The first row of vines were barely in the ground when the neighbors began lining up to lean on their shovels and scoff.
Grapes in Anderson Valley? Nobody could make it work, they insisted. The naysayers grew so vocal that Dr. Donald Edmeades dragged some old redwood planks out from behind the barn, found some red paint, and christened his vineyard with a sign out on Highway 128: "Edmeades' Folly."
"When we first planted up there, people said we were nuts," said Deron Edmeades, son of the Pasadena cardiologist who founded the winery and vineyards. Nearly four decades later, nobody is laughing at Anderson Valley wines.
Dr. Edmeades and his family made Edmeades wine the standard-bearer on the Mendocino County fine wine frontier. Yet Edmeades was not the first grape grower in the region--far from it.
During the Gold Rush, most miners struck anything but gold. Many of them turned to the soil in search of a less romantic living. A Kentucky native named Samuel Orr gets credit for planting the first Mendocino County vineyard north of Ukiah in Reeves Canyon.
The industry gained momentum when Italians and Swiss-Italians planted the hillsides and valleys throughout much of the North Coast in the late 1800s. The Tuscan and Umbrian immigrants favored their beloved Zinfandel, Muscat, Malvasia and Palomino.
But the county was nowhere on the map of commercial winemaking when the Edmeades family began vacationing there during the 1950s. Dr. Edmeades fell in love with the area. On the dude ranch where they stayed, Edmeades asked the owner about buying 108 acres of grazing and orchard land.
Edmeades became the first modern-day grape grower in Anderson Valley in 1963 when he planted 24 acres on his new land near Philo, his son recalls.
The family supplied other wineries, such as Seghesio and Parducci, for almost a decade. The first award-winning Anderson Valley wine was the product of another winery made from Edmeades fruit. That Cabernet Sauvignon collected a Silver Medal at the Los Angeles County Fair.
In 1972, the family founded the winery and launched its own brand. That same year, Dr. Edmeades and his wife died of cancer within three months of each other. Son Deron took over and completed the first vintage.
Thus began what many consider the classic era of early Edmeades. The wine gained a cult following with specialties such as Rain wine, Whale wine, Opal and Queen Anne's Lace.
"There were some pretty good wines, and some serious dogs too," Deron said.
Still other wines were unforgettable. Their foundations were the aged vineyards of those old Italian families who first planted large-scale vineyards in Mendocino. Some of them, like Perli, Piffero, and Ciapusci, still supply grapes to renowned Edmeades Zinfandels.
"Those old Italian vineyards with no water, there was nothing like them," remembers Earlene Merriman-Wiley, who, with her husband, went into partnership with Deron and his sister. "It was a funky, warm and cozy atmosphere. Not often do you see the owner of a winery living at the winery; and he's the guy who gets up at 4 a.m. to turn the sprinklers on when there's a frost warning."
When the owners sold Edmeades in 1988 to Jess Jackson, Jackson retooled the winery and replanted vineyards.
Since that year, Edmeades has set the wine world ablaze. We've averaged 10 Gold Medals a year at major competitions from 1994 through 2004. During the same period, Edmeades claimed 57 critical ratings of 90 points or better, growing from just two in 1994.
All the while, Zinfandel set the pace, accounting for two-thirds of both Gold Medals and 90-plus scores.
The story of Edmeades, in the end, is written in the wine. Deron Edmeades, now a salesman in Oregon, still takes a little vicarious pride in setting a wine legend in motion.
"Going into that valley and starting it all back then, it's still one of the things in life that's a great experience," he remembers.