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At the Winnett family's winery, east of the Trinity River, tiny green beads of fruit clustered on the young plants in the vineyard. Halfway down one of the grassy aisles between rows of tethered leafy vines, you could stand and stare out across the plunging landscape toward Friday Ridge and imagine the past. Timber country, every inch covered in trees -- at some point in time, bigger, older trees. In the foreground, rolling smooth pastureland.

A cricket creaked somewhere nearby, a robin chortled farther off. Back up the hill by the large shed where the wine is stored in pink-stained wood barrels, you could hear the muted voices of the crowd. Twenty-somethings laughed and caught up on the week's news. Retired buddies filled their glasses, suspended from their necks by homemade wineglass holders. And though One Foot In The Grave, a trio of gray-haired musicians, was playing country standards like "The Green, Green Grass of Home," the scene buzzed "future." Or so you might imagine: The Winnetts were pouring tastes from barrels whose contents were still months off from bottling. If you liked the hint of what was yet to come, you could "invest in the future" and reserve some bottles now.

Last Saturday and Sunday marked the first-ever Willow Creek Barrel Tasting Weekend, something the organizers hope will become an annual thing. Seven Eastern Humboldt and Trinity County vintners were pouring -- Dogwood Estates, Sentinel, Winnett, Meredith, Coates, Cabot and Vinatura. Warm and breezy, it was the ideal weekend to toast the start of the summer season -- those lucrative months businesses rely on. For the winemakers, who recently formed a Klamath-Trinity Winemakers' Association, it was the perfect moment to celebrate their efforts to put Willow Creek on the wine country map.

To some, the event seemed like a harbinger of a final transition -- from empty-storefront podunk to an appealing country town with boutique wineries, organic produce and some community theater. An escape, in other words, for city people with refined tastes.

"Willow Creek's really changing," said Ron Davison, president of the Willow Creek China Flat Museum. "It's not just Bigfoot and pot growers anymore."

Marc Rowley, owner of Bigfoot Rafting Company and a former general manager of the Willow Creek Community Services district, outlined the changes coming to the town. "You've got two breeds of cats moving in," he said. "Retirees who want to do some farming and have wineries, and a new generation of young back-to-the-landers."

Since 2000, 64 percent of Willow Creek's individual homes are under new ownership, he said. Many are "equity refugees," snapping up cheap east Humboldt land with cash from the sale of their pricier SoCal homes. Interestingly, Rowley said, the population has maintained a steady growth rate of 1.5 to 3 percent. Only now there are fewer kids at the local elementary school. In the 1960s, Rowley and his wife attended Trinity Elementary with about 420 other kids. Today, the school's enrollment has dropped to less than 200. And the academically failing Hoopa Valley High has lost many local students, whose parents have applied for permission to send them to Arcata High.

You saw all breeds on the barrel-tasting tour, which went from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and cost $15 for the works -- copious wine, heavy duty hors d'oeuvres of grilled meats, cheeses, salmon, breads and fruit, lessons in wine tasting and even a commemorative glass. The three wineries located closest to the center of Willow Creek -- Dogwood, Sentinel and Winnett -- hosted the other four, some of which are out in Orleans and Hyampom. Only six miles or so separated the three host wineries but for those who still didn't feel up to driving there were Jeep tours to shuttle the drinkers around.

Some of the vintners, like David and Sharon Winnett, are indeed retirees who'd turned to winemaking. Retired teachers from Illinois, they planted their vines on this sloping hillside in 2000, and have just begun bottling many varieties of white and red organically certified wines. Before the Winnetts arrived, Sharon said, the land "was all cattle, trees and fences." But it had a certain quality the Winnetts had heard compared to St. Emilion in France -- the Merlot region -- which they just visited this April. "It is perfect," Sharon said. "We have these hot days in the summer, and then the temperature can drop 50 degrees at night." The coastal fog that flows in at night also helps cool the grapes down, adding to their complex flavor. "We also have these rocky soils, and grapes do much better in not-so-great soils." And best of all, the slope faces south: "The way the sun hits the grapes is just ideal." The Winnetts also have planted 300 lavender plants and 150 olive trees. They plan to bottle the olives in about three years.

Also inside the Winnett's big warehouse were Robin and Norman Coates of Coates Winery, busy pouring their red, dual-certified organic wines and maintaining an endless stream of conversation with customers and friends. Coates is one of most productive and popular Humboldt County wineries, perhaps due in part to their special organic distinction -- only a handful of wineries in the country meet such requirements. Like the Winnett's, the Coates credit their success in part to the special " terroir " -- the French term for soil, or earth -- of their 17-acre Orleans farm, located in a 1,000-year-old floodplain of the Klamath River, with particularly fertile soil, intense climate and a perfect pitch to the land.

As Robin kept up with the stream of customers, talking color, talking varietals, talking terroir, talking about how Napa and Sonoma are played out, she briefly entertained one young tanktop-wearing guy's assertion he could detect a hint of "tomato juice" in his glass. "Let me give you another adjective," she said. Grabbing the glass, swirling its contents, dipping her nose in and inhaling deeply she resurfaced and said, "I just smell the land."

Another retiree gone into the wine business in Willow Creek is Gary Barker, owner of Dogwood Estates -- named as a tribute to his deceased mother, whose favorite tree was the Dogwood. "They also grow around here like crazy," Barker said, waving a hand across his manicured property. "It seemed fitting."

The winery was bonded in 2004, just one year before Barker sold his Northcoast Auto empire to Lithia Motors. For years he made wine in the garage and gave it away to friends, and for charity auctions. Now Barker sells wine to coastal stores like North Coast Co-op, Murphy's Market, Old Growth Cellars and the Harris and K Market in Eureka. Barker and his wife Pam do all of the work -- growing the grapes (some grapes they buy from Napa), crushing, barreling, bottling, labeling and hand-dipping each bottleneck in yellow wax. Barker's also the force behind the winemaker's association.

The crowd that showed up to taste seemed to represent Rowley's new/old, young/retiree mix. Willow Creek locals Heather Hertz, 28, and Dara Kelley, 27, went with their husbands from winery to winery, getting steadily sillier. Both couples have lived in Willow Creek for less than five years -- land was cheaper here than elsewhere in Humboldt County. Another young couple, Travis Barter and Paige Poile, called themselves "new age pioneers." "I moved here for the opportunity," said Barter, who grew up in Mendocino. "We're trying to be as self-sufficient as we can. We have our own chickens and ducks, a big garden -- it's almost a small farm."

Back at Dogwood Winery, Gary Barker was extracting a pipette full of "future" wine, a Willow Creek State Chardonnay from Barrel 17. It tasted young, and sweet like pear and apple. It would be bottled in July -- and it seemed like a lot of people were signing up to reserve some bottles.

Which pretty much sounds like a future. Although, much remains to be seen -- and with wine, only time will tell. For some, it's just a hobby. But for John and Kimberly Cabot, of Orleans, it's a living. The young couple planted their first grapes in 1998 and began winning awards in 2002. "We're giving it five years," said Kimberly.

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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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