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Gold Medal Wine Club
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Santa Barbara, California 93111
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McDowell Valley Vineyards - Mendocino

McDowell Poised to Lead the Pack of Rhone Rangers

In the southeastern corner of Mendocino county you will find nestled in the rugged Mayacamas Mountains, an area roughly 20,000 acres in size called the McDowell Valley. The McDowell Valley area has a rich and storied history dating back to the late 1800s. A story is told of how a prospector named Paxton McDowell rode into the gold mining town of Hopland in 1880. There he happened to meet a fellow by the name of Fernando Feliz who owned most of the land in that area by way of an old Spanish land grant. The two struck a deal whereby Paxton would pay Feliz 1,200 gold pieces for a section of land defined by how big of a loop Paxton could ride his horse on the property in one days’ time. Judging from the size he carved out, his horse was apparently very healthy!

Not much was done with the land until his descendants, the Buckman family, started planting grapes just before the turn of the century. The Syrah, Grenache, Carignane and Petite Sirah vines that were planted thrived for decades. During the next fifty years or so, the McDowell land was gradually divided and sold off to others. The grape vines were repropagated several times over this period as they met various fates of neglect and disease.

Fast forward to the 1960s. William and Karen Crawford often piloted their private plane over the McDowell Valley as they were coming and going from the family-owned timber mills and cattle ranches in northern California. They would often marvel at the rugged beauty of the area as they flew overhead. The timber and cattle business was beginning to look a bit shaky so the Crawfords began looking for endeavors in which to diversify. A surging wine industry caught their attention and it was only natural for them to key in on the McDowell Valley.

By 1970 they had convinced several owners to sell them 4 separate vineyard properties within the McDowell Valley. They purchased a total of 546 acres containing 330 acres of vineyards and named their new enterprise what else—McDowell Valley Vineyards. The Crawfords were now in the grape growing business in a big way. Then they sold the timber and cattle operations to concentrate on their farming venture.

Tragically, William Crawford died the following year while piloting his plane over mountainous northern California terrain. Karen Crawford kept the dream alive however, and eventually remarried to Richard Keehn. So, Richard and Karen Keehn together continued to run McDowell Valley Vineyards.

As many grape farmers have done during the past couple of decades the Keehns too, thought it would make sense to produce their own wine under their own label. That thought was underscored one year when they were auctioning off some of the vineyard’s Petite Sirah grapes. They noticed an unusual amount of bidding activity by several well-known wineries on a batch of grapes from a specific block in the vineyard. These same wineries had purchased from McDowell in previous years. Did they know something the Keehns did not? The viticultural experts from U.C. Davis were brought in who discovered that this particular large block of vines was in fact the rich and elegant French Syrah varietal, not its ugly cousin, Petite Sirah. Suddenly, McDowell Valley Vineyards had one of the oldest and largest plantings of Syrah in the country.

In 1979 they completed construction of a large solar powered winery, the first of its kind, and designed to handle production of almost 200,000 cases of wine a year. The 1980 vintage was the inaugural bottling of the winery’s newly found star, Syrah. It met with instant critical success, winning 6 Gold Medals in the 8 competitions it was entered into. The winery’s fortunes continued to shine when in 1982 the ATF approved McDowell Valley as its own federally recognized appellation. The unique soil conditions, climate and vitcultural history qualified the Valley for this coup.

The throttle was full speed ahead. By 1987 the winery was churning out over 100,000 cases of two different brands and more than 15 different types of wines. Then trouble began to lurk. The recession, the proliferation of wineries, then a near ten-fold increase in winery taxes made it impossible to operate at that level. The brakes were applied and the operation scaled back down to 30,000 cases by 1993. Unable to recover quickly enough, the Keehns sold the winery but kept the valuable surrounding vineyards.

Their agreement with the new owners, The Vintage Group, allowed them to lease back space in the winery and keep their family-owned label alive. By this time, William Crawford’s son, Bill Crawford, had assumed the role of running the winery and making the wines. Bill, his Mother Karen and his step-Dad Richard, decided the winery should focus on the Rhone-style varietals which had established their reputation in the first place. “The ‘strategic partnership’ with The Vintage Group has worked out unbelievably well,” insists Bill Crawford. “Our finances are back in order, our focus is sharp and our wines are better than ever.”

Undoubtedly the most noble and well-known of the Rhone varieties is Syrah. It is the definitive flagship wine of McDowell Valley Vineyards. The grapes used are from Syrah vines planted in 1919 and are among the oldest in the country. These deep-rooted vines are producing silky smooth, rich wines with intense, concentrated flavor. “There’s not a lot of magic in winemaking,” says Bill. “We grow our wines in the vineyard, the wine is only as good as the grapes you use.”

In addition to Syrah, the other Rhone-type varietals in the vineyard include, Viognier, (a rising star in the wine world) also Marsanne, Mourvedre, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. Most of the latter varietals are being used for blending purposes. McDowell Valley is also experimenting with organic farming techniques and plan in the not so distant future to be 100% chemical free.

Industry trends are starting to show a definite swing away from mainstream wines like Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. The Rhone-style varietals are being discovered as a tasty alternative. Look no further than McDowell Valley Vineyards to be one of the leaders of this change. The 1990 Syrah being featured this month will go a long way in convincing you of that.

Bill Crawford

Bill Crawford is President of McDowell Valley Vineyards. His parents, the late William Crawford and Karen Keehn established McDowell Valley Vineyards in 1970. ‘I was twelve when my Mom and Dad bought the McDowell Valley property,” recalls Bill. ‘I’ve been involved with the vineyard in one aspect or another ever since.”

William and Karen’s purchase of 546 acres in McDowell Valley signaled an end to the timber mill and cattle business William’s father established years earlier. The family timber operation comprised of seven different mills networked among the forests of the rugged logging country north of Ukiah, California. In 1966 life took a tragic turn when William’s parents suddenly died in a plane crash, leaving him the family business. With his parents gone and the timber industry on a downward slide he decided it was best to sell the mills and pursue other interests.

The search began for a new livelihood. For years he had observed the growth of the wine industry in that area and saw that direction as a great opportunity. He zeroed in immediately on the McDowell Valley having admired its beauty for years. He often flew over the valley in his private plane as he traveled to and from the family mills.

It took almost two years to convince 4 separate ranch owners to sell him the property he wanted—546 acres in the heart of McDowell Valley. But fate took another sudden and tragic turn when William perished in his private plane, crashing into the rough mountain terrain in northern California.

His dream was kept alive by his wife, Karen, who later married Richard Keehn of San Francisco. Together, Karen and Richard established McDowell Valley Vineyards as one of the top wine grape producers in Mendocino county. They established the winery side of the business almost a decade later in 1979.

Meanwhile Karen’s son, Bill Crawford, was growing up on the farm and learning the ropes. He had no idea that he would soon be running the show. ‘I initially wanted to be a veterinarian,” recalls Bill. ‘I came back home to help out for awhile after finishing my undergraduate work and never left!”

Bill obtained a degree in Biology at the University of Oregon in 1982. He was all set to attend veterinarian school but decided to help out the family business for awhile before leaving home again. The gravitational pull proved to be too much as he progressed through the business from one key position to the next. He attended financial classes at Stanford during the first few years back to help master his responsibilities as company controller. From there he became Vice President then Chief Financial Officer and finally President, in 1988.

In 1993 Bill took over the winemaking job having gained valuable experience in that area over his eleven years at the winery. ‘It was a logical step to make,” Bill says. ‘Our alliance with Vintner’s Group gives us invaluable resources in this area,” he adds. Indeed, when necessary, Bill has five other winemakers available with whom to consult. ‘The real quality difference among wines is a direct result of the caliber of grapes,” he reveals. ‘Our emphasis is with enhancing our vineyards. You simply can’t make great wine without top notch grapes.”

The winery’s focus on Rhone wines has thrust them into the forefront of the growing number of producers of varietals such as Syrah, Grenache and Viognier. ‘One of our goals is to become known as the best Syrah producer this side of the Atlantic,” beams a confident Bill Crawford. We’re sure you’ll be hearing a lot more from the re-organized, re-energized McDowell Valley Vineyards.