Southern France meets Cowboy Vintner

Take an old Mendocino County vineyard in a beautiful valley, overlay a commitment to sustainability, merge two longtime Mendocino grape growing families, and blend southern French wine grapes with a horseback riding vintner. The result is McDowell Valley Vineyards under the helm of Vicky and Bill Crawford.

Bill (known as Billy to friends and family) and his three siblings grew up in McDowell Valley on the old Buckman Ranch his parents bought in 1970. The Buckman family were descendants of Paxton McDowell, the valley and winery’s namesake. Grapes have grown on this ranch since the 1890s making it among the oldest continually producing vineyards in California.

At age 18, when he left for college, Bill thought he knew all there was to know about grapes. He wanted to be a veterinarian.

Then came 1982 and a turning point for Bill. When he finished with a degree in biology and animal science at the University of Oregon in Eugene, he headed back home to help with the harvest. “My parents had started the winery,” he says. The winery was the first solar integrated winery in the United States and was across the road from the ranch. The blazing sun logo on McDowell’s wine label commemorates the significance of the sun for energy as well as growing grapes.

Also in 1982 Bill and Vicky (Piffero), a third generation Mendocino County grapegrower, got married. They had gone to school together as kids but when they reconnected upon his return it was the beginning of a love affair that has continued for 27 years. “Vicky likes to ski and ride horses and dirt bikes. And she can cut firewood,” says Bill with a big grin. “She is my partner and companion in everything from sports to parenting as well as running the vineyard and winery. She can do it all. And we have three wonderful kids to show for our lives together.”

The winery was built to produce up to 100,000 cases and that’s how much McDowell made in the early 1990s. At the time, they made nearly a dozen varietals. “I was on the road 26 weeks a year selling wine and my kids wondered if their dad had died,” remembers Bill. The family decided to sell the winery buildings and refocus their wines. The winery is now owned by Weibel.

With McDowell known for Syrah and its Grenache Rose, the Crawfords decided they were on to something that reflected the vineyard and the ranch. Bill compared how close the climate and “mood” of McDowell Valley were to the French vineyards along the Rhone River near the Mediterranean. “We looked at our company and at how many medals our Syrah had won over the years,” he said.

Some of McDowell’s Syrah and the Grenache grapes came from the old vineyards planted prior to 1919 and grew through prohibition. “We thought we should focus on what we do well,” says Bill, who was ready to turn his attention to replanting and growing grapes.

Today, on the 426-acre ranch, the Crawfords grow 172 acres of Rhone varietals including Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Viognier, a white grape sometimes blended with red wines. In addition is a ten acre block devoted to clonal trials in conjunction with the University of California. On another hundred plus acres Chardonnay, Semillon, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon are grown for other wineries including Fetzer, Navarro, Parducci, Dunnewood, Copain, and Caymus. The entire farm is sustainable and fish friendly and about forty percent is certified organic.

McDowell now produces about 5000 cases of wine. Bill makes it at McNab Ridge Winery with winemaker Rich Parducci, whose grandfather John Parducci is among Mendocino County’s oldest and most venerated winemakers. The 1999 McDowell Valley Vineyards Syrah won the best of show out of 2250 wines judged at the 2001 California State Fair competition. It was among the first wines the Crawfords made at McNab Ridge.

McDowell’ Rhone style wines include Viognier, Syrah, Grenache Noir, and Grenache Rose. They also produce McDowell CORO Mendocino, which blends Syrah and Petite Syrah with Zinfandel. McDowell is part of the Rhone Rangers, a group founded in the 1990s to promote Rhone varietals grown in California. It has a grand tasting in San Francisco the third week of March each year. Most of McDowell’s wine is sold in the tasting room in Hopland and through their Wine Club, both of which Vicky oversees along with Richard Paryz.

The Wild West meets Provence at McDowell’s Wine & Mercantile tasting room in a 103-year-old building in downtown Hopland. At the horseshoe-shaped bar on the tasting menu, in addition to the Rhone-style wines you’ll also find fresh easy drinking Western White and delicious every day Rodeo Red, as well as a luscious Port.

Four miles away at the ranch in McDowell Valley, Bill takes me on a tour through the vineyards. He’s a high tech cowboy these days with his portable iPhone he can do email from his truck. From the classic red barns we drive by pruned grapevines and pass a two-day old calf with its momma. The Crawfords have eight horses and two mules they have bred, raised and trained on the ranch. An old patch of head pruned Zinfandel looks more like a golden blaze with three foot high mustard between the vines. The hills are springtime green and the pond is dangerously low. A forty acre hayfield is knee high.

The three boys grew up here swimming in the pond, painting the mile of white fences, and working harvests. They along with their parents all ride dirt bikes and horses. “I don’t live here because I secretly want to be in New York City,” says Bill.

Their sons have moved on for now. Willy, 24, is a biology major at the University of Nevada in Reno. Kyler, 21, is a senior on a football scholarship at Central Methodist University in Missouri, where he was just honored as defensive back of the year. Trevor, 20, a mechanic is starting helicopter mechanic training at a school in San Diego this year.

Vicky, petite and fit, has a steely determination that meshes with all the male energy she lives with. In addition to managing the business end of the winery and vineyards, she is active in the Mendocino Winegrowers Foundation which raises funds for scholarships. In addition to tending the vineyards, Bill also finds time to give back. He is a grower representative on the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission and he is on Hopland Volunteer Fire Department. During the fires last year he drove truck for All Terrain Water Corporation, Greg Smith’s company in Ukiah, working fires in Westport on the coast as well as in Santa Cruz, Paradise and near Shasta.

Bill, in cowboy boots and jeans is tan, buff and centered. He’s committed to sustaining this quality of life and he has earned his moniker as Mendocino’s cowboy vintner. For years the highlight of the Mendocino Wine auctions was Bill Crawford starting it off by riding his horse through the dining area in front of the stage. At home the Crawfords’ living room is filled with awards and trophies the kids got at rodeo competitions. In 1997 son Willy won a silver buckle for team roping at the Potter Valley rodeo, where Vicky and Bill also compete in team roping.

After finding their wine niche, stacking up medals for those wines, raising three great kids and having a lot of fun together, what’s next for Vicky and Bill? “Our goal is to win a silver buckle team roping.”

TASTING NOTES: McDowell Valley Vineyards 1999 Syrah Reserve delivers sip after sip of glorious texture. Its elegant spiced fruity richness stood up to slow smoked pork ribs topped with a tomato-y Carolina style barbecue sauce.

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