A Place for Pinot Noir.
Mary Elke is one of those people who immediately makes you feel comfortable. Tan from working outdoors, her graying hair pulled back, dressed in casual shirt and pants, she’s sitting at a picnic table outside her small winery building at one of her vineyards in Anderson Valley.
“Growing grapes and making wine are a tangible heartfelt way to spend time,” she sighs. Besides, she continues, “I meet the most interesting people who are attracted to this work. It’s not like growing head lettuce in the central valley.”
Elke is primarily a grape grower with acreage in two Anderson Valley locations and another in Napa Valley. Known for years for her Mary Elke Apple Juice, she also makes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and she is president of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association.
As the waning sun reflects against the muted colors of Elke’s pinot noir vineyard she delves into her story with the confidence and clarity of someone who is proud of what she does. In 1979, when Mary Elke and her husband, Tom, bought this 20 acres, they already owned a vineyard in Napa Valley.
“We purchased the Napa Valley parcel and planted grapes, including Pinot Noir, long before it was the chichi place it is today,” she says. The vineyard was supposed to pay off by the time their two boys went to college and be the source of college tuition. “Instead,” she says, “phylloxera hit the Napa vineyards and we ended up taking out loans to replant AND to pay for college.”
Elke is not daunted by setbacks. “The value of our investment comes not from growing grapes but from appreciation of the land,” she explains, with the caveat that she couldn’t start from scratch today.
Before becoming a fulltime winemaker and grape grower, Elke taught elementary school and worked as a paralegal over the years. Her husband was a lawyer who went to Stanford Law School. One of their two sons, Matt, is joining his mom working the vineyard. He went to UC Davis to study viticulture and enology, and now is an assistant winemaker at Breggo Cellars, where one of her Pinots is made just down the road. Their other son, Tom, is a deputy district attorney in Napa.
During the 1980s Mary only grew organic apples in Anderson Valley. She was making Mary Elke’s apple juice, which was sold at places like the famed vegetarian restaurant Greens in San Francisco. In the late 1990s Anderson Valley got discovered. By then, Elke had converted 10 acres of apple orchard to grapes and purchased the 80-acre Donnelly Creek Ranch outside Boonville and planted 50 acres to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. She found local customers such as Edmeades, Handley, Breggo, Goldeneye and Londer for her Anderson Valley grapes.
Elke has a distinct philosophy about growing grapes and was excited when she had the chance to grow from scratch. “I believe in growing Pinot Noir in a place where it wants to be,” she explains. If you orient the vines the right way, practice good viticulture, and have appropriate trellising, you will produce “wine of a place.”
“I wanted to prove that we can grow good Pinot Noir at higher yields than two tons per acre,” she says. Her goal is to produce four tons per acre and still have good fruit. She developed a pruning system that allows the fruit to grow across the canopy in a way that equally ripens more clusters. “I’m bucking the common learning,” she says, noting that the smaller yield philosophy “is not yet scientifically proven.”
Anyone can make good wine out of lower yields, says Elke. She wants to show you can make good wine out of higher yields. “The grapevine wants to grow and produce as much fruit as it can ripen,” she says. “It wants to make more grapes than two tons per acre and if the conditions are right and the vine is in balance it easily can.” Given the prestige of her customers it sounds like she’s on to something.
In the early 1990s Elke decided she would start making her own wine. She always liked Pinot Noir and Anderson Valley Pinots were getting good reviews but “Sideways hadn’t come out yet,” she laughs and adds that it was hard in those days.
By 1997 Elke launched the winery brand and made her first commercial production of 700 cases of Pinot Noir. Now the winery is up to 1800 cases and includes some Chardonnay and a limited quantity of Rose, which is only available on the website.
She describes her Pinot Noir as “more feminine, layered and nuanced” compared with Pinots from the Russian River or the Central Coast. “Less fruit driven with better acidity, I think it’s what Pinot Noir should taste like,” she says. The nicest compliment she receives for her wine is that “it is well-balanced,” she adds.
Our conversation halts when her cell phone rings. It’s her vineyard foreman Jesus Perez. He is turning 50 today and reminds her to be at his house for the party at 5:00 pm. She has known him since he was 22 and is godmother to one of his daughters. “He planted every grapevine on the 60 acres,” she tells me when she gets off the phone. The two make a special blend of the Pinot Noir they grow on this vineyard. They call it Boonville Barter and it is only available on the website or through the wine club.
Turning to the future, Elke, who is president of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association, talks about the wine industry in Mendocino County. She’s been here since Anderson Valley changed from sheep ranches and apple orchards to being known for its Pinot Noir and Alsatian style wines such as Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Two festivals in Anderson Valley celebrate those varietals. The Alsatian festival is February 21 and 22 and the Pinot Noir Festival is in May.
Elke knows that farming is based on supply and demand. “If farmers can’t make enough to live on from growing grapes [or another crop] they will sell the property,” she says. “As Disneyland-like as Napa Valley has become, that beautiful valley is not tract houses and suburbs today because of grapes and wine. Ukiah doesn’t want to be a bedroom community either, but its agriculture has to be profitable.”
She points out that Anderson Valley was discovered by wine lovers before the whole of Mendocino County because it’s the conduit to Mendocino and the coast. Elke puts both appellations, Mendocino and Anderson Valley, on her simple straightforward label she says, “out of solidarity.”
TASTING NOTES: A memorable combination paired Elke 2006 (unfined and unfiltered) Donnelly Creek Pinot Noir with pork loin braised in milk. I loved the bright flavor and the balanced acidity of Elke’s Pinot Noir which complemented the tender milky pork morsels.