Off the Grid and Loving It.
Whether pouring at a wine tasting or working in the vineyards, Fred Buonanno wears Hawaiian shirts and khaki shorts. He and his energetic winemaking wife Heather McKelvey moved from high tech jobs in the Bay Area to start a winery and live off the grid in Anderson Valley. Since purchasing their property with rundown vineyards in 1999 and moving here full time in 2003, they have experienced torrential rain, been encircled by forest fires and had a mountain lion in their bedroom. Nevertheless, they are having fun with their challenges along the way.
“When we moved here we knew nothing about farming or grapes,” laughs Buonanno, “but we liked to drink wine.” McKelvey had dabbled in home winemaking in their San Francisco garage.
Philo Ridge Vineyards is at 1200 feet elevation and two miles from the nearest power pole. It is located 5.3 miles up a gravel road off Highway 128 and only open to the public on weekends. Right now let me take you along on a tour with Buonanno and McKelvey on their beautiful terraced property with a 360 degree view at the top of the vineyard.
Met by Buonanno, McKelvey and their dog Boo I am struck by the omnipresent quiet that comes after the crunch of gravel under my tires when arriving where the only energy to power their home and winery comes from the silent rays of the sun. Buonanno, a former telecommunications marketer, and McKelvey, wearing black jeans and top, with sandy hair are welcoming. Boo is an playful golden retriever rescue dog from Santa Rosa.
We start the tour at the nearly completed winery, which is up the hill from their home. Remodeled from the original barn the new structure has the old tree poles and redwood beams incorporated into the new design. More than a hundred yards of concrete form the new floor and foundation for the crush pad, a lab and a tasting bar. As Boo begs us to throw his ball, we stop to look at the farm pond, only half full this year, but still full of frogs.
Then we walk along one of the trellised vineyard rows, which the Buonanos replanted in 2000. The three acres of hillside Cabernet Sauvignon has been a challenge. They recontoured the terraces to make for wider row spacing and added natural plant borders between them.
“Our first year we lost half the crop to the turkeys and occasional bears,” says Buonanno. Last year the late frost claimed 85 percent of the crop. The Manzanita and huckleberry borders were planted to keep the turkeys distracted. Still, they will net the rows once the fruit begins to ripen. High posts made from logs culled on the 66-acre property are placed along the rows to anchor the netting. Buonanno, wearing Top-Sides without socks, a holdover from his East Coast upbringing, stops often to examine the embryonic buds to see how the recent frost affected them. “They look good,” he announces.
When we reach the top of the hill, the view is breathtaking. Buonanno points toward Ukiah. We can see where Low Gap Road winds up the hill, the Bald hills of Navarro, and over to Greenwood Ridge. “Last summer we watched dozens of fires start all around us,” says Buonanno. The day after the lightning strikes they were bottling their Gewurztraminer. They saw five fires at Orr Springs grow together. To the south three fires at the Oso Complex blazed.
When they finished bottling Buonanno drove into Boonville to the Volunteer Fire Department to bring them up and see his view. The Buonanos were told to evacuate but Buonanno found he could be of use as a spotter and they offered their pond as a water source. “I also helped by using my ATV to move hoses at the Oso Fire,” he said.
“We are very conscious of fire up here,” adds McKelvey, as we wend our way back down past the winery to the spacious deck on their solar powered home. Serious defensible space is meticulously cared for around the vineyard and buildings.
Three years ago, on New Years Eve in 2006, they experienced “ten inches of rain in 24 hours.” The following year they bolstered the terraces and built a stone wall up one vulnerable hillside.
In addition to running the vineyard and winery both have other full time jobs. Buonanno who took an early retirement from Nortel to start Philo Ridge winery, is the director of winery relations at Brutocao Cellars in Hopland. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission.
“When we came here from the corporate world, we knew nothing,” laughs Buonanno, who gave up his old life traveling 200,000 miles a year setting up global distribution channels for Nortel.
McKelvey worked at Netscape and when it was bought out by AOL, she left. Now she works as an engineer at the software company in Petaluma.
“I organize my vacations around crush,” she says. Their first harvest was in 2001. When they got ready to bottle, six friends came up to help and (the late) Hans Kobler (of Lazy Creek Vineyards) brought a two-spout filler. “We bottled 167 cases,” says McKelvey. This year they will make 1900 cases. “We got a lot of help in the beginning from Hans,” says Buonanno. Kobler’s son Norman Kobler now assists as vineyard manager.
While the main focus of the winery is their award winning Pinot Noir, as the official winemaker McKelvey is also drawn to Rhone style winemaking which influences her affection for blends. Their Vino di Mendocino, which includes Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Carignane, is an example. They have also joined the CORO Mendocino program. CORO is a joint effort by individual wineries working together to exacting specifications to create a rich and age-worthy red wine showcasing the best of the best. Other Philo Ridge reds include Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
No oak is used for their Gewurztraminer or Chardonnay. “I want the taste of the fruit in the wine,” she explains.
She uses a light touch of oak on her Zinfandel, a variety she feels “can’t handle a lot of oak.” And she blends Pinot Noir from three separate clones to get the flavor that makes Philo Ridge Pinot renowned. They purchase grapes for the varieties they don’t grow from Brutocao and Nelson Family Vineyards in Hopland and Ferrington and Claudia Springs in Anderson Valley.
Planters on their deck sprout the beginning of the vegetable garden. “I am only putting in 64 tomato plants this year!” says McKelvey, who fills out the garden with a variety of other vegetables.
When Gabby, their 18-year-old cat, appears sauntering along the deck she sparks a description of the mountain lion in the house. One night they awoke to the sounds of trouble downstairs. Buonanno went to investigate. While he discovered blood on the dining room floor, McKelvey watched a baby mountain lion chase her injured cat through the bedroom and out the window. “The mountain lion got Gabby in the paw and had her head in its mouth.” Between visits to the vet they got their first dog that very weekend.
“Coming in as the ultimate city kids, everything was new to us and still is,” says Buonanno. He had to learn to drive a tractor. “We had to learn to repair pipes,” says McKelvey.
“People think winemaking is the glamorous life,” she says while enjoying this moment on the deck. “They don’t think about the work and challenges, like getting on your belly scrubbing the floor.” Buonanno is looking forward to more space in the new winery building where he won’t have to be a “human forklift” moving the barrels around. Despite the work and their more than full time schedules both keep a sense of humor.
Their picturesque vineyard is featured in a beguiling image on Philo Ridge’s label and the back labels are entertaining to read. While describing the 100 percent solar and wind powered winery, the label includes such descriptors for the wine as “boom chacka-laka”. “We don’t want to be too serious,” smiles McKelvey.
Recently, a visiting friend reminded Buonanno and McKelvey one of the reasons why they love it here. You can’t see the Milky Way in downtown San Francisco.
TASTING NOTES: A perfect summer wine the 2007 Philo Ridge Ferrington Vineyard Gewurztraminer has great texture and a citrus as well as spiced aroma with a lingering finish that went well with rub coated grilled chicken. And Philo Ridge’s Vino di Mendocino with its rich aromatic hearty flavor was great with slow cooked pork ribs and potato salad.