photos & article by Ree Slocum
Eric Kaster and Sattie Clark, owners of Backbone Winery, moved to Mendocino County from Portland, Oregon in 2013. Married since 2002, their lives had been built around generations of family, friends, and Eleek—their thriving business creating artisan lighting. In spite of all that, “We came to realize that the air in Portland was polluted with industrial toxins after our son was diagnosed with chronic arsenic exposure,” Sattie said. "At that point we had an epiphany—that we wanted our family’s health to be the first priority. We began looking for a cleaner, more sustainable environment in which to live. In our research, we learned that Mendocino County has some of the best air quality in the country.” After investigating and traveling back and forth to Mendocino County for almost two years, they found the perfect fit on Redwood Valley’s east facing slope. They purchased a piece of property once owned by Paul Dolan, master viticulturist specializing in sustainability, organics, and Biodynamics, and his wife, Diane Fetzer. There was a grand home and a winery, and there was also space next to the winery where Eric could build his studio to continue fabricating large lighting fixtures for Eleek.
In this new venture, Eric and Sattie had the added bonus of growing their own grapes. The vineyard boasted a steep, terraced slope planted in Malbec, Cabernet, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Merlot wine grapes. “We have a sort of laissez faire attitude about growing the grapes. We don’t add compost or minerals to the soil, nor do we till. Our vineyard is very geologically active—constantly churning up new material. We prune, we sucker, and that’s about it,” Sattie said. Their steep slopes don’t lend themselves to mowing, so they controlled the grasses with a weed eater, providing a layer of mulch. “When Redwood Valley Water District cut off irrigation water in 2014 in response to drought, we didn’t have a way to get water up that steep slope to the vines. So we decided to dry farm it. We didn’t choose the experiment, but it fit with our values,” explained Sattie. They were thrilled with the results. “The grapes improved from dry farming. Less water means more concentrated flavor, and you can taste that in the wine,” added Eric. An inexperienced winemaker, he enlisted a friend to help him make their first vintage in 2013. All the varietals were blended together in a classic Bordeaux style. The next year, 2014, he was on his own.
By 2017, the family was thriving in Redwood Valley. Their thirteen-year-old son, August, was finally healthy, enjoying school, playing guitar and writing songs, and acting in local plays. Eric, who co-owns Eleek with Sattie, is happy to work in his shop designing lighting. (His work can be seen in the Sacramento Train Station, where he restored and replicated the original antique lighting, Disney World Hong Kong, MAC Cosmetics stores in New York City and Paris, as well as the corporate offices of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, to name a few. He recently worked on specialized lighting to be installed in King Tut’s tomb in Egypt.) Eric enjoys not having to manage all the employees they once had in Portland and revels in being outdoors working in the vineyard and making wine. Sattie took on the task of bonding, licensing, and launching Backbone as a business. They began selling their wine that spring. They added two Anatolian Shepherds to keep the bears out of the vineyard, created gardens, and raised chickens. Life was pretty wonderful for the busy and creative family.
In 2017, Backbone Vineyard and Winery won top awards for their 2014 Malbec wine at the Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition. It was one of the first wines they had produced, and it was their first wine competition, so the couple was elated. “We thought it was good and we were excited that other people, including the experts, thought it was good. And then it was suddenly all gone! It was brutal,” remembered Sattie.
In October of the same year, a firestorm raged through Redwood Valley. Eric and Sattie lost all five vintages of wine they’d made along with the vineyard, winery, greenhouse, and barn. While these were heavy losses for the couple, they soon realized that they were the lucky ones. Sattie continued, “Many of our friends and neighbors lost their homes, and some even lost their lives. The toll was so heavy on our community that our losses paled in comparison. Our home survived, and one of our shops where we make the lighting survived. It could have been so much worse for us.”
Devastated once again by circumstance beyond their control, the couple combined their talents and dreams for the future. “We’ve always been interested in sustainability and are huge proponents of trying to protect the environment and live lightly. And now sustainability has really shifted into resiliency. How do we live in this new world where we have to think about wildfire and climate change?” Sattie mused. While their answers are still developing, some of their plans are in the process of materializing.
When I visited them in late October, Eric took time out from building their new greenhouse and animal barn, and Sattie put aside the mounds of paperwork for the building and planning department to meet with me. “We know people who have moved away because of the constant fire threat. We’re way too invested in what we are doing here to leave, so we need to find a different way of living here that makes us feel ok about the risk. For us, that means building fire-proof buildings and having sheep to keep the dry grasses very short. We have to find a way to live here and not feel terrified of the next fire.”
The new animal barn Eric is working on is made of metal and glass, with a sloping metal roof. They now have Baby Doll sheep, a small breed that keeps the grasses down, produces wool, and will provide nutrients for the new vines planted this winter. Wood stakes in the vineyard are being replaced with metal. The new winery is designed with all metal and concrete construction. All the paperwork for the county is being completed. Although the recovery process has been daunting and at times frustrating, the couple has a vision, and each is organized and focused with their valuesdriven work ethic. “At the end of the day, we want to feel good about what we make and what we do,” Sattie said.
Sattie had good news the last time we talked. “The plans are submitted! We have a contractor that will work with us. We had the people who’ll do the concrete come here and confirm that they can get the crane in. So we know it’s buildable. Now we’re just trying to get the the County what they need to give their approval.” Eric reports, “We’ll be bottling rosé in a few months. And the lighting for King Tut’s Tomb arrived safely in Egypt and is being installed.” For now, life has resumed its natural rhythms of peaceful productivity and creativity, and with their firesafe improvements underway, they hope to keep it that way, regardless of what the future holds.
Backbone Vineyard & Winery 707-234-8918 | Facebook.com/BackboneWine
Ree Slocum is a fine art freelance photographer and writer who calls the edge of the wilds in Mendocino County “home.” She takes pleasure living with bird song, the breathing fog, and wildlife’s cast of characters when not on assignments.