Parducci Wine Cellars

Parducci Wine Cellars: Historic and Green

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

Mendocino County’s oldest winery is now also its greenest. As the first carbon neutral winery in the country Parducci Wine Cellars combines a reverence for the historic with a commitment to minimizing their impact on the environment. And it is a multi family venture with a highly respected winemaking team.

First the history. Founded in 1921during Prohibition by Adolph Parducci, who immigrated from Tuscany, the old “home ranch” is still growing Parducci’s signature Petite Sirah. Prohibition may have forbade the sale of wine, but it didn’t thwart the Italian wine tradition. Households were allowed to have one hundred gallons of wine per year and the Catholic Church needed sacramental wine. Someone had to make it.

In 1932, Adolph Parducci built a winery and a year later when Prohibition ended he was ready to go. His four sons, including Mendocino’s wine patriarch John Parducci now of McNab Winery.

Fast forward to 2004 when Paul Dolan, formerly of Fetzer Vineyards, and the Thornhill family formed a partnership and purchased the winery and vineyards. The Thornhills, who at the time were recent arrivals to Mendocino County and owners of La Ribera Vineyard south of Talmage, include parents Tommy and Ann and sons Tom and Tim. Tim’s daughter Kate is on staff as is her husband Mark Beaman, who is the assistant winemaker.

“We found we shared priorities,” says Tim, “Our mutual belief of family first and the environment second quickly bonded us.”

Dolan and the Thornhills formed the Mendocino Wine Company and structured a business that met what Dolan had promoted for years as the three “E”s. They stand for economic viability, environmental sustainability, and social equity for employees, growers, customers and the broader community. The wine brands include Parducci and Paul Dolan (which will be featured in Wine Notes next week). This column focuses on Parducci as a leading sustainable winery, the Thornhills and winemaker Bob Swain.

From the outset, this chapter of the venerable Parducci Wine Cellars begins with the owners taking a strong green stand. “Our aim is to craft quality wines and a healthier planet,” says Tom. They are doing this by making wine from locally farmed grapes, using certified sustainable farming practices, utilizing 100% green power and employing earth-friendly packaging.

In 2007, in recognition of Parducci’s status as the nation’s first carbon neutral winery and their continuing dedication to social responsibility and environmentally sound practices, Parducci received California’s highest environmental award, the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award.

Being responsible stewards of the land was instilled in the Thornhills from an early age. The Thornhills grew up in Houston, Texas, where brothers Tom and Tim were taught to ‘leave it better than they found it’. The Thornhill brothers’ paths diverged early as Tom went off to college to study history and economics.

Tim always had an affinity for the garden. “I had a vegetable garden at nine years old” he says with a small hint of his Texas roots. He also had an entrepreneurial sense that served him well as he started and then grew a landscaping business. “When I was a child and my mom said I couldn’t do something, I noticed that even though I shouldn’t do it, you got more attention if you did the thing you were told you couldn’t,” he says with a grin. He didn’t blink when faced with the challenge of moving 500-ton trees to add mature shade next to a new hotel, even when it meant stopping traffic to use all the lanes on a thoroughfare or rigging a barge to hold the mass and weight of an 80-foot wide tree.

Tom and wife Melissa came to California in the mid 1970s to attend Stanford where Tom got his MBA. They settled in Marin County and raised five children. Tom’s desire to look for an alternative to his successful professional life with Wall Street firms coincided with the rest of his family’s desire to live closer together. In 2002, Tom and Melissa purchased La Ribera Vineyards from Husch. “The idea was to create a place for our extended family,” he explains.

Tim and Roselle moved to Ukiah first and were soon followed by parents Ann and Tommy. Tim engaged his neighbors including Paul Dolan, whose Dark Horse Vineyard is just down the road, to change the road name back to Old River Road. Then he started the Mendocino Growers Showcase, which has grown into an annual Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission event to entice potential grape buyers from wineries outside the county to taste wine made from the local grapes with the goal of increasing grape sales in the County.

When the Parducci winery was put up for sale, a serendipitous progression of events as well as a common philosophy brought together Dolan and the Thornhills. “We had vineyards and we saw purchasing Parducci as a business opportunity to create a real demand for Mendocino grapes and prove to the world that Mendocino makes top quality wines,” says Tom. “It was a good fit,” adds Tim.

Parducci was a fully operating winery with its signature Italian hacienda style tasting room. With it came a crew of 35 experienced employees (“It wouldn’t work without them,” says Tom), including one of Mendocino County’s most respected winemakers, Bob Swain.

Meeting up with Bob early one morning, I find him in his office located in the original winery building—the one that holds the renowned 20,000 gallon old growth redwood wine tanks John Parducci’s father installed in the 1930s. Stocky with a graying beard and expressive eyebrows, Swain oversees up to 400,000 cases of wine production every year. Half is for Parducci and the other half is custom winemaking for many other labels.

“When I was a kid I had no idea I’d be a winemaker,” he laughs. He grew up in the East Bay in what was then rural Pleasant Hill. A dormant interest toward agriculture kindled after high school when he heard that the enology program at California State University at Fresno was open and he signed up. He received his enology degree in 1974.

Swain worked for several wineries and a Japanese sake company in Berkeley before becoming cellar master at Clos du Val in Napa Valley from 1981 until 1995. In 1997 when he became winemaker at Parducci, Bob and his wife Kathleen moved to Ukiah.

“I am involved with everything that happens here,” he says. From deciding when to pick a certain vineyard to when to press, what adjustments to make, to ordering bottles and labels, Swain, along with his capable staff, oversee each of the wines every step of the way. “Our goal is to take what we have in the vineyard and try not to mess it up,” he explains.

Parducci wines have long been known for their combination of value and quality. In addition to Parducci Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah, a Sustainable Red and Sustainable White have been added to the tasting list. Their signature True Grit showcases the best of Petite Sirah and the worn cowboy boots on the label indicate that this grape with a wild west reputation is about to become enjoyable and approachable.

Taking a tour of Parducci is worthwhile for anyone interested in wine making as well as Mendocino’s winemaking history and what it takes for a winery to go green.

Tours are available beginning at the Tasting Room between 10 and 5 daily. They include a stop at the original Parducci cellar and tasting room. In the cool dark low ceilinged cellar the reverence for things past is juxtaposed by the passion and commitment to the present and the future of the Dolan-Thornhill partnership. Old photos depict a bygone era of winemaking. An open ledger from the 1940s shows grape purchases from names of vineyard owners who still, two generations later, sell their grapes to Parducci.

Before departing you can pick up a copy of Parducci’s “Green Winegrowing Handbook.” In it is a wealth of biodynamic, organic and sustainable information. You can also read about the Parducci commitment to being part of a family, a business and the community. The leadership of this family-owned and operated company is creating a model of quality and environmental sustainability for other wineries to follow.

TASTING NOTES: Parducci’s 2005 True Grit (best uncorked an hour before serving) is a big, round and satisfying Petite Sirah. Its mouthful of standup flavors of spice and pepper was perfect (and fitting) with Churrascaria, the barbecued beef of Brazilian gauchos served with a garlic, parsley, oregano, mint and olive oil chimichurri sauce.

For more information on Parducci Wine Cellars, contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission www.truemendocinowine.com or www.parducci.com.

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

Next Week: Paul Dolan Vineyards

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