Bells Echo

Bells Echo: Sutton Family's Big Adventure

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

Like the homesteading Italians in the 1880s and the back-to-the-landers of the 1970s Lisa and Ron Sutton were drawn by the beauty of Mendocino County, the fresh air, acres to hike and bike and making a living from the land. Unlike their earlier counterparts, the Suttons were in search of a weekend place to spend quality time with their now six-and-a-half year old twins Sam and Alessandra.

"This was supposed to be a Santa Barbara condo," laughs Lisa as we sit at a marble slab picnic table on a terraced knoll overlooking 50 acres of vines off Feliz Creek Road west of Hopland. As the twins bounce on a trampoline, the handsome thoughtful architect and the beautiful vivacious physical therapist describe the compelling course that led to becoming grapegrowers five years ago.

"We weren't looking for a vineyard," continues Lisa, who grew up in Southern California. "I'd never been farther north than Healdsburg." They were living in Marin County, where they still spend their weekdays and work their day jobs.

Ron grew up next to Lake Minnewaska in Minnesota. His dad was a building contractor and had a hobby farm with cattle and horses. The rural setting was "a Garrison Keillor town" with ice fishing, farming and a resort. After high school, Ron got a degree in architecture in Fargo, North Dakota. Then he bought a one way ticket to Hawaii where he remained for seven years designing high end residences.

In the 1980s Ron decided to move to the San Francisco area and co-founded his architectural firm Sutton Suziki Architects in Marin County. He met Lisa when she was teaching a stationary cycling class. "He came to the class for five years before he asked me out," says Lisa. They married in 2001.

Two years later the twins were born. Ron designed their home in Novato on eight acres they call the Wyboy Ranch. In 2005 their brother-in-law and financial consultant Scott Ponder advised them to invest in a second home. Lisa felt she was already "too far north". She missed southern California and pushed for the Santa Barbara condo. Ron was unimpressed at what you could buy for the high prices. He went to the internet to see what else was out there.

"This place came up while Googling," he says. Lisa wasn't interested. Ron, however, was intrigued. For their annual wine country Christmas Eve lunch with Ponder and Lisa's sister Erin Ponder, Ron suggested they go north and made an appointment to see the 180-acre Bells Echo Ranch.

"From the moment we saw this place the wheels started and kept turning in this direction," says Ron, as his blue eyes light up from beneath his wide brimmed cowboy hat. "I became interested in investing in something long term for the family," adds Lisa, who in no time embraced the whole concept.

"What a place to spend time with the kids," she says. "I thought if they can grow up here it will be extraordinary. There are rocks to climb, streams to wade, a pond to skinny dip and it is so gorgeous." And while they knew it would be challenging, it seemed that the vineyards were a bonus and could help pay for the place. They couldn't quit their day jobs and they knew nothing about growing or selling grapes, but they plunged boldly forward.

In 2005, the Suttons bought the ranch, once part of the Sanel Valley Rancho, an old Mexican land grant. Ron remembers the first time they came up after they purchased the property. "I stood in the vineyard and asked how in the heck am I going to grow these grapes?" They got help from Pat Rodgers, a Ukiah based vineyard manager who "is worth his weight in gold," says Lisa, adding that "Pat's mantras are quality aesthetics and stewardship of the earth." Now they employ a crew of two full time vineyard workers Ramon Mendoza and Javier Elias who invest themselves in the care of the vines.

When the Suttons first spent weekends here the twins were two. Lisa and Ron carried the kids in backpacks on hikes on the hilly property. They still run between the vineyard rows, pushing them in strollers. "It's getting harder as they get bigger," laughs Lisa.

In the last four years the Suttons have improved the ranch's sustainable growing practices as they move toward organic farming. Ten acres of Merlot and five of Petite Verdot became California Certified Organic last year. "We keep the crop loads down and use little water," says Ron adding, "it's true you need good grapes to make great wine."

They grow red Bordeaux varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Verdot, Malbec and Syrah. "We soon discovered that growing grapes is not the hard part, selling them is, says Ron. He puts his efforts into the marketing side with print pieces, the website and a vineyard newsletter.

"We have done more to market and sell our grapes than anyone we know," says Lisa, who immediately became active in the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission events and workshops. She attends grape and wine marketing seminars and learned that they instinctively are doing the things the pros recommend.

One thing the Suttons learned was that they needed samples of wine made from their grapes. They went to Deanna Starr at Milano, who buys Bells Echo grapes to make Milano Bells Echo Vineyard "Echo", a blend of Petite Verdot and Malbec. "We made a few barrels of wine," says Ron, "and the wine was really good!"

That pronouncement is confirmed in the number of points and awards received by some of the dozen or so wineries which designate Bells Echo Vineyard on their labels. Spot-On Cellars Bells Echo Vineyard 2007 Syrah was on the Wine & Spirits magazine "Best Syrah List". J.Cole Bells Echo Vineyard won a gold medal in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

In addition to Milano and J.Cole other premium boutique wineries which designate Bells Echo Vineyard as the source of grapes on their label include Curtis & David, Meeker and Homewood. Bells Echo grapes have also been sold to Benziger, BR Cohn, Beringer, Dynamite Vineyards, Kendall Jackson, Parducci, Meyer, Sebastiani and Pezzi King to name a few.

"We enjoy the experience of working closely with the winemaker, from pruning, watering, shoot, leaf and cluster management, all the way to harvest," says Ron. While the Suttons' main focus is growing "unique, intriguing fruit," he adds, "we delight in seeing and tasting this fruit being made into equally exciting wines."

Adding to the prestigious list of wines made from Bells Echo grapes, the Suttons have stepped into the winemaking world on a small scale. They partnered with Ponder (who is Bells Echo part-time assistant winemaker) and designed labels for their Bells Echo wine which includes Syrah, a late harvest Syrah, and "Interlude," a blend of the "very best grapes from the vineyard." The first time they entered Bells Echo Syrah in a competition it won Gold and the Interlude earned Silver.

In addition to their Boar Block Merlot, named for the herd of pigs some hunter friends rounded up with their“pig posse” other wine labels honor their vineyard blocks. Buckeye Rock Cabernet Sauvignon is named for the giant rock that sports a buckeye tree growing out of it. And Bells Echo makes Honeybee Malbec, Serendipity Syrah and Cinnabear (for its spicier flavors) Syrah.

"We have fallen so in love with this," says Lisa, who divulges that she loves to drive the tractor at harvest. She is now living here half of the week. She expanded her physical therapy and exercise instruction practice to Hopland as well keeping it in Marin County. "My group exercise class in Hopland includes these wonderful people in the local wine industry," she says, adding, “We have made the most amazing friends and have met the most incredible people here in Mendocino and Hopland.”

Sam and Alessandra have taken to the place as well. They have a tire swing hanging from an old oak tree, go puddle jumping, stream wading and skinny dipping. "I can skip rocks really well," says Sam, who also helps take leaves out of the grape bins at harvest. Alessandra is a collector of rocks, bugs, buckeyes and wildflowers as well as the assistant vegetable gardener. She also knows when the grapes are ready to pick. How? "By color and taste," she says confidently.

"What we get to do here as a family is so rewarding," says Lisa, adding that they love every season, the beauty of the cover crops this time of the year and walking and looking at the vineyards. Looking out at the magnificence of their surroundings, Lisa sighs, "It was a steep learning curve and there are still times I wonder why we didn't buy the damn condo."

Tasting Notes: I savored every drop in my glass of Bells Echo 2006 Syrah with peppery pan fried pork chops, matchstick garden carrots and onions, sweet potatoes and mixed sauteed greens. Berry rich and among the smoothest velvety textures to cross my palate Bells Echo Syrah is extraordinary. I concur it’s “really good” wine.

For more information on Bells Echo Vineyard contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission at www.TrueMendocinoWine.com or bellsechovineyard.com.

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

Next week: Poor Family Vineyards

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