Doolings brought Zinfandel heritage to the ridge: Mendocino County’s Islands in Sky

Byline: Harry Cline Farm Press Editorial Staff

Du Pratt, Ciapusci, Gianoli, Zeni, Alden and Mariah, Mendocino County, Calif., islands all.

Don’t look westward across the billowing Pacific Ocean waves unfurling for miles along California’s spectacular Mendocino Coast for these islands. These atolls are not surrounded by water, but by forests. They are “Islands in the Sky;” vineyards, like inverted ice cream cones poking into the heavens of California’s most famous grape growing region, The North Coast. These islands are tiny, collectively accounting for no more than 100 acres of vines. However, they are rich in history dating back more than 130 years. These vineyards isles are “Mendocino Ridge” one of the newest and certainly most unique BATF viticultural appellation.

When America was celebrating its Centennial in 1876, post California Gold Rush Italian immigrants were recreating their homeland by planting Zinfandel, Carignane, Muscat, Alicante Bouschet, Malvasia and Palomino grapevines on the wind-swept highlands of Mendocino County up range from what is now Point Arena and Anderson Valley. They wanted their wine after harvesting tanning bark from trees.

There may have been as many as 400 acres planted on the ridge tops before Prohibition. Some of those original vines are still producing grapes. Remnants of old wineries remain. The wine cellar caves chiseled out of mountainsides only a few years after gold was discovered in California will be there for centuries to come.

Mendocino Ridge is like no other wine grape growing appellation. There are 410 square miles or more than 262,000 acres within the Mendocino Ridge boundaries. However, the actual viticultural area appellation does not start until 1,200 feet in elevation. That cuts the acreage within the appellation by more than two-thirds.

Within these 87,000 acres, only 1,500 to 2,000 are suitable for wine grapes.

Not contiguous

None of the seven vineyards within the appellation touch, the only non-contiguous BATF appellation. Mendocino Ridge is a group of mountain ridges and peaks BATF rejected outright the original appellation application because it was not contiguous, according to Dan Dooling of Mariah Vineyards.

Dooling said it took months to convince BATF that the low, often fog shrouded, cooler low ground did not produce the same intense flavor grapes as the high country. The grape growers eventually won their arguments for their vineyard islands in the clouds.

While there are several varietals grown in these mountain top vineyards (don’t call them hillside vineyards!), Zinfandel is the crown jewel of Mendocino Ridge.

Zinfandel is considered unique to the U.S., although it is generally believed Zinfandel cuttings were brought to the East Coast about 1830 from either Croatia or those cuttings were Italy’s Primitivo grape. Regardless, it became Zinfandel and arrived in California in the mid 1800s. At one time it was the most widely planted grape in California. It was nudged out by the likes of today’s more fashionable Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.

Zinfandel has been called the most “stylistically diverse wine” made in the U.S. It even has its own society, Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP).

Mendocino Ridge is ZAP’s Holy Grail. Zinfandel winemaking guru Jed Steele says distinctive Pinot Noir wines come from Burgundy; unparalleled White Riesling from the Mosel Valley of Germany; exquisite Cabernet Sauvignon from Rutherford-Oakville of Napa Valley and the finest Zinfandel from Mendocino Ridge a grape variety and region combined to create the ultimate in winemaking fruit.

Mariah Vineyards

Whenever ZAP gathers, there most likely will be bottles of Mariah Vineyards Zinfandel, the fruit of a couple who grew up in San Francisco in the heyday of Haight Ashbury; captured a dream to become Zinfandel wine grape growers and made it possible by driving a truck a million miles.

They are Dan and Vicki Dooling, relative newcomers to Mendocino Ridge. They bought the property for their vineyard in 1979 and harvested their first crop in 1983.

However, they brought a Zinfandel heritage to the ridge that dates back several generations in Dan’s family.

A long association with Steele, considered one of the premium red Zinfandel winemakers in the world, only bolstered that heritage link. Steele was a teacher’s assistant at University of California, Davis when Vicki and Dan were students there.

Their acquaintance with Steele was only one reason that sent them in search of the perfect place to grow premium Zinfandel wine grapes, but is was one of the most compelling ones.

Dan’s grandmother grew Zinfandel grapes, but he never knew her then. It was a Dooling family friend, Ed Bernard, a pioneering Zinfandel grape grower in Napa Valley that kindled the fire for Dan to become a grape grower.

Bernard grew grapes in the Yountville area. As a youngster when his family visited Bernard, Dan was captivated by farming. When he was no more than 8-years-old Bernard confirmed to Dan that he would some day own a vineyard.

That became Mariah Vineyards, 31-acres of vines and a 91-acre homestead carved from a mountaintop by Vicki and Dan.

The Doolings

Vicki is the quiet, thoughtful Mariah partner who husband Dan says grows wiser with the years. “When we start talking about things with the vineyard these days, she has already been there in her mind,” said Dan.

Dan is boisterous, but most affable. He is one of the most likable people you’ll ever meet. Dan has never met a stranger and constantly invites his new best friends to the Doolings’ mountaintop for his hospitable wife to entertain. He is a reader, writer and someone who will pitch in to help without hesitation.

He is one of those guys the untalented loathe because he can build anything. He didn’t just carve a vineyard into a mountain top, he also built a beautiful home; sculptured an irrigation pond from a mountainside; built a first class barn and even a self sustaining power system for his home and vineyard still miles from the nearest power line.

California’s North Coast is a wine world of unconventionals and the farmers. There are the growers like prune farmer turned world famous Chardonnay grower Robert Young. There are the millionaires who are living out wine fantasies with money earned far from the vine rows. There is the Hollywood crowd like Francis Ford Coppola. Race car drive Mario Andretti and the Smothers Brothers are among those who ventured to the North Coast to make famous wine.

However, there is doubtless only one Teamster trucker who can claim to be a producer of award winning mountain Zinfandel grapes.

Teamster Driver

Dan will always carry a Teamsters card. He continues to add to the 2.5 million miles he has logged trucking from coast to coast. Dan has an identity crisis that will never be sorted out. He calls trucking his persona – his escape. He talks about trucks with the same passion as he has when he talks about grapes.

He is also a University of California, Davis viticulture graduate who was in New Orleans earlier this spring where he and Vicki, a UC animal science graduate who also took enology and viticulture classes at Davis, convinced 17 of the finest restaurants in the Crescent City to include Mariah Vineyards Zinfandel on the wine list. Mariah Vineyards wines are in the finest restaurants in America

Nevertheless, Dan still struggles with his two identities of trucker and grape grower.

He grew up in a trucking family. His dad logged 5 million miles. A fully restored 1965 Narrow Nose Peterbilt tractor sits in the Mariah Vineyards barn…its chrome exhaust stacks barely clearing the rollup door. Tuck and roll interior. Metalic blue paint job. Chrome tanks and battery boxes. A powerful new engine was nestled into the front, but the old style two-stick transmission was rebuilt. It has been to classic truck shows.

The Peterbilt is no trailer queen. Dooling hauls limestone and gypsum for himself and others. He does it for the drive, not the cash.

Each fall he decks out the Peterbilt and matching trailer with 10 stainless steel gondolas to haul prized Zinfandel grapes to Fetzer Winery in Hopland. It is 38 miles one way, guiding 80,000 pounds of truck and load over mountain roads with grades as steep as 17 percent.

‘Cuss fruit haulers’

“When I was a long haul drive, I used to cuss those fruit haulers every summer – dumping those tomatoes along Interstate 5 making a mess. Now I am a fruit hauler,” laughs Dooling.

Those tomatoes were worth probably $40 per ton. Dan’s Zinfandel is worth $2,500 per ton or more.

“No one else takes my grapes to the winery,” said Dooling. This year will be his 21th harvest.

It is not the value in those gondolas. It’s the countless sleepless nights it took to nurture grapes to the perfection Dan has demanded since that first, very meager harvest.

For the past two decades when picking started, usually Vicki, maybe Dan, and probably one of their four children, have ridden the ledges of the picking gondolas, taking out immature or overripe berries, leaves and any other trash. Mariah Zin is picked three times or more per season.

“When the new Syrah we planted, everything ripens at once. Not with Zinfandel,” he said. He tells his hand picking crew : “Only high grade fruit. If we have to toss it on the ground you don’t get paid for picking it and you cannot pick it when you come back in two weeks.”

He drops immature fruit ahead of harvest to keep the vine in balance with the crop load, a key to Zinfandel quality.

Harvest starts at 6 a.m. or so and by 4:30 when it is finished, it has been a long day. Nevertheless before Dan shifts the first gear in the Peterbilt to head to Hopland, he cleans up.

All in order

“Before I head down the mountain, I’ll take a shower; put on a clean pair of slacks and shirt and polished boots. I want to have a presentable package – me, my truck and my grapes,” he said.

And when the winery workers wash out Dooling’s gondolas, they have specific instructions – no water on the Peterbilt.

It is not arrogance. It is all about personal pride. Dan and Vicki lived initially in a very small trailer with their first born child as they carved out a mountaintop to plant a vineyard and build their home. Dan saved the money to develop the vineyards. He figures the initial investment was one million miles behind the wheel of a truck. It is about making a homestead from timber and manzanita brush so thick it hid a 12-foot tall cross Dooling discovered on Half Moon Ridge when he was clearing brush.

“When I saw that cross, I immediately hopped off that tractor and headed down the mountain to the first phone I could find to call the lady who sold me the land. I had to find how if she had sold me some burial ground,” he said.

Ida Jackson laughed when Dan called. The cross was a forgotten leftover from Easter sunrise services once held on the mountaintop. That was not the only remnant from years past. “I had a heckuva time reclaiming the ground where they used to park all the cars for that Easter service. When they leveled it, they scraped off the topsoil,” said Dooling.

Packing pistol

Dan and Vicki bought the land in the late 1970s from Jackson, a retired Oakland school teacher who was the first black to graduate from the University of California, Berkeley. The first time Dan visited the property with Ms. Jackson, the caretaker she employed did not show up quick enough to unlock the gate. She shot off the lock with a pistol from her briefcase.

She and her brother, who owned restaurants in Oakland, had bought 1,200 acres on Mendocino Ridge in the 1950s. It was a family retreat. A little farming took place on the flat areas.

The teacher lived on the mountain for a few years after retiring, rising peacock for hat feathers. She also made money selling tanning bark peeled from trees just like the Italians did when they first settled the wild ridge six miles from the Pacific Ocean.

You can see the Pacific white caps from the back of Mariah Vineyards. At 2,800 feet at its highest point, it is the highest vineyard in the appellation and the second highest vineyard in California.

The Doolings have achieved what few have in the wine grape business. For years his grapes went to Steele, initially when the winemaker was at Edmeades Winery and then later at Kendall-Jackson. For a few years he also custom crushed some of his better grapes and marketed his own wine.

Now Mariah grapes are contracted to Brown-Forman Wines. Well, it is not really the grapes that are sold to the giant of Jack Daniels fame. It is the vineyard. It is Mariah. Brown-Forman is exclusive marketer of Mariah Vineyards wine from Mariah grapes, the only arrangement of its type for Brown-Forman.

Exclusive winemaker

Brown-Forman owns Fetzer, but when Dooling pulls his truck to the Fetzer crusher he is a grower separate from all others crushing at winery. Nancy Walker at Fetzer is the exclusive Mariah Vineyards winemaker.

Brown-Forman markets 3 million cases of wine under several labels, but only 800 cases of Zinfandel annually come from Mariah Vineyards.

It is unique and has been rewarding for the Doolings.

“We have worked with Brown-Forman for two years and feel very fortunate for someone like Brown-Forman to recognize Mariah for its quality,” said Dan.

“Considering what has happened in the California wine industry over the past two years, I have considered going back to church we have been so blessed,” joked Dan. Brown-Forman financed an 18-month filming of Vicki and Dan and their grape operation for a DVD to show distributors.

It is the quality and pride that attracted Brown-Forman to Mariah. Dooling said farming is an attitude just like trucking. He treats his vines as he would his classic truck. A visitor touring Mariah not long ago tossed a gum wrapper in the dirt. Dan picked it up. And you don’t climb into his truck with muddy boots.

“This vineyard is my office”, he said politely. “You don’t go into a person’s office and toss a gum wrapper on the floor.” Vineyard clutter sends him into orbit. “We used green vines ties a few years ago and I went nuts until we got them all cleaned out of the vineyard. We immediately went back to biodegradable string.”

The Doolings now own 91 acres. Zinfandel is planted on 20 acres and 11 are in Syrah and Merlot. He has 22 more cleared.

‘Humidity traps’

The original vines were head trained in the old Zinfandel style, but they were little umbrellas, “humidity traps” for powdery mildew where rainfall averages 80 to 90 inches per year. The vines are now on bilateral cordons, dryland farmed. He once drip irrigated. He dryland farms the grapes.

He cover crops out of necessity with that much rainfall. “I like to say I am sustainable. With timber so close, I have problems at times with mites.” He has mechanically cultivated between vines with a Weed Badger almost from the beginning. Occasionally, he will use herbicides if he finds a troublesome weed like bermudagrass.

His wine is not organic. Dan said organic wine has not worked well for the industry because quality dissipates quickly.

The fruit is intense. Jess Jackson said the vines of Mariah Vineyards have the same complicated climate variables that have cause wine experts to hail the Mendocino Coastal Ridge as one of the world’s greatest Zinfandel regions.

The weather is extreme. It will snow in winter and springs are very cold. Bud break is mid to late April. Good air drainage on the mountain top precludes frost. During the growing season temperatures are in the 80s to 90s. It will get more than 100 degrees. The falls are “tremendous” with inversions kicking in, keeping temperatures warm at night. This gives the grapes distinctive, high acids.

Dooling constantly drops immature fruit to achieve quality. Zinfandel does not ripen evenly, and he can pick three to four times during harvest. It is 24.5 sugar or not harvested. It can be a struggle to get pickers to select only perfectly ripe fruit. Dooling has been a stickler for quality from his very first harvest he promised to Steele.

“I had an old two-and-a-half ton Dodge truck when we first started. I showed up at Jed’s with two little bins of fruit that first year,” said Dooling. Steele was expecting more grapes.

Delivers only quality

“I told him all he was ever going to get was quality, and that was all the quality we had that year,” said Dooling.

He as never lowered the bar during the years with Kendall-Jackson, custom crushing some of his own grapes for several years and now with Brown-Forman.

Dan has lost little of the intensity that drove him to the top of Mendocino Ridge. He never stops whether it is growing award-winning Mariah Vineyards Zinfandel or driving to Salinas for a load of gypsum.

He has never been satisfied with anything less than his absolute best.

Dan and Vicki have accomplished something very few will ever experience.

Asked if he ever stops to reflect on what he has accomplished, Dan admits if he stops long enough to reflect, he feels fortunate. “I have a wonderful wife who has supported this crazy truck driver for years. I have four wonderful children and a vineyard that has long been paid for and Mariah will live forever,” he said.

He talks proudly of his children. Nichole is 20 and a student at UC Santa Barbara: Michael is 18 and a freshman at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo; Danielle is 16 and a junior in high school and Stefan is in the eighth grade. It has been 51-mile round trip each day to school since Nichole was in kindergarten.

“Vicki has put more miles on cars taking kids up and down the mountain that I probably have driving a truck,” he said.

Sometimes, he admits, when he is on the backside of the vineyards to apply sulfur early in the morning, he looks across the ridge to see the Pacific Ocean.

“I do feel a sense of satisfaction, but I don’t give it a lot of thought,” said Dooling.

There will never be a stopping point for Dan.

Several years ago he went into a saddle shop to have a leather cover made for his trucker’s logbook. On the back of the book he had it tooled to read: “It’s the Ride.”

“Whether you are driving a truck or growing grapes, it is not the destination. It is the getting there. It is the building. It is the driving. It is living the dream of a kid who grew up in The City on the water front who became a grape grower on the top of a mountain.”


COPYRIGHT 2004 PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc. All rights reserved.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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