Nelson Family Vineyards

Nelson Family Vineyards: Some Things Old, Some Things New

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

An old wagon wheel hangs over the newly stuccoed fireplace in the Nelson Family Vineyards tasting room. Redwoods planted in 1933 shade a dance floor built last year. Vineyards next to the popular strawberry stand on Highway 101 just south of Ukiah. are on their way to organic certification. The first crop of canola grown in an old Carignane vineyard block will be harvested for biodiesel in June.

The tasting room, once part of Grandma Nelson’s 1960s home is finished in earth tones. Outside Greg Nelson, wife Missy, and the family sit on the patio on a beautiful Saturday morning. They banter back and forth sharing stories of the thirty-plus year vineyard and the eight-year old winery. Each generation infused new energy into this old ranch north of Hopland. They built upon tradition with new vision and projects.

Known for growing excellent grapes since the 1970s, Nelson Family Vineyards has been home to Greg Nelson since he was five years old. In 1951 his father xx and Uncle Neil purchased the old sheep and pear ranch. “Uncle Neil used to clip real estate ads for farms out of the newspaper,” says Greg. When he found this ranch, once part of a Mexican land grant and owned by a family of homesteaders, the Nelsons moved from Evergreen near San Jose to a few miles north of Hopland. “They knew nothing about wine grapes,” Greg recalls. They knew about growing apricots and prunes so they pruned the few acres of grapes on the ranch like they were fruit trees. And they tended 400 head of sheep on the ranch.

Greg learned to drive a forklift before he was old enough to drive. He went to college and in 1969 returned from Cal Poly to the 1800-acre ranch that spans both sides of Highway 101. He married and had Tyler, Chris and daughter Jessica in the early 1970s, about the time farmers in the county were turning to growing a more lucrative crop, wine grapes.

Today 180 acres of grapes and 30 acres of pears grow on the ranch. In addition acreage is leased for cattle range. There is the cut-your-own Christmas tree acreage and the ten acres leased to Saecheo family for strawberries, an olive orchard and 35 acres of canola.

Sons Chris and Tyler grew up on the ranch and went off to college, also to Cal Poly. After they both returned, they and Greg decided it was time to produce their own wine. They started the winery in 2001 and opened the tasting room in 2005.

Chris is the winemaker. He and wife Amy, who cooks for such events as wine club picnics and Hopland Passport, live above the winery behind Grandma’s house and the tasting room.

Tyler coordinates special projects such as getting part of the ranch organically certified and complying with Fish Friendly Farming practices. He and his wife Meg along with two-year old Elke also live on the ranch, as do Greg and Missy. Daughter Jessica is married and lives in San Francisco.

Also living on the ranch are Jesus (Jesse) Campos and Antonio Arredondo, both who have worked here for forty years. “They really run it,” says Chris as we tour the vineyards and event areas.

In addition to the family vegetable garden, Missy, who is a gardening instructor at St. Mary’s School, annually plants a one acre corn and pumpkin patch and brings school kids from Ukiah to visit on daily field trips in the autumn. Even in Mendocino County, where gardens and farmers markets are part of life, Greg says “many kids don’t have a clue where their food actually comes from.”

When the family thought about starting the winery, they settled on Pinot Grigio as their first varietal because it was an “up and comer,” says Greg. The family sat down together and tasted 16 flights of Pinot Grigio to figure out what style they liked. “No one spit,” laughs Greg, adding that they settled on an Italian style that was clean and crisp.

Since their grapes were already made into award winning wines by such renowned wineries Hess Collection and Piper Sonoma as well as to other Mendocino County classics like Philo Ridge and Rack & Riddle, Greg, Chris and Tyler were inspired by the prospect of what their grapes would produce for them. And they had the benefit of tasting wines already made from their grapes. They made wine from different clones of Cabernet Sauvignon that grow on the ranch as well as different lots of Zinfandel grown on hillsides or in the valley. “The flavors were dramatically different, it was really cool,” says Tyler. “We get to cherry pick the grapes that give the flavors we like the best,” says Chris.

How does a family organize itself to run a wine business? The three have what Greg calls “good qualities in different ways.” Chris went to UC Davis to study winemaking. Then he worked at a winery in Paso Robles. He describes himself as detail oriented. Tyler, who came back to the ranch right out of college in 1998, began helping his dad who had managed the ranch by himself for the previous 20 years. “He’s clever with tools, construction and repairs,” says Greg. Tyler is also the chair of the Resource? Conservation District and active in the Mendocino County Farm Bureau.

As the indefatigable head of the family Greg sells Nelson Family wine to restaurants around the area. “For a consumer who is meticulous about wine, a small winery like ours has such a hands-on approach, you can taste it in the glass,” says Greg. Nelson Family Vineyards made 1400 cases of wine in 2008 and 2600 in 2009. The wines include Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Viognier, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel as well as a fruity sweet Orange Muscat.

A specialty of Nelson Family is their Barn Blend, which is made by a competition of aspiring winemakers. In April participants team up, pay an entry fee, and come to the 100 year old hay barn. Everyone tastes various lots of Zinfandel made at the ranch. Each team creates a blend to their liking. Then the blends are judged and the winning blend is created for the next release of Nelson Family Vineyards Barn Blend.

Nelson Family Vineyards has three unique event sites on the ranch. Ukiah High’s 1988 reunion recently took place in the redwood grove with the dance floor. Musical concerts such as in April with Great American Taxi (any coming up?) are held in the old barn. And the meadow, now home to a “bride’s room” and bar built by Greg and Tyler from wood grown on the ranch, is a romantic wedding or other entertainment venue. Nelson Family Vineyards plans to produce a music event on the third Friday of every month from June through October.

Touring the vineyard with Chris I learn about other ways the family has improved their ranch, this time in the vineyard. Priding themselves on sustainability, the Nelsons spread compost mulch between the vines to prevent weed growth. Their sheep graze in the hillside Cabernet vineyard until bud break. Riparian borders are rich along the creek. And drainage ditches that used to be V-shaped allowing dirty runoff are now sculpted into wide plains where grass grows. “We’re very proud to see how clean the creek remains after a rain,” says Chris. “Things farmers have learned over the last 20 years have contributed to a healthier environment.”

After a final stop in the tasting room I head out to pick up some strawberries and meet Missy and Greg doing the same. If tomatoes and peppers are for sale on the counter, says Missy, they are surplus from their garden. With roots deep in the community and a ranch full of thriving enterprises, Nelson Family Vineyards blends the old with the contemporary in the most inviting way.

TASTING NOTES: I tasted the Nelson Family Vineyards 2007 Riesling with some lovely eel sushi sprinkled with sesame seeds, seaweed salad, and sauteed salsify buds. The crisp and fruity Riesling mirrored the fresh food flavors to perfection.

For more information on Nelson Family Vineyards contact the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission at www.truemendocinowine.com or the Mendocino County Promotional Alliance at www.truemendocinowine.com or www.Nelsonfamilyvineyards.com

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

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