Organic vineyards and a focus on the grape varietals of the famed French winemaking region of Bordeaux are at the center of Yorkville Cellars. As “the most awarded estate winery with certified organically grown grapes,” according to published records, Yorkville Cellars’ acclaims are rewarding. But that’s not all.
Located along Highway 128 at the north end of the tiny hamlet of Yorkville, owners Deborah and Edward Wallo began a lifestyle very different from the international world of marketing and internet law when they purchased this property in 1988. It had been certified organic in 1986, among the first in California.
“It was serendipitous that we ended up here,” says Deborah, “and we love that so many of the people who live nearby also chose to live in this rural neighborhood.” Their neighbors include a glass blower, renowned graphic artist, a wine barrel furniture maker, a pilot who lands on an adjacent hilltop, an employee who is about to market honey and a lizard doctor within a few square miles. “Our neighbors are amazing and we get together and have a great time,” she adds, her British accent underscoring a typical understated-ness.
Turning onto Yorkville Cellars’driveway lined with 500 rose trees that leads to the hillside tasting room, I see Edward walking between rows of brilliantly colored vines ablaze in the autumn sun. He’s carrying a bucket of just picked Semillon grapes. Their black lab Shadow is loping ahead, dripping wet from a swim in the pond.
I join him for a walk through the vineyards. Bees are busily immersed in the sweet Semillon grapes, which the Wallos hope will get to the ripe raisiny stage to become a late harvest wine. Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are the grapes that make Bordeaux’s famed late harvest Sauternes, of which the most prized is from Chateau d’Yquem. The secret to making this style of late harvest is a particular fungus known as “Botrytis cinerea” or the “noble rot” which settles into the grapes. Edward says the ideal conditions are a little rain and then warm weather, both of which occurred since harvest. “If we get to make a late harvest wine, it will be the first in the 23 years we have been growing grapes,” says Edward.
Edward and Deborah both grew up in the country, he in Oregon, she near Wales in Great Britain. Both led high powered professional lives, learned to love wine and had the opportunity to live in some of the world’s best wine regions. In the 1980s he was in international marketing for a Silicon Valley based company and living in Paris. She was a high tech attorney. They met on a weekend visit to mutual friends in Wales. They married in 1987 and lived in German and Italian wine country before a stint in Paris and taking weekend treks to Bordeaux and the Loire regions.
In the late 1980s, after moving back to the United States and living in Silicon Valley, they read about Mendocino County in a Sunset article. They had always visited Napa for a wine country experience but were intrigued by what they read and came for a visit. “It was love at first sight so the next weekend we started looking for property,” says Edward. “We liked the idea of having land and possibly a vineyard.”
When they saw this 110-acre property with a small Sauvignon Blanc vineyard and met some of the neighbors they were hooked. There were many pluses to this acreage that rises from 1000 to 1200 foot elevation. And one of the draws still makes Edward dreamy when he looks to the south and sees the forest of conifers that reminds him of his native Oregon landscape. He also likes the geographical distinction. Pointing to a row of poplar trees, he says the south side of the trees is the drainage to the Russian River and on the north side is the Navarro River basin.
“We didn’t set out to be in the wine business, we were looking for a great place to raise kids,” says Edward. At first they sold the grapes but they kept seeing the wines made from their grapes winning medals so in 1989 and 1990 they tripled the acreage.
“We had the idea to plant the Bordeaux varietals and make a blend, as families have done for generations in France,” he says. Randle Vineyard where Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon is terraced up the hill is named after Deborah’s family. Rennie Vineyard named after Edward’s mother is in front of the tasting room. Here is likely the “one place on Earth” where all six of the so-called “noble red grapes” that originated in the renowned Bordeaux wine region of France grow and are produced into varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carmenere, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
“Given how long it takes for vines to mature and then adding barrel aging, it took about eight years before we finally got to taste the wine,” says Edward, “the wines were so good by themselves we decided to bottle each one rather than only make a blend like they do in Bordeaux. The Wallos brought Mendocino’s renowned winemaker Greg Graziano on in 1995 and the three work together to produce Yorkville Cellars wines.
The Wallos also make white and red “Bordeaux” blends. They named the red blend Richard the Lion-Heart and the white Eleanor of Aquitane. The Yorkville Cellars website shares short biographies of the famed royal mother and son which have French, English and Bordeaux connections. As the website reports, “we started naming our blended white wine after Eleanor to celebrate that she really started the international wine trade with Bordeaux wine, the original home of all the grapes we grow.” Yorkville Cellars’ blended red wine is named “after Richard because he apparently loved wine, spent a good deal of time in Bordeaux celebrating with wine.”
Equal to their focus on the Bordeaux varietals is the Wallos’ commitment to organically grown grapes. “All of our bottles mention organic in three different places,” says Edward. In his youth he was inspired when former Governor McCall installed a deposit on all bottles and cans in order to help clean up the beaches and then mandated the remediation of the Williamette, a previously chemical filled river.
In England, Deborah’s father was known for continuing the resourcefulness that was imposed by wartime shortages. He composted and caught rainwater from rooftop runoff in barrels to water the garden. “Organic is very natural to us,” they stress. It’s also how they wanted raise children. Deborah was pregnant with Leo, who is now 20, when they moved to the ranch. Another son Ben, 19, and daughter Rennie, 15, also grew up here.
From the red barnwood tasting room every window has a view of the organic vineyards. “It reflects our low key style,” says Edward, clearly comfortable in his surroundings. As we settle onto a picnic table on the wide veranda style deck, Edward shares that the three magnificent ancient oaks around the building “sealed the deal” for this place when he and Deborah were looking at property.
Tasting the varietals singly is a rare experience in the wine country. While Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are popular in many places, having the opportunity to taste the nuances and differences of the other Bordeaux varietals is an education. “They are like children in a family,” explains Edward, “each is similar but distinct and when blended their synergy affects the outcome we are looking for in our wine.”
Visitors stream into the tasting room for that unique experience. The furnishings are a mixture of local artisan crafts and antiques from France and England. Artwork for sale includes handcrafted bowls made from downed laurel and other wood by a neighbor, Dr. Cesare Reyneri, who retired from medicine after 42 years in practice. He makes them using solar powered tools. A selection of foods such as Yorkville’s Old Chatham Ranch Olive Oil and Barbecue Sauce sit in an antique French hutch. You can buy a six slotted wood wine crate to fill with each of the Bordeaux varietals. The setting is casual with interesting items to check out while tasting Yorkville Cellars wine when you aren’t gazing out the windows.
Summing it up Edward shares, “We like the Mendocino “feel” of where we are. It reflects our personality and what we are about.”
Tasting Notes: Mushrooms and Malbec is the theme of a grand tasting at Yorkville Cellars during the annual Mendocino Wine and Mushroom Fest. Indeed Malbec’s earthiness is a natural for many wild mushroom dishes including a butternut squash soup seasoned with the maple/curry-flavored candy cap mushrooms. Eleanor of Aquitane, Yorkville Cellars’ smooth vibrant white wine, has an affinity for almonds and it not only went well the with the soup, but its full lively flavors pair with many foods and is great for an aperitif on its own.