By Michael Martino
Situated just off the banks of the Mattole River is the tiny hamlet of Whitethorn, California. Located just west of Garberville on the way to Shelter Cove, it is in the heart of the Lost Coast surrounded by the King Range and home to the old growth redwoods Humboldt is so well known for.
Blink and you might miss it, but there is a unique adventure waiting for those who are willing to make the trip. Every visit to Whitethorn promises the opportunity to taste great wine, and to learn about how one community has come together to be an example of what it truly means to be a steward of the land.
Started in 1991 as a family business, Whitethorn Winery has been churning out great wines for more than 20 years. The head winemaker and founder of Whitethorn Winery, Tasha McCorkle McKee has been fermenting fruits since she was 16. From blackberry wine to rose petal concoctions, it has been a passion of hers for over 30 years.
When Tasha was 21 she left home to pursue a degree in Enology and Viticulture at UC Davis. From there she went to work at Simi Winery, where she perfected the art of making well-balanced and flavorful wines. While working for Simi, she was afforded the opportunity to travel to Bordeaux, France, where she was impressed by French winemakers’ ability to create wines that expressed the fullest potential of their vineyards.
While I tasted at Whitethorn Winery, an interesting story was related to me regarding a French winemaker that Tasha had befriended who had come to visit her in Whitethorn. The man said that what set French wines apart from ones produced in other parts of the world is their longevity. He said that after 10 years, or even 20 years, they are still well-balanced and highly desirable. So Tasha went to her cellar to find a 21-year-old bottle of Whitethorn Pinot Noir that she opened for the gentleman, who upon tasting the wine exclaimed, “This must be a French wine.”
Whitethorn Winery primarily produces Pinot Noir. On the lighter side of the red wines, it can vary from a robust full-bodied red that might go well with Pasta Bolognese to something lighter and fruitier that might be had with some chevre and warm dates.
The variations in flavor come primarily from the region in which the grapes are grown, i.e. the weather, when they are picked in terms of sugar levels, and also the intention of the winemaker.
Upon arriving at the winery I was greeted by Tasha’s son, Galen, who has taken over day-to-day operations of the winery. His mother has decided to devote more of her time to the non-profit Sanctuary Forest, responsible for developing “the Mattole Low-Flow Program- the first voluntary incentive-based program in California to address both water supply for human use and stream flow for fisheries and wildlife habitat.” It should be mentioned that when purchasing a bottle of Whitethorn Winery wine, 10% of the proceeds go directly to Sanctuary Forest.
The first Pinot I tasted was the 2007 Demuth Vineyards, Anderson Valley. Due to the fact that Whitethorn Winery is not a vineyard, they source all of their grapes from vineyards grown on their behalf, some local, some not local. They distinguish their vintages by stating the vineyard from which the grapes were purchased on the label. The 2007 Pinot is robust and full-bodied, filled with hints of cherries, vanilla and ripe tannins, and it was smooth across the palate. This was probably my favorite wine of the day.
The next wine I tasted was the 2009 Pinot Noir Elk Prairie Vineyards, Humboldt County. Produced with local grapes, this wine was on the lighter/fruitier side. Full of vanilla, cedar, and spice, it would be sure to go well with a cheese plate.
Galen was also kind enough to treat me to some of the wines that are not currently on the market, but will be by Thanksgiving of this year. The 2013 Light Vineyards Chardonnay was superb. Buttery and delicious, it was everything one would want in a dry Chardonnay. There was also the 2012 Wyley Pinot Noir, which again was a lighter and fruitier wine. It was well-balanced and perfectly suited for a picnic on a warm summer night. All of the wines I tasted that day were hand-crafted in small batches, and reflect the passion of the family that came together to produce them.
Whether you are on your way to Shelter Cove or happen to be going for a drive with your significant other, you would not be remiss to find yourself on the doorstep of Whitethorn Winery. If you are in need of a good excuse to make the trip on the Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving Day, Briceland Vineyards, Elk Prairie Vineyards and Whitethorn Winery will host an open house where they will invite the public to stop by and taste. While there, take the time to learn about the non-profits the Mattole Restoration Council and Sanctuary Forest. These are two groups that do great work to maintain the viability of the Mattole River, and they love to share the work they do on behalf of wildlife and farmers in the area.
Typically open every afternoon on Friday and Saturday for tasting, but call to verify 707-986-1658