Over the past few years, one Mendocino County winery in California’s wine country has repeatedly grabbed my attention. It’s Saracina, which is located in Hopland on 600 gorgeous bio-diverse acres—a property that contains three ranches, 300 acres of vineyards, a California Certified Organic winery and Mendocino’s first wine caves. Sheep, goats and bunnies roam through the Saracina Ranch among hiking trails, bamboo gardens, 100-year-old olive tree groves, four ponds and the Russian River, which runs through the property. It’s idyllic, yet rural and real; the creation of owners John Fetzer and Patty Rock, named after the Tuscan vineyards and farmhouse where they spent their honeymoon in Italy.
Saracina is a small-production—dare I say “artisan”—winery, growing and making Pinot Noir, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. A subset of Saracina is the Atrea brand—interesting blended wines with a RhÃ´ne-style DNA. During his time at Fetzer Vineyards, John Fetzer grew production to more than 2.5 million cases annually before selling Fetzer and, in 2001, launching Saracina with his wife. “You have to sell a big winery to build a small winery today,” Fetzer says, tongue-in-cheek.
Maybe the smartest move Fetzer made was hiring Alex MacGregor as his winemaker. MacGregor’s depth of winemaking knowledge is remarkable—a chip off mentor David Ramey’s block. And yet, the Canadian-born MacGregor is as down-to-earth, funny and as straight a talker as you’ll ever find. He certainly has the background, credentials and winemaking knowhow to be a serious wine snob, but there are few people in the wine world I’d rather have a beer with.
Tasting through a broad range of Saracina and Atrea wines, I had the opportunity to pick MacGregor’s brain a bit. As mentioned, his winemaking is heavily influenced by renowned winemaker David Ramey, who consults with Saracina. The white wines are made from hand-picked, whole-cluster grapes and aged on the lees in stainless-steel and neutral oak barrels, with indigenous yeast used for fermentation. Red wines go through a cool soak pre-fermentation, with malolactic fermentation in French oak. Both whites and reds are bottled without filtration. This is labor-intense winemaking, with results that are remarkable.
You would expect Saracina’s wines to be priced beyond the reach of normal mortals, given its boutique-style production,. But they’re not. That’s especially true of the Atrea offerings, which sell here for less than $20. Although the value of selling Fetzer Vineyards to Brown-Forman in 1992 was never disclosed publicly, wine-industry sources speculated that it sold for more than $100 million. With that kind of money in the bank, maybe Fetzer doesn’t have to squeeze every penny out of his Saracina and Atrea wines.
I wish more Saracina wines were available here in Utah, especially because they often are priced lower than in California thanks to Utah’s small-winery exemption. So, a well-made, tantalizing wine like Atrea The Choir White goes for a mere $15.99, though the RhÃ´ne-ish blend of Roussanne and Viognier is elegant and expensive-tasting, with Viognier’s apricot aromas and honey notes from Roussanne. Stone fruits dominate the palate. Quite simply, this is a knockout wine and one of my go-to favorites.
Atrea Old Soul Red ($19.99) is a red blend of Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, Malbec and Syrah that kills with pasta Bolognese. And one of the most appealing Rosé wines I’ve tasted this year is Atrea Skid Rosé ($15.97), which is sold out at the winery, but is available in Utah.
You can also find Saracina Sauvignon Blanc ($19.99) here, and you should. The 2012 vintage is flawless, with bright acidity that pairs beautifully with chÃ¨vre. It has that Mendocino-MacGregor mojo.