With twenty to thirty winding, redwood-studded miles of driving isolating the Anderson Valley from civilizations (can Mendocino be fully called that?) at both the northern and southern ends, the tour bus crowd won’t be coming here any time shortly. Those large groups and the big Cabernet Sauvignon set stick to Napa’s easy access and more temperate climate.
The Anderson Valley is its own world really, self-sustaining, and heavily agricultural. Only recently have the apples been displaced by wine grapes as the prominent crop, making this region home to some of the most coveted wines of California. It was a terroir secret. Now it is no such thing.
The geography is a striking narrow valley that seems like a zoomed in Napa Valley to the eye, where even on hazy summer days you can make out the ridges east and west. The region sets stakes in pursuit of being the best Pinot Noir holy grail outside of Burgundy, joining the likes of New Zealand, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Santa Barbara County, and the Sonoma Coast.
A Wine Destination
Anderson Valley is no doubt one of California’s greatest and most emerging wine regions. It is definitely not one of the most convenient or most visited. There are few hotels and only a handful of wineries are known outside California wine circles, most of whom are semi-local and connected to major wineries based elsewhere like Duckhorn, Ferrari-Carano, or Roederer.
As much as Pinot Noir gets the marquee attention and Chardonnay is the supporting sidekick, decidedly non-Burgundian Alsatian varietals like Riesling and Gewürztraminer are also an Anderson Valley signature. Many of these grapes also end up turning Anderson Valley into California’s Champagne. Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne, plus California weather. Sounds good to me.
Maybe it’s the “Dramamine Drive” from the 101 exit in Cloverdale up the hills and through the redwoods to Boonville that makes the Anderson Valley an even more rewarding experience than just fantastic wines in a beautiful setting. Boonville, the heart of the Valley, isn’t in a hurry to become a “wine country destination small town” à la Yountville. It’s best known for the Anderson Valley Brewing Company and just a few years ago got its first boutique hotel, yes, The Boonville Hotel.
Just the sound of the name “Boonville” screams “boonies” and Old West. The deep passion locals have for Boonville to stay secluded and calm years before the wine industry arrived led them to the point of having their own language, “Boontling,” so “brightlighters” (outsiders) will feel just like that. It’s a one main road, no stop light town. Its sleepy character outside of prime holiday weekends and major events makes you inevitably think of a certain mystical Scottish town that only appears once every hundred years (Boonville is a little more with it than that). The Brigadoon-like gatherings of Boonville are both wine-related and small town charm-related: the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival, the Alsace Festival, and the Mendocino County Fair.
Indeed any time of year is great for a visit to one of the few world class growing regions that still remains off the beaten path—and probably will forever.
Anderson Valley is about a two hour drive north from San Francisco and roughly an hour from Healdsburg, the heart of another California wine region, Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley. Many prominent Anderson Valley wines are actually made there, most notably Williams Selyem. Italian immigrants started growing grapes and making wine here in the very late 19th century but the wine industry didn’t really take note of the valley until a 1964 UC Davis study decided the soil and climate would be a very successful fit for certain varietals.
That was the year after a Southern California doctor, Donald Edmeades, planted a small plot of grapes with a sarcastic sign calling the vineyard “Edmeades’ Folly” because nobody believed quality wine could thrive here. His grapes, except for Cabernet Sauvignon, did thrive, as echoed in the UC Davis study. Unlike warmth requiring Cabernet Sauvignon, the valley’s varieties better be ok with moisture and cool temperatures. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling; Burgundy and Alsace varieties. Then in 1982, the arrival of high profile Champagne producer Roederer in this new New World area cemented the Anderson Valley as a key California region, and a mix of Alsace, Champagne, and Burgundy.
The Lay of the Land
The valley’s main artery is Highway 128, shifting between medium speed limits and down to 25 through the tiny towns. Boonville is the main anchor, marking the southern border Yorkville Highlands AVA to the south. Following 128 to the north from Boonville vineyards grow up the hillsides left and right. Most wineries and tasting rooms are just south or just north of Philo’s apple orchards and small Old West town-evoking center. Several of the oldest wineries are in Philo but at its northern edge by blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Navarro. Then 128 shifts west and follows the windy Navarro River to the Pacific, meeting Highway 1 just south of Mendocino.
We’re not talking major metropolitan cities here. Boonville (population: 1,035). Philo (population: 349 or 711, depending on your source). Yorkville must be about 100.
Mendocino County is home to ten AVAs within its 17,000 acres. Anderson Valley AVA is the main wine-growing region, cutting north-south parallel to the Coastal Range mountains, while most of the appellations cut east-west in gaps from the coast inland thru the Coastal Range. For Anderson Valley wineries, many have vineyards and/or make wine in the Mendocino Ridge AVA, the “Islands in the Sky” almost always shrouded in the fog between the coast and Anderson Valley. Many Anderson Valley wineries also source from Yorkville Highlands AVA just south of Boonville.
A Redwood and Pinot Climate
The climate is perfect for redwood trees and Pinot Noir: foggy and dewy oftentimes with fog’s presence almost daily at the coast. Extremes in temperature are rare: no snow and a handful of days in the 80’s on the coast and upper 90’s in the Anderson Valley. Daytime highs can vary 40 degrees sometimes, much like in the Bay Area to the south. Overnight frost occurs frequently with nearly everything in moderation: wind, rain, and temperatures.
Summer can get very hot in Boonville and Philo (literally was 100 degrees in early September when I visited). Soils of the just over 2,000 acres are mineral-dense with a sandy and gravelly alluvial loam above a clay base, though some areas of “The Deep End” in the valley’s chilly northwest corner close to the coast has sandstone soils.
Accommodations, Dining, and Local Color
Many visitors stay on the coast in Albion or Mendocino or in the more nondescript towns to the east along 101. It’s really part of the Anderson Valley experience to stay at one of the handful spots in Boonville or Philo—they’re as quirky as the towns. The Boonville Hotel might not have air conditioning (unfortunate during my visit) but is an idyllic, relaxed European-style inn with spectacular gardens, a living room, and an excellent fixed-price dinner most nights at its restaurant, Table 128.
Table 128’s San Francisco-level four or five courses set menus offer a distinct, Northern California feel to the dishes. My visit started with an eggplant and sweet pepper bisque, followed by roasted chicken with tomatillos, a poblano chile studded polenta, and feta salsa verde, concluding with a buttermilk panna cotta on a pool of a peach berry honey sauce.
Right now, in October, diners might start with a roasted butternut squash soup with crispy shiitake mushroom and gremolata then a lamb sirloin and early autumn vegetable ratatouille. There’s a great wine list (Drew Albariño by the half bottle!). Hotel guests can enjoy equally impressive pastries and granola, complete with arguably the best apple cider I’ve found in California.
That cider is from The Apple Farm, up 128 in Philo. It’s a tiny set of guests cottages, an orchard, and pay by the honor system farm stand run by Don and Sally Schmitt. Before moving to even quieter country life, they owned The French Laundry in Yountville before it became The French Laundry under Thomas Keller.
Possibly the best dining experience overall would be at Stone & Embers, part of The Madrones. Chef Patrick Meany, a Thomas Keller and Gary Danko alum, focuses on wood-oven dishes like wood roasted scallops with romesco and seaweed jus and several types of pizza that might just be a Margherita or be topped with turducken and red chili pepper. Meany offers a cast iron seared chicken thigh with lentils, black cardamom, and vadouvan yogurt, presents mushroom “chicharrones” as a vegetarian and less guilty snack than its porcine sibling, and bakes levain bread daily from dough fermented for 36 hours.
I’m still bummed out that I couldn’t dine there because they don’t serve lunch. However, dinner starts at 4 pm. A meal at 4 pm is called dinner? For wine, you bet Knez, Baxter, Bink, Handley, and many others locals are on the list.
Libby’s in Philo is a smart choice for Mexican, Coq au Vin near Navarro for rustic French in a roadside setting and for superb pizzas and salads in a slightly disorganized environment go to The Boonville General Store that is much more of a bakery-café. There aren’t “lots” of options in the area for daytime dining or mid-week dinners, so definitely research ahead of time.
Even if it’s wine country, its beer might be best known nationally courtesy of the Anderson Valley Brewing Company with its signature, excellent Boont Amber Ale. Mendocino County and especially now to the north Humboldt County are the leaders of another coveted crop, recently legalized in Colorado and Washington (it’s not Pinot Noir but has the same number of syllables).
Anderson Valley is an isolated stretch of free spirits, hard workers, and stunning natural beauty. Fog or sun, year-round it’s also a perfect home for Pinot Noir as I convincingly learned.
Next, Part II: The Wines.