Laurie Gepford didn’t seem to mind manning a busy tasting table in a stuffy tent far away from the pleasant Rutherford tasting room he manages for Cakebread Cellars. Gepford was pouring Cakebread’s Anderson Valley pinot noir to a sellout crowd at the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival May 15.
“We love our Anderson Valley pinot,” Gepford said. “They are great wines. You get lots of layers, a lot of complexity … the fruit is so rich.”
Cakebread Cellars was one of several Napa Valley wineries pouring at the event that exclusively features wines made from acclaimed Anderson Valley pinot noir fruit. The Grand Tasting was held at the Goldeneye winery, the Anderson Valley spinoff of Duckhorn Vineyards in St. Helena.
The Napa Valley-based labels joined more than 25 Anderson Valley wineries to serve an approving crowd of 650 pinot lovers from as far away as the East Coast.
Eddie and Sonya Garcia drove from Fairfield to attend the event after discovering the valley and its wines five years ago.
“It’s pretty up here,” Eddie said, sipping pinot and asking for tips on any hot labels he may have missed.
“I just like wine,” Sonya added. “I started coming up here when I was really into zinfandel … then I started tasting at different places and started liking pinot.
“Today, I really like tasting the differences between not only the wines but the (individual) vineyards.”
In recent years, tickets to the event have sold out well in advance of the annual festival, according to Kristy Charles, executive director of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association.
“As more wineries make Anderson Valley wines and people see them in their markets and restaurants on the East Coast, the Midwest and the South, they really start to associate Anderson Valley with good pinot. Then they really want to come out and see where these wines come from.”
Anderson Valley’s reputation for premium pinot noir has grown in recent years, Charles said, as growers have learned how to optimize the oft-times finicky varietal in the area’s climate.
“A little over half of what we grow here now is pinot noir,” she said. “Because we’re a (cooler) climate, it’s really ideal here (for pinot noir).”
Bruce Conzelman of Harmonique winery agrees. Harmonique grows and produces pinot noir in the valley’s so-called “deep end” just a few miles from where the Navarro River meets the Pacific coast.
“There’s an enormous cooling factor maybe 200 days out of the year, where if the temperature is 95 during the daytime it will get down to 65 at night. We believe that this adds to the complexity of the grapes.”
It took a while for pinot noir to catch on in Anderson Valley, an area that 30 years ago was primarily into apple growing. Bob Klindt of Claudia Springs Winery in Philo has witnessed and participated in the valley’s transformation. Starting as a “home winemaker” in San Jose, Klindt and his wife Claudia visited Anderson Valley in 1989. Although they were there just for “fun,” the Klindts ended up checking out real estate in the area.
“We looked at this one property and in the carport was a 1,000 gallon jacketed stainless steel wine tank that went with the house,” Klindt remembers. “So we went home to San Jose, put our house up for sale and bought the damn place.”
At the time, Klindt said, pinot noir and other varietals were just beginning to come into their own in Anderson Valley.
“Roederer was here first,” he said, referring to the French champagne producer who gained an early foothold in Anderson Valley. “They came in the late ’70s and started buying property.”
Roederer Estate built a winery near Philo in 1982 and started planting and buying pinot noir and chardonnay in the area for use primarily in its sparkling wines. This, Klindt indicated, revealed the valley’s potential as a premium pinot noir producer.
“Then Duckhorn (Goldeneye) came along (in 1996) and with their marketing and (other activities) built a huge awareness of the area’s wine industry,” he said.
This awareness gave rise to the first “festival” event, Charles said, which was more of a “passport or barrel tasting” promotion at different wineries. A few years later, the winegrowers association formalized the event into the current festival format.
According to Charles, good wine, good food and the bucolic setting draw the crowd to Anderson Valley year after year. But there is something else, she added, something that keeps people coming to the relatively remote valley throughout the year.
“Up here, when you talk to someone behind the (tasting) bar they are usually a winemaker, an owner … they have some stake in the business,” said Charles, who with her siblings operates Foursight Wines winery in Booneville.
Charles pointed to a Mendocino County marketing study that profiled the typical visitor to Anderson Valley.
“People like us as we are … the laid-back, low-key people, the quaint tasting room,” she said the study indicated. “The wineries are not the attraction in themselves … the wine is the attraction and the faces behind the wine are the attraction.”
That homespun, neighborly image is underscored by the fact that part of the proceeds from the Pinot Noir Festival supports the local community. This year’s beneficiary was the Anderson Valley Health Center.
“Because we’re not incorporated, a lot of the services here are community-supported,” she said. “Our ambulance and fire department are community-funded. Our health center lost about half of its funding last year. So we always try to give somewhere between $20,000 to $25,000 to a local charity.”
Will Anderson Valley be able to keep its “laid-back” character given the considerable development in wine country to the south?
“We are pretty remote,” Charles shrugs. “We’re not a day trip from the Bay Area … You have to be dedicated to this area to make the trip.”
Bob Klindt and other small producers in the area have mixed feelings about encouraging development in Anderson Valley, which has little to offer in the way of food and lodging.
“In some ways were the old timers,” Klindt said. “We’ve been here for 20 years. We like the charm, the smallness, the fact that people can come, relax and talk to the winemaker. On the other hand, it’s really hard to pay the bills without a little more traffic. So I think having more tasting rooms and more young winemakers that are brining more enthusiasm and new ideas will just make more of a draw … more of a destination.”