McDowell Valley Vineyards
Poised to lead the pack of Rhône 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 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.
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.
Now, 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 their 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 area.
By 1970 they had purchased 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.
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. 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. Their inaugural bottling was from the 1980 harvest of the winery’s star varietal, Syrah. It met with instant critical success, winning 6 Gold Medals in the 8 competitions at which it was entered
Meanwhile Karen’s son, Bill Crawford, was growing up on the farm and learning the ropes. He had no idea that he would some day be running the show. “I initially wanted to be a veterinarian,” recalls Bill. “My wife, Vicki and I were here to help out for awhile after finishing my undergraduate work and never left!”
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 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 Crawford, combined his role of running the winery with actually producing the wines too.
At that point, Bill, his mother Karen, and his step-dad Richard, collectively decided the winery should focus further on Rhône-style varietals that had grown there since the early 1990s and which had helped establish their winery reputation during the 1980s.
Their decision was prophetic as industry trends during the 1990s have shown a gradual shift away from mainstream wines like Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. As a leader in this change, McDowell Vineyards grows primarily Rhône-type varietals including, Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, Mourvèdre, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese.
Undoubtedly the most noble and well-known of the Rhône 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. “The real quality difference among wines is a direct result of the caliber of grapes. We believe the right conditions exist here to make America’s best Syrah.” He may very well have accomplished that feat wit the 1998 Reserve Syrah.
Bill Crawford - President & Winegrower
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 Rhône 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.
Dear Platinum Series Wine Club Members,
For thirty years my family has been committed to growing and making wine from vineyards that were originally planted in 1890 here in the McDowell Valley. These vineyards were replanted in 1919 with Syrah, Grenache, Carignane and Petite Sirah. We have continued to cultivate these vineyards, and add additional varieties like Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne.
Since these Estate Vineyards managed to survive Prohibition, and our Syrah and Grenache have continued to attract critical acclaim, we finally recognized that our growing conditions, climate, and soil more closely resemble the Mediterranean than they do Bordeaux. It has been our desire to continue to plant our vineyards with a greater diversity of Syrah clones, as well as those varieties that grow well in the Rhône Valley’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Our true desire with Le Trésor is to continue to advance our experience and knowledge, ultimately producing a true ‘terroir” induced proprietary blend that will represent the best wine that can be made from our vineyards. I don’t believe we’re there yet. But our 1990 Le Trésor is the closest we have come so far.
We have a very limited amount of this 1990 Le Trésor that we have reserved in our library to offer our most loyal customers. We hope you will enjoy this wine, and keep looking for the next vintage of McDowell’s Le Trésor.