Magnanimus Wine Group

Magnanimus Wine Group: Mendocino First

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

To Owsley Brown III, Mendocino County is the “root on the ancestral tree of green winemaking.” Mendocino’s leadership in organic, biodynamic and sustainable winegrowing ignited Brown when he first came to the county.

“Genuinely green things have branched out from Mendocino County,” says Brown, owner and inspiration for the Magnanimus Wine Group which includes Mendocino Farms, Talmage, Ukiah and Old River wine labels.

Brown first came to Mendocino in the summer of 1992 when working in the marketing department for Brown-Forman, owner of Fetzer Vineyards. He was immediately drawn to Bonterra, Fetzer’s biodynamic brand. And he credits biodynamic gardening guru, the late Alan Chadwick, as being the “bulls eye of influence” for Mendocino’s leadership. Chadwick, born in England, combined biodynamic principles with French intensive gardening techniques

Chadwick’s connection to Mendocino County stems from the 1970s when he founded the Round Valley Garden Project east of Willits. He came here after starting and teaching at the garden project at the University of Santa Cruz. Among the local Chadwick disciples are John Jeavons of Ecology Action in Willits, Stephen Decater of Live Power Farm in Covelo, Lou Bock of Chance Creek Vineyard in Redwood Valley, Jim Fetzer of Ceago Vineyards in Lake County, and Jonathan and Katrina Frey of Frey Vineyards in Redwood Valley.

The principles of biodynamic farming were developed by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Everything from the soil to the people, the climate to the geography, the animals to the plants, is interrelated and needs to be considered when creating a biodynamic sustainable entity.

“Fetzer’s organic credo was an inspiration,” says Brown, who also credits Paul Dolan and Ann Thrupp for Mendocino’s leadership in the green movement. Dolan is co-owner of Mendocino Wine Company and one the country’s leaders in sustainable winegrowing as well as business practices. Thrupp is the director of sustainability at Fetzer Vineyards.

Brown hired winemaker Steve Ryan three and a half years ago to create the Magnanimus brands. Both are committed to organic and biodynamic farming practices. Ryan, who has a degree in soil science and 23 years in the wine business, was previously the winemaker at Mendocino County’s Patianna Organic Vineyards.

“In my experience,” says Ryan, “Biodynamic farming of vineyards produces an inherent balance that some other vineyards don’t have.” Brown and Ryan look for places that are committed to “site specific sustainable farming.” An example he and Ryan admire is west of Laytonville where Stew Bewley, who cofounded California Cooler in the 1980s, has vineyards that range from 1700 to 2700 feet elevation. “He has been recognized by [wine critic Robert] Parker for growing Rhone and Bordeaux varietals on his mountain vineyards near Spirit Rock,” says Brown. “Each vineyard block has different exposure, elevation and soil.”

When working at Brown-Forman, Brown met Dan Dooling of Mariah Vineyards, which was then with Fetzer, and was immediately taken with the quality of his Syrah grapes grown close to the Mendocino coast. “Dan is an inspiration. He relies solely on solar and biodiesel power,” says Brown.

“What we are doing with our labels is showcasing Mendocino County vineyards from our Mendocino based winery,” says Owsley Brown III, whose great-grandfather George Garvin Brown founded Brown-Forman in Louisville, Kentucky. Owsley was his great grandmother’s family name. “It was a Southern thing to name your son the last name of his mother,” says Brown, who grew up in Louisville and went to the University of Virginia.

He calls himself the “breakout kid” and is doing his winery on his own. His breakout began when he went to work at Mayacamas winery in Napa Valley. He started with a crush job and ended up moving to sales and staying for three years. Finding a passion in wine, he traveled to Italy and apprenticed in Tuscany. As a result he hired Paolo Caciorgna, an Italian consultant, as part of Magnanimus’ winemaking team.

“I inherited my concern for quality from my dad,” he says, adding, “I take the long term view modeled after the success of Brown-Forman, which is still primarily a family owned business.”

Brown, 38, lives in San Francisco with his wife Victoire, who is from Argentina. They have three children, Chiara 13, William, nine, and Catalina, who just turned one. While not ready to uproot the family, Brown has purchased property on Feliz Creek Road in Hopland. He is concentrating on the business end of the winery and finds connections in San Francisco, where he sells half of his wine, valuable.

Ryan makes wine at Whaler Vineyards on Old River Road and sources grapes from around the county. Cesar Toxqui is the onsite winery manager in the redwood barnlike winery at Whaler Vineyards.

The four labels are each have a focus and reflects the flavors from the vineyards of their sustainably grown grapes. The Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Syrah grapes for the Mendocino Farms Redvine Series come from Joe and Julie Golden’s biodynamic Fairbairn Ranch in Hopland and Heart Arrow Ranch in Redwood Valley. It was named wine of the week by the Los Angeles Times last May and received a 93 point rating from Wine & Spirits magazine.

Mendocino Farms and Talmage are the premium brands. The Talmage Syrah is from Mariah Vineyard. The Pija blend includes Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Charbono which are grown in different historic Mendocino vineyards including Mattern on the Talmage bench and Venturi in Calpella. Forthcoming is a wine from grapes grown by Casey Hartlip at Eaglepoint Ranch. Talmage Venturi Charbono comes from 90-year old vines. Talmage Chardonnay is from Piper Ranch, near Manchester on the Mendocino Coast.

Ukiah Cellars is Brown’s “every day sustainable” wine. The Cabernet Sauvignon, which comes from La Ribera Vineyard on Old River Road, is blended with a small amount of Zinfandel from Calpella and Syrah from McDowell in Hopland. In addition, in keeping with an old French custom to increase floral aromas, one percent of the white varietal Viognier is included.

The Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes for the fourth label Old River come from organic fruit grown at 1900 feet in the Ponderosa Valley foothills in the Sierras. Brown started making wine from this certified organic vineyard when he was working at Mayacamas winery.

The wines are available locally at Tierra in Ukiah and Sip! Mendocino in Hopland, and may be found on the Patrona Restaurant wine list, as well as on the website.

“I love it here,” says Brown. “It’s great to be making wine from Mendocino County, the source and inspiration for the ‘green wine’ boom.” When not promoting his wine brands, Brown is an independent film maker. His latest is a 30-minute documentary on the year in the life of a sustainable Mendocino vineyard.

TASTING NOTES: I had to try two of Magnanimus brands. Ukiah Cabernet Sauvignon is a wonderful fruit forward and rich food wine that I had with a simple red chard soup flavored with onions, bacon, and diced Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds. The Talmage Pija (Spanish for rascal) is easy drinking with aromas of dark cherry and purple plums which were all lovely with herbed ravioli tossed with olive oil and grated cheese.

For more information on Mendocino Farms, Talmage, Ukiah and Old River wines, contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission at

Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes for the Ukiah Daily Journal on behalf of the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission.

Next Week: Maple Creek Winery

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