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This article is from the July/August 2004 issue of Practical Winery & Vineyard Magazine. Order current or back issues here.

COVER STORY

July/August 2004

BY Tina Vierra

How do you market a wine region? Wineries of the Mendocino Winegrowers Alliance on the North Coast of California think they’ve found a way. They formed Consortium Mendocino and launched a regional wine blend they’re calling Coro Mendocino.

Marketing a wine blend that is tied to a specific place and made by several producers is not a new idea. Sometimes, it’s successful — as Chianti is in Italy — but lacking government-regulated direction for such a project, can a community of winemakers accomplish the task on its own? The ultimate determination of success is down the road, but the consortium can claim initial triumph with the release in June 2004 of the first (2001) Coro Mendocino, Zinfandel-based red wine blends.

Mendocino County has less than 50 wineries operating within its borders, but 18,000 acres are planted to grapevines. So the majority of Mendocino fruit is going to other wineries for bottlings not carrying the Mendocino Appellation. “Mendocino County loses out when only people inside the wine industry know how good our grapes are,” says Sally Ottoson, owner and winemaker of Pacific Star Winery (Fort Bragg, CA). “Coro was conceived as the way to communicate our pride of place.”

The eight participating wineries, from among the nation’s biggest to one of its smallest, include Fetzer Vineyards (2.5 million cases), Brutocao Cellars, Eaglepoint Ranch Winery, Gabrielli Winery, Graziano Family Wines, Pacific Star Winery, Parducci Wine Estates, and Golden Vineyards (about 225 cases).

“Coro started out as a winemaker roundtable that asked the question: What do we do the best here in inland Mendocino?” says winemaker Sam Gabrielli, Gabrielli Winery (Redwood Valley). “We conceded Cabernets to Napa, and Pinot Noirs to Russian River and Anderson [valleys], and came upon Zinfandels, Petite Sirah, and other Mediterranean varietals.”

“This program represents America’s first appellation controlleé wines,” adds winemaker Greg Graziano. “Our group believes that Zinfandel is one of the best wines in the world and that Mendocino is blessed with many diverse climates and soil types that showcase the quality of this grape. We also believe that blending of compatible varieties with Zinfandel will overcome any shortcomings that Zinfandel may have with any given vintage.”

Coro Mendocino production protocols
Each winery’s blend contains a foundation of Zinfandel (40% to 70%), according to production protocols. Members of the Consortium Mendocino, under the auspices of the Mendocino Winegrowers Alliance, developed those protocols and agreed to follow them as a group.

There is plenty of room for individual expression with the second-tier blending varietals, which include Syrah, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Sangiovese, Grenache, Dolcetto, Charbono, Barbera, and Primitivo. No other varietal in the blend may exceed the percentage of Zinfandel. In addition, up to 10% of the blend may be wild card varietals of the winemaker’s choice.

The consortium established a generous chemistry and ageing range for Coro Mendocino blends as well, hoping to establish guidelines that would lead to the best quality wines to represent Mendocino. Guidelines must be met for alcohol level (12.5% to 16%), pH (3.2 to 3.8), total acidity (0.4 to 0.9 g/ 100ml), glucose/fructose enzymatic (less than 700mg/ 100ml), volatile acidity (less than 0.1g/ 100ml), and malic acid (less than 35mg/ 100ml).

The wines are judged twice by a panel that includes participating winemakers, before each winery’s blend can wear the Coro Mendocino label. If a blend misses any production parameter on the first judging, there is time to adjust before the final decision on whether to accept it as a Coro wine. All eight 2001 Coro wines are between 14% and 15% alcohol, between 3.49 and 3.79 pH, with total acidity between 0.61 and 0.70 g/100ml.

Ageing must be at least one year in barrel, minimum of 25% and maximum of 75% new oak, and a minimum of six months in bottle before release.

Coro, a word meaning “chorus” in both Italian and Spanish, was chosen to represent the image of a chorus of winemakers blending their skills and wines into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

“The idea of the Coro project appealed to me instantly,” says Ottoson. “My fondness for Italian-style wine has really guided my winemaking path. I studied old European winemaking techniques and knocked on doors to talk to as many of the old timers as I could find.”

Ottoson says that the 2001 Pacific Star Coro Mendocino contains 40% Zinfandel, 25% Petite Sirah, 15% Charbono, 10% Barbera, and 10% Pinot Noir. “While Pacific Star Winery is on the edge of the ocean [in a Mendocino coastal town], I can access grapes from vineyards all over the county. I was amazed to find so many wonderful old varieties — Carignane, Grenache, Barbera, and of course, Charbono, which has become something of an obsession for me.”

The 2001 Coro Mendocino from Graziano Family of Wines (Redwood Valley, CA) has 55% Zinfandel, 15% Sangiovese, 15% Dolcetto, and 15% Barbera. “There are many old plantings of Zinfandel and other compatible varieties in Mendocino County, which occupy many different soils,” Graziano notes. “With all of the new plantings of varieties like Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Dolcetto, Barbera, and Sangiovese, we have many blending options to show what can be done in creating a unique wine with great distinction.”

“Many Mendocino growers, and Coro winemakers, are third and fourth generation Italian families who chose Zinfandel and the other grapes for the Coro blends because they’ve learned over decades that those varietals grow best here,” agrees Ottoson.

Gabrielli Family Wines’ first Coro blend is 56% Zinfandel, 22% Petite Sirah, 11% Syrah, and 11% Sangiovese. Sam Gabrielli used all Mendocino County oak barrels to age the wine.

Winemaker Bob Swain at Parducci Wine Estates (Ukiah) blended 67% Zinfandel, 22% Petite Sirah, and 10% Syrah for his 2001 Coro Mendocino. Fetzer Vineyards (Hopland) used 49% Zinfandel, 38% Syrah, 8% Petite Sirah, and 5% Grenache Noir in its blend, made by consulting winemaker Dennis Patton, who also made the Coro blend for Golden Vineyards. Golden’s 76 cases of Coro Mendocino will be the very first wine for sale by this new winery.

Fetzer had a big part in the early development of the Coro Mendocino concept. The idea was originated by winemakers Dennis Martin, Patton, and former Fetzer President Paul Dolan, who took the notion to the Winegrowers Alliance, where it became a full community effort. Fetzer marketing and public relations professional Jim Caudill helped hone the brand image and nomenclature for Coro Mendocino, and Rick Roese, a packaging designer at Fetzer, developed the name and designed the Coro package.

“I was pretty skeptical when the realization came that the Coro branding needed to express our unity of purpose — which meant that eight ferociously independent winemakers had to agree on a common label design,” muses Ottoson. “Hours of lively meetings found us finally doing the democratic thing — we voted. Those who dissented came into the fold gracefully, and I’m grateful to Rick Roese for hanging in there with us through the painful design process.”

Roese claims this was actually one of the most enjoyable design experiences he can remember. “These winemakers are very straightforward and comfortable with each other as a group,” he says. “Once the group decided what we wanted the brand to do for Mendocino, the package really came together.”

Each Coro Mendocino wine will use identical bottles, labels, capsules, and shippers. The only differences will be the names of individual wineries and winemakers on the front label, and the list of grapes comprising the blend identified on the back. Building a unified brand identity was vital to the design process. The idea, as with Chianti wines, was to build an instantly recognizable look for consumers to identify with the blend.

The 2001 Coro Mendocino blends will be small releases for each winery (ranging from 76 to 500 cases) but nonetheless represent a significant commitment on the part of each winery toward a marketing ideal — marketing their unique place, an ultra-premium blend, and their community as a brand. Suggested retail price of the 2001 Coro wines is $35.

With only a small production of 2001 Coro blends, the wineries kept marketing local to Northern California with the June launch. Tastings for local media, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, and a Wine Affair weekend invitation to the mailing list of the Winegrower’s Alliance comprised the modest marketing efforts. The wines will not be sold to wholesalers and the usual distribution networks, but at each winery’s tasting room and on the new Coro Mendocino website.

“One of the interesting things about this wine and this project is that everybody blended a very small quantity, so nobody has to sell this wine tomorrow to survive,” concludes Patton. “This gives the winemakers the rare freedom to build structure into the wine, to ensure that this wine has a shot at being great not just next year, but possibly for the next 20 years.”