McDougall Ranch

  • Location: Sonoma Coast, California
  • Elevation: 935-1,030 feet
  • Proximity to the Pacific Ocean: 3.5 miles
  • Row Orientation: Magnetic North to South with a South to South West exposure
  • Clones: Pinot Noir Dijon clones 114 & 115 on 44-53 rootstock
  • Soil: Greywacke, sandstone and shale
  • Geological Formation: Franciscan Complex
  • Age: Late Cretaceous, 145 Million years
  • Spacing 8′ x 5′
  • Vine age: 21 years

I remember the phone call vividly when back in 2006 Andy Smith of DuMol said that there might be a few tons of McDougall Ranch Pinot Noir available for sale, just as harvest was beginning.  Before hearing from Andy, I had been networking as best I could which included cold-calling farmers and vineyard owners and also dropping letters into people’s mailboxes in hopes of gaining access to some Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.  Finding high end fruit couldn’t have been more difficult due to the impact the movie “Sideways” had on Pinot Noir.  I persevered though, as when I first spoke to the McDougalls and they informed me that their vineyard was planted on the high arches of the Sonoma Coast and farmed by Ulises Valdez, I jumped at the opportunity!

Mac and Barbara McDougall, 2007

One of our most highly regarded wines, McDougall, originates from grapes perched high on a tranquil mountaintop of Cazadero, just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. Driving to McDougall from San Francisco is always met with a feeling of excitement as it brings nature’s beauty to the forefront and provides me with a strong presence of mind.  After turning inland from some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in the country, one encounters rolling hills perched with majestic redwoods, cows, sheep, fox and windy roads all along a vast forest of Mother Nature.  For the past fourteen years it’s been a privilege to work with their fruit, and their story begins here.

The 188 acres now known as McDougall Ranch was formally owned by a wealthy timberman, turned sheep farmer named Norman Richardson. The Richardson family had migrated from New Hampshire to California in the late 1800’s and purchased large tracks of land on the Sonoma Coast, at one point owning over 4,700 acres! Mac McDougall met Richardson through a mutual friend, and eventually found himself helping with projects on the Ranch. He enjoyed tending to the animals, hunting on the large swath of land, and sharing meals together with the Richardson’s at the end of a long day.    

Rich McDougall, 2014

By the 1960’s, Mac had fallen in love with this lifestyle on the Ranch, while the Richardson’s found themselves in a challenging tax predicament.  As landowners, the State mandated that land be taxed by the amount of standing timber. In turn, those with large land holdings now suddenly had very large tax burdens. The Richardson’s found themselves forced to sell some of their  acreage.  Mac was in the right place at the right timeand asked his son Rich to partner with him to purchase some of the land he had grown to love.    

In the early years, McDougall Ranch was primarily used as retreat and hunting ranch, with close and extended family often traveling to visit.  Rich and Mac raised cattle and horses on the land as a source of income. Due to the small quantity of animals they were able to care for and the large amount of work that it entailed, it became hard to get ahead. It wasn’t long before the McDougall’s began to look for other ways for the land to pay for itself. 

Barbara McDougall, Mac’s wife, was working at Sonoma Grapevine, one of the nation’s largest grapevine nurseries and was acquainted with Warren Dutton who was a member of one of the larger grape growing families in Sonoma.  Barbara convinced Warren to take the trip out to the remote hilltops of Cazadero to visit McDougall Ranch. Upon seeing the extreme beauty and potential of the site, Dutton confidently stated “You need to plant grapes here”.  He asked Barbara if she preferred Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, to which she replied, “I like Merlot!” To our benefit today, Dutton took the time to explain the climate and soils of the site and its potential for growing premium Pinot Noir grapes.  Situated a mere 3.3 miles from the Pacific Ocean at an elevation of 900 to 1,100 feet, the rocky soils were planted to 8 acres of Pinot Noir in 1997.                                          

For 13 vintages, I had the honor of working together with vineyard manager Ulises Valdez to fulfill the potential of the site that once was just imagined.  Ulises emigrated from Mexico to work in vineyards at 16 years of age and rose to be one of California’s most renowned and respected vineyard managers.  I often say that McDougall Ranch looks like a golf course putting green, as he and his crew cared for it so meticulously.  Sadly, Ulises passed away suddenly a few days after we harvested our 2018 McDougall fruit.  His legacy lives on though, both through his children who now tend to the farming at McDougall and through the everlasting wines of this great property.

Franciscan Complex:

The rocky Greywacke soils at McDougall Ranch

The oldest bedrock occurs on steep slopes and high hills and mountains in northern Sonoma County. Called the Franciscan Complex from exposures near San Francisco, it is an eclectic collection of different rock types that date back as far as 150 million years.. Mostly of oceanic origin, the Franciscan Complex includes sea-floor marine sediments along with iron-rich igneous volcanic, plutonic, and metamorphic rocks. These rock types originated far offshore and became mixed together by faulting at a fundamental plate tectonic geologic boundary called a subduction zone, where the ocean floor tectonic plate dives under the continental edge. 

One result of complex interactions at subduction zones is “mélange”, the French word for mixture, complex rocks with textures. Franciscan Complex mélange is particularly well-exposed along the Sonoma County Pacific coast and on high ridges. These igneous rocks and the associated sandstones and conglomerates are part of the ocean floor that was scraped off onto the continent during subduction; an ophiolite complex designated part of the Great Valley Sequence.

Rock distribution in the Franciscan Complex is random, as are the soils that come from their breakdown. The recent land rush to find quality vineyard sites in Sonoma County has resulted in vineyard development of slopes on Franciscan Complex rocks and their overlying soils. The varied soils in these areas present new and sometimes formidable challenges for vineyard development and management. The best areas for development will be on soils developed from marine sediments, primarily greywacke sandstone and shale.

Credit: Geology, soils & wine quality in Sonoma County, California ~ W.H.(Terry) Wright