Though Napa and Sonoma get most of the attention, other counties in California have their winemaking charms, too.
One county that gets little attention is also one of the most interesting.
Mendocino County lies north of Sonoma along the wild and cold Pacific Coast. It’s largely mountainous, with two areas ideal for growing grapes: a warm large inland valley and adjoining valleys stretched along the Russian River and cool Anderson Valley along the Navarro River close to the coast.
The Anderson Valley is better known, particularly for its cool-climate pinot noirs, chardonnays, gewürztraminers and sparkling wines.
It’s one of California’s coolest growing regions, and winemakers there sometimes make their wines right on the edge of ripening.
The long valley, however, has climates from warm to very cool; the area closest to the Pacific is ideal for growing grapes for sparkling wines. Its Roederer Estate and sister Scharffenberger wineries producing some of the best such wines outside Champagne (and to my taste, just as desirable). Handley also makes excellent sparklers, too.
Aside from sparkling wines, the best-known winery is Navarro, a cult-like winery that sells out its wines directly to customers through a quirky mailing.
A few wineries are a bit more buttoned down, like Duckhorn’s Goldeneye, but in general, Anderson Valley is home to, shall we say, a number of aging hippies whose wineries are a throwback to another era.
That’s not too surprising, for the county’s largest crop is marijuana, and it seems that most people there just get by or else have wads of cash to buy Cadillac Escalades and other luxuries.
The wineries, however, are friendly and informal, and most make excellent wines.
One, Maple Creek is actually on the way to Anderson Valley in the York Highlands; its sports painter-owner Tom Rodrigues is the host.
The Anderson Valley Pinot Noir festival
Anderson Valley is one of my favorite wine-growing regions, pinot noir one of my favorite wines and Mendocino one of my favorite places to visit, so attending the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival in June is an easy decision for me.
I was fortunate to have a room at the “Handley Hilton,” the winery’s guest house, for accommodations are scarce in Anderson Valley and it’s a long drive to Ukiah or the coast over winding roads after dinner. Hadley makes great sparkling and still wines, which I also enjoyed.
The festival started with a technical morning as experts discussed growing pinot noir and the big topic of the day, getting the intense color Americans prize.
What emerged was no consensus about the best way to get intense color and some debunking of beloved techniques. In Burgundy, they don’t try to produce dark-red wines, being happy with the delicious delicate aromas and flavors.
I didn’t hear any winemakers or others defend the traditional paler wines, but I will. My favorites from the tasting panels were light Navarro and Husch, not the inky versions favored by many newer wineries in Anderson Valley, many with strong connections to Napa with its intense cabernets.
That became even more apparent at a tasting of 40 producers’ wines set up for the press the next day.
The next morning was the media tasting of top pinots, then the mass tasting of Anderson Valley wines and local food, the highlight for consumers that weekend.
There are other things to do in Anderson Valley when there’s no festival. Toulouse Vineyards is great place to visit. A tour of the vineyard might include a hidden cave in a huge redwood tree.
Claudia Springs is on the funky side, a ramshackle collection of tanks and barrels far from the sterile environment of many of today’s wineries. It’s a bit off the beaten track; it certainly would be a good idea to call before visiting.
A night in Mendocino
Just west of Anderson Valley along the coast are tiny towns including Mendocino, a jewel sitting on a rugged peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean and seemingly transported from Nantucket in 1850.
Mendocino was one of the few logging towns that never burned and is now an artists’ and lovers’ haven. Old inns like the venerable Little River Inn nearby take you back to a gentler time and the local seafood-based dining is superb, especially the Dungeness crab and rare abalone.
The recession has hit the coast hard, however, and the famed Heritage House Hotel, site of the movie Same Time Next Year, remains closed, while a number of store fronts on Mendocino’s busiest tourist street are for rent.
It’s still a romantic and picturesque destination, and its science and toy stores as well as bookstore are unmatched for gifts, while the art furniture gallery is fascinating.
I stayed at the Joshua Grindle Inn, just a couple blocks from everything in Mendocino. It has comfortable cottages, an inviting parlor, massages on site if you want, and an incredible flower display in the yard.
Owners Charles and Cindy Rinehart live onsite. Charles said things had been rough, and the inn was so quiet I thought I was almost alone, but a full house wisely showed up for Cindy’s sumptuous breakfast.
Ft. Bragg seven miles north has been hard hit by increasing restrictions on logging and fishing, and the mill that occupied the waterfront in the center of town has closed. The city is planning to develop it, but that appears far off.
Meanwhile, Ft. Bragg has turned into a downscale (compared to Mendocino) tourist attraction, with many reasonable lodgings, inns and motels, and more and more good restaurants. Its compact downtown boasts interesting and diverse shops I’d love to see in Napa.
Farther north is a winery truly making wine on the edge. Sally Ottoson’s Pacific Star Winery is literally on a cliff above the Pacific, and an earthquake fault line passes through it, too.
The 60-ish winemaker, who used to make wine at Star Hill in Napa, planted vines on her property years ago, but it’s too cold to grow there, so she gets her grapes from inland. She makes excellent wines. She has a winetasting bar in Ft. Bragg, too.
Inland Mendocino County
Moving inland to the Ukiah Valley, you find many other wineries. Some are modern like Jeriko, owned by Danny Fetzer, one of the many Fetzer family who used to own Fetzer Winery (which was recently sold by Brown-Forman to Concha y Toro of Chile). Jeriko even has a guest house for weddings and makes excellent sparkling wine as well as still wines.
Nearby is Nelson Family Vineyards, owned by long-time grape (and other produce) growers who recently started making their own wines. No pretense, just good wines.
Another family that recently started making wines from their grapes is the Testa family, which has grown grapes for five generations in Calpalla north of Ukiah, the county’s seat and biggest town. Their winery is like Napa of the ‘50s — or even before Prohibition.
Making wine in the basement of a house they rent to visitors, the family pours tastes in an old barn filled with memorabilia of yesterday. To keep it simple, they make only “Black” and “White” wines, each a blend of traditional varieties mixed in their vineyards.
Not too far from them is the quintessential group of friendly, charming hippies, the Frey family. They grow grapes biodynamical and organically, making wines the way our ancestors did. The cookies served during a tasting there were made from home-grown and milled wheat, but they didn’t contain any unusual additives.
Other than Fetzer, which doesn’t have a tasting room now (maybe it will under the new owners), the biggest winery in the area is Mendocino Wine Company in Ukiah, which makes Parducci wines. Headed by visionary spokesman Paul Dolan, it’s committed to growing grapes organically and making wine sustainably.
Mendocino County doesn’t have many wineries making 98-point blockbusters favored by critics, but it’s accessible, diverse and friendly.
This is clearly a great time to visit Mendocino and the coast. You can find good deals, and the crowds are light. It’s the perfect place for a romantic weekend — and make sure you stop in Anderson Valley on the way for some wine, too.