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Copyright © 2018
Forkmedia LLC


by Fred McMillin
for April 21, 2000


Winery of the Week

Superstar Cinnabar


"A Chardonnay more opulent than Peter the Great's Summer Palace...A textbook Cab that makes you wonder if you just woke up in Margaux."

...Wine Enthusiast

Tom Mudd
with wife, Melissa Frank, and family.

Tom and Melissa planted their mountain-top vineyard in 1984.

The Rest of the Story

Such praise should not be a shock when you consider the pedigree of the vines Dr. Tom Mudd and his wife, Melissa Frank, were planting in 1984. The Chardonnay vines can be traced back to Burgundy's renowned Corton Charlemagne vineyard. The Cabernet Sauvignon clone was "originally grown over a century ago in the La Questa Vineyard at Woodside, California, and is believed to have come from Bordeaux's Chateau Margaux." and life has not been dull once there were grapes to harvest. Examples:

Swimming in Wine?—At 5 P.M., Oct. 17, 1989, Tom was on the catwalk above the fermenting wine tanks. He climbed down. Suddenly, he was knocked off his feet, and wine was splashing out of the tanks. Had he still been ABOVE the tanks, the Loma Prieta earthquake would have put him IN one of those tanks!

Using Wild Yeast—In time Tom turned winemaking details over to George Troquato, a devotee of using the vineyard's wild yeast. "It yields a wine of greater depth of flavors, a richer mouthfeel, and a stronger reflection of the vineyard character.

However, each fall I question my mental state, when about 20 out of 150 barrels show fermentation is fading." But by rapid application of electric blankets and other tricks, "the yeast is revived, the fermentation completed, and the wine tastes terrific!"

Choosing a New Label—Even this wasn't easy. Melissa says: "I don't know why Tom and I expected to select a new label design quickly. After all, it took us eleven months to buy a couch." Enough excitement. Here's how I first heard of the winery.

A Freebee

A 1993 letter from Cinnabar: "I hear you are about to conduct a tasting for several sommeliers of San Francisco restaurants. In case you can include them, two bottles of our 1989 Saratoga Estate Cabernet Sauvignon are on their way. This would be a fine way to help us kick off the new vintage."

Raising Wine Service to New Heights

At the tasting, I particularly remember the wine whiz from San Francisco's Carnelian Room. I recall his arriving early, picking up the first glass, and with no clues, he said, "That's a Chardonnay, but it's from the East Coast." (It was from Virginia!) His name was Andrew Dombrowski...and he could raise wine service to new heights. He is the only sommelier I've ever met who could slam dunk a wine bottle into a basketball hoop! Anyhow, the Cinnabar won Best Cabernet that day.

Cinnabar Vineyards and Winery
Cinnabar Vineyards and Winery

Cinnabar Chardonnay

The Chardonnay made a good impression on my tasters in 1993, also. When the dust had settled, it was voted fourth Best Wine Tasted that year. That was the 1990 vintage. The prestigious InterVin International Wine Competition judges agreed. They voted it best American wine in their huge, blind tasting.

Just the Facts

Name—Cinnabar Vineyards and Winery
Location - High on a ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains; 1,600 feet elevation; looks out over the southern end of the San Francisco Bay.
Owners—Tom Mudd and Melissa Frank, husband and wife
First Winemaker—Dr. Tom was a Ph. D. laser specialist working at Stanford Research Institute on projects for NASA. BUT, their one-acre vineyard beckoned and Tom decided to change careers.
Production—13,000-case range.
Contact -Joe Gargiulo, (707) 762-2700, FAX (408) 741-5860

Postscript—Whence the Name?

My father, long in charge of the University of Puget Sound Geology Dept., always used as a paper weight a polished piece of red cinnabar. That's the ore that medieval alchemists could magically transform into mercury with heat. Tom Mudd says he is a "modern-day alchemist transforming simple rainwater into celestial wines."

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


This page created April 2000