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Whitethorn

Southern Humboldt County in California seems like another very unlikely place to find an accomplished Pinot Noir winegrower and winemaker. If you check the map on the previous page, you will locate Whitethorn, a small community in the southern-most reaches of Humboldt County (so-called “so-hum”). This is where Tasha McCorkle McKee and her Whitethorn Winery can be found.

Tasha was raised in Whitethorn on her great-grandfather’s homestead since the age of 2. She quit high school at age 15, and learned the carpentry business from her father, working with him until she was 20. At a young age, she developed a curiosity about wine, and made wine out of rose petals, elderberries and blackberries. She acquired books on winemaking but did not understand the chemistry involved, so she moved in with her sister who was attending San Francisco City College. Here she worked days and took night classes in chemistry. After seven years, she attended the University of California at Davis and graduated with a degree in fermentation science. Remarkably, she was awarded highest honors, not an easy feat considering she did not graduate from high school.

Her first job after schooling was as a cellar hand at Trefethen Vineyards. The winery was reluctant to hire her as she was quite petite and they were uncertain that she could meet the physical demands of the job. That is where her construction work background came in handy, and she proved her worth. Two years later she moved on to Simi Winery, where she was fortunate to work under noted winemaker Zelma Long. Eventually she was promoted to associated winemaker. She was working long hours and commuting 50 miles a day. As she longed to spend more time with her husband and new son, she moved back to Whitethorn to start her own winery. With the assistance of her father and Joe and Maggie Collins of nearby Briceland Winery, she started Whitethorn Winery in a construction yard building.

Initially, it was difficult to source grapes. She knew the importance of good fruit, but there was little to be had in southern Humboldt County. There were a few microclimates on the top of ridges that had potential, but in general the climate had too many extremes of hot and cold for successful grape growing. Frost was not unusual in late spring and even summer, and late summer/early fall rains were common. So she looked to Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa counties.

At first she had to beg Larry Hyde of Hyde Vineyard in Napa Carneros for grapes. She made her first Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir in 1991. This wine was an epiphany for Tasha. She says, “I didn’t understand Pinot Noir until I made it myself. It was magical and intriguing and I knew Pinot Noir was the grape I wanted to focus on.” From the beginning, she did not want to produce a stylized blend, so she set about crafting Pinot Noirs that reflected a specific vineyard site. She was adamant that the nature and soul of Pinot Noir be expressed through the wine and not covered up by the winemaking. She produced only 50 cases of that 1991 Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir. Surprisingly, it was favorably reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle and snapped up by prominent San Francisco Bay Area restaurants including Rubicon, Masa, Boulevard and the French Laundry.. These restaurants and more became faithful buyers of her wines. What was particularly appealing to the sommeliers was that Whitethorn wines were not released until Tasha considered them ready to drink. She abhorred the mentality of awarding wines high scores for early drink ability. By the time her wines are released (the 2002 Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir was only recently offered for sale), some customers think the wines are “over-the-hill.” Tasha calls them the “Kool-Aid generation.” The truth is, the Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir, for example, has generous acidity and superb aging potential. Her wines, in general, do not reach their full potential until they have spent 2-3 years in the bottle. The 2000 vintage of her wines are just now reaching their stride.

Once Larry Hyde realized Tasha could produce magnificent Pinot Noir from his vineyard, he offered her 10 tons (she could only handle 5) and allowed her initially to pay the full amount of the grapes in installments as she sold the wine. He went on to plant three acres exclusively for her and she had her first harvest from her block in 1998. This block is planted to Pommard and Calera selections as well as Dijon 115, 667, and 777. In time she also was able to obtain Pinot Noir grapes from the Hirsch Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. Her 1998 Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir was voted one of the top Pinot Noirs of the year in the February, 2002 issue of Wine & Spirits. By 1998, she had increased production of several varietals from multiple vineyard sources to 1,300 cases per year.

She likes to be active in her vineyards and is a very caring farmer. Both Larry Hyde and David Hirsch welcome winemakers in their vineyards and thoroughly enjoy the interaction. Tasha avoids overripeness at harvest even though wines made from such grapes often achieve high scores. She is firmly convinced that picking too ripe (and over-oaking) mask the vineyard. For example, with the Hyde Vineyard, she picks at a time where the grapes have appealing red berry and earthy flavors. If left on the vine longer, the grapes develop chocolate notes and become pruney and jammy. Her winemaking is very hands-on and personalized. She performs a number of experiments in 1/2 ton bins using wild yeasts, extended maceration on the skins, and so forth. The small lots are bottled separately and she looks to discover what expresses each individual vineyard best. She uses 40% new oak in general for barrel aging.

Some personal and lifestyle issues intervened five years ago, and the last Pinot Noirs she made were the 2002 Hyde Vineyard and 2002 Hirsch Vineyard. The Mattole River upon which her family’s homestead sits began to dry up in 2002. As a child, she fondly remembers swimming and washing clothes in the river which was teaming with salmon. As the flow began to decrease, the salmon disappeared. Faced with a critical and sensitive environmental problem, Tasha volunteered to help restore the Mattole River. At the beginning, everyone said the stream flow project was doomed to failure. Happily, her efforts were successful. She raised more than 1 million dollars to set up adaptation systems so humans could benefit from, and fish could once again survive in the river. The local population is gradually using storage tanks to hold water for domestic use, rather than draining water from the river The flow has improved and the future looks bright. This story is a microcosm of a much bigger water problem that is developing in California. As we fear a coming drought, particularly in the Southwest, Tasha points out that will have to look to improved water storage systems and more conservative and reasonable usage of water supplies.

After five years, Tasha is happily resuming her winemaking career. She will once again obtain Pinot Noir fruit from Hyde Vineyard and will also make Pinot Noir from the Demuth Vineyard in Mendocino County. She is sensitive to economic issues and wishes to make wine that most people can afford. To follow this tenant, she has had to drop Hirsch Vineyard because of the high expense of grapes from this cherished vineyard. Her son, now 18, wants to become involved in making wine. He actually helped out when he was very young, and Tasha taught him to taste grapes at age 10. With her parents nearby as well as five of six siblings, she plans a renewed family commitment to Whitethorn Winery.

2002 Whitethorn Hyde Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir

14.9% alc., $27. · This wine needs a little time to show its charms. The perfume is quite floral and cherry-driven with a hint of alcohol. Dark cherry flavors are at the core, but other tastes come in and out like carob, cassis, and soy. The wine is fat in the mouth with a rich, warm texture. There is plenty of lively acidity for the dining table. Excellent!

2001 Whitethorn Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

15.0% alc., $50. · Give this wine at least an hour to open up. It shows the feminine side of the Hirsch Vineyard. There is remarkable balance here for a wine of 15% alcohol. The tannins are thoroughly tamed and the mouth feel is warm, soft, and cozy. A sweet cherry nose leads to a palate of generous red and dark fruits and a solid acid spine. You will need a cold soak after drinking this one.

Whitethorn wines are available primarily in San Francisco Bay Area fine restaurants and retail stores. (www.klwines.com is a good source). Tasha is just warming to computers and a website is in the future. Memorial Day weekend, Whitethorn (and Briceland nearby) will hold an open house where old vintages will be opened of Whitethorn Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir back to 1993 and Whitethorn Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir back to 1992. The winery is about two hours north of the Anderson Valley. The phone number is 707-986-1658.

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