California State Route 128 winds from Cloverdale through the Anderson Valley to the Mendocino Coast. You can turn west off 128, between Yorkville and Boonville, onto Fish Rock Road, and follow it to the Pacific at Anchor Bay. But not many people do. It’s almost 28 miles of windy, only marginally improved roadway, that meanders through some remote Mendocino County back country. A pretty drive, but not a quick one. Which behooves a road trip back through time.
Tucked away off Fish Rock Road are some old Italian immigrant farmsteads that include one of California’s oldest vineyards (and the oldest vineyard in Mendocino County). The Ciapusci (Kuh-POO-chee) vineyard, on an 1,800 foot ridge-top, was planted in 1878. The old Zinfandel vines here produce small berry clusters and a yield of only one ton per acre of intensely flavored fruit. A Ciapusci Vineyard Zinfandel is bottled by Edmeades, once a tiny family winery, now a property within the sprawling Kendall-Jackson wine empire.
Jed Steele was the winemaker at Edmeades back in the late 1970s. He hunted through the remote hills and ridges of southern Mendocino County for forgotten higher-elevation, old vine gems, in vineyards that poked up through the fog to find sunshine in this cool coastal region. He polished up those gems to make some amazing ridge-top Zinfandels. When Jed Steele moved on to Kendall-Jackson Winery, he brought those vineyards (and, ultimately, the Edmeades winery) with him.
Not far from Ciapusci is the Zeni family’s vineyard, relatively youthful, planted in the early 1900s. Zeni, too, has been a vineyard-designated Zinfandel for Edmeades. When I lived in Mendocino County I was always fascinated by the idea of the Zeni family farm. Beyond winegrapes, the Zeni family had vegetable crops, and livestock, and century old chestnut trees … the inspiration for an annual Zeni “chestnut festival” which was sort of a pick-your-own pot-luck party.
These Mendocino ridge-tops are an interesting place for winegrowing, old and new. A couple of decades after Jed Steele made his first Zinfandel from these special vine sites, Steve Alden and Dan Dooling began researching and petitioning to create a very special Federally approved appellation: Mendocino Ridge. This appellation includes unconnected sites above 1,200 feet in elevation in the coastal ridges of southwestern Mendocino County.
Places that peak up at the sun from above the fog line. Literally, islands in the sky. And, in the case of those long-forgotten (but no longer forgotten) old Italian immigrant vineyards, islands in time.Share on Facebook