story & photos by Ree Slocum
Busy man, pushing 80 with a keen sense of humor, a deep laugh, and a memory like a trap; he’s also fluent in Spanish, amongst other languages—that’s Guinness McFadden, who met me at his home and farm in Potter Valley, a piece of paradise. At that moment, the kitchen was bustling with energy as Kristine Loayza and Jenny Wheeler, friends of Guinness’s daughter, Fontaine, were preparing scrumptious dishes for the McFadden Wine Club Dinner coming up in a few days. Fontaine greeted me warmly, and Guinness walked me through the home, something like a sprawling-ranch style with an East Coast cottage feel, to a table on the screened-in porch for our interview.
Guinness, who grew up in New York City, was in the Navy for nine years—some of it as a lieutenant and later as an admiral’s aide—and was “chasing around Russian submarines in 90-foot seas, and off the Cuban shore [during] the Missile Crisis, and in multiple firefights in Vietnam in the River Forces.” He saw a lot of war. Guinness left the Navy and decided to go to Stanford Business School. Going to Stanford got him to California. After a few semesters and looking ahead to a corporate life, he realized that scenario didn’t fit. He quit and didn’t look back. Guinness and a friend found their way to Napa to find out about growing grapes. In those days, grape growing in California wasn’t about varietals. It was about making red or white wines.
He met Ivan Schoch, a maverick who believed in growing and making wine from different varieties of grapes. Guinness was exploring grape growing solo when he met Schoch. I’m sure Schoch soon recognized the energy, spirit and smarts of this young McFadden and enjoyed mentoring him in the details about viticulture and winemaking. When Guinness decided to buy some acreage and begin his own vineyard, all of Napa had been pretty much picked over. Schoch gave him a wonderful piece of advice: go to Mendocino County. Guinness did just that.
McFadden's Certified Organic Beef | Guinness with girlfriend Judith Bailey| Guinness at the door to his 60kw hydroelectric powerhouse
When he got to the county, he looked at acreage for sale in Potter Valley. He arrived at the 52-acre property on a hot and dusty August afternoon in 1970. It was amazingly green for that time of year, and all around were stately valley oaks providing beauty and shade. Because of the Potter Valley Irrigation District, farmers had been using diverted, dammed, and gravity-fed water from the Eel River since 1924. The water diversion is part of a dam and powerhouse that provides electricity to Potter Valley and towns farther south. Guinness thought he’d found the perfectly peaceful spot to grow grapes.
“But it was f*@&in’ brutal!” he laughed. Around the time Guinness bought his property and planted his first Riesling wine grapes, the wineries in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties had tied up the free-market trade in wine grapes by price fixing the grapes. According to Guinness, they’d also blacklisted Charlie Barra, who had started the North Coast Grape Growers Association. With tenacious persistence, Barra and the association broke the monopoly that had kept the prices down. “Just as Charlie got things goin’ I started wanderin’ in here,” Guinness told me. Thanks to their efforts, by 1974 Guinness had his first Riesling grape harvest. He’s been thankful to Barra ever since.
Through the years, the original 52 acres have grown into 500. Instead of the tent, milker’s room and run-down old shack that were his first abodes as a bachelor, Guinness and the family live in the beautiful home he had built on a wooded knoll. His original vines were “The Big Four”: Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. Over time, he’s added Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewürtztraminer, and Zinfandel. He has impressive results from a climate that has a diurnal variance in temperature from 95 degrees at 4 pm to 45 degrees at 6 am. “It makes for interesting grapes,” he confided. It certainly seems to work well. McFadden Farm wines have won a Double Gold, two Golds and Best of Class, among other awards in the 2017 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
Early on, McFadden Farm diversified what they grew for the yearly income, but also to keep valued workers in year-round employment. They now sell wine, herbs, braided garlic, bay laurel wreaths and grass-fed beef, all registered as California Certified Organic. The future for McFadden Farm seems as green and lush as the land that grows their fine organic wines and other products.
Visit McFadden Farm Stand & Tasting Room 13275 South Hwy 101, Hopland
(707) 744 8463 | mcfaddenfarm.com
Ree Slocum is a photographer and writer who loves simple, creatively delicious, locally sourced food and beverages and revels in being distracted by the natural world when working on her deck “office.”