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.