Milano Family Winery

Milano Family Winery

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

Located in one of Mendocino County’s remaining authentic hop kilns, Milano Family Winery is worth a visit to see the historic structure, to meet the vivacious nurse turned winemaker, the techie inventor of wine business software, to picnic next to giant tortoises and to taste some wonderfully easy drinking wine.

“I always wanted to live in a small town,” says Deanna Starr, winemaker. “I love to say that Hopland found me and my husband’s software company led us to the winery.”

Deanna and husband Ted both grew up in Southern California. He started a software company specializing in medical research database and did sales and distribution for the product. They met at the health facility in San Diego where Deanna was nursing director and he had become the IT director. They discovered they both loved animals and wine.

They married in 1993 and opened a pet store. In addition to running the pet store, they bred exotic parrots, rabbits, rats, lizards and snakes. As a teen, Ted belonged to the Tortoise and Turtle Society. When there was a spate of tortoise respiratory problems Ted learned how to bring them back to health. He still has six giant tortoises you can see at the winery.

Ted and Deanna made frequent wine tasting trips in Northern California building up their private wine collection. One cold February they were visiting a winery in Sebastopol when the winemaker mentioned a telemarketing issue he was having. Ted jumped right in to help figure it out. Within no time he was trading wine for work on the data base. His newborn business VinNOW has been growing ever since. His software is set up to do everything a winery needs from ringing sales, managing inventory, tracking and running the wine club list, customer history and preferences to sending emails newsletters. It even connects to UPS for wine club shipments, creates the labels, integrates shipping and different states’ tax tables. He runs the business from the winery.

Hopland “found” the Starrs when the winemaker from Sebastopol heard Milano was for sale and sent them a video he made of it. They headed north to see for themselves.

“We discovered Hopland on a warm day in May and fell in love with the winery building and Hopland,” remembers Deanna. They purchased the seven acre parcel with the hop kiln and former winery from the Milone family in 2001. Now they live overlooking the winery from a house on the hill.

Perky and enthusiastic with salt and pepper hair, Deanna makes the old hop kiln come alive as she guides me around the winery. It is one of the last existing hop kilns in Mendocino County and the only one open to the public (by appointment). The hop kiln was built in 1947 when Hopland got its name for growing hops not grapes. “It was built with all heart redwood, there’s not a knot in the place,” she says as we look up three stories.

As soon as they moved in Ted went to work redesigning the winery space so she could make wine by herself. “Ted is a fabulous facilities manager,” she says with glee.

The barrel room was once the baling room for the kiln dried hops. “The design of the old building keeps the temperature perfect,” says Deanna. Since it is partially underground the temperature stays below 70 degrees even when it’s 100 degrees outside. In addition to the oak barrels, small metal barrels are filled with port and late harvest wines which don’t need the flavor of oak. Today Deanna tends 396 barrels of aging wine in different stages of aging.

“I wanted to be a winemaker not a farmer,” says Deanna, who contracts with eight to ten different growers. As we walk upstairs to the tasting room she says she finds it fascinating that her nursing skills prepared her for this venture.

“There’s a parallel between nursing and winemaking,” she says. A nurse assesses a patient’s symptoms. Likewise the winemaker assesses grapes. Both create a treatment plan. You have to watch for problems along the way and adjust accordingly. Both professions require you to be meticulously clean. And like a patient each grape varietal has its own needs.

“Making wine for others is like the doctor coming in with orders,” says Deanna, who has made as many as 59 different wines during a harvest season for Milano and nearly 40 customers. Some of her clients are growers who make bulk wine and want samples to help sell their grapes as well as small wineries which don’t want to invest in equipment.

When they bought the winery, Deanna read winemaking books, brushed up on phenols and esters and she hired a consultant to show how to use the winemaking equipment.

Upstairs in the tasting room, views out the windows from the chest high bar encompass surrounding vineyards across Highway 101. This was where the hops were cured and you can see the redwood slats that held them. The aroma of wine permeates the air.

Deanna focuses on red wine and dessert wines made from Mendocino County fruit. She recalls when growing up in southern California she learned that California’s wine areas were Napa-Sonoma-Mendocino. She is thrilled that the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission is helping put Mendocino County on the map and says, “I’m doing what I can.”

She continues to make customer favorites from the Milone days such as Sunshine, an off dry French Colombard blended with sweet white muscat. It is low in alcohol, has a screw top and is a great picnic wine. In addition to her serious Bordeaux style reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec, Milano offers Zinfandel, Syrah, Carignane, Charbono, Valdiguie and Chardonnay.

Then there is what Deanna calls her “giggle” series. You may have seen the banners going south on Highway 101 touting Milano’s Recall Red a few years ago. A current release is Big Ass Red. It is a soft red wine with a fun label shared by Dick Sherwin (of the former Mendocino Hill Winery), who had the original art featuring two dancers, one twirling her pronounced round bottom. “Wines don’t have to be serious,” laughs Deanna.

On the serious side, however, Milano’s Disaster Relief Red wine raised $4200 for Habitat for Humanity after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

Deanna makes two or more ports and late harvest wines every year. She also has a Sangiovese Port from Mendocino Hill vineyards fortified with Germain Robin brandy. Most of Milano’s sales are from the tasting room and through their wine club.

Outside a delightful picnic area is shaded by a grape covered pergola. Here the Starrs love of animals is apparent. A gaggle of Sebastopol geese with ruffled feathers look like they are perpetually molting. Willy Pig is a Vietnamese pot belly who lives with the goats and chickens, including Tina with her showgirl feathered top and strutting walk. A goose sits on a clutch of eggs. Two labs, a chocolate, Cuvee, and a blond with a wine colored nose, Merlot, meander among the tables. Sheep and llamas graze on the hillside. And there are the tortoises which lumber over each other to get to a pile of fresh greens just dumped in their pen.

“We recycle everything and all the animals help out,” says Deanna. As she looks over at the winery where Ted is in his office supporting his other winery clients, Deanna is clearly in her element. She is a winemaker surrounded by her animals and sitting here in the shadow of the old hop kiln.

TASTING NOTES: Milano’s 2004 Mendocino Hopland Cuvee is half Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Syrah Noir and Merlot. Inky dark with a lingering fruit rich flavor and dark black cherry aftertaste, it was sublime with split quail flattened and cooked in a castiron skillet “mattone”-style with greens dressed in blue cheese.

For more information on Milano Winery, 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: Naughty Boy Vineyards

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