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UKIAH —For at least four decades, Mendocino County has shown great potential to be California’s third most important wine region after Napa and Sonoma.

Inside the industry it has long been recognized as such. As early as the mid-1970s, Mendocino was growing some superb grapes and making excellent wines. Wineries everywhere bought its grapes, often taking them out of county to make quality wines.

In 1983, I visited Angelo Papagni in the Central Valley town of Madera, and tasted a superb new-release Cabernet. “I got the fruit in Mendocino,” he said.

The label, however, never mentioned Mendocino. Nor did many other wines from Mendocino. Instead, they carried a “California” designation. Mendocino rarely got credit for its quality grapes, so the public never understood this diverse region.

For one thing, Mendocino didn’t have a star grape, such as Napa (Cabernet) and Sonoma (Chardonnay and Zinfandel, and later, Pinot Noir).

Mendocino grew loads of different grapes with distinction. Wine purists knew of the greatness of almost everything growing here, from Petite Sirah to Pinot Blanc, Zin to Malbec, Pinot Noir to sparkling wine, not to mention Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, and a dozen more.

As for tourism, Mendocino was just a tad far away for San Francisco day-trippers to consider. It’s a 3-hour drive from the city.

As the quality of the wines soared in recent years, and as the number of wineries grew, it was easy to see why wine judges loved to get an invitation from Mendocino Winegrowers’ executive director Bernadette Byrne to judge the county’s wines each August, an event that’s been happening for four decades!

It hasn’t always been fun. Mendocino has had its share of hard times, and ran up against some of the worst of it in the late 1980s.

A low point may have come in 1987, when several wine experts from other regions were asked to judge the Mendo wine competition. They included brilliant author Bob Thompson, Beringer’s late, beloved winemaker Myron Nightingale, the late Riesling expert Steve Pitcher, and the late, feisty wine writer Jerry Mead.

Numerous verbal duels arose and there was some bellyaching over the results.

On one panel, two judges voted gold medals for a particular wine. Nightingale was next. He barked, “No award. Ladies and gentlemen, the stuff is awful.”

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Pitcher, who was awed by three Gewurztraminers he tried, said of the Rieslings, “Mendocino can do a lot better than what we saw.”

Thompson, always sublime, said he wrote on his score sheet the initials DNPIM only twice. His friends knew it was Thompson’s shorthand for “Did not put in mouth.”

Thirty-one years later, Mendocino is on a definite roll. Last year, a panel I was on handed out eight double-gold medals in a flight of 10 Petite Sirahs! At this year’s judging, a week ago here, Pinot Noirs stole the show: seven wines of the 19 entered got gold medals.

This year’s top five sweepstakes wines were all exemplary.

The top sparkling wine was one of the state’s finest bubblies, Roederer Estate’s nonvintage Brut from Anderson Valley.

The best rosé was 2017 Pennyroyal Farm’s Rosé of Pinot Noir. Best white was 2017 Navarro Vineyards Gewurztraminer, “Deep End.”

The best red was 2016 Navarro Pinot Noir, and the best dessert wine was 2013 Greenwood Ridge Late Harvest Riesling.

What was truly encouraging was the fact that so many different wines showed so well. Chardonnays seemed to be better balanced with excellent acid levels, less oak and alcohol than in the past, and with real attention being paid to pairing with food.

Most red wines showed better handling of tannins, with most delivering more fruit that we ever saw a decade ago.

And the Merlot group was exciting!

The good news is that Mendocino wines typically cost less than wines from some other more recognizable regions, a fact savvy wine lovers have long known.

Discovery of the Week: 2015 Bliss Vineyards Blissful Red, Mendocino County ($14): I normally do not like to recommend blended red wines where the winery tells you nothing about what’s in the bottle. Many are (a) overpriced, and (b) composed of an amorphous blend of less-than-exciting wines. Here, Hoss Milone at Bliss Family in Mendocino blended excellent Zinfandel, Sangiovese (and other grapes), all from the Bliss Estate to make this striking, fruit-based blend that has aromas of blueberry, red cherry, and subtle dried spices. Despite its succulent texture, it has excellent acidity to match with food. Best of Class and gold medal at the Mendocino wine judging.

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Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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