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Food & Wine: Uncorking The Potential Of Potter Valley

by Carolyn Jung

More than 50 years after settling in Potter Valley, Guinness McFadden produces 15,000 cases annually of Blue Quail wines, as well as other goods that keep his staff busy year-round. | Photo courtesy of Hardy Wilson

With some ingenuity, a business school dropout created a thriving enterprise that recently marked its 50th year.

When Guinness McFadden first laid eyes on remote Potter Valley in Mendocino County, with its expansive pasture lands and pear orchards, he was told he’d never prevail in growing wine grapes in such cool temperatures.

But McFadden has never been one to take “no” for an answer. A native New Yorker with no farming experience but a reserve of East Coast tenacity, he took it upon himself to research the climate of this verdant region, discovering that its 95-degree daytime summer heat would plummet to a chilly 45 degrees at night, potentially ideal for fruit full of ripeness yet also acidity.

It was enough to convince the Bronze Star-decorated former U.S. Navy lieutenant to take the plunge. With the establishment of McFadden Family Vineyard & Farm, he became the first person in Potter Valley to grow grapes commercially 51 years ago.

In so doing, he also overcame a vexing problem: attracting vineyard workers to this 500-person community, a two-hour drive north from both Napa and Sonoma, that had a late harvest season.

“I’ve been known to say many times that I should have stayed in the Navy,” McFadden, 83, says with a laugh. “Grapes are not hard to grow for a novice, but you can make mistakes. I probably made every one in the book. I don’t consider myself a pioneer. But planting grapes turned out to be an excellent idea.”

His certified organic grapes are grown on 163 acres of the farm, which is nearly energy self-sufficient, thanks to solar panels and a hydroelectric plant McFadden had built. The grapes are of such renown that for 30 years they were purchased by the likes of Mondavi, Chateau Montelena, Beringer, Navarro and Piper Sonoma wineries.

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McFadden’s Blue Quail Tasting Room

13275 South Highway 101, #5, Hopland, California
Hours: Thursday– Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m
bluequail.com
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In 2003, however, McFadden decided to debut the first wine of his own, a pinot gris. Since then, working in collaboration with Mendocino Wine Company, his Blue Quail label wines — including old vine zinfandel, gewürztraminer and sparkling brut — have garnered double gold, gold and silver medals in California and international competitions.

To further entice employees to this secluded valley, he devised ways to extend the work year to make it worth their while to venture this way. He did so by diversifying, including teaching workers how to handfashion wreaths of fragrant, wild bay leaves after the grape harvest finished. He walked into the Williams Sonoma on San Francisco’s Sutter Street with one in hand, and the rest is history.

According to McFadden, since 1974 the gourmet kitchenware store has sold nearly 20,000 of the decorative culinary wreaths yearly. They’re also available now through the farm, as well as on Amazon, Etsy and starting this year at Macy’s.

Additionally, workers make 5,000 garlic braids each summer that feature Salinas Valley-grown bulbs; packages of wild rice harvested from Lake County; and jars of dried herbs from thyme, oregano, rosemary, epazote and lavender grown organically on the farm in the spring.

All of the products, including the wines and the beef from the farm’s small herd, are available at McFadden’s Blue Quail Tasting Room in Hopland, on the Russian River.

Thanks to its various endeavors, the farm has managed to maintain a full-time staff of 10 — including McFadden’s daughter and son — many of whom have been employed 25 years or more.

Not bad for a Stanford business school dropout who decided to pursue a life among the vines instead. His first name may be Guinness, but ever since his days stationed in the Mediterranean, his passion has decidedly been wine.

“I get up every day and I’m thankful I’m still on this side of the grass,” he says. “I’ve gotten so many notes from people who say such nice things about our wines and products. It makes all the time and effort into making them special worth it.”

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