A traditionalist at heart with a propensity for history, Mark Topel studied the Ancient Romans and followed their lead when he decided to plant Topel Estate Vineyard on Duncan Peak in southern Mendocino County.
"“The Romans loved to plant on hillsides — they knew that vines that had to struggle for water and nutrients produced the most intensely flavored grapes," Mark says. So Topel Estate Winery’s vineyards are planted on the steep, rocky terrain that surrounds the family home.
"The Romans also planted many of the grape varieties in France that, over centuries, have withstood the test of time and are the backbone of some of the world’s finest wines," Mark says. These are the very same varieties that thrive on Duncan Peak, leading Mark and his wife, Donnis, to plant the Bordeaux mainstays — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot — along with a very special plot of rare Syrah Noir that was planted with a clone from the world-famous M. Chapoutier Winery, located in the Northern Rhône region of France.
Mark weaves the same themes of history and tradition into his winemaking craft. As a trial lawyer, he knows all about intervention, but believes it’s best left in the courtroom. When it comes to winemaking, he’s an avowed minimalist. "I let the wine do its own thing," he says. "I don’t believe in taking the essential soul from the grape. I believe wine is poetry, or at least comes from the same place as poetry and music. It’s the end result of a wonderful art form, done best not by computer, but with hearts and minds."
At Topel Winery, the art of making wine begins within 15 minutes after the grapes are harvested, with a “field crush” right in the vineyard. The grapes are then transported immediately to the winery to begin their transformation into wine.
Harvest takes place when temperatures are low, which allows for cool berries. The crushed grapes immediately are placed in small, open-top fermenters to undergo a natural cold soak of about four days. The grape temperatures then rise naturally to allow a wholly indigenous yeast fermentation that lasts about 12 days. Floating grape skins form a "cap," which is punched down five times each day to oxygenate the juice and extract colors and flavors.
After fermentation is complete, the remaining skins are pressed to release as much juice as possible. The wine then goes immediately into new French oak barrels for 10 to 14 months. Once the oak component is in balance with the fruit, the wine is then moved into tight-grained, neutral French oak barrels for extended aging.
Red wines in the Topel portfolio do not touch stainless steel until the night before bottling. This is because Mark believes the wine needs to interact with wood and air. By the time it is bottled, the wine will have spent anywhere from 22 to 30 months in oak, with minimal racking." Racking beats up a wine too much," says Mark. 'I prefer to let it go its own course. 'Wine is alive,' he says. “And each vintage is like a new child. Similar to its siblings, it expresses its own unique personality, which we gently craft to allow its fullest evolution."
Sage words from a winemaker who believes Mendocino mountain grown-fruit is an embryo to be cultivated and nurtured, giving birth to exquisite wine. The Ancient Romans would be proud.