DnA Vineyards: When Dennis met Andrea
Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson
He was a back-to-the-land hippie. She was destined for a life in medicine like her father, siblings, and relatives. He has a passion for growing things and a talented sense of taste. She has curiosity and an aptitude for business. He developed over the last forty years to become one of Mendocino County’s most renowned and infinitely quotable winemakers. Her creativity and energy blazed an entrepreneurial path into the international wine world.
Their company DnA Vineyards is named for Dennis Patton, 62, and Andrea Silverstein, 41. It is located southwest of Ukiah five miles up Robinson Creek Road. The two have known each other since the 1990’s and have been married for six years. They work from home while raising four-year-old Samantha. Their business is producing high value wine from vineyards in Mendocino County and throughout California for clients such as Trader Joes.
Patton has made wine in the county since the late1970s. He also has the palate and intuition to know when to buy wine or grapes. “I know the growers and the good sites as well as the grapes in Mendocino. I want to see them get used,” he says.
He and Silverstein planted a four-acre vineyard on their solar powered 42-acre ranch in 2006. Certified organic Grenache Noir, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel vines slope down the northeast facing bowl in a semi circle with a rain-filled pond at the base. For someone who has worked with every varietal grown in the region, Patton chose these grapes because “it’s six to eight degrees cooler up here than in the valley and they ripen easily even at our 1400-1550 foot elevation.”
Next to their beautifully remodeled house Patton walks through his beloved garden and orchard. Winter chard, artichokes, broccoli and herbs are in the garden. Nearby blackberries, raspberries and loganberries are in winter dormancy. Dozens of young trees including plum, cherry, almond, persimmon, apricot, mulberry, pomegranate and several kinds of peaches, pears, prunes, figs and apples encircle the lower level of the split level home. Silverstein puts up as much of the harvest as she has time to do.
Patton’s love of gardening is in his genes. Although he grew up in suburban San Jose his grandparents were in agriculture. They had 2400 acres above the Santa Clara Valley and raised apricots, prunes and cattle. They still cooked on a wood stove when he was in high school in the 1960s. “I rode my bike to my grandparents up in the hills,” he recalls.
When Patton finished high school, he went to San Jose State. “My buddies’ parents were in the wine business and I got interested in wine,” he recalls. He bought a copy of “Hugh Johnson’s 99-Cent Guide to Wine” to educate himself. The first case of wine Patton bought was 1964 Haut-Brion (a French Bordeaux that could fetch around $500 a bottle these days) for $4.84 a bottle.
One day in 1972 his younger brother David mentioned he had friends with an option on a ranch near Ukiah in Mendocino County. “We all piled into a hippie VW van in April and drove up to find this beautiful upland property on Greenfield Ranch.” He and his brother bought into the 50-acre parcel. “I had my feet in the land and came up here to grow stuff,” he says. He was soon meeting grape growers and people in the wine business. He took classes in winemaking at UC Davis and he met John Scharffenberger who was starting his sparkling wine business in Ukiah at the time.
Patton leased a few acres Scharffenberger owned in Talmage and ran a truck farm with a range of vegetables he grew. “I was one of the first certified organic farmers in Mendocino County,” he says. He also made 80 gallons of wine from Carignane, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes his first year. He then moved to a cabin on Scharffenberger family’s Eaglepoint Ranch up Mill Creek Road. By 1980 Patton made 3000 gallons and was bootlegging sales to his friends as a hobby.
“That changed one day in Redwood Valley when a Highway Patrol car came up behind me,” he laughs. He felt OK because he had his driver’s license and insurance. Then it struck him, “holy s….! I’ve got 80 cases of wine in the back of my truck and a cigar box full of money on the front seat.” He knew it was legal to make 200 gallons of wine as hobby, but. . . He turned right and the CHP turned right. As the CHP continued behind him all the way to Highway 101, Patton was sweating and promised himself, “I swear if this guy passes me I’ll go legit.”
As the CHP drove by him, Patton’s business plan was sealed. In 1981 Patton and a group of friend partners bonded Hidden Cellars Winery, which was located on Mill Creek Road. Later Hidden Cellars moved to the Hildreth Ranch on Ruddick Cunningham Road. “How I started was not the smart way to do things,” he says. His first expense was putting in a crush pad that cost $17,000 and that was just the beginning. He realized that this business was going to take a lot of money.
Over the next couple of decades as friends and local lending institutions invested, Patton feels that he learned the nuts and bolts of ways not to be in the wine business. When Hidden Cellars sold to Parducci in 1999, Patton worked there for a couple of years, “the only time I wasn’t self employed in 40 years,” he says.
He began a consulting business and had no shortage of clients. Patton has made wine for numerous growers in Mendocino. He also co-founded the Coro Mendocino wine label with Paul Dolan. Coro Mendocino is the premium Mendocino red blend wine made according to a peer reviewed protocol for quality.
In the meantime, in the mid 1990’s, Patton met Andrea Silverstein.
Silverstein grew up in Oklahoma City. She went to a private prep school for 12 years and then to Emory to study psychology and international studies. She received an MBA at the American International School of International Management.
After college she tried out corporate life and didn’t like it. “It became clear that my love of food and wine had to play a role in my life,” she says. Rationalizing that wine is an international business, she moved to Southern California and landed a job with a premium wine and spirits distributor. Her territory was Santa Monica and Malibu and she sold “tons” of wine to high end restaurants. She decided she could do this on her own. This was at the time Japan was in its heyday of bringing chefs and American wine to Japan. She connected with former fellow international graduate students and formed a company to promote California’s boutique wines to Japan.
She and Patton met when they were at the same wine event in Los Angeles. “I looked at this guy dressed in a silk paisley shirt with this big curly head of hair and I thought what an old hippie, but he sure makes great wine,” she laughs. She helped him sell his wines to about 20 top notch restaurants. She also became intrigued with the Mendocino wine story.
As Japanese clients began asking for more organic wine and Silverstein relocated to the Bay Area her relationship with Patton deepened. “We were both recovering from heartbreaks and he invited me to come up for his birthday.” She did and “that was it.”
When Samantha was born in 2006, Silverstein sold her business and she and Patton partnered in DNA Vineyards. Not only does it stand for Dennis and Andrea but it also refers to Patton’s involvement in DNA vine research, which was one of the things that attracted her to him in the first place.
This couple combines Patton’s extraordinary winemaking skills with Silverstein’s marketing and sales abilities. The Trader Joe’s TBD brand is a DnA wine. Silverstein designed the label and Patton sourced bulk wine to blend and meet the flavor profiles demanded by the Trader Joes wine buyers.
“You should see this dining room when I’m tasting through wines to assemble a marketable high quality, low priced blend,” says Patton, who is known for his boundless, ageless energy and quick wit as well as his winemaking prowess. Up to two hundred samples from wineries in Mendocino County and throughout California top every vertical surface. He tastes and smells each wine and knows how much inventory is available in order to fill a 10,000 or more case order.
“Dennis has an encyclopedic memory,” says George Poore, a longtime friend from his Greenfield Ranch days and a partner in Hidden Cellars Winery. “When we started Hidden Cellars we realized we needed to get his information into a computer in case anything ever happened to him.”
When DNA purchases wine for custom blends, they always go for Mendocino wine first. “The hometown team is the most together,” says Patton, who works with the staff at Mendocino Wine Company (which owns Parducci) to produce DNA’s wine. “Their quality of service from winemaking to warehousing to the office staff is the best.” They also lauded other Mendocino County winemaking resources such as Rack and Riddle and Weibel in Hopland.
“We fill a great need and niche,” says Silverstein. Showcasing Patton’s old friends’ vineyards, DNA Vineyards produces high quality wine at affordable prices. Patton and Silverstein, along with Samantha, a vivacious child who is learning violin, takes ballet and classes at SPACE and loves to dress up (last seen as Cleopatra complete with crown and tunic) are in their stride. They have figured out how to run their business and spend quality time together as a family.
Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes for the Ukiah Daily Journal on behalf of the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission« Column Index