A highlands fling: Yorkville appellation celebrates small-production vintages

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The house on Old Chatham Ranch that George and Kit Lee bought near the tiny town of Yorkville 30 years ago was originally built in 1853, the homestead of a retired sea captain and one of the first homes in the area. It changed hands over the years without fanfare until the 1960s, when the property notoriously devoted itself to the unsavory pursuit if drug smuggling.

"There was a swimming pool in front of the house and on the bottom they had painted Pegasus," recalled George Lee. "Airplanes would come off the coast from Gualala, see the Pegasus and that's where they dropped off the drugs."

Festivities will be much less sordid this Saturday when the growers and vintners of the Yorkville Highlands appellation, including the Lees, host their annual wine festival, a casual day of roasted boar and lamb, complete with an old-fashioned grape stomp. It's an invitation to mingle among the growers and their wines.

The Lees replaced that pool and over the years added to the original 120 acres, growing it to its present 500. On that they planted 20 acres of cabernet sauvignon, up high where the sun hangs luminously long in summer.

They are among 20 or so growers in the Yorkville Highlands, an understated Mendocino appellation stretched on either side of Highway 128 between Cloverdale and Boonville. The region is hot enough on its ridges nearer to Cloverdale, where the Lees are, to ripen cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc and sultry syrah, yet cool enough closer to Boonville to grow pinot noir.

"There are not a lot of vineyards here, not a lot of wineries. It's another one of Mendocino's well-kept secrets," noted Glenn McGourty, winegrowing advisor in Mendocino County for the UC Davis cooperative extension program. "There are pockets of brilliance out here, with so many microclimates. There are not a lot of places where Bordeaux varietals and pinot overlap, but you can do that here."

Of the 40,000 acres that make up Yorkville Highlands, designated its own appellation in 1998, only 400 are planted to grapes, with over a fourth of that total taken up by Wattle Creek Winery's large plantings of sauvignon blanc and syrah. Most of the vineyards can be found along a continuous string of bench land, where hot days are tempered by cooling afternoon fog drawn in from the Mendocino coast. But what one grows is determined as much by proximity to the coast as which side of the valley one's on.

"You can see you're on the Pacific Northwest on (the south) side," explained McGourty. "You're in Mediterranean California on (the north) side."

Edward and Deborah Wallo were among the first to bet big on the region, buying a small sauvignon blanc vineyard in 1988 and then working with Bill Weir of Weir Vineyard, a noted pinot grower, among others, to establish the appellation.

"We were very much able to delineate what was different about this appellation," explained Ed Wallo. "We basically have two valleys on either side and all of our vineyards are between 1,000 and 2,200 feet. We're on hillsides with thinner soils and at least 30 percent hotter than the Anderson Valley because we're that much farther from the ocean."

Expanding to grow all the red varietals native to Bordeaux (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot), they built Yorkville Cellars winery, among the few to this day with a tasting room open to the public.

"In the language of Boontling anybody from Yorkville was a high roller, because they would roll up their dungarees to cross the streams to come to the Saturday night dances in Boonville and forget to roll them down," Wallo said, alluding to a historic dialect spoken in the region. "So we called it Yorkville Highlands."

Several of the growers are now driving Yorkville's reputation for fine syrah, taking advantage of the area's ability to grow the Rhone varietal at elevations between 900 and 2,200 feet, where it develops enviable natural acidity.

"We were at the winery for seven years before we ever hit 100 degrees," said Matt Meyer of Meyer Family Cellars. "It always gets warm but not super hot and that has a lot to do with the cooling breezes."

Meyer and his parents, Bonny and the late Justin Meyer, co-founders of Silver Oak Cellars, first came to the Yorkville Highlands in the late 1990s. Meyer Family Cellars is another of only four wineries open to the public in the appellation — Maple Creek Winery, Yorkville Cellars and LeVin Winery the others — and the last one on Highway 128 before it connects to Boonville.

The potential for syrah is also what drew Deb Schatzlein and Cindy Paulson of Bink Wines. In 1998 they bought a 40-acre former sheep farm, planting five acres of syrah and two acres of merlot, naming the vineyard Hawks Butte, a raw piece of rocky hillside at the top of a fog layer with good southern sun exposure during the day and cooling coastal breezes at night. Wells Guthrie of Copain helped put Hawks Butte syrah on the map with his vineyard designates; Bink also produces a Hawks Butte syrah and merlot, as well as a pinot noir from nearby Weir, from which Williams Selyem also sources.

"It's the combination of rocky soils, hillsides and the wind," said Schatzlein. "Here the syrah has good ripeness without too much alcohol. It's a special place for syrah."

The Yorkville Highlands growers and vintners' annual wine festival is the appellation's way of introducing newcomers to the area but also of getting a group of individuals to come together and acknowledge their community, which can feel isolated at times.

"If something breaks, you've got a bit of a drive ahead of you," remarked Meyer. "A lot of people moved to this area to have their own space but at the same time you've got to be able to come together when you need each other's help."

Last year's event drew more than 400 people for a day of food, wine, music, games and a good, messy grape stomp. Even more people are expected to attend this year. There will be a special guest — a new 2009 Yorkville Highlands Festival Blend, a large-format bottle combining 2007 Bink Melange (cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah), 2007 Maple Creek Merlot, 2005 Meyer Family Syrah, 2005 Route 128 Syrah and 2006 Yorkville Cellars Petit Verdot.

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

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