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A Canadian in Mendocino — This Eclectic Winemaker Knows Home is Where the Vineyards Are

We're Talking Grapes With Alex MacGregor

BY // 05.12.21

I love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, we trade stories about travel and soil types, terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food and restaurants. We recommend wines to one another, we drink, and we learn a lot.

In Wine Talk, I introduce you to friends, acquaintances, and people I meet as I make my way around the world, individuals who love wine as much as I do, who live to taste, who farm and make wine. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well. 

It was a good virtual tasting, the one with Saracina Vineyards in which I participated back in early April. We opened a few bottles, including a 2019 unoaked chardonnay that I liked very much, and the conversation was witty and engaging.

Alex MacGregor, the winemaker at the Mendocino County-based estate, a man I had never met before the tasting, is now someone with whom I want to share a table, a table reserved for a long meal, because the conversation would, I am confident, be a wide ranging, eclectic, gratifying adventure. And the wines we open would be just as moving.

MacGregor is a fine conversationalist, an individual who knows how to convey a lot without relying on the feeble crutch of logorrhea. (In addition, the well respected David Ramey had a hand in teaching him winemaking, so there’s that.)

MacGregor is a Canadian, and he fell into wine while working at a restaurant in Toronto, one with a stellar list. His career in the Canadian city included stints at Olivier’s Bistro and Le Select Bistro. He also worked under Héctor Vergara, Canada’s only Master of Wine at the time.

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And though MacGregor hails from Canada, Mendocino is his home, the land in which he thrives. He made his way to California in 1989 and took a job as an enologist in the Dry Creek Valley. In 2001, John Fetzer and Patty Rock founded Saracina Vineyards, and MacGregor was hired as the first winemaker there (Ramey was consulting with Saracina at the time).

Alex MacGregor
Alex MacGregor hails from Canada, but California is now his home. Wine drinkers, rejoice.

MacGregor’s enthusiasm and passion for old vines and family-owned estates is palpable. There was definitely no reason for Marc Taub (of Palm Bay International and Taub Family Selections), who purchased Saracina from Fetzer and Rock in 2018, to make any changes to the winemaking personnel at the 250-acre property, which is Certified California Sustainable. MacGregor is in charge, and I imagine he will be for a long time.

Let’s see what he has to say in Wine Talk.

James Brock: How has COVID-19 changed your work and life?

Alex MacGregor: It’s been unpleasant and stressful on both counts. I’m hopeful we will have learned from this.

JB: Tell us about three wines you think are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each one? 

AM: I’m going local value here. Skylark 2019 Pinot Blanc Orsi Vineyard, Mendocino County ($20). Streamlined, austere in all the right ways. Shellfish city. It’s in limited distribution and direct from their website.

MacGregor recommends Skylark.

Saracina 2019 Unoaked Chardonnay, Mendocino County ($20). Cleansing, pure, unadulterated chard, stone fruits. Great value if I do say so myself. Pair with anything you want (maybe your significant other), though BBQ might be a stretch. It’s in distribution and available on our website and at the winery.

Boonville Road 2018 Mourvedre Alder Springs, Mendocino County, around $30? Super cool, nervy, slightly green, delicious. I’ve had a few bottles paired with owner Ed Donovan’s smoked brisket (his smoker has a license plate, that’s how serious it is). Amazing pairing. Available direct from the website.

JB: If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle you would add to your personal collection, and why.

AM: 1998 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Ermitage Cuvée Cathelin. It’s transcendent, beyond wine. I was speechless.

Not much of this is made. If you can afford a bottle, and find one available, do not hesitate.

JB: What is your favorite grape variety, and why?

AM: Old-vine field blends, like Casa Verde in Mendocino County; grenache, carignane, a mystery red and French Colombard, head pruned, 76-year-old dry-farmed vines grown organically. Sum is greater than the parts, crunchy wines. (Plus no trellis or wires so I can walk in any direction I please,which suits me)

JB: How about one bottle that our readers should buy now to cellar for 10 years, to celebrate a birth, anniversary, or other red-letter day? 

AM: The 2019 Saracina Sauvignon Blanc Lolonis Vineyard will be neat in 10 years. Oldest sauvignon blanc in the country, planted in ’42. Tons of depth with acid and length. Our older SBs from this vineyard go to a great place with age.

JB: Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle (outside of your home and workplace)?

AM: With my good friends John Lancaster (wine director at Boulevard) and Robert Perkins (artist, Skylark Wine Co.) in either of their dining rooms. They are both generous, knowledgeable and charming (most of the time). Raveneau, Leflaive, Chave, Huet, Alban, Sine Qua Non, Le Pergole Torte, Quintarelli, always great bottles.

JB: If there was one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine, what is it?

AM: Buy more?

JB: What is your “wine eureka moment,” the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?

AM: Sailing (floating?) down the Guadiana between Spain and Portugal, 1986. We would get our flagon filled at the local bodega after throwing anchor, mostly great fino, buy some fresh fish, good to go. Lovely, simple food and wine experience nightly. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Allen Ginsberg took this photo, in 1996, in North Beach San Francisco.

JB: Your favorite wine reference in a work of literature?

AM: Cliché: War, “Spill the Wine”

Cooler: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Drinking French Wine in Middle America”

Bought a bottle of Vouvray
and poured out its bouquet
of the French countryside
on the plains of Middle America
and that fragrance
floods over me
wafts me back
to that rainy hillside
by the banks of the Loire
Vouvray tiny village
where I sat with rucksack
twenty-eight years old
seafarer student
uncorking the local bottle
with its captured scent of spring
fresh wet flowers
in first spring rain
falling lightly now
upon me-

Where gone that lonesome hiker
fugace fugitive
blindfold romantic
wanderer traumatic
in some Rimbaud illusionation-

The spring rain falls
upon the hillside flowers
lavande and coquelicots
the grey light upon them
in time’s pearly gloaming-
Where gone now
and to what homing-
Beardless ghost come back again!

How to Paint Sunlight: Lyric Poems and Others (New Directions).

For more wine, travel and other stories from James Brock, check out Mise en Place.

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