Our guest today on California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon and Dan Berger is Martha Barra from Barra Winery of Mendocino. Charlie Barra started the home ranch in 1955. At the time they were growing “grapes that nobody cared about” as Dan Berger says, grapes that went into jug wine. But Charlie had friends in Napa Valley and asked them how to change the quality of his ranch’s output. They began with 150 and have grown to 325 acres. Charlie passed away at 92, a year and a half ago. He was the godfather of north coast grape growing. He was always looking out for the other growers, too.
Dan Berger tells about the early history of grape growing in Mendocino County. In the 1950s Charlie Barra was really a pioneer. It was 11 years before Robert Mondavi opened in Napa Valley. During that period, the ranches were growing grapes that were not producing fine wine, but there were varieties that produced large yields of pretty common wine. At the time, 90% of Mendocino County fruit was sent to other counties. Today it’s 75%.
They grow 9 different varietals, Barra of Mendocino and Girasole, which means Sunflower in Italian. They are tasting a Chardonnay, from the old Wente clone, they have 15 or 20 acres of it. There is a lot of tropical fruit, pineapple and a tiny bit of banana, rich on the tongue but finishes light. It’s delicious by itself and it has good acidity in the background.
Dan Berger says that the Barra wines have become more distinctive in the last few years. The Pinot Blanc is one of their pet projects. It is an under-rated variety. There are only about 10 people making it in California. There are only 438 acres of it in California and they have 14 acres of it, says Martha Barra. Dan Berger tells how the producers today are making low-oak styles. It’s mainly grown in Alsace in France. Dan Berger says it is an example of how different Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc can be from one another. Chardonnay is a blank slate and Pinot Blanc has more fruit components so it can be more distinctive. “It’s smooth as hell,” declares Steve.
Martha Barra explains that you press Pinot Blanc off the skins immediately, to preserve its apple, melon and citrus flavors. This wine is a blend of fruit from two of their Pinot Blanc vineyards, one of old vines and one of younger ones. It retails for about $14 or $15. Their wines are available at Bottle Barn and other local retailers.
They have won more awards for their Pinot Blanc than for any of their other wines. Dan Berger enjoys judging Pinot Blancs because it’s always a treat. He also says it would go well with spicy Thai food.
They are certified organic farmers, and have been for 28 years. Charlie Barra used to joke, “I’ve been farming organic for 50 years, but the first 30 I didn’t know it,” because he was doing it before the official credentials were established.
Barra of Mendocino gets about 30% new French oak per year, so that drives their price up, but it’s just a different style. The other label is Girasole (pronounced “gi-ra-SO-le”) which means sunflower in Italian. (Gira means turn, and sole means sun, so it means, “the flower that turns with the sun.”)
This wine has a screw cap, which Dan says is the secret to great white wine. They also use sugar cane corks, which are incapable of producing cork taint.
They also taste their Zinfandel. Dan says that Mendocino County produces some of California’s finest Zinfandel fruit. This one has beautiful raspberry and tart cherry flavors, and the oak is so much in the background that you don’t smell it at all. Martha Barra says they strive to make wines that are balanced. She learned this from John Parducci, who was the godfather of winemaking in Mendocino County. This is a world-class Zinfandel, says Dan. He adds that this is a very consistent wine, year after year. They blend this wine with some fruit from an almost dry-farmed vineyard at 900 feet above sea level, where they grow Petit Syrah and Zinfandel. The pH is low, which means high acidity.
Their 2018 Petit Syrah has received some very high competition scores, even from Dan. He says that California has enough sun to make Petit Syrah this intense.