Mariah Vineyards

Mariah Vineyards: Island in the Sky

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

To get a perspective of Mariah Vineyards location you have to drive over the hills toward the coast. When billowy cotton puffs of fog fill up the valleys, the coastal mountain peaks jut up like islands, just like--as the Mendocino Ridge appellation is nicknamed—“Islands in the Sky.”

Magical and magnificent are two ways to describe Mariah Vineyards, one of those mountaintop islands and home for the last 31 years to Dan and Vicki Dooling. A nine mile drive from Highway One near Point Arena winds up Mountain House Road through firs, redwoods and pines to the 2400 foot elevation. The wind for which Mariah is named is gentle on this late winter evening. Rows of pruned and to-be pruned vines are aglow in the cool setting sunlight.

In the driveway Vicki Dooling is unloading the car, a routine task for the mom of four now grown children. When they were growing up, she drove them every day to school in the village of Mendocino--a hundred mile round trip. “We wore out a lot of cars,” laugh Dan and Vicki as we settle in their dining room with picture windows looking out at the sloping vineyards. They helped build their beautiful custom home and they cleared the forest, planted the grapes and over the years polished this remote yet genteel land once called a “diamond in the rough.”

For two native San Franciscans to find their way to this Mendocino wilderness, the path included a dream, drive and a childhood prophecy. On his mother’s side, Dan’s Italian grandma’s place on Piner Road in Santa Rosa included a vineyard. Then, when a close friend of Dan’s father named Ed Bernard moved from San Francisco to Napa Valley in the 1950s vineyards took on a bigger role in young Dan’s perspective. Bernard planted grapes on his 2000 acres in Yountville near the Veteran’s Home.

“We went up on weekends and stayed at Ed’s place,” says Dan, who was the same age as Bernard’s son. One weekend in the early 1960s, when Dan was about nine years old, he noticed a line of little flags in the ground and asked Bernard about them. “Ed put his arm on my shoulders looking at those flags and said, “Dan, someday you will have a vineyard where there will be no reason to put a freeway through it.’”

Dan went on to St. Ignatius High School and Santa Clara University before studying viticulture at the University of California at Davis. Vicki grew up in the Sunset District and also went to U.C. Davis studying for a degree in animal science. They met in San Francisco in the early 1970s. Drawn back to Napa Valley, Dan worked putting in vineyards, including at Mondavi. He was making $3.10 an hour laboring in the vineyards when his dad, who drove truck for Safeway for 50 years, called him. “Dad said I could make 50 grand driving a truck for Hamm’s,” he remembers. Dan headed back to the city and went to work driving truck so he could save up to buy land.

In 1978, after he and Vicki got married they spent every weekend looking for vineyard property. She lived with his grandma and worked for a veterinarian in Santa Rosa. They looked in the Sierra foothills and then were pulled further west to Mendocino County and Anderson Valley. They met Bill and the late Norman Charles (Bill is partner in Charles Vineyard and Foursight Winery), who did logging in the area at the time. Bill told him about Ida Louise Jackson, an old African American woman, who had a big flat area in the forest near the coast. She was the first black woman to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley in the 1930s and was living in Berkeley at the time.

“On New Year’s Day in 1979 we came out here and it was snowing!” says Dooling. From the top of the ridge they could see the ocean. Within the year they bought 91 acres of Jackson’s 1200 acre parcel and cleared the forest where the south facing slopes were gentle and relatively horizontal. “This property has the best black loam soil,” says Dooling, whose eyes still light up with the enthusiasm of a new grapegrower. In 1980 they planted their first twenty acres of Zinfandel vines. Now they also grow Merlot and Syrah.

The first commercial crop of grapes was sold to winemaker Jed Steele in 1983.

That same year they built the house with Bill Charles. Dan credits Russ Nyborg, of Whaler Vineyards on Old River Road in Ukiah, who also has a house nearby on the coast, as his mentor. The Doolings made their Mariah Vineyards wine with the wine image on a blue label from 1990-1996.

In 1997 the Doolings, with the encouragement of visionary Paul Dolan sold their grapes and leased the Mariah wine name to Brown Forman who had purchased Fetzer Vineyards. Two years ago they renegotiated their deal and the Mariah brand is now back with the Doolings. A new label features “Mariah” with pale green grapeleaf hair blowing on a cream colored background.

Off the grid, Mariah Vineyards is powered by solar energy and a biodiesel generator and tractors. In their small winery on the first level of their home they produce about 650 cases of their prized Zinfandel, Syrah and Merlot. The kids’ basketball court has been repaved for a crush pad. Their children return intermittently and to help with harvest. Nicole, 25, lives in San Francisco and has a master’s degree in emergency response nursing. Michael, 23, Cal Poly, splits his time between college classes and working on a tug boat between Alaska and the west coast. Danielle, 21, attends the City College of Santa Barbara and is an underwater construction diver. Youngest son Stefan, 18, is also at Sana Barbara City College.

In 1994 Dan Dooling spearheaded the formation of Mendocino’s newest and America’s only noncontiguous American Viticultural Appellation. AVAs identify the unique and shared geographic, climate and soil characteristics of a specific wine growing region. It took three and a half years to get approval for the Mendocino Ridge appellation. “Steve Alden (who has a ridgetop vineyard on Fish Rock Road) and I wanted to call the appellation ‘Islands in the sky’,” says Dan. But the name has to have some historical references and many have written about the incredible wines produced by grapes grown on “those Mendocino Ridges.”

Mendocino Ridge appellation includes vineyards that were planted in the 1850s such as Zeni and Ciapusci on Fish Rock Road. Today there are a dozen vineyards and four wineries including Mariah in the Mendocino Ridge AVA. One of the most identifying features of these “islands in the sky” above the fog line is the intensity of light at the Mendocino Ridge elevations which range from 1200 feet to Mariah’s 2400 feet. The growing season lasts from April through November and the Doolings have seen temperatures vary “up to 112 degrees and down to 17 degrees” over the years. Just last month five inches of snow powdered the vineyard.

Dan with intense dark eyes and polished cowboy boots is confident, gregarious and loves to share what he and Vicki created. He still drives truck. The truck is a metallic blue 1960s Peterbilt parked in his barn. Come harvest Dan hooks up a trailer and loads baskets of hand sorted grapes to haul down the mountain. Vicki, slim with shoulder length auburn hair, is reserved and admittedly bemused by the course their lives took.

A few years ago when a Fetzer sales team brought a helicopter up to the vineyard, Vicki went up to see their property from the air. “She came back more quiet than usual,” says Dan and he asked her if she was okay. “We are really out here,” she said, looking out to the vines touching the sky.

TASTING NOTES: Intense, aromatic, vibrant and elegantly smooth is how I describe Mariah’s 2006 Mendocino Ridge Syrah which was heavenly with roasted lamb shanks served over polenta.

For more information on Mariah Vineyards, contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission or

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

Next Week: McDowell Valley Vineyards

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