Zina Hyde Cunningham

Zina Hyde Cunningham: A Boonville Destination

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

If you haven’t driven through Boonville lately, it’s time for a field trip. New buildings, old buildings with fresh paint and enticing facades, art galleries, an upscale “farm” store, the Hotel, and some good places to eat and taste wine line Boonville’s “main street” along Highway 128.

Right in the middle of town, between the Boonville General Store and an antique cherry red pickup loaded with wine barrels, is a tasting room like no other in Mendocino County. Step through the handcrafted oak doors of Zina Hyde Cunningham to find historical Mendocino connections, a lavish contemporary-Victorian interior and an enthusiastic knowledgeable staff.

A beautifully crafted bar with pressed copper top lines one wall. On the other is a marble and oak fireplace with comfy easy chairs and a sofa to sink into. You may bring your tasting glass, sit down and enjoy the spacious surroundings, the architectural accouterments with attention to detail, and watch a video about the winery. If you don’t see the screen, it’s behind patriarch Zina Hyde’s family photograph over the fireplace.

One of Zina Hyde’s descendants, great-great-grandson Steve Ledson, is the co-owner of the winery. Ledson also owns Ledson Winery in Sonoma Valley and the Ledson Hotel in the town of Sonoma.

“The ceiling and upper walls have a Venetian plaster finish and the same balustrade and molding designs as the hotel,” says General manager Zack Truter, 25, who shows me around and shares the winery’s history.

Zina Hyde Cunningham came to California from Maine when he was 17 years old to join the Gold Rush. Not finding the riches he’d hoped he settled in San Francisco and started a blacksmiths shop. When he had the opportunity to sell the land his shop was on to make way for the Palace Hotel, he headed north to Sonoma County. In 1859 Zina Hyde bought a ranch in Windsor and planted Alicante and Zinfandel grapes. By 1862 he was making 8000 gallons of wine.

Three years later he visited friends in Mendocino County and fell in love with the land. He moved to the Ukiah area, planted more Alicante and Zinfandel, and ran the family winery until Prohibition. At that time the family split up and while a branch of Cunninghams remained to continue growing grapes and orchards, other members went back to Sonoma County. One of the latter was the grandfather of Ledson’s cousin William Cunningham. William Cunningham, who passed away in 2008, was a lifetime educator and school superintendent in counties around Northern California including Sonoma and Lake. He was the inspiration to “reopen” a family winery in Mendocino County. Ledson, who had a successful contracting business as well as his own winery, and Cunningham became partners in the new winery venture in Boonville.

In 2006, Ledson and Cunningham opened Zina Hyde Cunningham, making wine from Mendocino grapes just as Ledson’s great-great- and Cunningham’s great-grandfather had done 150 years earlier.

When they were sourcing grapes, Ledson discovered that one of their growers Steve Johnson in Ukiah, who raises Zinfandel and Carignane, was related to the Cunninghams who remained in Ukiah. William Cunningham’s daughter Shalee is partner of a vineyard in the Russian River valley and a Pinot Noir lover. “Her name is on one of our premium Pinot Noirs,” says Truter. Zina Hyde Cunningham released the 2008 Pinot Noir at their wine club party nearly sold out all 100 cases.

Zina Hyde Cunningham’s wines include award winning varietals grown in Mendocino and Lake Counties. The grapes for their California Veola red blend are 50-50 from each county. Veola was Bill Cunningham’s grandmother. She liked to help her dad with the vineyard and decided she really liked Petite Sirah so he planted it. But when she tasted the wine it was “too heavy,” recounts Truter, so they blended it with Zinfandel. “When she passed away, her children continued to make the blend,” he says, adding that after a family reunion in 2005 everyone was tasting and wanting to make a blend for the new winery so they went with a 50% each of Petite Sirah and Zinfandel in honor of Veola.

Other Zina Hyde Cunningham wines include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Riesling, Pinot Noir, Carignane and Zinfandel from Mendocino County grapes. Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon are grown in Lake County. And they make an Orange Muscat from Monterey County grapes.

As Truter moves to the bar a group of jolly tasters is selecting which wines to sample. A fee is charged depending on how many wines you want to try. (It’s waived if you join the wine club) “We cater to each individual’s preferences,” says Truter, “taking our time and explaining the varietals.” The Wine List describes each wine by “aroma, palate, and finish” which gives everyone a starting point and words to describe what they are experiencing.

He talks about Carignane, a grape that comes from the Rhone area of France and is usually a blending varietal. “Carignane tames the tannins in Petite Sirah, adds a chocolate-y aroma to Cabernet and gives an earthiness and body to Pinot Noir. Zina Hyde Cunningham’s Carignane has “chocolate covered cherry, plum and custardy aromas”, an “earthy black truffle palate”, and a “singed chocolate-almond and toffee…finish.” The Carignane comes from the Johnson ranch in Ukiah.

Ledson has a 5500 acre ranch called Bald Hills high above Highway 253. And he purchased the Fife Redhead vineyard in Redwood Valley. In addition to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Mourvedre vineyards, Ledson is carrying on the family tradition with Alicante, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah vines.

On a nice day you can take your glass of one of Zina Hyde Cunningham wines out one of the six French doors that make up the east wall of the tasting room. Grab some picnic fare from the Market and sit on the porch overlooking the bocce court and horseshoe pit. Whether outside enjoying the view of golden eastern hillsides, inside in the private tasting room (call ahead and they’ll set up a tasting for you and some friends), or in front of the fireplace a visit to Zina Hyde Cunningham in Boonville is a destination.

Tasting Notes: I tasted the 2006 Zina Hyde Cunningham 2006 Mendocino Zinfandel, a bright peppery, fruit filled earthy mouthful, which was just right with lentil and venison stew. And the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc refreshed and added a complimentary mineral-ly richness to a steaming bowl of clam spaghetti.

For more information on Zina Hyde Cunningham contact the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission at www.truemendocinowine.com or www.zinawinery.com

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

Next Week: Mendocino Wine Clubs

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