Barra of Mendocino

Barra of Mendocino

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

Writing about Charlie and Martha Barra of Barra of Mendocino and Redwood Valley Cellars (and Vineyards) is seasoned with possibilities. Their contributions to the community are many, their stories plentiful, and their history in the Mendocino wine industry is long. “Very long,” as Charlie, with eyes twinkling under his cap, is quick to point out.

Sitting down with this energetic couple, I’m struck by Martha’s calm and Charlie’s—let’s call it-- devilishness as we look at marketing materials and a new label. We’re gathered around a table in the spacious office adjacent to the tasting room, itself an icon next to Highway 101 in Redwood Valley.

Originally built in the 1970s by Weibel Winery and modeled to look like an inverted champagne glass, the tasting room roof rises to a stem above the circular brick and redwood building. Inside there’s a fountain in the middle and a curved tasting bar at the far end. Looking up I feel like I’m underneath a giant gilled mushroom, the way the beams curve gracefully outward. This is an appropriate association given that Charlie, whose family came from the Piedmont in Italy, is an avid mushroom hunter. Barra’s zinfandel, sangiovese and pinot noir have symbiotic affinity with any mushroom but especially Charlie’s beloved king boletes (also known as porcini in Italy and gamboni in Mendocino).

An avid farmer, Charlie has been raising grapes in Redwood Valley since 1945 when he was 19. The home ranch is now 175 acres, all organic since 1988 (a correction from my first column when I mentioned this year would be his 63rd all organic harvest). Fifty acres of zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon surround the tasting room. And another ranch just east of Ukiah near Lake Mendocino not only has grapes but Charlie and Martha just put in 175 olive trees. “A guy who is 81 years old and is just planting trees for olive oil has to have something wrong with him,” he quips.

But growing is as much a part of Charlie as breathing. “You would have thought someone took his right leg off when three of the olive trees were downed by gophers,” says Martha.

Around 1995, when grape prices were in a cyclical low, Martha and Charlie decided to make their own brand and Barra of Mendocino was created. In addition to having more control over the harvest time of your grapes, making wine meant you improved perishability by going from fresh grapes to ageable wine. Besides, Charlie points out, in Italy, growers crush all their own grapes even though much of it goes to bulk wine.

Today Barra makes about 25,000 cases of wine, all from certified organic grapes grown on their ranches. The Barra of Mendocino brand includes zinfandel, petite sirah, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, chardonnay, pinot blanc and (Martha’s favorite) the luscious fragrantly sweet Muscat Canelli. Five [ck) years ago they started bottling Girasole (sunflower in Italian) Vineyards using their organic cabernet, sangiovese, pinot noir, zinfandel, pinot blanc and chardonnay. Other new labels are on their way. About three-fourths of their grapes are used for the brands, the rest are sold as bulk wine.

Barra of Mendocino is a family business. Son Shawn Harmon, is on site in Redwood Valley to do a multitude of tasks but acting mainly as Chief Financial Officer and operations manager. Daughter Shelley Maly lives in Seattle and is the marketing maestro along with Martha. Martha, an accomplished cook, is known around Mendocino County for her prolific and classy entertaining. She also travels around the country and to Britain and Japan selling wine.

Given his love for the vineyards I had to ask Charlie how he dealt with wild turkeys, which have a reputation for eating grapes. “Well,” he begins with that inevitable twinkle and wry smile lighting up his face, “I take a 50-pound bag of cracked corn and pour a thin trail down the road away from the vines.” When he gets as far as he deems necessary, he dumps the entire bag into a big pile. The turkeys follow the trail and think they have found the cookie jar. “They gorge themselves and have no room left for grapes,” chuckles Charlie, adding, “You gotta have a lot of brains to outsmart a turkey.”

Tasting Notes: I cut thick slices of portobello mushroom, dipped them into Stroh Ranch Marinade, and grilled them until they were tender, about 5 minutes total. Accompanied with Barra of Mendocino 2004 Sangiovese, I took a deep breath, gazed out at the vineyard beyond my deck in the afterglow of sunset and for a moment, thought I was in the Italian countryside.

To find out more about Barra of Mendocino go to the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission website: or

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