The drive around the Panoche Circle near Mendota, Calif., in western Fresno County is a picturesque experience with a cornucopia of vegetable, fruit, and tree nut crops.

Located on Panoche Road in the circle are the Cardella Ranch and Winery. The ranch is a family-owned, 3,000-acre farm with two-thirds row crops and one-third permanent crops. The mix includes 1,000 acres of processing and fresh tomatoes, 500 acres of almonds, 300 acres of fresh-market onions, 150 acres of Pima cotton, and 500 acres of wine grapes.

The almonds are a joint endeavor between the Cardella family and a partner.

Carlo Cardella moved from Italy to the West Side around 1902. His grandson Rod planted the first wine grapes, French Colombard, in 1982. Rod’s son Nathan began making wine in 1994.

Nathan, 33, wears the hats of grape grower, vintner and marketer. He earned a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology from California State University, Fresno. He is a director on the SJV Winegrowers Association Board.

Other varietals grown include Ruby Cabernet, Merlot, Sangiovese, Syrah, Barbera, Grenache, Rubired, and Muscat. Chardonnay grapes are purchased from a neighbor.

Ninety-eight percent of the fruit is sold to large wineries throughout California. Nathan crafts the remainder into estate wine. Cardella wines have earned 20-plus awards including gold medals for Sangiovese and Merlot at last year’s 2011 Finger Lakes (New York) International Wine Competition. 

In this year’s California State Fair commercial wine judging competition, three 2010 Cardella wines — Merlot, Syrah, and Moscato — won Best of Class awards. In addition, Cardella’s Ruby Cabernet and Sangiovese won gold medals at this year’s SJV Winegrowers Association competition.

"I am absolutely stunned at how well our wines scored,” Cardella said. “Our grapes have a nice aroma, ample sugar content, good acid content, and tannins which make good wine.”

Costco in Fresno purchased 50 cases of Cardella’s Sangiovese, Ruby Cabernet, and Chardonnay. Costco allowed Cardella to promote the wines in the store for three days this summer to share the wine attributes with customers.

“My original view of Costco was a company that didn’t care much for the little guy,” Cardella said. “The fact that Costco allows a small guy trying to make a name for his family to promote their product in the store is truly amazing. I am very thankful.”

While the Cardella farming operation has prospered overall, the largest challenge on the West Side is an ongoing surface water shortage. An estimated 200,000 acres of West Side row and permanent cropland are fallowed due to the lack of water.