A look at Mendocino’s Pacific Star

Wine on the beach: a look at Mendocino’s Pacific Star

Jean Deitz Sexton

When Sally Ottoson says her wine really rocks, she isn’t kidding. Perched on the rugged Mendocino County coastline, Pacific Star’s barrels get a natural bump and grind action from the 20-foot high waves that send water crashing and booming into the cliffs just yards away from the winery.

Billed as the “westernmost winery in the Americas,” Ottoson’s 22-acre spread is a most unusual winery property, an exquisite piece of heaven framed by drop-dead gorgeous blue skies, whitecapped water and a curve of dramatic rock formations that have sent many an unlucky logging ship to its final resting place.

During the tempestuous winter months, as Ottoson’s Charbono, Pinot noir and Zinfandel age in their barrels, there is a steady “kaboom,” as regular a rhythm as the ebb and flow of the sea. The cave explosions – the release of air trapped in the caves after the water recedes – act as a natural clarifier, gently dislodging particulates, tannins and phenols that might otherwise give the lusty reds an unappealing harshness.

“I think the wines are particularly clean,” Sally says, “because they don’t take on those off flavors. Normally, first rackings are soupy but my wines are completely clear and these are not thin wines to start with; these are heavy-duty reds.” Sally discarried her filter. “I don’t need it. It’s magically done by Mother Nature.”

Sally and her assistant, Ian Maki, swear it makes a difference in the wine, and they might be right. Her Charbono, which normally would be thought of as a rough- and-ready red, is surprisingly mellow, but don’t say the “S” word or you may be the next person to meet their fate off the cliffs.

“Smooth is boring,” says Sally. The Charbono, from Ukiah Valley grape grower Larry Venturi’s vineyards, is oddly enough, Pacific Star’s most popular wine with women. “My style of red wine appeals to both men and women because it is well barrel-aged and the tannins are controlled.”

Deep Roots

Pacific Star buys its fruit mainly from Mendocino County growers – Venturi, Ray Bartolmei and Bob Dempel – men whose friendships Sally has carefully cultivated. With premium varietals in high demand by the larger wineries, Sally’s 2,500 casegoods operation could easily get bumped off the supply list. But life comes to Sally in fortuitous ways.

“Ten years ago, when Pacific Star was born, Larry came in to ask if he could go abalone diving on our property. Larry later invited me up to his vineyard and I fell in love with the Charbono almost immediately. At that time nobody would even mention the grape.”

Venturi’s 90-year old Charbono vines produce a fruit that enjoyed popularity at the turn of the last millennium. Once dubbed “black beauty,” the Italian “heritage” varietal is enjoying a resurgence of popularity, having been adopted by Sally whose Mendocino ancestry even predates the vines.

“My family came here in 1867 and settled in the Comptche Valley. We were the Danish Ottoson and Oppenlander families. The other half of my family is Finnish and I grew up in Pudding Creek, a Finnish community.”

Sally’s roots have helped her gain credibility with Mendocino growers. “I’m from the coast and know how to ride around in a pickup. “It’s not fake. They can see I’m not in this just playing. When I had financial troubles the growers hung with me.”

Grapes are an improbable match for the unforgiving, windy, fog-laden climate. Sally will depend on growers for her fruit but she is bravely trying to coax a decent Pinot noir crop out of two acres planted on the winery property. “We’re challenged by the salt air, the earwigs, snails. We have had three vintages from our grapes so far.”

The brisk sea air is a contradiction, posing difficulties for the grapes but finessing the wine as well. “The barrels are coated with salt so we lose almost a liter of wine in each barrel per month due to evaporation. We have to keep the space in the barrel topped up to avoid spoilage,” says Sally.

“What it does, though, is give us an intensity of flavor early on since the wines are concentrating far more rapidly. My wines taste really creamy but rich. I think that character comes from the process,” says Sally.

Finn-Italia

It would be conventional wisdom to expect Sally Ottoson to produce reds that mimic her California roots, perhaps more refined varietals that do not jar the palate of tourists or locals. But nobody would accuse Sally of being predictable.

Her sentimental favorite bottling is actually a blend, Dad’s Daily Red, crafted in honor of her 75-year-old father who returned from World War II with severe stomach problems and was advised, after surgery, to drink a glass of red wine with meals. Fred Ottoson attributes his longevity to his daily glass of red, an Italian-style blend of Charbono, Carignane and Zinfandel.

No California wine culture for Sally. Her heart belongs in the Italian countryside. “I have an affinity for the Italian people. Wine is a food beverage to them. Italians don’t build their lifestyle around wine.

“I learned the Italian family style of making wine when we started with just two barrels of wine. It’s always been my focus.”

Three Weddings and a Red Dress

Sally, being an independent spirit, left to see the world after spending her teenage years along the coast. You might describe her life as On the Road and Back Again. The ’70s and ’80s were Sally’s wine odyssey, taking her around the globe and returning her full circle, just 12 miles north from where she was born in Fort Bragg. Relax, pull up a chair and take a deep breath of Charbono. It’s quite a tale.

During the early ’70s Sally studied psychology at Sonoma State University, fondly known in those days as Granola U and famous, legend has it, for students playing tennis in the buff.

As a summer job, Sally poured wine at the Wine Garden, which Sally believes is the first wine bar in California. Now defunct, it sat near Freemark Abbey on the Napa Valley site where Brava Terrace is located.

Sally got her first taste of European wines. “We were also a retail shop and I discovered fabulous old French Burgundies from a private cellar. It was not just Napa wine.”

Krug Chenin blanc was the hot seller. Sally remembers it as a kinder, gentler time. “Mike Grgich used to come around a lot. The winemakers would drink beer and sit around and talk, exchanging information. It was a more family oriented winemaking business then. Now it’s all trade secrets and corporations.”

Soon after, Sally met Edward Wallis. Enter husband Number 1. As befitting the ’70s, they lived in a commune, but this one was a bit more upscale. Wallis’ family owned the Crown paper company, which was eventually bought out by Zellerbach. Young Edward clipped his coupons and took Sally around the world, dividing their time in the states between his commune which was actually the Patcheteau Castle on Diamond Creek Road in Napa Valley, and an estate in Tahoe.

But they were young and the shooting star marriage burned out quickly. In her Napa Valley travels Sally met periodontist Jake Goldenberg. Enter husband Number 2. The second union, which lasted 15 years and produced a nine-year-old son, Jonah, was Sally’s entree into winemaking. In 1979 they founded Star Hill winery, bottling Sauvignon blanc and giving it away free to friends. “They convinced us to bond the winery and make it official.”

The couple purchased a second home on Maine’s Penobscot Bay as a retreat. Much to their disliking, Maine became “overly developed” so they put their home on the market. The Maine sale gave them a considerable amount of capital.

“Since my parents still lived on the Mendocino coast we came here and looked for property. I loved to fish and when I saw the flat rocks on this land, that was it. Jake and I still debate as to whose idea it was to build a winery here.”

Six years later the Goldenbergs were divorced. “I ended up with Pacific Star and a huge mortgage and Jake kept Star Hill winery in Napa, where he has six acres of Pinot noir.

Back 12 miles from where she began 40-something years before, Sally and her son took up residence in Pacific Star’s rustic wood house, the first floor of which is her barrel and tasting facility. One day at a local business meeting, in walks Robert Zimmer, a guy she disliked as too flashy in high school. They hadn’t even seen each other in 25 years. Enter husband Number 3.

Zimmer, whose family owns the Stevenswood Lodge in Little River and the William Zimmer Gallery in Mendocino, is the son of the accomplished watercolorist who died this year.

“People love or hate Robert. He is very outspoken, loud, raucous and lewd but charmingly so.”

On June 19, 1999 Sally married Robert and celebrated in an ancient redwood forest. She wore a red dress. “The Chinese wear red to their weddings, and it just felt good.” A little bit unconventional but pure Sally.

Get Sirius

Our free-spirited Finnish lass, settling in with a new husband and raising her son, is now ready to focus on the business of wine.

Locally, she has a sound beginning. Her wines, including the Sirius Red, a “serious red meritage of select barrels of Cabernet, Zinfandel, Charbono and Petite Syrah,” are on the wine lists at the best Mendocino coast eateries. Naturally, the gourmet restaurant at Stevenswood serves her wine, and the MacCallum House Restaurant, where chef-owner Alan Kantor prepares sublime North Coast regional cuisine, offers her 1997 B-X Ranch Reserve Zinfandel.

Sally’s most potent marketing tool is “her effervescent, vivacious personality. When we do wine tastings, Sally is the best. She gets right in there and really engages people,” says Penny Greenwood, who with her husband Al owns the Inn at Schoolhouse Creek, a charming collection of cottages on the Mendocino Coast.

Pacific Star markets to key accounts in seven states and in some international markets, including Singapore and Taiwan. The winery does very well at K&L Wine Merchants in Redwood City because the buyers know how to market small, unique labels, says Sally.

But Sally’s focus is on retail sales at the winery. “I really like to sell my wine directly to the consumer.” Winery traffic is highly seasonal, about a thousand visitors a year. The tasting room is only open weekends and major holidays. Visitors are encouraged to picnic and enjoy the spectacular views. “I consider my home a park in a way,” says Sally.

To keep expenses down, Sally puts her guests to work. “I get people together to do racking and bottling. They go away feeling really excited about the place and the product and I get free labor Plus, they have something to talk about at their next dinner party.”

Direct relationships with the customers is Sally’s way of competing against large corporate marketing budgets. “I’m trying to make tile winery real and part of people’s lives. There’s so much heart in this business if you just live it and stop talking about it.”

The winery facility itself is going to change thanks to a Southern Florida “angel” who is moving to Mendocino and investing in Pacific Star. “The capital influx has revitalized the whole thing,” says Sally. “We plan to double our casegoods to 5,000. Most of the new production will be Zinfandel. In three years I want to get to 7,500 cases maximum production. We can make a living at that point.”

Sally plans to add on to the existing 5,000 square-foot building to increase equipment and case storage space. “And we are going to get a real tasting room on the west side of the building with a nice wine bar where people can enjoy the view.” She is also applying for a use permit from the Coastal Commission to build a separate barrel storage facility.

Sally is an optimist, working on marriage number three, trying to grow Pinot noir out of recalcitrant soil, and selling a wine, Charbono, that is unfamiliar to most. And you just know, given her indomitable nature, it will all work out.

Certainly, Sally has no desire to be the Zsa Zsa Gabor of the vineyards. She hopes Robert is the last husband. “I don’t have any anxiety about getting married for the third time. I want us to grow old together.”

Burgundy Wine Exports Set Record in 1998

1998 was a record year for wine exports from Burgundy as nine million cases were sent to foreign markets. The United States was the #1 market for white Burgundy, per the Bureau Interprofessionel des Vins de Bourgogne (BIVB).

The U.S. claimed a 65.5% share of white wine export volume last year while red Burgundy had a 33.5% share of volume. In all, Burgundy exports to the U.S. rose 2% in volume and 18% in value between 1997-98.

More Burgundy is exported than consumed in France. The top 10 markets in 1998 were the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Denmark, the U.S., Japan and Canada. Five markets account for 72% of the total in both value and volume.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Wines & Vines

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning