Mark Lyon's Staying Power

The Sonoma winemaking vet talks about discovering wine, building his career at Sebastiani and being one of the first prominent, openly gay members of the California wine industry

Mark Lyon's Staying Power
Mark Lyon fell in love with wine visiting Europe, and now is a passionate advocate for organic and biodynamic farming. (Courtesy Eco Terreno)
Jul 15, 2022

Mark Lyon is a Sonoma County mainstay. He began his wine career there in 1980 and by 1985 had ascended to head winemaker at Sebastiani. Today, his Alexander Valley–based winery Eco Terreno (a Spanish term for ecology of the land) focuses on producing Bordeaux-style blends using biodynamic and environmentally friendly growing techniques on his estate properties. Farming is the basis of Lyon's current work and he considers himself to be a grapegrower and vigneron above all else.

Lyon is also a trailblazer, one of the first prominent, openly gay members of the California wine industry. His public coming out was via an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. He now lives happily in Sonoma County with his husband. Speaking to Wine Spectator's April Louis, Lyon describes a life inspired by traditional European winemaking, the days when he felt he could not be open about being gay while working in the wine business and the importance of environmental preservation.

Wine Spectator: How did your interest in wine begin?

It really all started with my grandparents. They took me to Europe at the tender age of 16. We started in Rome, went to Florence, Venice, Austria and Switzerland and finished in Paris, and I just fell in love with food and wine. They allowed you to drink wine when you're 16 years old, so long as you're with an adult family member. I got exposed to Chianti and Barolo in Italy, both of which I loved. We then finished the trip with Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne.

My senior high school project was studying the soils of Napa Valley. So, my father flew both of us there and we went to Charles Krug and Heitz Cellar and Freemark Abbey, all the top vineyards at that time. I was accepted to [the University of California] Davis and launched into studying fermentation science with a degree in enology. I graduated with the likes of Carol Shelton and David Ramey and Randall Grahm.

What brought you to Sonoma County after that?

What brought me to Sonoma was partly because I just thought, as a gay person—and I was out to my parents at the time—that I was going to be lonely and isolated living in a rural area. I got offered a job at Sebastiani, so I thought, well, I could either be driving to San Francisco or I could be going to Guerneville. At least Sonoma County was a little more friendly than let's say other wine regions. So, in some ways that kind of shaped why I chose living in Sonoma County in 1979.

What was the LGBTQ+ community like then?

In the '80s, it was a very dark period. There was a lot of ignorance about the contagion of HIV. A lot of people thought you could get HIV from saliva or other things. It drove a lot of gay men, including myself, underground.

And there were some cellar workers who died of HIV. I just started seeing my friends drop like flies from the late '80s to the early '90s. No one was really wanting to be out. I pretty much had to be underground from the '80s to probably the mid '90s, I would say. I didn't really get to commiserate with many—very few people were [openly] gay in the wine industry. It just wasn't there.

I help the local HIV support agency here and have since the mid '80s. Because I look at myself as being lucky that I dodged all those bullets back then.

Was your family supportive?

My father was very supportive. We bought a vineyard in the Alexander Valley in 1980. I've had that vineyard since. I really admired the Jordan Alexander Valley Cab and thought it was a breath of fresh air to make a more elegant style of Cabernet, in the Bordeaux style. I love wine from all over the world and I don't drink just one wine. But you know, I have a tendency toward classics such as Bordeaux and to a certain extent Burgundy.

Mark Lyon]
Lyon started Eco Terreno to have more flexibility; he soon found a passion in farming. (Courtesy Eco Terreno)

How did Eco Terreno start?

After I got my degree from U.C. Davis and settled into Sonoma County, I was a grape grower, and went up the ranks at Sebastiani and became their winemaker for many, many years. I was at Sebastiani making some really nice Cabernets, then I just decided I wanted to make my own wine and tried to find the best time and place to do so.

I stopped working at Sebastiani because my father's health was very bad. He was dealing with Alzheimer's and he lived in Scottsdale. I had to fly over there a lot to look after him as much as I could. So [that need for flexibility is why I] started Eco Terreno.

I had always been curious about organic and biodynamic wine growing. I did a tour in France in April of 2012, and I asked [vintners] the simple question of why did you go organic or biodynamic? Because I wanted to get their experiences—the organic conversion really is much more prominent in Europe than it is here. All of them said: we like the results and it didn't cost us that much more to farm organically. It seemed like a good idea for winemaking and environmental reasons. I believe that you have a better expression of the wines when your soils are healthier and have higher amounts of organic matter.

Why biodynamics over typical organic farming?

With biodynamics, it is a full philosophy of looking at the entire ranch system. It's a more spiritual approach. And by doing things like burying horns and making all kinds of preparations you're actually trying to regenerate the land in your environment. And we've seen that too. We see more birds coming back, more wildlife right next to the Russian River. That's really our mission and goal by going biodynamic—we're really trying to improve the environment.

Do you think farming in Sonoma County has become less or more environmentally friendly over the course of your career?

Sonoma County has made great strides to be 100 percent sustainable. It's a step in the right direction. But I do think that if we're really going to be trying to make better wines that reflect the site and soil, we really should be going more toward organic viticulture.

I just hope that other wineries will pay more for the grapes, and we're starting to see that. Because I really believe we have better wine grapes. And we have really good clients who will pay a little bit more due to the fact that we're biodynamic and Demeter certified. You hear this term called green washing. People say they're organic, but aren't certified. I feel very strongly that you really need a certification.

How does that also translate to the cellar?

I'm a classic vigneron, where I'm actually growing the grapes used to make the wine. It's very hands-on work. We spend a lot of time in the vineyard. We're increasingly going more toward how can we pick our grapes sooner and not as ripe, with lower alcohol levels. With the fires happening, the longer you hang the fruit out the riskier.

I'm pretty much hand selecting, picking out what blocks of the vineyard are ideal and optimal. We have probably about 14 or 15 [individual wines] right now from our vineyard because it's really important from a wine club perspective. You're educating them. What does Musque clone tastes like? Well, okay, here I have this Musqué clone wine as a separate lot. We have maybe 35 different blocks. And I do that deliberately as a winemaker.

People California Sonoma

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