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If you love Mendocino wines but don't always know which ones to buy, introduce yourself to Bernadette Byrne.

Byrne is a one-woman database of all that is good about Mendocino wine. In addition to featuring about 75 different wines at any given time in her Sip wine shop and tasting spot in Hopland, Byrne hosts Thirsty Thursdays, a weekly evening of nibbles and an array of Mendocino wines.

"If you want to know the scoop on what's new and hot, talk to Bernadette," said Jake Fetzer of Masut Vineyard and Winery. "She knows the history of Mendocino County ... as well as anyone."

Byrne opened Sip in September 2007 after almost 25 years of working and living in Mendocino and learning its wines while in director positions at Fetzer Vineyards, McDowell Valley Vineyards and the Mendocino Winegrowers Alliance.

"Winemakers come in here to look and see who's doing what, to buy their wines," Byrne noted. "Growers come in. I have a huge contingent of winemakers in my wine club because they get to try new things."

A third-generation San Franciscan whose father and uncle founded Byrne's Fine Foods on Lombard and Divisadero, Byrne grew up around the grocery business, helping develop recipes for the deli and learning a little about wine along the way.

"The store was really known for its meat department and large wine department," she recalled. "Dad would bring home Beringer Gray Riesling, Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc, Beaulieu Cabernet. Those were the wines of the generation."

Set on finding a career that would let her live in the country, Byrne graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1984, after studying microbiology and fermentation science. Her senior project was on new biotechnology in the wine industry, research that was both timely and of interest to prospective employers after graduation.

"When I went around the Napa Valley looking for jobs, I would leave behind this document which was about new yeast strains and alcohol tolerances," she said. "The people I was interviewing with were like, this is great, can you leave me a copy?"

She started out at Beringer Vineyards in 1984 as a lab tech, followed by jobs at the Wine Lab, Oakville Grocery and Grgich Hills, where she eventually ran the crush operation. But she found herself out of a job when a family member came from Croatia to work.

She landed in Redwood Valley thanks to a blind classified ad for a marketing job at Fetzer Vineyards. Before she went to interview, she realized she had no idea where Redwood Valley was. She hit it off with the public relations director at the time, Rusty Eddy, but the Fetzer family needed to sign off on the hire.

"It was Christmas Eve, the only time they could get everybody together and they wanted the family to sign off on me," she said. "They asked me things like what do you think the biggest stumble is for Mendocino County, how do we get recognition as a prime wine-growing region?"

She moved to Redwood Valley in 1986 and lived at the Fetzers' Valley Oaks Ranch in Hopland for the next 11 years, helping as director of hospitality to turn it into a visitors center for food and wine events.

It was a time of great innovation and exponential growth for Fetzer. Byrne trained distributors and corporations like Marriott in how to sell wine in a restaurant, how to build wine lists, how to market, how to pair food and wine.

"They'd learn everything, from how the grapes are grown, all about the garden, food and wine pairing, wine appreciation and then culinary with John Ash," Byrne recalled. "Many of these national account people had never been north of San Francisco. This was a great excursion and eye-opener for them."

Moving to Mendocino from the Napa Valley has been a happy eye-opener for Byrne, too.

"Mendocino is hands-on. People do it, they grow it, they make it," she said. "The wines were amazing and so undiscovered — and great values. I remember feeling torn. I wished more people knew, but I didn't want Mendocino to change dramatically."

Byrne believes that the wines have only gotten better over that time, that growers and vintners are doing a better job at honing in on what makes their wines unique, particularly with zinfandel.

"Zinfandel really evokes the character of Mendocino. It's a gregarious grape, super friendly, rowdy. It's got a lot of personality. It's not trying to be anything else," she said, "which to me is really the way Mendocino is."

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com.

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