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exploring wine with tim fish

History with a Heartbeat

Here’s to Charlie Barra and all the unsung heroes of California wine
Photo by: George Rose
Mendocino grapegrower Charlie Barra's frost-protection methods were far-out in the 1960s, but today they're de rigueur.

Posted: Jan 16, 2013 11:00am ET

We get so caught up in chasing the hottest new thing that we forget sometimes to recognize the modest heroes, those unsung and unfussy souls who have quietly gone about the business of making good wines year after year.

Charlie Barra is one of those people. At age 86, Barra is the dean of Mendocino County wine and one of the last of a breed. Born during Prohibition and just at the dawn of the Great Depression, Barra is a part of California's wine history, having worked with some of the key players while leaving his own mark along the way. He's a character worth knowing.

The 2012 harvest was his 67th and, although he's slowing down and his hearing is not what it used to be, he's still sharp and wry. His slender fingers poke at the air as he talks.

Having lunch last week with his wife Martha at Club Calpella, a favorite haunt for growers in Redwood Valley, Barra shared wines from his two labels: Girasole and Barra of Mendocino. The Girasole Pinot Blanc Mendocino 2011 ($13) is fresh and floral. The Barra Pinot Noir Mendocino 2010 ($20) bursts with easygoing cherry fruit and the Barra Cabernet Sauvignon Mendocino 2009 ($20) is a solid entry with soft tannins and lively fruit.

They're good wines of good value, all made from organic grapes. "We're not making wine for connoisseurs," Barra said. "We're making it for consumers. They like it easy to drink."

Barra is classic old-school Mendocino, down to earth and plainspoken. He likes to mention that the luxury Pinot Noir producers across the mountain in Anderson Valley quietly buy his grapes some years, "when they can't get their grapes ripe." That's an old Italian for you. His family immigrated from Piedmont, Italy, in 1910. "I was born about a half-mile from here," he said over lunch, "and I never left."

By the time he was 10, Barra knew how to prune vines, pick grapes and just about everything else that needs to be done in a vineyard. He was a senior in high school just after World War II when he took over his own vineyard and, except for a stint in the Army in the early 1950s, he hasn't looked back.

In many ways Barra was ahead of his time. He was planting varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the mid-1950s when few were. "I sold grapes to Bob Mondavi when he was at Charles Krug," Barra recalled. "He used to say 'Boy, those are some good grapes.'"

In the early 1960s, Barra was one of the first growers to use a vineyard's water sprinkling system to protect from frost. It's a common practice now but his grower friends thought he was foolish at the time. He helped the Fetzer family become a major force in value wines, that is, before they sold the winery in 1992. Significantly, his vineyards have been certified organic since 1989.

Winemaking, ironically, wasn't something Barra got into until 1997. Today he farms about 200 acres and produces about 25,000 cases annually of about a dozen different varietals. Jason Welch has been his winemaker since 2011.

For years Barra and his contemporaries gathered every week at Club Calpella for coffee or lunch or to share a glass of wine, but time passes, things change.

Barra took a sip of Sangiovese, then smiled and raised his eyebrows in a shrug, and said, "I'm just about the last one."

Victor Alvarez
Pleasant Valley, CA —  January 16, 2013 11:38am ET
Lovely piece Tim, thank you.
Jo Diaz
Windsor, Californai, USA —  January 16, 2013 12:45pm ET
Charlie is one of the most charming men in the business. I'm so pleased that this story has been written to honor this winemaking pioneer.
Mark Lyon
Sonoma, California —  January 16, 2013 1:04pm ET
Thanks for the insight into Mendocino County icons. I did not know about Charlie's pioneering history in the 1950's until now. These pioneers really deserve to be recognized and their wines publicized too. Now, I'll have to check out Club Capella and have a glass of his wine over lunch!
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  January 16, 2013 4:08pm ET
Thanks for the comments everyone.
Brian Cheeseboro
St.Emilion, France —  January 17, 2013 12:34pm ET
I remember meeting Charlie in 2004 on a tour of Mendocino with Fresno State Viticulture Club, he is a wealth of applied practical knowledge! Great read
Michael Weis
Oakville —  January 22, 2013 12:11pm ET
Tim, thanks for a great tribute to one of California's historic figures.
Pam Strayer
Oakland CA —  August 24, 2014 3:20pm ET
He also was the first to organize the growers to demand decent prices for their grapes and he also organized the first appellation in America.

This, from the Barra web site: [Charlies was] "founder and past president of California North Coast Grape Growers Association and board member for 41 years. Lobbied for a variety of grower causes, including varietal percentage change in wines from 51% to 75%, the first appellation designation in the U.S, and for pricing regulations that said a grower and winery had to agree on prices before grapes were crushed."

I personally hope he will be nominated to the Vintner Hall of Fame for his contributions. If there was a Grower Hall of Fame, he'd be the first to be nominated!

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