Herb Rowland, 71, owner/operator (along with his wife Debbie) of Pacheco Ranch and Vineyards in Novato, tells a story about how he recently read in a wine magazine that Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars had taken a ‘big chance’ planting cabernet sauvignon grapes back in the early 1970s.
“You want to know what a big chance is?” asks Rowland. “Try walking overland from Sonora Mexico to Novato in 1776, along with your wife and five children. Now THAT, is what I call, a big chance.”
Rowland is relaying the Pacheco family’s rich California/Marin history (covered recently here: Marin History Pacheco family legacy in the county) and tying in some of his frustrations as the grower of one of the only two cabernet sauvignon vineyards ever, in Marin County (the other Quail Hill, is a few miles away in Terra Linda).
Over the last six years Rowland’s family’s grapes, as well as the wine made from them, has been in flux. McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma/Northern Marin began buying them in 2014.
“Forty years ago, our family and two dear friends, in their thirties, decided we should make the best wine in the world,” recalls Rowland.
Cuvaison Winery in Carneros had originally used the nine to ten tons of fruit produced on the property (by the XR1 clone) to make a Marin County cabernet from 1973 to 1978. After which the Pacheco family began making their own Pacheco Ranch cabernet sauvignon.
“Then everyone around me got old all of a sudden,” says Rowland.
So, when McEvoy’s representative asked if he wanted to sell any of his grapes. Rowland replied, “How about all of them?”
“2015 was the last vintage we made and bottled at the ranch,” says Rowland.
McEvoy Ranch has produced a Pacheco Ranch Marin County cabernet in 2015, 2016 and 2017. In 2018, McEvoy subcontracted the grapes out to another Marin County winemaker, Patrick McNeil, whose family history in Marin County goes back almost as far as the Pachecos.
“I had all the reasons in the world to knock on his door, I drove by twice a day every day,” says McNeil. “And I’ve been in the wine business for over 20 years.”
McNeil has interests in two different wine companies, Paydirt, a national brand specializing in California red blends, and Wines that Deliver, a hyper-local family winery that makes two wines (a pinot noir and a chardonnay both sourced from Stubbs Vineyards) in McNeil’s hometown of Nicasio (where his family has lived since 1862), as well as a Pacheco Ranch cabernet sauvignon and “Regular Fellows,” his own red blend also featuring that cabernet.
“Hillside 50 year-old vines, Rutherford climate, Rutherford-type soil, dry farmed, where else can you find fruit like that?” asks McNeil. “The vineyard creates this wine, it’s those vines that create the best Marin County cabernet you will ever come across.”
Beginning in 2018, McNeil began purchasing Pacheco fruit mainly for his Paydirt blend which contains 2% cabernet. He then added a single vineyard 100% cabernet he presciently named “Vell, Here I Am!”
“If I can have that vineyard adequately expressed in Paydirt or Regular Fellows, great,” says McNeil. “If I can have a more casual cabernet [Vell, Here I Am!], casual but interesting, not a giant oak bomb, not a blockbuster, not trying to be a Napa cabernet, also great. And if I can later incorporate Herb’s grapes into a pinnacle red cabernet style wine from Marin County, that would be my third checkmark, my third expression of Pacheco Ranch.”
Modern winemakers want longer hangtimes and higher brix (more sugar, higher alcohol), which allows for more manipulation (adding water, malolactic fermentation, etc.) after the fact, especially with cabernet sauvignon. Throw into that equation that modern consumers don’t have the patience to wait for tannins to mellow – as has been the case with most California cabernets aged in new oak over the last half century – and you see why much of Marin has planted pinot noir.
“How do you market and sell your grapes, to create enough of an idea or a brand around this vineyard, that gets people interested,” asks McNeil. “There’s enough awareness now, because people say to themselves, I’ve driven by that vineyard a thousand times.”
Throw into that awareness a hyper-vigilance for hyper-experimentality and hyper- localness and you have an entirely new wine environment.
“Those are the things that attracted me to Patrick,” says Rowland. “I’m a believer in terroir and microclimates. I like a little more grape in my wine rather than chemistry,” he adds. “And besides, his family is running a close second or third to being the oldest Marin Countyite family there is.”
And nothing gets more hyper-local than that.
“If we really boil down our connection, we each have a reason for doing what we are doing,” says McNeil. “And that reason is family and legacy. The future is wide open in Marin County. Nobody has a national recognized Marin County brand. There are big houses, but there is no single brand that says Marin County. At least not yet.”
2018 Paydirt California Red Blend, (81% Zinfandel, 8% Grenache, 4% Petite Sirah, 3% Syrah, 2% Mourvèdre, 2% Barbera, 2% Cabernet Sauvignon), 15.2% ABV, $25
Lush up front blackberry, solid alcohol with hints of red licorice and red raspberry all delightfully accented with light tannins and a hint of white pepper. It drinks like the best California zinfandels yet with just enough of the Old World to stop and make you think.
2018 Vell, Here I Am! Pacheco Ranch Vineyard, Marin County Cabernet, 14.5% ABV, $42
Well derived tannins paint the scene of East Marin/Rutherford so that big ripe loganberries can chew right through it. Add in 14.5% alcohol and this wine can stand up equally to a prime ribeye drenched in truffle butter as much as lean into a slice from your local pizza parlor.
2018 Regular Fellows (85% Montepulciano, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Primitivo) 13.5% ABV, $36
Swarthy, rich, and inviting this mouthful of blackberry fruit, earth and medium tannins is reminiscent of old style Italian field blends while still retaining its youthful California muscularity. And at a price point that allows you to do anything you want with it: burgers, pizza or even filet mignon.