California Wine's Best Kept Secret is in Mendocino

This article first appeared on TheWineSiren.com

Tim Thornhill overseeing the vineyards of Mendocino Wine Company
Tim Thornhill overseeing the vineyards of Mendocino Wine Company

How to Transform a Vineyard & Winery, Mendocino Wine Company

Mark Beaman, winemaker at Parducci Wine Cellars invited me out to Mendocino County to taste wine, meet the people at Mendocino Wine Company, and learn more about their efforts. I will spend time with Tim Thornhill, his father-in-law and co-owner of his family’s wineries. At the time of the invite, I knew nothing about them, so my curiosity was piqued. There’s something about traveling to parts unknown, and learning something new, that’s very exciting! This is going to be an adventure. I can feel it.

Mendocino Wine Company is located in Ukiah, the county seat. The town of 15,000 is just 3 hours northwest of Napa and worlds away from San Francisco.

* * *

I pull into Parducci Winery, a part of the Mendocino Wine Company, which is the umbrella for their many brands is just as much a part of their lives. Tim Thornhill and his brother set out to bring their families together, so they could live and work closely and maintain tight bonds.

I'm waiting near the guest house on property. This is where Mendocino Wine Company does presentations to educate people on their processes and how they are changing the landscape of winemaking, when up pulls a big truck. (I’m guessing it’s a Ford F-150.) Out of the truck comes a tall, good-looking man with a cowboy hat. He nods as we shake hands, and we head inside. His manner is cordial and his gait confident. We sit at a large table, Thornhill sits directly across from me. He opens an iPad and starts talking about the images before him, and I am stunned. I’d never seen a cowboy with an iPad. Thornhill’s quiet demeanor, as he presents his data, is intertwined with a slow, smooth drawl, reminiscent of those romance novels I read as a teen. Not only is his history intriguing to me, but also his spark of motivation, what makes him tick. I want to get to the bottom of this.

From ranches to vineyards, Tim Thornhill shines

Tim talks about the state of the land he and his business partner (brother) acquired. It was a mess. There was a purple pond with a stench that traveled to the freeway. It often got complaints, as it was used as a dumping ground for winery run-off water. The drought is a big deal these days in California, we are about to get very intimate with what that means and how Thornhill and his team are dealing with it.

The reality is if we all don’t get this bit resolved sooner than later, we’ll have nothing left for the next generation. Tim’s philosophy is to educate others, as he has been educated, in hopes this knowledge is used to benefit the future. This is how he gives back: by hosting meetings like this, as well as speaking to students, groups and others who care about the preservation of the planet.

Renovation and Conservation

Tim walks me through the condition of the winery and its outbuildings at the time they took ownership. He separated the facility meters into 22 individual meters in order to hone in on the one area he was losing good water. Tim’s face changes when he recalls the conversation he had with the man who had worked in the barrel room for some 28 years. Rafa told Thornhill “I saw you put a meter right here on my building. You are going to know how much water I am wasting, aren’t you?” Tim replied, “No Rafa. I am going to know how much water you are saving.” He turned a negative situation into a positive.“Now there are 22 guys out there competing to see who can use the least amount of water,” Tim beams. He shows me a graph of the global picture of their water consumption, which shows they cut their water usage in half.

Next, Tim moves on to the BOD (or Biological Oxygen Demand), and tells me to think of it as pollution. It’s wine in the water. After purchasing what is now the Mendocino Wine Company in 2004, they ramped up their wine production and watched the pollution go up, as well. This is when Tim began working his magic by putting systems into place to reduce the pollution in the water. This is the same water that once needed to be hauled away to who knows where. Today, they can use the wastewater almost immediately, because of the filters and “trickle towers” now in place throughout the property. The water comes downhill via gravity, through a tower made out of old barrel racks and stuffed with wooden slats from the winery.

Using gravity & rocks for filtration

Tim’s superpower is recycling everything … from the machinery left behind on the property to the filamentous fungi (grey or black) that lives on sugar. Originally he did not know anything about the fungi, but as he put the trickle towers in place to off-gas the water and remove the smell, a scientist told him exactly what it was. The system and fungi are cyclical because of the harvest. They have a peak of sugar and it drops off. He has not had to clean one in 10 years, because it self regulates.

Upcycling the vineyard water system

The Habitat

When the family first acquired the property, Tim consulted with a couple of firms who gave him similar advice. “Take out five or six acres of vineyard,” Tim winces as he recalls. They also said to “build a big pond, and line it with rubber.” The sum total of this advice, not including the loss of a vineyard, was $1.3 million. Plus, it would still be ugly. Thornhill’s response was, “Thank you very much. We’re going to go in a different direction.” He certainly wasn’t going to do it like that.

Tim’s approach instead mimicked what he learned in the landscaping business. Although he was not a yard gardener (far from it), he was able to design a system that imitated the Rocky Mountains. He took gravity, topography, rocks and water to get him where he needed to go. Tim also copied the Everglades, the largest natural water filter in the world, to create a habitat. By incorporating these strategies, the purple pond became a very clean, fresh-water pond, complete with white egret, blue herons, geese, and black crown herons with babies. Thornhill explains how they “took an old plastic pallet, put four milk jugs under it and anchored it out in the middle of the pond. A goose showed up and built her own nest. A month or so later we have a bunch of babies. We created a habitat.”

There are frogs in the pond, as well. The frogs eggs and fish eggs come in on the legs of birds.“A white egret is like this, walking around someone else’s pond,” he points to a gracefully strutting egret. “Notice the plant material around her legs? In that material are frog eggs and fish eggs. When she flies to another pond, and boom. There they are too.”

Turtles also joined the party in the pond. They simply showed up. Plus, the Audubon Society recorded the first green heron over winter on the property. The heron returns diligently, and has three to four babies each year. Tim also talks about an old dead tree in the forest where they cut the top off and put a pallet on it. Now, ospreys call it home. Last year, the ospreys had two babies.

And let’s not forget the owls. One of the owl boxes in the vineyard housed eight eggs. The mother owl made 23 trips back to her house in a single night with a mouse, a vole or a rodent of some kind every trip. “The average owl consumes about 53 pounds of rodents a year,” Tim explains. “This means I don’t have to use poison or traps in the vineyard. All I have to do is create the balance for the habitat. If there’s something to eat, something is going to show up. It’s the same with my children.” I laugh.

The accolades received by the Mendocino Wine Company are many. From the certified wildlife habitat, to being certified biodynamic, organic, fish friendly and California sustainable. They are also the very first carbon neutral winery in the United States to operate on 100% green power. Plus, Mendocino Wine Company received California’s highest environmental award, The GEELA Award, three times. The most powerful recognition Thornhill feels he’s received is when he found three teenagers swimming in his pond (formerly known as the purple pond). The teenagers thought they’d found an oasis.

Tim’s Background & Lessons

When Tim was young, someone said, “Get down from there, you cannot do that!” He learned that "Cannot does not mean couldn’t, it might mean shouldn’t, it almost always got more attention, and most importantly you could charge a whole lot more for it later in life.” His parents sat him and his siblings down when he was 11, and said they did not believe in inherited wealth. Tim found this extremely disappointing. Since school was not his thing, he took off at a fairly early age, and lived and worked on ranches. There, he found a freedom he didn’t experience at home. He learned to drive a truck. Then, when he was old enough to legally drive one, he bought a truck, a wheelbarrow and a lawnmower to start a small landscaping company.

After 15 years, Tim was managing offices from Las Vegas to Paris, France. Walt Disney World was his largest client, so he moved most of his business there. Responsible for the landscaping and hardscaping at a magnitude difficult to fathom, he also did Euro Disney between 1983 and 1995. He was then approached by someone with a strong enough case to convince him to do three of the largest native indigenous, botanical gardens in the country. It took his company from 350 to 600 employees literally overnight. The goal for his new client was clear: he wanted to leave his legacy with these native indigenous gardens.

Since Tim did not believe in the word “can’t", he started moving big trees. When he saw 200-year-old native trees that were going to be cut down, he told his client about them. Tim’s client would pay him to save the tree and move it. He moved trees from Washington State to the Panama Canal on to Paris, France. His philosophy was, “If someone says you can’t do it, you can charge more for it. I had no competition.”

My visit turned into a class; a class where I hungered for more knowledge. As if sensing this Thornhill says, “Let’s go for a drive and I’ll show you what I’m talking about.” We go to the truck and out to the vineyard. From the water features to the vineyards, everything looked magnificent.

Tim learned the very lessons his parents wanted instilled in him: leave things better than how you found them. Living on ranches taught him if something breaks, turn it into something else, something useful. This is precisely what Tim has done with Mendocino Wine Company.

The same people he consulted with when he first bought the property have now brought their own clients out to see Tim’s brilliance. It would be difficult for anyone to replicate what he’s done identically, because Tim began with what he calls, “boneyard tech.” He turned old tanks and broken machinery into part of his system. This system cost him 30% of what his consultants told him he needed to spend, operated at 20% of the power they would have designed and had 3 - 4 times better water quality. He is now able to recycle 100% of his water anytime he wants.

True Grit Mendocino Wine

As you might guess, Thornhill is not one to toot his own horn. Most fitting with his drive, personality & integrity are his favorite wines, True Grit. The wines are 100% Mendocino grapes. The True Grit 2014 Reserve Chardonnay (91 pts) is a delightfully creamy. It has pear notes up, with a mildly smooth apple finish. The True Grit 2013 Reserve Petite Sirah has an intense delicious flavor with blackberry & chocolate up front and a long bold finish.

The Greatest Contribution

“My greatest contribution is when a college class shows up here,” Tim says. “I get 30 kids just about to go out into the workforce and do something. What I teach them is don’t believe in ‘can’t'. I never did things the way everybody else said, because like I said, I don’t believe in ‘can’t'.”

After I turned off the recorder, I was treated to a few more private stories. I was right. Student or consumer, the Mendocino Wine Company gives back in so many ways. It was an amazing experience.

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