior to entering the University of California at Davis.

Two and half year later McCorkle graduated from Davis with a degree in fermentation science. "I graduated with the highest honors, which I thought was pretty funny for not having ever finished high school," she said.

Because McCorkle's ultimate goal was one day to have a winery of her own, she chose to tackle a cellar job after graduation. The work meant operating crushers and presses, hauling hoses, running pumps and stacking 80-pound empty oak wine barrels into pyramids.

Landing a cellar job at the Trefethen Vineyards was no easy task for a woman applying for a tough physical job in an industry dominated by men. The winery management was reluctant to hire her.

"It was really interesting at the job interview. I could tell they were having mixed feelings about hiring me. I said `How do you feel about hiring a woman for this job because it is a cellar position?' The winemaker who was interviewing me said, `The whole crew is up in arms about you. They don't want another woman, because they had hired one before and said that she couldn't pull her weight and didn't really understand physical work.' So I said to them, `Well, I used to set chokers for my dad and that is just about the hardest job there is, running behind a cat carrying cable and such.'"

She got the job.

Two years later McCorkle shifted gears. She went to work for five years at Simi Winery, fine tuning her winemaking skills under the tutelage of winemaker Zelma Long. During her tenure she was sent to Bordeaux, France, to witness the grape harvest. She also visited the cooperage that makes fine oak wine barrels. Later, Simi promoted McCorkle to associate winemaker.

With the arrival of a son, McCorkle and her husband began to examine the benefits of spending time with their child against those of having high-paying, time-consuming jobs that involved commuting 50 miles each way to work every day.

McCorkle's father invited his five children to come back to the Whitethorn homestead to live. McCorkle seized the opportunity and started her winery on a shoestring budget, producing 100 cases with the help of Joe and Maggie Collins at Briceland Winery.

"When I came back I learned a lot from Joe about making wine on a small scale. It was kind of fun because when I was a teenager making wines out of rose petals and elderberry, they (Joe and Maggie) were making home wine, too, and I remember trading wine with them because they had apple and I had elderberry and they knew it had to be blended with something."

Acquiring premium grapes was difficult in the beginning. McCorkle had her eye on Hyde's Napa Valley vineyard.

"At first I could hardly get any grapes from him. Then when I released the '91 pinot noir, the Rubicon had just opened up and they had a review in the Chronicle. They poured our wine, which was an amazing thing. So I sent (Hyde) a copy of the review with a note saying, `I think we can do something really great with the fruit from your vineyard. How about it? Can you give me a couple of tons?'

"He called me back and said `How about 10 tons!' I said, `I can't handle that much.' So we went for five. He really helped us out. Set it up where I wouldn't have to pay the full amount for the grapes for the first couple of years until I sold the wine. He really wanted this little family thing to happen," McCorkle said.

Currently Hyde has planted three acres of pinot noir exclusively for McCorkle. "We decided which clones of pinot noir that would go in there. We put in five different clones. Basically it's my spot. I don't own it, but I have first right of refusal. If someone else comes in and wants to buy that fruit, he's got to talk to me first."

With expansion on the horizon, McCorkle asked her father for the use of an abandoned building at his construction site. With his help the winery found a permanent home, and began producing 500 cases of wine each season.

McCorkle then had to find a market for it. She got hold of a list of wine buyers in the Bay area from a

broker and began cold-call selling at wine markets and restaurants.

"What I found when I started going to these places is that most of the wine buyers know each other, and they go by what they taste, not by whether you have articles written on you or not," she said.

"And in the Bay area there are people that love to buy wine from real small, handcrafted wineries. People there love the stories about the vineyards and how the wine was made. They want to have a personal experience, so they are really willing to be adventurous." (This means spending $60 retail or more for a bottle of Whitethorn wine.)

Increasing production to 1,300 cases of wine, McCorkle thinks this is the year she may actually be able to cut herself a paycheck.

"The problem with cash flow in the wine-making business is a lot of times it is three years from the time that you pay for all the grapes and everything to when you get the money back and sell it," she said.

For example, McCorkle buys one-third of her barrel stock new every year, which is no small feat. The hand-signed, custom-made barrels imported from France cost $600 apiece.

Simply making good wine is not McCorkle's ultimate goal. She wants to make wines that are not blended, but from grapes solely from a particular vineyard. "I really want people to have a pleasurable experience when drinking wine. You can make really great wines that are blended, where you take all these wines that have little bits of problems, but mixed together they are really fine. But it is not as interesting to me as trying to discover what the personality of a vineyard is, and having a wine show that."

That's part of the winemaker's art, to feel the color and nuances of a wine on the palate, like a painter distinguishes shades of color with the eyes. McCorkle illustrates the difference between two of her cabernets as an example.

"Right now I'm selling a Mueller cabernet from Mueller vineyards, and a Hyde cabernet from Larry Hyde. They are both 1995 and the winemaking is really close, but (the two wines) are quite different because of the vineyards. People get really excited to taste the two of them together because they really see it. The flavors in the Mueller are minty and cedary and chocolaty, and the Hyde is more tobaccoy and berry and it is a little bit bigger in the mouth," she explained.

It is harvest now, a most exciting time for the winemaker because, McCorkle says, "Every year you get a new chance. You get to start all over again."

The harvest means getting up at 3 a.m., hauling an older model pickup truck and trailer down to get the grapes, arriving home late that night, crushing the grapes and going to bed early the following morning.

For McCorkle it is also a time when she is reminded of the importance of family.

"Mom brings dinner. Dad gave me the space and he sends a truck to save me when I break down. My sister babysits my boy."

Her husband, Dan Doherty in the construction business for 25 years also hauls grapes north to the winery and helps with tasting.

"I couldn't do this without the support of my family," she said.


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