Driving down Bell Mountain from the Medlock Ames winery and ranch in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley, I found myself thinking about a class that I took on utopias at my particularly liberal liberal-arts college. The class resulted in many bizarre final projects, the most memorable of which was a rock opera concerning leprechauns forced to defend their planet against fascist unicorns.
Clearly, there are no leprechauns (or fascists, for that matter) to be found at Medlock Ames, but the place is a near definition of utopia. The gorgeous property, all 335 acres of it, sits at the end of a long dirt road at the top of the mountain. Only 56 acres are planted with grapevines; the rest are devoted to gardens and animal pasture or left wild, home to madrone and manzanita trees, mountain lions and porcini mushrooms. Every living thing—from the vineyard foreman to the sheep grazing on cover crops between the rows of grapes—seems noticeably happy. The place is buzzing.
Medlock Ames also offers quite possibly the most holistic interpretation of winemaking I’ve ever encountered. Not only are the grapes certified organic, but the property is self-sufficient, too, with five ponds for collecting rainwater, solar-power arrays and a huge vegetable garden that produces many staff lunches. The winery building is essentially self-sustaining, with thick stone walls to maintain a cool cellar temperature and lots of windows to let in natural light. The structure is built on several levels, which permits the winemaker to move juice using gravity rather than pumps, a gentle method that prevents bitter flavors from developing.
I have to attribute the remarkable concentration and bright flavors of the wine created here at least partly to the general verve of the place. The mountain’s varied soil types allow many kinds of grapes to grow well. The Medlock Ames Bell Mountain Ranch Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, is powerful and rich while still vibrant. Sauvignon Blanc grown in a warm climate like this can easily develop over-the-top ripeness, but Medlock Ames’s doesn’t: It’s elegant, with grapefruit and Meyer-lemon acidity. The winery’s unfiltered rosé, made with Cabernet, has a central core of earthiness along with wild-strawberry flavors.
Additional credit must go to co-owners Chris Medlock James (the winery visionary, who also works in finance in San Francisco) and Ames Morison (the winemaker). The two met while attending Tulane University; after Morison did a stint in the Peace Corps and they’d spent some time in New York, the friends decided to move to California to make wine. They bought the Bell Mountain land in 1998. Morison, a tall, shy and incredibly sweet man—the sciencey sort who gets excited about numbers and soil types—oversees the winemaking and manages the vineyards. He has become such an expert in beneficial insects that he’s participating in a study on them with the Environmental Science department at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Medlock Ames ranch is so off the beaten path that James and Morison recently opened a tasting room just outside Healdsburg. It’s in the former footprint of the Alexander Valley Store—a rundown convenience store where locals would grab a sandwich on the way to work or a six-pack on the way home, or stop for a drink at the divey, well-worn bar hidden in the back. The building sits at a key intersection of the valley—where Healdsburg meets vineyards. The old store was dismantled and its parts reassembled into a room with open-beam ceilings and garage-like windows that roll open on warm days. About 80 percent of the materials from the original building were salvaged. Even the ranch-style house on the property was recycled and incorporated into the new building.
The bar in the back was preserved too, but it’s no longer a rough-and-tumble place where fights break out. It’s now a Gold Rushinspired speakeasy with a photo booth and garden-to-bar cocktails, like the Verdant Virtue/Vice, made with fruits and herbs grown just outside. The garden beds, planted with the help of kids from Sonoma County’s School Garden Network, are turned over when the seasons change, so they produce strawberries in the summer, kale and garlic in the winter.
To please regulars from the old bar, there are always bottles of Bud in the fridge. But these days, the vibe of the place is anything but divey: Tourists come to taste wine, couples sit in the intimate booths on date night, teachers have meetings and children eat crispy pizzas topped with gooey Bellwether Farms Crescenza cheese from local producer Liam Callahan. The winery’s general manager, Kenny Rochford, makes the pizzas in a stunning French wood-burning oven. "I tell people I try to manage generally, or I generally manage," Rochford jokes. But what he’s done is taken a winery tasting room and turned it into a community hub.
The tasting room has become a nexus for Healdsburg’s burgeoning food-artisan scene: craft brewers, coffee roasters, cheesemakers, winemakers. Rochford, a blond-haired Scotsman with contagious enthusiasm and an awesome smile, has knit himself into this community; he’s a member of the local Slow Food chapter and one of the organizers of the first-ever Good Food Awards. For the tasting room, he transforms produce from the winery gardens into jars and jars of sweet oven-roasted tomatoes, "wee chutneys," Chioggia beets and pickled beans.
One recent afternoon, Rochford invited a powerhouse group of friends and food innovators to the tasting room for a dinner of garlic-roasted rack of lamb from the wood-burning oven and rustic vegetable tart with favas and asparagus, paired with Medlock Ames wines. One guest, Douglas Gayeton, is an artist who published the book Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town. He’s now in the process of documenting all four seasons at the winery—capturing everything from the dirt to the wine—for photo collages on display in the tasting room. Gayeton came with his wife, Laura Howard, the owner of Laloo’s Goat’s Milk Ice Cream. Rochford loves serving her ice creams with his homemade Scottish shortbread and orange marmalade.
Although Morison is most content staying up on the mountain, even he comes down to the tasting room to hang out. Says Rochford, "We try to get him dealing with people, because he’s so endearing. Once they sit down with him, they’re smitten. He puts so much into making these wines; it would be a shame not to unleash him."
A Taste of the Medlock Ames Experience
Just outside the Sonoma town of Healdsburg, Medlock Ames has created a tasting room that’s also a local hangout. Aside from pouring fantastic wines, it’s a great place to eat pizza, drink a locavore cocktail, try pickled beets or buy artisanal cheese to take home.
Oil & Preserves
Medlock Ames produces oil from the 800 olive trees on its property. This year’s harvest: three tons. The winery gardens are the source of ingredients for the oven-roasted tomatoes and candied lemon peels used in the tasting room.
Kenny Rochford, general manager of Medlock Ames, pickles Chioggia beets from the winery gardens to use in the tasting room. They’re perfect in a salad with parsley and fennel fronds.
Bartenders at the speakeasy in the back of the Medlock Ames tasting room use citrus and herbs from the garden beds outside.
Locals and tourists come to the Medlock Ames tasting room to try the wines, alone or paired with Sonoma cheeses and chutneys. Weekends (from 10 to 5) are the time to go for wood-fired pizzas, games of pétanque and music on the deck.
Making Sonoma-Style Pizza at Medlock Ames
Kenny Rochford tops his pizzas with fresh mozzarella or local Bellwether Farms Crescenza
Rochford prepares 50 to 60 pizzas every Saturday using the copper-clad wood-burning oven outside the Medlock Ames tasting room
The Finishing Touch
Says Rochford, "My favorite pizza is cheese, tomatoes and garlic, finished with arugula—and prosciutto if I’m feeling fancy."
Sonoma’s Artisan Gang
Liam Callahan makes Bellwether Farms cheeses, sold in Medlock Ames’s tasting room. bellwetherfarms.com.
Laura Howard owns Laloo’s Goat’s Milk Ice Cream. laloos.com.
Medlock Ames’s Ames Morison turns organic grapes into stellar wine. medlockames.com.
Kenny Rochford is Medlock Ames’s general manager and a preserver par excellence.
Richard Norgrove makes the hoppy Bear Republic beers on tap in the bar at Medlock Ames’s speakeasy. bearrepublic.com.
Fifth-generation rancher Nancy Prebilich of Gleason Ranch raises grass-fed meat. gleasonranch.com.