Mendocino Wine Touts Scottish Heritage.
Paying homage to his Scottish ancestry, Alex MacGregor launched Trinafour Cellars. Echoing that tribute, he makes his wine with heritage Mendocino grapes from Redwood Valley. Trinafour wines sport a red and blue family tartan and recognition of MacGregor’s ancestral home near Perthshire, Scotland.
I met MacGregor for an interview at Patrona restaurant in Ukiah over a glass of his 2006 Petite Sirah made from grapes grown in Redwood Valley. The wine is characteristically deep purple. Its flavor is round and fruity, spicy and smooth and goes remarkably well with one of my favorite appetizers, the zippy orange glazed calamari. And it is sublime with chef Craig Strattman’s paper thin slices of elk carpaccio.
MacGregor grew up in Toronto, Canada, and is the fulltime winemaker at Saracina Vineyards winery south of Ukiah. He was drawn to winemaking through a circuitous route. His father Ian MacGregor was born in the five-building hamlet of Trinafour in Scotland. The senior MacGregor appreciated fine wine and had a wine collection, but “my only claim to an agricultural background harkens to my great-grandfather who was the gamekeeper at an estate in Trinafour,” says MacGregor.
In 1985 Alex MacGregor got a degree in international marketing and finance at McGill University and worked part time in a restaurant. Then he took off for a year traveling in France and Spain. He studied French literature in Aix-en-Provence, hung out in Montpelier and went sailing in Spain. Returning to Toronto he went back to restaurant work, first as a busboy and then as a bartender. “I got interested in wine and helped out on the wine list,” he says. He also contracted with a wine broker and got to know Tony Aspler, one of Canada’s well known wine writers who introduced him to winery folks when them visited Toronto. He went on to work for other high end restaurants.
“The best gigs I had were working at the Sutton Place Hotel and the Select Bistro,” says MacGregor. The Bistro was owned by a Parisian couple. “As the person in charge of the wine list, I got to buy and taste of a lot of great wines,” he recalls. The emphasis was on Rhone wines from the south of France. “I got a good education in really good French peasant wines,” he says.
In between working for the wine broker and restaurants, MacGregor spent a year in Australia. He picked grapes long enough to know that was not how he wanted to spend his life. “It was hard work and made me appreciate how much effort it takes to pick grapes. It is hard brutal work,” he says.
By then, however, he was hooked on being part of the wine industry. “I wanted to produce something that was grown,” he says. While applying to viticulture programs in California he received a Sommelier Certificate from Humber College in Toronto. He got accepted to California State University at Fresno where he crammed every enology class they offered into three semesters. He moved to Sonoma County, got a degree in viticulture at Santa Rosa Community College and looked up one of the contacts he made while working in Toronto.
“I started as a harvest intern and lab rat at Dry Creek Vineyards,” he says. For the next few years he had the opportunity to work with some of the industry’s best winemakers including Bob Cabral and David Ramey.
In 1994, MacGregor met Kathleen [maiden name?] and they got married. Their first son Ian was born in 1997, “one of the great Port years,” says MacGregor. Second son Duncan was born in 2000, “another phenomenal Port year.” Needless to say he put down some of those vintage Ports to celebrate future milestones.
In 2002 MacGregor was looking for a change and John Fetzer was launching Saracina winery with the famed David Ramey as a consultant. “John had this vision and we hit it off right away,” he says. The MacGregors moved to Ukiah where Kathleen is a “process” coach and MacGregor works full time at Saracina.
About five years ago MacGregor had an opportunity to visit Alvin Tollini’s Niemi Vineyard in Redwood Valley. MacGregor was inspired by the fifty to sixty year old Carignane vines. The vineyard was dry farmed and organic “by default.”
“The story of Carignane is untapped,” says MacGregor, whose youthful appearance belies his 47 years. In the early years of California viticulture Carignane was the most widely planted grape and was used to make the blends known as “burgundy” from the 1940s until the 1960s when varietal grapes became popular.
MacGregor is drawn to Carignane’s peasant qualities because they are reminiscent of the French country wines he cut his wine tasting teeth on years ago. “It’s not a sexy variety,” he says. Describing the Tollini vineyard, “If you stood in the old block and saw the great soil, it is red loam and red vine series, you would know why I couldn’t resist,” he says with rising enthusiasm. “Alvin is a farmer’s farmer, the vineyard is pure and his vines are too.”
The Carignane and the Petite Sirah MacGregor uses for his wines were both planted by the vineyard’s namesake. Tollini’s Finnish grandfather was a Niemi who came to Redwood Valley to be part of the old Finnish colony that was once on Colony Drive. The Finns intermarried with the Italians and after Prohibition the Carignane craze was big says MacGregor.
MacGregor is enamored with the historical aspect as well as the potential for producing elegant Mendocino wines that are easy to drink and go with everything. He also likes drawing from old European winemaking techniques such as “ripasso” which means to “repass.”
He allows both the Petite Sirah and Carignane to ferment naturally on their native yeasts, which can take up to ten days. The Petite Sirah is usually picked two weeks before the Carignane. When it is finished fermenting, he drains the Petite Sirah and leaves the residual skins and stems to dry in the tank. Then he pours the fermenting Carignane over the drying Petite skins which adds acid, dark color and elegance that are characteristic of Trinafour’s Carignane.
MacGregor also makes a dry white wine from Muscat Canelli, usually known as a sweet wine. He produces the wine from Charlie Sawyer’s Lake County vineyard is currently sold out. He calls this style of Muscat Canelli, “Italy meets Alsace” because it is dry yet has the aromatic qualities typical of Muscat Canelli.
Trinafour wines can be found at Patrona, where the Petite Sirah is available by the glass, West Side Renaissance Market, Oco Time, the Bottle Shop and the Natural Foods Coop in Ukiah and at SIP! in Hopland. It is also available on Trinafour Cellars’ website, which MacGregor’s wife Kathleen designed.
What’s great about making his own wine? “I got a phone call the other night from someone who had my wine and loved it,” he says. “I appreciate that the history for my wines is built in both by the varietals and where they are grown.” In the French countryside this raising up of a wine is known as “elevage”.
TASTING NOTES: Trinafour’s 2007 Carignane is a testament to the extra effort MacGregor is putting into making this a world class wine. Inky black with a velvety texture, the first taste is a surprise in its range of flavor from dark red fruitiness to its jump into your mouth boldness. Balanced and ready to drink, it was sublime with Osso Bucco and polenta with wild mushroom sauce. Find out more at www.trinafourcellars.com