McFadden Vineyard & Farm

McFadden Vineyard & Farm: Wine, Herbs and Energy

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

Guinness McFadden, with both an understated presence and commanding charisma, has combined his business sense with a penchant for anticipating trends in the California food, wine and energy scene for nearly forty years. As the proprietor of McFadden Farm in Potter Valley he splits his time between farming, winemaking, marketing and running a small power plant.

A grapegrower since the early 1970s, McFadden started producing wine under his own label in 2003. For years he has grown and bottled his line of McFadden Farm dried herbs and herb blends with the distinctive California Quail on the label. In addition he packages wild rice. And he raises organic beef for market.

As I get out of the car at McFadden Farm at the end of Power House Road on a Saturday morning it’s quiet except for the sounds of distant cows mooing and nearby crows cawing. Three friendly dogs, Jake, Jocko and Roaming, run up to sniff and greet me at the farm McFadden has called home since 1970.

McFadden, a native New Yorker, Notre Dame graduate, and ex-naval officer with a stint at Stanford’s business school, came to Mendocino as a “back-to-the-lander.” A photo in McFadden Farm’s tasting room in Hopland shows a young man with longish dark hair sitting on the dilapidated steps to the old farmhouse.

Usually dressed in jeans and plaid shirt McFadden is equally comfortable in a navy blazer and dress shirt. His shock of white hair drapes over thick eyebrows and piercing eyes that have a glint of the leprechaun and the depth of someone who is smart and loves his life here.

“Here” is an idyllic setting in one of Mendocino County’s most beautiful valleys. Especially now when the mustard is in full bloom and the grass is bright green. McFadden Farm is picturesque even in winter. Atop a knoll the remodeled farmhouse has a full length enclosed south facing sun porch and country kitchen with a restaurant sized Wolf range. On a nearby knoll McFadden points out the house where his daughter Knox, her husband Luke Miller and two granddaughters live and grow grapes.

A New England style covered bridge crosses the Russian River next to a powerhouse McFadden built 25 years ago. It generates power for about half of the west side of Potter Valley. Three hundred solar panels line the top of a giant shed roof next to the herb dryers create 37 kilowatts of electricity. He’s planning on adding more panels this year.

Farming this place also gives him a “thrill,” says McFadden. “I know it’s not really ‘mine’ but I take care of it while I’m here. I appreciate that I can dig in the ground anywhere on this property and pull up worms. That’s a good thing.” McFadden grew organically from the beginning. When he got married, his wife had two children and they had three more. “I didn’t want to raise my kids where a lot of chemicals were used,” he says. The Farm became California Certified Organic in 1990.

Before he arrived in Potter Valley, McFadden had just spent ten years as an officer in the Navy. He was on destroyers for five years. Then he was on the River Forces in Vietnam for a year and was shot two times. His last years were spent as an Admiral’s aide. “I know what it was like during the Cold War when I was preoccupied with Russian submarines and the Berlin and Cuban missile crises,” he reflects, “I was in the middle of it and it was Big Stuff. “

After the Navy, McFadden was accepted to the Stanford School of Business. It didn’t take long before he realized that he wasn’t interested in what they were teaching. He got hold of a United Farm catalogue and looked around Napa Valley before being directed toward Mendocino County.

“This was 38 years ago and Napa Valley was already picked over and vineyard land cost $2000 an acre!” He laughs at the memory. Through a variety of people, including Robert Mondavi, McFadden met a realtor who suggested he look at a property in Potter Valley. Once here, McFadden was sold. He purchased the 52-acre farm with a fifty year old brick house, some outbuildings and a barn built in the 1850s. He camped out in a field until a neighbor offered ramshackle farmhouse to rent.

When people told him grapes wouldn’t grow in Potter Valley, he kept going. “By then, I knew I wanted to have a vineyard, that was my plan,” he says as we drive next to some of the original head pruned Riesling vines with their great gnarly trunks. University of California Farm Advisor Glen McGourty believes this block of vines to be the oldest Riesling vineyard in the County.

Today McFadden Farm encompasses 500 acres. There are 160 acres of vineyards planted with Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel grapes. Ten acres of herbs include oregano, rosemary, basil, marjoram, lemon thyme and thyme.

His ranch foreman Jose Medina has been here for 34 years. “He is the best,” says McFadden, “he came from Mexico when he was 17 and now he is a citizen.”

There is always something to do at the farm. We take a walk around the winery and the herb drying equipment then poke into the warehouse. “We come here on rainy days and pack and label the herbs, one jar at a time,” he says. The herb business helps keep everyone employed year round. In addition to processing and packing the herb blends, he and his crew also braid 50,000 pounds of garlic and make bay wreaths for the holidays.

He has ten full time employees grows to fifty during harvest. He travels about twenty-five percent of the year selling wine. The traveling means he can visit his the rest of far flung brood. Haile, 37, a graphic designer lives in Thomasville, Georgia, where McFadden was heading for a week. One son, Jameson, 26, is a stock analyst on Wall Street. Guinness, 28, works at Three Chimney’s Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. And Anne Fontaine, 25, is currently working in a flower shop in Nantucket.

What is McFadden’s favorite part of his wine business? “CORO, it’s a gas,” he says without hesitation. CORO Mendocino is a high end zinfandel based blend made by 12 different Mendocino wineries to exacting specifications designed to create a rich and age-worthy wine showcasing the best of the best. Unique to the United States it follows the tradition of the regulations regarding such wines as Chianti, by stipulating what varieties can be used and how long it is aged in oak, among other stipulations.

McFadden’s 2005 Coro is a blend of Zinfandel grown on the farm plus Petite Sirah and Syrah from Joe and Julie Golden’s Fairbairn and Heart Arrow ranches. McFadden also produces Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, with winemaker Bob Swain at Mendocino Wine Company.

At 70, McFadden admits he is not living the life of retirement but says at this stage of life he enjoys walking around remembering all the steps he had to take to get here. “This is the best job a guy can have,” he says, “you plant, watch it grow, harvest, and make wine.”

TASTING NOTES: McFadden’s 2006 Chardonnay is my kind of Chardonnay, which has little oak influence. It has a pale golden color and crisp fresh flavors of apple that went well with roasted turkey thighs. (With Saint Patrick’s Day on the horizon, I’m planning on having my Round Man corned beef with McFadden’s 2006 Pinot Noir. Its dark cherry aromas and slightly spicy flavors will be just right, and the name on the bottle is perfect for the holiday.)

For more information on McFadden Farm and Vineyards, contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission or McFadden Tasting room which offers organic beef and herb blends as well as wine is open daily 10-5 pm in Hopland.

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

Next Week: Mariah Vineyards

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