LeVin Winery & Vineyards

LeVin Winery & Vineyards: Talented Duo Share Organic Farm

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

He's a singer songwriter and trained classical musician. She's a graphic artist related to Gumby. Together they make award winning wines.

Stepping into the kitchen on a Sunday morning at the home of LeVin Winery and Vineyards' owners Eric Levin and Holly Harman, I was met by the sizzle of a cast iron skillet on the stove and a half a dozen young interns.

Marianne from Los Angeles had been here for three weeks and Zeona from Hawaii, who’d been here a month, were cooking breakfast. In the cluttered antique and grand piano filled living room with picture windows facing a magnificent ridge top view, Franky from Iowa, here a week, and Ben from Wisconsin, who had been here a few weeks, were playing riffs on their guitars. Two others were meditating in the sauna near the hot tub and kidney shaped swimming pool with a birds-eye view of surrounding Yorkville Highlands and the valley below.

Completely at ease in their hosts' home, the Le Vin organic estate attracts young people who want to work on the farm in exchange for room and board. Everyone cleans up after themselves, cooks and does the dishes. This group picked olives and bottled olive oil at LeVin the previous week. They also help with composting and pruning the 14 acres of organic vines.

"Up here" is the magnificent 164 acre LeVin Estate that straddles ridges in the Yorkville Highlands with an elevation from 1550 to 1900 feet. An old stage coach road that used to connect Ukiah and Boonville crosses through the property. Giant oaks dot the hillsides where 14 acres of mostly Bordeaux variety grapes grow--Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah.

"Yorkville Highlands is interesting," says Levin, slim and dressed in black jeans, a blanket wool jacket and cowboy boots. "It is great for Bordeaux varietals which ripen up here to make the most intense dark red juice." To Levin, who got interested in wine when he drank first growth wines from Bordeaux in France, he's fulfilling a dream. "I fell in love with Chateau Margaux and wanted to match that quality," he says.

Levin grew up in San Francisco as a young classical musician who became principal cellist in the San Francisco Youth symphony Orchestra. He followed his sister Nell, who got a music scholarship, to Finland, where he studied and at 12 years old played for the President of Finland. From there he went on to become a singer songwriter. "I do Dylanesque folk rock music," he

says, adding with assurance that this is the year he will get his CD out.

In 1983 Levin started in the wine business with his father as negociants at Zellerbach Winery in Sonoma County. His father, Bernard Levin worked at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House where he met Stephen Zellerbach backstage. They became friends and then business associates.

Partner Harman, with shoulder length fair hair and poised competence, has a wine label design company, winelabeldesign.com, with a variety of prestigious clients. She grew up in San Mateo. When she was in her teens, her mother Gloria met and later married (in 1973) Art Clokey, the creator of the clay animation character Gumby. "I worked designing murals for Gumby and Pokey episodes," she says. She also designed murals for Gumby’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2006. Her mom recently passed away. Clokey now 87 lives in Los Osos, California. "The Gumby Dharma documentary has their story in it," she says. Harman worked as the lead graphic designer at Real Goods in the 1990s.

Levin and Harman purchased this ranch 16 years ago and planted the hillside vineyards in 1993, 1994 and 1997. Currently they have five acres of Merlot, five acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, three acres of Cabernet Franc and one acre of Syrah, all organically grown and CCOF certified. A long tall row of Italian Cypress trees borders the Cabernet Franc grapes. From here you can look down the 101 corridor to the south. Further up you can see as far as Mount St. Helena. "On real clear days we see the Geysers," says Levin, who then points out one of the six owl boxes posted around the vineyard.

The winery is housed in a big barn on a knoll. Jasmine the cat is the official greeter. Upstairs is a guest room complete with grand piano and B3 Hammond organ, full kitchen, rattan furniture, an old round oak table and chairs, wood burning stove and full bath. Guests are invited to enjoy the sauna, pool and Jacuzzi, as well as bicycles for a good workout riding around the ranch.

The first floor tasting room with its elbow-high oak and granite bar and stacks of barrels amidst art work is open by appointment only. In addition to their estate Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot Ruby Rose wines Levin makes Pinot Noir grown at Lost Creek Vineyard near Maple Creek Winery. Their art deco inspired label was designed by wine poster artist Steven Haines Hall in Mill Valley.

LeVin, the family name, couldn't have been more appropriate. "It’s like before the blind tasting event in the recent movie 'Bottleshock' where for years the end-all was being French," laughs Levin. "Our name means "the wine" in French. We have name recognition built in."

LeVin also produces organic "late harvest" olive oil from 250 twelve-year old trees. "We are the last to pick olives around here. We pick the olives when they are mostly black," he explains, saying that this ripeness makes a smoother nuttier flavor. They are pressed by monks in Lake County. "The interns bottled a bunch of it this week," adds Harman.

As we walk from the winery back to their house, we pass Meyer lemon, orange, grapefruit, and apple trees, kiwi vines and more than 125 redwoods, that Eric planted. Everything is certified organic on the ranch. "By using chemical fertilizers continuously, eventually the soil loses its ability to fix nitrogen out of the air," says Levin.

"We add organic compost by hand to each vine and dig it in." With so much handwork it’s no wonder they welcome the extra help like the young people I met in the kitchen earlier. Harman and Levin initially became involved with interns from their connection to the Solar Living Center in Hopland, which later resulted in their having their own interns.

"We've been making wine for 27 years and are just starting to learn what is the best way to do things," muses Levin. He quotes mentor John Parducci, who says, "If you make a good bottle of wine, everyone is happy. If you do everything yourself, you can survive in this industry."

That's how it's done at LeVin. "I enjoy doing it myself," says Levin, "from driving the tractor to planting the vines. I feel so blessed to have this ranch."

TASTING NOTES: LeVin’s 2002 Merlot which includes twelve percent Cabernet Sauvignon is a big wine in the style of Levin’s inspirational French counterpart but with more fruit forward flavors. I loved it with baby back ribs rubbed with spices and smoked for hours over oak and apple wood.

For more information on LeVin Winery and Vineyards, and their delicious wines and extra virgin olive oil, contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission at www.truemendocinowine.com, or www.levinwinery.com.

Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes for the Ukiah Daily Journal on

behalf of the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission.

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