Duncan Peak stands sentry over bucolic Sanel Valley and the picturesque town of Hopland in the southernmost part of Mendocino County. Rustic and secluded, the mountain is a haven for hawks and harriers — and artists who are inspired by its sweeping vistas.
Some 1400 feet above the valley floor, on the east side of the mountain, is Topel Mountain Estate Vineyard, the very first vineyard on Duncan Peak. It is here, above the fog line, that Mark and Donnis Topel planted their hillside vineyards.
For centuries, winemakers have coveted the grapes that only hillside vineyards can produce. Vines, struggling to draw nutrients from inferior soil, find their growth stymied. Slopes leave the vines more exposed to climatic influences, further stressing their development. Yet, miraculously, these very same factors push the vine to produce grapes with greater character and more concentrated flavors. This harmonic convergence at the hands of Mother Nature — described by the French as "terroir" — is recognized throughout the world as a "wine’s 'sense of place.'"
The soil throughout the Topel mountain vineyards is only two feet deep with a layer of rock at its base. These conditions encourage the grapes to develop complex mineral flavors. Daytime temperatures during the growing season often reach 95° to 100°, yet cool down to a low of 45° to 50° in the evening. This vast temperature variance is crucial to the final flavor profile of the wine and enables the grapes to hang on the vine an average of two weeks longer than is the case in nearby Napa Valley." This means we get fully mature grapes before losing any significant acidity," Mark explains.
The vines are also planted to take advantage of multiple exposures to the sun, wind and rain." It’s like points in a compass," says Mark. Grapes from the same clone and root stock develop unique tastes from each different exposure, adding to the complexity of the final wine blend. Sun exposure is extremely critical. "We balance the canopy so the grapes can see the birds and sky," Mark says.
Because the Topel vineyards are the highest on Duncan Peak, they were planted with respect for inhabitants below, nearby and far away. "We planted in a manner that keeps the streams pristine," Donnis explains. "Our respect is extended not only for our neighbors, but also for the health of the abundant wildlife that lives on the mountainside. After all, it’s their home, too."
The Topels are devoted to self-renewing and sustainable farming practices. Their grapes are organically grown and they plant cover crops to build soil nutrients, attract insects that otherwise might harm the vines and prevent erosion. The soil is replenished vine by vine — a dedicated and labor-intensive annual practice that nurtures and sustains the immune system of the vines. Ponds on the estate collect rainwater that is used for irrigation and the entire winery operates on solar power. No fertilizers or weed killers are used and the ground is never tilled.
When it comes to harvest, each vine is a separate picking opportunity. Mark doesn’t depend solely on Brix readings, preferring instead to rely on his own senses of touch and taste.
"The grape must still be firm, but slightly giving on touch," Mark says. The skins should be deeply colored, with seeds that are crunchy and chestnut brown, surrounded by clear flesh. Then, and only then, are they ready for harvest."
Perfectly ripe grapes are harvested at night and in the early morning when temperatures are cool. The berries are then "field crushed" within 15 minutes of picking and left to ferment in small, individual lots.