Humboldt is already well-known for its pristine coastline and towering redwoods. Soon, it may also be known for top-notch wines.
Humboldt wines have started getting more attention. It turns out that here in Humboldt we have just the right mix of elements—rich soil, mild temperature, and a unique landscape that ranges from temperate coasts to warmer mountainous areas. They all combine to create unique flavors in the grapes grown here, says Riverbend Cellars’ vintner Thomas Meager.
“Humboldt’s red wines have a distinctive ‘sense of place,’ as special as any recognized appellation in California or anyplace else. There is no Sauvignon Blanc like that from New Zealand; but there is no Merlot or Cabernet or Syrah like that from Humboldt County,” he says.
Riverbend Cellars, founded in 1997, has almost 30 acres of vineyards in the southern Humboldt town of Myers Flat. It’s the largest producer of wines from grapes grown in Humboldt County, and its Syrah won a silver medal at the 2009 Orange County Fair.
Meagher says Humboldt soils often lead to a “smoky” or “cedar” element in wines. The flavors add to the complexity, with a taste not found in other wines.
Another Humboldt winery growing its own grapes is Winnett Winery in Willow Creek, a mountainous area of Humboldt that’s notably warmer than the coast in summer and cooler in the winter. Owners David and Sharon Winnett have planted 10 acres of organic grapes, and they handcraft both red and white wines.
“We made the decision to go organic very early on before we planted our first grapes,” says Sharon. “We have three beautiful granddaughters who love being up here. And we never wanted them to pull a grape off the vine that they couldn’t pop into their mouth.”
Also located inland, in Orleans, Cabot Vineyards is the northernmost vineyard and winery in California. Owners John and Kimberly Cabot got their start as organic farmers selling produce at local farmers’ markets. They began making wine in 2001 and won their first gold medal by 2002.
And recently, world-renowned wine critic Robert Parker gave a score of 90, for “outstanding or special effort,” to Cabot’s 2006 Kimberly’s Syrah. It was the first Humboldt County wine to be reviewed by Parker. Says John Cabot, “The county’s potential to produce great wines is finally getting discovered on a larger scale.”
Other Humboldt wineries use grapes grown in neighboring counties. It turns out our “never really cold, never really hot” weather in coastal Humboldt is ideal for making and storing wine. And it all but eliminates the need for refrigerated or underground storage while the wine matures.
At Moonstone Crossing in Trinidad, winemakers Don Bremm and Sharon Hanks select grapes from small farms to the south, then make wine in small batches with attention to detail at every stage. Their red wines are all aged in oak for 22 - 36 months before bottling, then are aged for six more months before release. Better yet, Moonstone Crossing recently opened a tasting room in their small town.
Fieldbrook Winery, located just outside Arcata, has received its own share of acclaim. At the 1994 San Francisco International Wine Festival, their 1993 Pacini Vineyard Zinfandel won both a Double Gold Medal and Best of Show—being named the best red wine in the world.
Owned by retired Humboldt State University professor Robert Hodgson, Fieldbrook Winery has worked with grape growers for over 30 years to find the best possible fruit. They intentionally limit production to less than 2,000 cases a year to emphasize regional diversity and varietal intensity.
Similarly, Briceland Vineyards, in the southern Humboldt town of Redway, buys only the best grapes from nearby farmers. Most are grown within 10 miles of the winery, in an area of rugged hills, hot summers and lush winters. The quality of the finished product reflects the care and passion that the winemakers put into every bottle.
Like many Humboldt wineries, Briceland sits in a pristine rural setting and is open to visitors by appointment.
Overall, there are more than 30 artisanal wineries in Humboldt. Their small size allows for an attention to detail that commercial wineries just can’t match. In fact, as a group they produce just 20,000 barrels a year – they could nearly triple that and still be considered a single “small winery.”
And that’s just fine with Meagher. As he describes the Humboldt approach to winemaking, “Every barrel of wine must be individually cared for, not only so it does not spoil, but so that it is given the loving opportunity for perfection.”