By Mina Rios
Marin County is a great many things. Posh. Serene. A horticultural utopia—known for its mixed climate suitable for farming a variety of agriculture. While much of Marin’s agritourism is predominantly dairy farm driven, wine offerings are hardly scarce along the Marin cheese trail—the stretch of creameries from Novato to Point Reyes. Boasting more grape-growers and winemakers than cheesemakers, in fact, the North Bay’s infamous Wine Country truly begins only minutes from the Golden Gate—in the northeastern half of West Marin.
Loosely compared to the cool hillsides of Burgundy, France, 200 acres of Marin vines occupy the North Coast appellation, where cool climatic conditions yield wines that are lighter in body, lower in alcohol, and higher in acidity. Cooler summers enable a longer growing and ripening season, while mild winters yield an earlier bloom.
Dating back to 1817, during the building of Mission San Rafael Arcangel, Spanish missionaries began planting the North Bay’s first grapes—those of vitis vinifera (common grape vine). Before long, wine grape-growing was common practice among Marin residents during the 19th century. Yet following San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, Prohibition and World War II, the once-thriving local wine industry dissipated—until the 1970s, when wine estates such as Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Nicasio Valley began planting Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
Today, more than a dozen boutique wineries champion the Marin wine-producing legacy. “We have some very experienced and dedicated winegrowers in Marin,” says industry veteran Jonathan Pey of Pey-Marin Vineyards, a subsidiary of Scenic Root Winegrowers in Napa. “No ‘factory farmed’ wines here!”
Welcoming a new challenge in 1999, winemaker Jonathan Pey, whose past wine-producing expertise includes such industry giants as Maison Louis Jadot and Robert Mondavi, along with wife Susan Pey, corporate wine director of the Il Fornaio Restaurant Group, opted to produce wine from a virtually unknown region—Marin County.
“Growing in Marin County is not for the faint of heart,” Pey says. “Yields in West Marin are tiny. While most vineyards in the Central Valley yield seven tons per acre, we yield 1-1.5 tons per acre.”
Pey-Marin has earned some impressive accolades for their hand-crafted, certified organic Pinot and Riesling. From Wine Enthusiast, Pey-Marin garnered a 90-point rating for their 2013 Pinot Noir and a majority vote from the Press Democrat earned them the title of “Best Riesling in Northern California.”
While Marin has a distinguished group of craft winemakers, several are without tasting rooms for one reason or another—Pey-Marin, Easkoot Cellars, Kendric Vineyards and Skywalker Vineyards among them.
“In that there are almost no tasting rooms in Marin County, the Marin wine scene will remain on the fringe and accessible only to those who really want to find high-quality, handmade, locally grown wines,” Pey says. “I encourage people who love to ‘shop local’ for their produce, cheese, etc. to consider the local Marin-grown wines.”
Among the few Marin-based wineries with local tasting rooms are Bob Glass Wines in Sleepy Hollow, Pacheco Ranch Winery in Novato (by appointment), Point Reyes Vineyards and Trek Winery in Novato. In addition, many fine Marin grocers, restaurants and creameries, along the cheese trail and beyond—carry Marin-grown wines.
Producers of Marin-grown wines with tasting rooms in Sonoma County include Dutton-Goldfield in Sebastopol, McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma (by appointment), Sean H. Thackrey & Co. Winery in Forestville (by appointment) and Stubbs Vineyard in Petaluma.
In Point Reyes, Heidrun Meadery, a wine producer of another sort—mead, otherwise known as wine of honey, is another tasting room not to be overlooked.
For former geologist-turned-craft-brewer Gordon Hull, experimentation with mead was a clear and inevitable hop to the next level of brewing. “Most craft brewers at one time or another wind up brewing honey,” Hull says.
Long has the still, non-carbonated form of the ancient fermented, alcoholic honey beverage (which precedes wine of grapes) captivated the curious. Yet having tasted numerous non-carbonated meads, available through a variety of domestic mead producers, and less than satisfied with the taste, Hull was resolute to produce a palatable mead—one without sweetness. Through experimentation, Hull found his solution after applying méthode champenoise, the traditional Champagne-producing method that yields effervescence during secondary fermentation in the bottle.
Founded in 1997 in Arcata, California, Heidrun Meadery became the first known producer of sparkling mead within the U.S. Eager to partake in Marin’s unique food and agricultural experience, Heidrun relocated to Pt. Reyes in 2011.
Offering tastings and tours, and better yet, tastings while you tour, visitors to Heidrun Meadery practically earn a degree, given the wealth of knowledge they gain after just one visit. Education includes how honey is made, how foraged plants are carefully selected for the bees, how mead is produced and how mead varietals like Oregon Radish Blossom, Orange Blossom and Point Reyes Wildflower taste and differ.
Abandoning all preconceived notions of what mead tastes like is the first order of business when tasting Heidrun sparkling mead for the first time, as mead has an entirely different flavor profile from sparkling. Depending on the varietal, some meads exhibit beer or cider-like qualities, while others can resemble a sparkling wine from grapes. What one can expect of sparkling mead is a light, refreshing, floral bouquet that’s surprisingly unsweet, delightfully effervescent and frankly, the bee’s knees. Given the range of character traits, one could have a great deal of fun with their wine snob friends serving sparkling mead during a blind taste test—a brilliant time-pass during any holiday gathering.
No matter your fancy—wine from honey, wine from grapes—the bounty of all that is Marin-grown is destined to become all the rage.
Marin Wine Trail
10,000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Olema
Bob Glass Wines
63 Oak Knoll Drive, San Anselmo
Pacheco Ranch Winery
235 Alameda Del Prado Road, Novato
Point Reyes Vineyards
at the Point Reyes Vineyard Inn
12700 Highway 1, Point Reyes Station
1026 Machin Avenue, Novato
11925 State Route 1, Point Reyes Station
72 Main Street, Tiburon
Devil’s Gulch Ranch
200 Rd. to Ranch, Nicasio