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Mendocino Ridge AVA

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | June 17, 2011

Out of all of the various American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) found within the United States, Mendocino County perhaps has some of the most unique AVAs in existence. While not as granular as the AVAs of Sonoma County, Mendocino County does sport a unique AVA in the form of the Mendocino Ridge AVA. The primary feature that sets the Mendocino Ridge AVA apart from the rest is that it is the only AVA in the United States that is non-contiguous.

The Mendocino Ridge AVA is a recent AVA classification. Formed in 1997, the Mendocino Ridge AVA neighbors and overlaps the Anderson Valley AVA. The Anderson Valley AVA is located in a natural valley formed by the Coast Range Mountains of central Mendocino County. Originally the vineyards found within the Anderson Valley AVA were contained to only the Anderson Valley AVA. Eventually differences in elevation between the Anderson Valley AVA floor and the higher elevations necessitated the creation of a special AVA. The main reason for this was that due to the increased elevations, growing conditions were substantially different. This in turn resulted in a noticeable difference with produced wine. The end result was the creation of the Mendocino Ridge AVA.

Looking at the Mendocino Ridge AVA on a map presents an interesting picture. The Mendocino Ridge AVA covers an area of about 410 square miles. Yet when viewing the AVA on a map, one sees a non-continuous representation of areas defined as the actual Mendocino Ridge AVA. Regardless of the size of the total area defined for Mendocino Ridge, only about 80,000 acres are applicable for the AVA classification. The reason for this fact is that the Mendocino Ridge AVA has a minimum elevation requirement of 1,200 feet. Therefore, areas within the boundaries of the Mendocino Ridge that fall below 1,200 feet are not contained within the Mendocino Ridge AVA. Another interesting point concerning the Mendocino Ridge AVA is that out of the 80,000 acres available, only about 2,000 acres are appropriate for vineyard cultivation. Ultimately this creates an interesting situation where an AVA of a huge land mass exists to support roughly 2,000 acres.

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If the Anderson Valley AVA is considered a cool climate viticulture environment, then the Mendocino Ridge AVA can share this classification. The differences between the Anderson Valley AVA and the Mendocino Ridge AVA are mostly sunlight and temperature. As most vineyards can be found at above 1,400 feet, these vineyards are spared the sunlight obstructing fogs that roll in from the Pacific Ocean. Because of this, the Mendocino Ridge AVA receives substantially more sunlight than the Anderson Valley AVA. Due to the high elevations found within the Mendocino Ridge AVA, temperatures are somewhat cooler than those found within the Anderson Valley AVA. These conditions combined with a small family vineyard background have led to a unique character among the wines produced within the Mendocino Ridge AVA.

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It can be said that winemaking within the Mendocino Ridge AVA follows more of a traditionalist course. Winemaking began when Italian immigrants planted small vineyards on logged out soils during the late 1800s. These Italian immigrants settled in an area known as Greenwood Ridge. The Greenwood Ridge site was selected due to its location between the coastal town of Elk and Anderson Valley. The site also reminded the Italian immigrants of their homeland with respect to growing grapes. Finally, even though Greenwood Ridge was located on an access road between several important cities, the settlers of the area found the area provided an environment of isolation. This could be seen in the development of a localized dialect concerning the language of the area. In visiting the Greenwood Ridge area one can understand how an isolated environment can exist.

With only 2,000 acres of land available for vineyard cultivation, not many vineyards were developed. Of the vineyards that were created, the vintners concentrated their efforts on the Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Carignane, Muscat, Palomino and Malvasia varieties. From the 1890s moving forward, the vineyards weathered the immense storm of changes and survived into modern times. Today these vineyards have focused their energies on the development of Zinfandel wines. The Zinfandels created from the vineyards of the Mendocino Ridge AVA reveal a definite distinction of place that is often not found with any other California Zinfandel. This is one of the main reasons that a separate Mendocino Ridge AVA was created in 1997. It will be interesting to see what the future holds with respect to vineyard growth within the Mendocino Ridge AVA. Certainly there is room for expansion but with a climate of environmental activism against the development of hilltop vineyards, new vineyard growth may be delayed into the foreseeable future.

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