No highways cut through here. Mountains drop precipitously into the Pacific Ocean. Everything is wet and the nights are long and cold. This mountainous coastal region of northern Mendocino and southern Humboldt Counties, called the Lost Coast, is the largest stretch of coastal wilderness in the lower 48 states.
I came here for the waves, the stoke, the mountains, the serene darkness of the forest. And, yes, the wine. They make damn good wine out here.
I visited Andrew Morris, the winemaker and proprietor of Briceland Vineyards, on a rare warm and sunny morning in November. The sun poked through after a terrible downpour that lasted all night (a local told me it rained four inches). My friend and I were forced to bail, soaked and frozen, from our flooded tent and sleep in our car. In the morning, we checked the surf, but the tide was dead high, making it impossible to reach our spot. So we grabbed some coffee and drove over the mountains to see Andrew. The drive east on Shelter Cove Road could be described using any or all of the following words: gorgeous, sketchy, stunning — holy shit, bro, you’re way too close to the edge! — mindboggling, etc.
When rainstorms come early, they can be a big threat to the grape harvest, but the grapes had been harvested more than a month ago. My brother, travelling buddies and I visited the Lost Coast in full-swing rainy season. But we lucked out, and only got one soaking wet night out of five. Even when it’s not actively raining, the Lost Coast is a wet place. The air tasted of mountain stream and I could watch individual droplets drift in the thick fog. Cold mountain streams cut through forests, waterfalls pour down rocks cliffs into the sea, dense fog packs narrow valleys, rich moss and ferns pad the ground while massive redwoods block out the sun. After a soaking wet October, mushrooms flourished in the woods. My brother is a mushroom foraging guru, so I just followed his lead and cooked the mushrooms he said were both safe and tasty. (Hand-foraged mushrooms sautéed over a campfire paired with Humboldt Pinot is an epic palate experience.)
This is an extreme place in every way, and that’s why we came. The weather swings can be extreme. Ditto for the waves, which ranged in size from pumping 10 feet to death-defying 30 feet. My brother and I, lifelong surfing buds, caught some incredible waves, but also spent too much time underwater, getting worked by the cold, chunky surf and currents. Here, the surf is sketchier, the waters sharkier, the roads hairier, and the marijuana smells much, much better.
In this environment (like all of the challenging regions home to great wine), growing wine grapes needs to be done with extreme care.
A “good vintage” in Humboldt, Andrew said, would start without a late spring frost, which can damage grapes during critical growing stages. A good vintage would have plenty of ripening days — a certain amount of days with proper sunlight, providing what is needed to fully ripen grapes. And while Humboldt gets fewer ripening days than California regions further south and inland, it’s still ahead of Burgundy. I hear they make some decent Pinot there. A good vintage would also end without an early appearance of autumn’s cold and rain. And, preferably, a good vintage would be free from forest fires, which break out during the dry season and threaten these small, rugged vineyards with smoke taint. Despite these pitfalls, when a finished Pinot Noir or Zinfandel from Humboldt makes it through, the result can be phenomenal.
Take Andrew’s Pinot Noirs, sourced from several single vineyards in southern Humboldt County. These wines are lower in alcohol (usually in the low 13% range) and packed with lip-smacking acidity. They’re incredibly fresh and food-friendly and lack any brazen new oak influences or baked, extracted flavors. The tannins are present and provide structure (combined with the acidity, this makes for great aging potential), but they’re very accessible in their youth. No dark roast coffee or caramel-cola stuff going on here. These are anti-Kosta-Brownes, and I’m stoked they exist.
Andrew studied winemaking at the UC Davis extension and apprenticed with his father-in-law, Joe Collins, Briceland’s founder and winemaker. Gradually, Andrew took the reins. With consummate attention to detail and high technical knowledge, Andrew wanted to keep the reputation of Briceland’s wines going strong.
In the 1970s, Joe Collins began experimental plantings in Humboldt, which was considered by many in the growing California wine industry to be too cold and wet to grow proper wine grapes. But small growers scoped out the right spots, the right grape varieties, and they made it happen. Briceland quickly developed several sources of high quality fruit, most of which are small parcels carved into the forest on steep slopes. By 1985, Joe Collins and Maggie Carey launched Briceland Vineyards.
Like most commercial outfits in Humboldt, this is a boutique operation. Andrew releases only 1,500 cases of wine per year, and about 75% of that never leaves the area. Briceland sells a lot of its wines in restaurants (of which there are few) and local shops. (If you’re headed to Shelter Cove, the General Store has an awesome selection of Briceland’s wines and a bunch of local brews — highly recommended). About 75% of Briceland wines come from Humboldt, while Andrew also works with some really good Mendocino fruit.
I’ve been a huge fan of Mendocino wines for years (and a big fan of the few Humboldt wines I’d tasted), so it was fascinating to taste Andrew’s Syrahs and Zinfandels back to back, one of each from Humboldt and Mendocino. The Mendocino stuff has a bit more richness and darker, sunshiny fruit, while the elegance and tart freshness of the Humboldt fruit really shines through.
There are two ways to get your hands on these wines. You could travel to the area, which will be epic, I guarantee it. Or maybe you could contact Briceland directly. But if you love the adventure of wine, and you’re open to this style, you’ll be thrilled. These wines range in price from about $21 for the white wines to $35 for some of the single-vineyard Pinots — all absurdly reasonable for the high quality of the juice.
Below are my notes on the wines I tasted with Andrew.
2015 Briceland Vineyards Gewürztraminer Ishi Pishi Ranch – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
An exciting, zesty, bone-dry version with tropical fruit and floral spice on the nose. Crisp acidity, medium-bodied with a slightly creamy mouthfeel and flavors of peaches, guava and honey to mix with minerals and white pepper. Delicious, lip-smacking, endless food pairing options. (89 points)
2015 Briceland Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Humboldt County – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
A vibrant and zesty Sauvignon Blanc with white pepper, lemon and peach aromas. Crisp and very bright with complex elements of salty spice to accent the lemon and green melon fruit. (88 points)
2014 Briceland Vineyards Arneis Spirit Canyon Vineyard – California, North Coast, Mendocino County
Smells of peaches, white flowers, lemon oil and a hint of pepper. So bright and clean on the palate with a salty appeal on top of lemon, orange peel and kiwi fruit. Delicious, nervy and intriguing. Not much Arneis in California, but Mendocino is home to some very good stuff. (90 points)
2014 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Very pretty aromas of tart and spicy cherries, mint and earth. Bright acidity and moderately structured tannins, the cherries are crunchy and delicious and laced with notes of sweet flowers, strawberry greens, clove and an underlying mineral freshness. An eye-opening wine. (90 points)
2013 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir Ronda’s Vineyard – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Aromas of gushing cherries and raspberries, lots of rose petal and eucalyptus, too. Lush palate with soft tannins and bright, crisp acidity. Waves of tar black cherries and strawberries, the fruit is laced with notes of spicy clove, wet leaves and mossy earth. Complex, vibrant, straight-up delicious. A uniquely Humboldt Pinot that hails from a 1,600 foot, South-facing slope planted in 1983. (92 points)
2013 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir Phelps Vineyard – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Aromas of juicier, darker cherries with some raspberries and fresh herbal notes. Juicy and fleshy but structured tannins and crisp acidity. Flavors of cola, rhubarb and raspberry leaf tea accent the cherry and strawberry fruit. Lovely spicy complexity. (91 points)
2013 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir Alderpoint Vineyard – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
These Pinots keep on firing. This one shows more smoky earth, violets, savory spices on top of juicy cherries. Smooth, fresh and juicy with complex spice, leather and earth accents on top of tart strawberries and cherries, hints of cola and eucalyptus. (92 points)
2014 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir Alderpoint Vineyard – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Sweeter cherry fruit than the 2013, with that same spicy/savory quality and smoky earth. Silky, smooth but tart acidity, the tart red fruit is complex and so bright. Notes of earth, clove, savory mushrooms. Wow, such a pretty wine. It opened up a lot (as friends and I drank the rest of the bottle with dinner). Huge hit. (92 points)
2014 Briceland Vineyards Zinfandel Ishi Pishi Ranch – California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Love the aromas of tart red fruit and spice. Silky, fresh and spicy with rose petals, earth and spice. Wow. If tasted blind, I could see mistaking this for a Pinot but, when sipped after Briceland Pinots, this shows more sweet flowers and earth. Lovely stuff. (91 points)
2014 Briceland Vineyards Zinfandel Dark Horse Vineyard- California, North Coast, Mendocino County
This vineyard shows aromas of darker cherries and clove. The fruit is (relatively) darker than the Ishi Pishi, showing more black cherry and blackberry, but still so fresh with medium/light tannins. I get notes of clove, tobacco and cola. A vibrant Zinfandel, very interesting to taste back-to-back with the Ishi Pishi Ranch. (90 points)
2014 Briceland Vineyards Syrah Ishi Pishi Ranch- California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Gorgeous aromas of red and black currants topped in black pepper, roasted red pepper and charred herbs. Juicy and so darn fresh on the palate with moderate/light tannic structure. Red cherries, a touch of black cherry, topped in scorched earth, violets, black pepper, beef broth and cured meat. Delicious flavors, this is an intriguing and complex Syrah. (91 points)
2014 Briceland Vineyards Syrah Dark Horse Vineyard- California, North Coast, Mendocino County
Smells like juicy black cherries, leather and spicy pepper. Chewier texture than the Ishi Pishi Ranch, this shows bright acid and medium/light tannins. Red and black cherries topped with pepper, violets and baking spices. So fun and juicy but surprisingly complex. (90 points)
2012 Briceland Vineyards Noir D’Orleans Ishi Pishi Ranch- California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Smells of dark plums and currants topped in loam and spicy clove. Rich but fresh, tart and vibrant, structured nicely with firm tannins. Bright black currant and crunchy plums and notes of peppercorns, roasted red pepper, loamy earth and spiced coffee. Seems like a good one to bury for a few years. Dominated by Petit Verdot, with some other Bordeaux varieties. For those tired of heavy, oak-slathered California Bordeaux reds, try this zesty number. (90 points)