Winery honors John Muir with a Sonora tasting room

SONORA -- John Muir grew wine grapes, fitting them in when he wasn't exploring the wilderness or helping to launch the environmental movement.

Most of the vines are long gone from the Martinez property where Muir lived from 1880 on, but a vestige of that history lives on in downtown Sonora.

Muir-Hanna Vineyards, a Napa Valley winery owned by one of Muir's descendants, opened a tasting room on South Washington Street in 2005.

It chose a town in the Sierra Nevada as a tribute to Muir's work on behalf of the mountain range, including the campaign to create Yosemite National Park.

It doesn't hurt that the Sierra foothills have become a popular region for wine tasting, and that Sonora is just off a main route to Yosemite.

"We decided on Sonora because it had the right kind of downtown," said Nicole Darracq, marketing consultant for Muir-Hanna.

Winery owner Bill Hanna, who is Muir's great-grandson, said other merchants have welcomed the tasting room.

"They appreciate us being there because it's something different to draw people downtown," he said.

The foothill wine belt is mainly from Calaveras County north. Tuolumne County is a latecomer, with just two winery-based tasting rooms -- at the Mountain Brow and La Bella Rosa wineries.

At the Muir-Hanna room, located in a Gold Rush-era building, visitors are tasting wines from the Oak Knoll District in the central Napa Valley. Among them are chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and red and rosé pinot noir.

The story begins in the early 1850s, when Muir's future father-in-law, John Strentzel, planted wine grapes and other crops near Snelling. A flood soon wiped them out, and Strentzel moved to Martinez to farm.

Muir, a native of Scotland, married Louie Strentzel in 1880. They received part of the farm as a wedding gift, and Muir ran it for about a decade.

He turned over the management to other family members as he grew increasingly occupied with his environmental work and world travels. He co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892, campaigned for several national parks and wrote many books and articles.

One of Muir's fiercest battles ended in defeat in 1913, with the approval of a dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley on the Tuolumne River. He died the next year.

After his death, his daughter and son-in-law ran the Martinez farm. In 1950, grandson John Muir Hanna bought the Napa Valley property. He raised cattle and prunes at first and started planting grapes in 1969.

Today, the vineyard is managed by Bill Hanna, who is John Muir Hanna's son. Bill's son Michael makes the wine, and wife Claudia and daughter Kristin are involved, too. It produces about 2,300 cases a year.

Bill Hanna said he tends to the vines in keeping with his famous great-grandfather's principles. He plants cover crops between the rows to prevent erosion and fix nitrogen into the soil. He has not used insecticides on producing vines for more than 30 years, because the land harbors natural predators of the pests. He is working toward organic certification.

"We were in the sustainable mode for a number of years before it was a buzzword," Hanna said.

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