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Sensi Magazine

A Budding Wine Industry

Mar 30, 2019 02:55PM
By Nora Mounce


Mendocino County, a beloved destination for romantic weekenders, has long been known for its sophisticated pinots, full-bodied chardonnays, and even some French style bubbly. Along with the naturally verdant landscape and rustic charm of Mendocino’s coast, the quality of the wine attracts thousands of tourists.

But penetrating further into the Emerald Triangle known colloquially as “behind the redwood curtain” Humboldt County rarely enjoys the same repute. A rugged country framed by the Pacific and tooth-picked by redwoods, Humboldt is famous for its natural beauty and back-to-the-land cannabis culture. In recent years, a flurry of mom-and-pop wineries have emerged, kick-starting a new California wine region and welcoming visitors to taste their way north.

Back to the Roots
Humboldt County native Pat Knittel found herself driving through Napa Valley’s famous vineyards one day and thinking about home. A seasoned winemaker with experience crushing grapes from Sonoma to New Zealand, Knittel’s mind first ran to Humboldt’s legacy of apple farming. In the early 20th century, renowned plant breeder Albert Etter put Humboldt on the map by patenting unique cultivars like the Pink Pearl and the Waltana in the Mattole Valley. Knowing this heritage, Knittel imagined how her expertise in fermentation might translate from wine to cider. She packed up her dogs and headed north to her childhood home in Freshwater, a farm town with more orchards than people, to start bottling Humboldt County fruit.

“Cool climate versus warm climate is a huge factor in viticulture,” says Knittel, who makes syrah, carignan, pinot, petite sirah, and vermentino under her own label, North Story Wines. Like many winemakers, Knittel prefers the subtlety of cool-climate wines.

For those unfamiliar with the binary of styles, grapes grown in hot regions (California’s Central Valley, Washington State, Australia, and much of Napa and Sonoma) generally yield extremely fruity, high-alcohol wines, dependably enjoyed by mainstream consumers. Meanwhile, cool-climate wines (Oregon, France, Germany, and coastal California) are known to be more expressive, a function of moderate temperature that allows bright acidity and non-generic flavors to develop freely. “Those are the wines that really flip my switch,” says Knittel.

Under her Wrangletown label the historic name of Freshwater Knittel also produces craft cider, including three orchard-designate ciders, a barrel-aged, and her original “farmhouse” dry. Lately, she’s been playing around with extended maceration (leaving the juice on the skins), allowing more complex flavors to develop, a technique typically reserved for red wine. The quality of Wrangletown ciders is a direct reflection of Knittel’s winemaking experience and intimate relationship with Humboldt County fruit. “You make what’s best for the area,” she says.

Written in the Stars
Around the corner from Knittel’s tasting room in Arcata’s historic Creamery District, Jared Sandifer opened his own “micro-winery” in 2014, naming the label Septentrio after the old Latin term septentriois, which loosely translates to both a constellation of stars and the direction north.

Sandifer learned to appreciate good wine at a young age. Later, an opportunity to scoop up discount grapes fell in his lap while he was visiting his mother in Napa. After hauling the slightly overripe fruit back to Eureka, he crushed his first harvest and made pinot and tempranillo in his garage.

Like many Humboldt entrepreneurs before him, Sandifer wears every hat at Septentrio, managing his vineyards and building his winery with a classic DIY Humboldt mentality. “Humboldt County is filled with brilliant people who moved here for the quality of life,” explains Sandifer. “But there’s not a great economy, so people have done creative things to get by.”

Sandifer is quick to stress there’s also science fueling the growing crop of North Coast wineries.

“We get that cool fog that creeps at night,” he explains. “It’s great because pinot noir is a thin-skinned grape and can’t handle too much heat.”

As Humboldt’s reputation for craft beer, wine, cider, and food continues to grow, so too does interest in visiting the region’s wineries, and Septentrio is getting ready. In 2019, Sandifer and his wife plan to open a tasting room in Arcata featuring wine tasting, a Euro-Asian fusion food truck, and their newest release, a sparkling brut rose. The expansion goes hand-in-hand with the philosophy behind the label: enjoying the good life and showing off Humboldt’s artisan side.

As Boutique as Can Be
Further north, Sonja Shaw and Jason Smith are the winemaker/proprietor duo of the boutique winery Flor d’ Luna. Shaw and Smith started making wine at their home in the apple orchards of Fieldbrook to satisfy their appreciation for good varietals. Shaw is the winemaker, building on her lifelong love of gardening and four semesters at the University of California, Davis’s extension program for enology and viticulture. Smith serves as Flor d’Luna’s assistant winemaker and manages the winery’s marketing and operations.

Focused expressly on winemaking the couple does not own a vineyard they have found key advantages to making wine in Humboldt. The moderate temperature and higher humidity allow for gentler processes in the winery, Shaw explains, helping to keep the wines from being over extracted. “Our cooler nighttime temperatures help to keep acids high,” she says.

Striving to change the stereotype around Humboldt wine namely, that there isn’t any Flor d’Luna produces a small portfolio of wines from grapes grown from eastern Humboldt and as far south as Amador. “Access is challenging,” says Shaw, citing competition and scale as the main challenges to expanding production. “As a winemaker, my job is to find good fruit and not mess it up,” she adds with a laugh.

Character, Tradition, Terroir
Rounding out the crop of newcomers, Wil Franklin is the winemaker at Trinity River Vineyards and vineyard manager at farms throughout the Willow Creek AVA (American Viticulture Area), a mountainous region east of Arcata. Thanks to a few visionary farmers, the Willow Creek AVA was established in 1983, long before many of California’s world-famous wine regions were granted the same recognition.

Franklin believes the challenging aspects of farming in rural Humboldt are simultaneously what gives the region such potential. He cites the steep terrain, which must be harvested by hand, as a built-in function that protects fruit quality and promotes small-scale, sustainable agriculture. And despite Humboldt’s reputation for gray weather, the Willow Creek AVA regularly sees triple-digit temperatures each summer, allowing red-skinned varietals like cabernets to reach phenolic ripeness while maintaining acidity. “What I think will emerge is a really unique, boutique wine industry,” says Franklin.

A product of culture and geography, the French concept terroir describes how a place is expressed through soil, agriculture, and flavor. In Humboldt County, the region’s cultural identity has often been smoked, but rarely bottled. In 2019, visitors behind the redwood curtain can experience a taste of Humboldt County that’s no longer a secret.

L O C A L   G U I D E   B O O K :

How to Savor the Flavors.

North Story Wines
You can try all the varietals in the tasting room at the Wrangletown Cidery in Arcata.

FACEBOOK.COM/SEPTENTRIOWINERYTo order cases or find out about upcoming tastings and pairing dinners at local restaurants, head to Facebook.

Flor d’Luna
FLORDLUNA.COM A McKinleyville tasting room is open by appointment. You can also catch the team of two pouring at The Griffin during Arts! Arcata on the second Friday of the month.

Trinity River Vineyards
The estate vineyard wines from Willow Creek are sold online and ship nationwide