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Thursday Thorns
Mendocino Will Rise Again

By Charles Olken

Am I the only left standing who remembers the name Mendocino wine was uttered in the same wine sentence as Napa and Sonoma? Does the phrase “Sonapanomamendocino” ring a bell with anyone? Is my mind playing tricks on me today or did Italian Swiss Colony use that phrase in its advertising? Does anyone besides me remember Italian Swiss Colony?

I will readily admit that I could be making it all up since the Internet seems never to have heard of any of it although it does offer up little vignettes about ISC, once the leading winery in California as recently as the 1950s.

The reason I ask has little to do with that once-famous winery located south of Geyserville up in Sonoma County. Rather it is the Mendocino reference in their or somebody else’s advertising that has my wee brain rattling tonight. You see, at a very nice wine dinner in San Francisco, one of the hosts who hails from up north raised the question, “Will Mendocino ever achieve real glory”?

It is a fair question because that county was far more important in a vinous sense back before the 1970s wine boom hit. It was not then solely about grapes because Napa and Sonoma had twice as many grape acres as Mendocino in those days and they each have something like three times as much today. It is more about perception. There have never been scores of big name wineries in Mendocino, but think about today. How many beyond a handful in the Anderson Valley can we name when trying to think of wineries with large enough distribution and reputation to make a dent? The important names of the past in Mendocino—Fetzer, Parducci and Lolonis either do not exist or they are substantially changed.

One does not feel a sense of leadership for the Mendocino name. Yes, Anderson Valley is making itself felt, but Mendocino County as a whole is simply not following the path to glory that we saw earlier in Napa and Sonoma, later in Santa Barbara and increasingly today in Paso Robles.

Whether it is the nature of the land mass which offers few large swaths of plantable land, the seemingly remote nature of the County, the intense attention paid to Napa and Sonoma or the fact that Mendocino’s leading cash crop in illegally grown marijuana, there is not much happening these days to put Mendocino in a more prominent position on the wine map. And yet, there is history and nearly 20,000 acres of grapes. It may be far too early to tell you to “stay tuned” for the next chapter in Mendocino’s fortunes, but it is not out of the question that someone who wants to be in the wine business but does not want the rat race of Napa and Sonoma will turn to Mendocino and take advantage of its location and extensive plantings.


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by TomHill
Posted on:5/15/2014 12:03:04 PM

Yup....agree Charlie. Back in the glory days of the late '70's-early '80's, the Zins/Cabs/Petites being made by Edmeades & Milano, not to mention BarneyFetzer, were every bit as good as any made anywhere in Calif. When JimMilone/Grazie broke up & sold, when JedSteele left Edmeades, when Barney sold out; Mendo went into a long/slow decline. That was only turned around with the discovery that the AndersonVlly was the place to grow great Pinot.

   But the UkiahVlly has sorta been languishing ever since, making mostly commodity wines. It's a crying shame, because there are some great old-vine vnyds up there and very good growing conditions.

   But things are gradually changing in the UkiahVlly. The Bilbros (Marietta/LimerickLane) now own GibsonRanch/McDowellVlly. Those grapes are now going to some very/very good winemakers. SamBilbro/Idlewild is making some interesting wines off Gibson. His new Arneis (may be a bit too close to Ribolla for you) is stunning & you should try it.  They are doing a lot of replanting across the road from GibsonRanch. In one vintage, MikeOfficer/Carlisle has returned DuPrattZin to greatness. MikeDashe makes a (dry) Riesling off McFaddenRanch/PotterVlly that is one of Calif's best.

   So there's still some hope for the area, Charlie. Mostly from winemakers outside the UkiahVlly. But there's still too many commdity wines being made and overcropped vnyds. The UkiahVlly can and should be doing better.



And Furthermore...
by TomHill
Posted on:5/15/2014 12:06:39 PM

And, furthermore, Charlie....if you want to talk about seriously underperforming wine regions, you should poke Temecula w/ a stick. There's a really sad case there.



by Richard Winter
Posted on:5/16/2014 12:53:22 AM

TV ad for ISC: 'That little old winemaker: Me!' With my diminished capacity, I could be making this up, too.

Mendocino used to be - and maybe still is - the epicenter of organic grape growing, led by the Fetzers in the '80s. I assume Bonterra is still a leader in this category, but since Fetzer became a California appellation, and Parducci lost its way after many changes, it seems inland Mendocino - Redwood valley and the like - doesn't have successful wineries that put it on the radar. Too bad, probably lots of quality, old vineyards, lost into ordinary commercial wines.

Mendocino Wines
by Terry Rooney
Posted on:5/16/2014 2:18:33 AM

Charlie, I must say that only Anderson Valley Pinots make much of a positive impression on the Mendo winescape, at least for me.  But I prefer various Roederer sparkling wines over any other in California.

Saracina in Hopland is making some nice things. Alex McGregor is the talented winemaker.

However, unless Mr. Laube or Mr. Parker decide to be enthusiastic about Mendo, I don't think it will ever come back to its former status.

Paso Robles was making some nice wines as we knew from multiple Hospice du Rhone events but it only became "in" when first Mr. Parker and then Mr. Laube lauded it.

Terry Rooney




No Subject
by David L Price
Posted on:5/16/2014 9:00:31 AM

A great way to visit Mendocino is to attend the Winesong event held in the botanical gardens on Coast Highway in south Fort Bragg.  The gardens are on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific and offer a Saturday tasting of 100 wineries, 50 food purveyors, and 12 or so small musical groups.  For three hours one can wander the gardens to taste, eat, listen or even dance to the music!  There follows a live and silent auction to benefit the Mendocino Hospital.

Perhaps the best event is the Pinot Noir barrel tasting, where many of the Anderson Valley wineries bring their barrel samples plus the last year or two's vintage.

A great time on the coast with great wine, food!  Try it!  We've been for about 20 years.

by Patrick Frank
Posted on:5/16/2014 3:32:18 PM

Your mind isn't playing tricks. ISC did indeed market a fairly cheap red called Napa-Sonoma-Mendocino in the late 60s. In the radio ads, some sucker kept mispronouncing it in the way you described ("sonapanoma..."). I think they hoped for an endearingly comic effect. And it stuck in people's brains, as it has stuck in yours and mine. 

by Rusty Eddy
Posted on:5/16/2014 3:38:56 PM

David Price: Yes, Winesong is an wonderful event, but it's hardly a showcase for Mendocino wine.  It features wines from all over California, and I'll be fewer than half (if that) of the attendees ever venture over the hill to Redwood, Potter, or Ukiah Valley.  It's a race up 128 through Anderson Valley to the coast and back.

There really are some dedicated winemakers and grapegrowers in Mendocino County doing wonderful things, but all too often the wines remain at home, or in very limited distribution, while the grapes get blended away in out-of-appellation wines.  I think it will take a new generation of winemakers who do things differently on purpose (like Jake and Ben Fetzer at Masut) to really call attention to what the county can accomplish.

No Subject
by Hiram K. Evans
Posted on:5/18/2014 6:05:17 PM

In answer to your question, yes, I do remember Italian Swiss Colony, though I thought it was 'Napasonomamendocino', pronounced by ad spokesman who described himself as "that little ol' winemaker, ME".  I can even remember a visit to Italian Swiss Colony, albeit before I was of age to partake in the 'adult beverages' on offer.
Which makes me wonder how many of your subscribers have been so longer than this geezer... 

by David Sharp
Posted on:5/19/2014 8:01:10 AM

That radio commercial for Italian Swiss Colony wine was my first introduction to wine in 1963 when I was 14 years old. In 1979 I went on to make Italian Swiss Colony and Petri red wine for Hublein in Madera, CA for several years. In 2004 I took a class in wine marketing at Santa Rosa JC and did a presentation on "The Use of Humor in Selling Wine". The presentation led off with the "Sonapanomamendocino" radio commercial.

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/19/2014 8:22:54 AM


Thanks for checking in--and for confirming that I have not yet lost it all re Sonapanomamendocino.

I am a bit older than you because I was graduating from college in 1963 and migrating to CA for what was supposed to be two years of graduate school before I went back East and stayed there.

When my grad school roommate and I discovered the joys of wine country, that was a large part of my undoing--so to speak.

Later, when I was working in SF, I met a woman who became my wife. She was friends with Mary Ellen Downs, wife of Pete Downs, who was working at ISC in the early 70s and Pete had access to Inglenook wines at a good price. Those old Inglenook Charbonos and Cask Cabs became some of the earliest entries to my rapidly growing wine cellar--all of which led me eventually to start Connoisseurs' Guide.

The ISC Zinfandel and Grenache Rose' were two of the better wines for the money back in the day when inexpensive wine often had portions of North Coast grapes in the mix. 

I do appreciate your checking in and adding to this stroll down memory lane. And I would invite any comments you might have on the standing of Mendocino County back then.


Yes, it will - it already is
by Sebastian Donoso
Posted on:5/29/2014 2:59:28 PM


I encourage you (and everybody else) to come to Inland Mendocino County to visit Campovida, a new wine program started in 2012 at the Old Valley Oaks loaction where Fetzer used to be back in the day. We are doing some amazing things with Mendocino County fruit and I think most people would be surprised thsese kinds of wines are coming from Inland Mendocino County.

But I am not surprised, like Tom Hill said, there are some really good winemakers out there already making great wines from Mendocino County fruit, like Sam Bilbro from Idlewild and Alex MacGregor from Saracina...but there are more, that's for sure. 

If only people were a little more open-minded and start drinkig wines beyond Cabernet and Chardonnay, then they would realized what this county has to offer.


Sebastian Donoso - Winemaker Campovida


by Jock Denison
Posted on:6/3/2014 8:54:25 AM

In the early 60's, in my late 20's, living and working in San Francisco, many weekends were spent with friends heading north to Sonoma County for canoe trips down the Russian River. We never made a trip without spending half a day at ISC. As much wine as you could drink and free sandwiches. The "tasting room", as I remember, was huge and was usually well attended. For real wine tasting adventures, we would head to Napa and taste the best California had to offer at Beaulieu, Inglenook, Beringer and Martini and Krug.

by Deborah
Posted on:9/2/2014 12:31:02 PM

I was just googling "sonapanomamendocino" because I wanted to write about the original "wine country" that I remember growing up. I thought it was Gallo but it could be Italian Swiss Colony and I do remember "that little old wine maker me." It was a TV commercial with a little cartoon winemaker. Could you let me know if you find anything else written about sonapanomamendocino? :)

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