A two-hour drive northwest from Napa, the Anderson Valley remains blessedly sleepy.
This past January at Drew Wines’ tasting room on California’s state Route 128, I lingered over the spontaneously fermented 2015 Fog-Eater Pinot Noir. It tasted as though a cherry crumble had fallen on the ground and gotten mixed up, deliciously, with mineral-rich gravel.
“Does it get hectic during high season in July?” I asked the chap behind the counter.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “The crowd could be twice this size.”
There were all of three of us sipping.
That’s how it is in Mendocino County’s main wine region. A two-hour drive northwest from Napa, the Anderson Valley remains blessedly sleepy. Some big names make wine here, including Roederer, which offers an engaging estate tour. But most of the 30 wineries are scrappy operations where vintners blend Old World sensibilities and New World vision into low-intervention, cool-climate wines.
Baxter, Smith Story, Maryetta, and other upstarts (including Drew) source from among Mendocino’s 10 appellations for tiny amounts of lush yet lithe Pinot, rich with notes of sour cherries, herbs, and earth. Some labels get help from Alex Crangle, the talent at Balo, where the winery is filled with contract barrels and Crangle’s gorgeous experiments, like a white Pinot Noir with the hue and taste of white peaches. At Pennyroyal Farm on the valley floor, Sarah Cahn Bennett and her crew make Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and steely Chardonnay. Bennett grew up at Navarro Vineyards, where her parents produce bright Riesling and what’s probably California’s greatest Gewürztraminer.
Wines that do best here—crisp Alsatian varietals, vivacious Pinot Noirs—shine thanks to latitude and sea. It’s cool and wet, and the shift between day and night temperatures helps keep sugar and acid in balance. Many of the valley’s 2,502 acres are sustainably farmed. Mendocino County boasts a third of California’s organic vines and 10 times more biodynamic vineyards than elsewhere in the state. Though 25 tasting rooms line Route 128 between Boonville to the south and the valley’s northerly “Deep End,” forests, not buildings, surround the vineyards.
From Drew, I headed to Navarro Vineyards, where Bennett’s mother, Deborah Cahn, drove me to see the new lambs who’d help munch the weeds between vine rows. When the truck got stuck in the mud, Cahn called for a rescue tractor. But she owed me no apology. With the ocean sparkling beyond the redwoods beside me, Anderson Valley—rootsy and magical—had me charmed.
Where to Eat & Drink
Sample chai-spiced ale and other inventive taps, and then tour the solar-powered brewery or rent a Frisbee for the disc golf course.
Chef and co-owner Janelle Weaver brings classic techniques to North Coast dishes: spruce-tip custard, rabbit confit in truffle-rich Périgueux sauce. Affordable pairings include 2014 Witching Stick Wiley Vineyard Pinot Noir, whose sour cherry notes treat rabbit right.
Smoked carrots and fresh goat cheese with barrel-fermented Chardonnay; lamb-and-tomme tortelloni with Pinot Noir—chef Elizabeth Leas uses estate cheeses and wines in her pairing bites.
Chef-owner Patrick Meany wood-fires ingredients from the organic farm for creative pizzas (turducken sausage and charred onion; smoked prosciutto and apple) and dishes like smoked potato beignets.
The family-style prix fixe might feature Sonoma County duck breast à l’orange one night and cassoulet with sausages the next. Pair dinner with a bottle of The Princess and The Peasant Carignane, made from dry-farmed, foot-tread grapes.
See here for a list of 14 of the best bottles the Anderson Valley has to offer.
Where to Shop
At Farmhouse Mercantile, score vintage Italian flatware, leather goods, and Japanese-style wraparound aprons from Sewing Suzan, whose shop is in back. Fish Rock Farm Girls mixes American crafts with French flea-market finds. Among food souvenirs at the Boonville Hotel’s shop is subtly spicy Piment d’Ville, ground from Mendo-grown Espelette chiles. Curios at Sun & Cricket span the centuries, from candy-hued Bakelite radios to Jacobean furniture.
Where to Stay
Wake to roosters crowing and sunlight pouring through high windows beneath the vaulted roof of a cabin at The Apple Farm. On Stay & Cook weekends or midweek dinners, help prepare the field-fresh California cuisine that founders Sally Schmitt and her late husband, Don (The French Laundry’s original owners), helped pioneer. At the Boonville Hotel, shower alfresco with the bath door open onto the private deck. Or make like a 19th-century California homesteader at The Brambles, which is inside a Victorian-style home amid a fairy-tale stand of old-growth redwoods along Indian Creek.