Regular readers of Edible East Bay are well acquainted with writer Sarah Henry. A contributor to many local publications, Sarah is highly regarded as a reliably entertaining and informative voice on many aspects of the local food scene. She’s covered restaurants and small food producers, trends and social justice issues, tech and environmental subjects, and far more, always with her signature flair. Last year she did a series for Edible East Bay on relationships between chefs and growers. Her current focus is on farmers selling at local farmers’ markets.
Sarah’s contribution to this issue is a profile of Anderson Valley’s Navarro Vineyards and Pennyroyal Farm from her new book, a 136-page gem just published by Yellow Pear Press. Farmsteads of the California Coast is a collaboration with Berkeley-based photographer Erin Scott. It tells the stories of 12 small farms that have made a notable mark on the character of our local foodshed. In her introduction, Sarah describes these farmers as “quirky edible entrepreneurs on the progressive West Coast who grow our food with care, compassion, and commitment.”
Steering a battered four-wheel drive up a narrow, windy, one-lane dirt road, coffee splattering, Deborah Cahn says with a cheery laugh: “It’s an insane way to farm; right?” The terraced hills make good use of the different microclimates on the approximately 1,000-acre property at Navarro Vineyards, which go a long way to producing a delicious drop of wine.
Navarro was one of the first vineyards in what is now an established wine region in the fog-shrouded Anderson Valley in cool-climate Mendocino County. The Northern California winery, less than three hours north of San Francisco, is perhaps best known for its dry aromatic white wines, such as gewürztraminer, pinot gris, and riesling.
Four decades into this wine business, the winery has a loyal following. But it took a while for these niche winemakers to win over consumers. Cahn and her husband converted wine lovers one bottle at a time in direct sales from the farm.
This is pinot country, too, so the vineyard produces pinot noir wines as well. It’s a sought-after sip: Pinots here are known for their delicate, fruit-forward flavor. Their taste varies depending on where in the vineyard they are planted: The valley floor is temperate; the hill vineyards see cooler days and warmer nights.
Ninety acres of the former sheep ranch are planted with grapes. About half the combined acreage is planted with pinot noir vines, gewürztraminer accounts for about a third, and chardonnay is the next principle variety in the ground. The vineyard has more than 150,000 vines; they are all pruned and harvested by hand.
It’s a family affair. Cahn, 67, handles accounting and administrative matters, and the bulk of the vineyard’s sales and marketing. The direct sales model, which accounts for 90% of their business, meant Cahn wasn’t away a lot on the road when her children were young.
“I wanted to be there for 4-H and soccer, and I wanted to help get our new business off the ground,” says Cahn.
Husband Ted Bennett, 78, can still be found on the crush pad. But the pair isn’t picking grapes at 2am like their daughter, Sarah Cahn Bennett, 35, and the mother of a three-year-old and one-year-old twins. Son Aaron, 38, is the resident computer whiz: He handles the web-based aspects of the business.
There was no pressure to come back to the farm from the parents. “I worked quite hard to make sure the kids didn’t feel like that they had to take on the vineyard,” says Cahn. “But from an early age, Sarah wanted to work with animals, and Aaron came back when the time felt right.”
On-the-Job Training from an Early Age
Sarah earned a masters degree in viticulture and enology from UC Davis. She works alongside her dad and winemaker Jim Klein. “I grew up working in the winery; I always knew I wanted to come back,” she says. “As with most family businesses, I get to do a bit of everything: I make wine, I work in the vineyard, and I drive the forklift.”
Sarah was raised on the farm; her parents were not. They were Berkeley dwellers, immersed in the emerging food and wine scene of that town, when they decided to become back-to-landers after Bennett sold his partnership in the successful audio chain Pacific Stereo.
They purchased the property in 1973, produced their first wines in 1975, and released their first estate wines in 1979. They’ve since clocked countless hours as farmers and vintners. Asked what they knew about wine making in the beginning, Cahn matter-of-factly admits: “We knew zip, zero. We were committed wine enthusiasts, and we had a game plan: to learn on the job. We figured out pretty quickly that making wine is both an art and a science.”
They were also committed to farming sustainably and organically. The vineyard uses no synthetic insecticides or herbicides. Vineyard rows are banded with flowering cover crops and abuzz with beneficial insects. And their animal-loving daughter brought animals back to the ranch, which employs Babydoll Southdown sheep to graze on the farm. They serve as non-fossil-fuel-spewing mowers and fertilize the vines, too.
The family’s winemaking techniques are both traditional and modern. French oak barrels are in use, as are temperature-controlled stainless steel containers. Winemakers punch down fermenting red wines by hand; it’s a labor intensive way of assuring that the bright flavors of the grapes don’t get lost in processing. The practice preserves tannins without causing the bitterness of the grape seeds from impacting the wine.
Navarro Vineyards’ non-alcoholic wine is a big hit with drinkers of all ages and is nothing like grocery store grape juice. Bennett and Cahn first began making the alcohol-free wine for their own children. It is crafted from quickly pressed, chilled, and filtered grapes, whose juices are prevented from fermenting. “The kids loved the juice and it was a no-brainer for us. But it took Ted saying to me, ‘Why are you buying the kids grape juice at the store?’ before it occurred to us,” says Cahn.
The farm provides permanent, full-time jobs with benefits to 60 employees, some of whom have been with the family for years; there are even second-generation employees. The vineyard produces about 45,000 cases a year, so it’s bigger than a boutique vineyard but by no means an industry giant. Staying small has suited them: They have never wanted to compromise for shareholder interests, and they’ve enjoyed cultivating out-of-the-ordinary varieties.
Creating a Following from the Ground Up
Cahn and Bennett were creative in attracting a customer base for their wines. They started a wine club, one of the first in the country. And they clearly have fun with the farm, including the newsletter that they have written together for the past three decades. Cahn met Bennett when she was working on her graduate degree in literature at UC Berkeley; their courtship, she says, played out over meals at Chez Panisse.
The winery has seen hard times. A 2008 fire damaged a lot of the vineyard’s wines, which they sold under a second label for a markedly reduced rate. The subsequent dip in the economy only made matters worse. “It was a disastrous year; humbling,” recalls Cahn. But the family has bounced back and stayed true to their mission, regardless of fickle whims in the wine world.
The latest family project is Pennyroyal: a solar-powered animal farm, creamery, and vineyard in neighboring Boonville, 10 minutes down the highway. Essentially Sarah’s baby, the 100-acre property features very pretty goats and sheep, each with its own name. Current handcrafted cheeses include Laychee, a soft, fresh, chevre-like goat and sheep’s milk cheese, and Bollie’s Mollies, a surfaced-ripened aged cheese.
Wine and cheese, right? It just made sense. There’s a generosity of spirit that tends to come with the territory of running a vineyard. “We produce a product that brings people pleasure,” says Cahn. “Our goal has always been to make excellent wine at reasonable prices in a way that allowed us to have the kind of lifestyle where we could stay close to our family and treat our employees well. What could be better than that?”
Excerpted with permission from Farmsteads of the California Coast (Yellow Pear Press, $24.95).
To Visit, Taste, and Purchase
5601 Highway 128, Philo
Tasting room open 10am–6pm daily in summer
Farm tours at 10:30am and 2pm (reserve online)
Wines are available through direct purchase or at local restaurants.
In the East Bay, you can find Navarro Vineyard grape juices at the Saturday Downtown Berkeley Farmers’ Market and the Sunday
Kensington Farmers’ Market.
Info: navarrowine.com, 707.895.3686 or 800.537.9463
14930 Highway 128, Boonville
Tasting room open 10am–5pm Thursday through Monday
Farm tours at 10am and 2pm
Tour fees: $15 for adults, $10 for children (under 5 are free)
New York Style Laychee Cheesecake
½ cup graham cracker crumbs
1⅓ cups sugar, divided
⅓ cup butter, melted
32 ounces laychee (or other soft goat cheese such as chèvre)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups sour cream
Preheat oven to 350°.
Mix together graham cracker crumbs, 3 tablespoons sugar, and melted butter in a bowl. Press into the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan.
Cream laychee, 1 cup sugar, and vanilla in a mixer. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing on low speed until blended. Pour over crust.
Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes.
While baking, mix sour cream and remaining sugar in a bowl and set aside. Once the cake is removed from the oven, pour the sour cream mixture on top, and smooth to coat evenly. Return to the oven for 10 minutes. Remove and allow to cool completely before serving.
Gewürztraminer Grape Juice Spritzer
18 seedless red grapes or red raspberries, frozen
1 bottle Gewürztraminer Grape Juice, chilled
1 liter bottle seltzer water, chilled
Divide the fruit between 6 champagne flutes. Fill the flutes half full of gewürztraminer grape juice and top with seltzer water. Stir and serve.