I recently attended the 17th Annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival and returned with renewed enthusiasm for the wines of this region. There are 11 grape-growing appellations in Mendocino County, but it’s the Anderson Valley that’s uniquely suited to growing that minx of a grape, pinot noir. You’ll find approximately 35 wineries and nearly 100 vineyards here, and many wineries outside the valley also source grapes from the region.
The valley is a relatively isolated area bordered on two sides by 1,000-plus-high mountains and a location 15 miles inland from the Pacific at its northern tip or “deep end.” The valley floor is about 18 miles long, bisected by Highway 128, and the vineyards begin at the town of Boonville, continuing north through Philo, and ending in the tiniest hamlet of the three, Navarro.
Most visitors access the valley via Highway 128 as it departs westward from Highway 101 at Cloverdale, 80 miles north of San Francisco. From 128, you quickly enter a pastoral land of great beauty and your pulse seems to slow each mile you travel—as long as you don’t encounter a lumber truck coming south on the narrow and windy two-lane highway. You leave the world of roadside burger and gas stops, and encounter a countryside teaming with moss-covered majestic oaks, towering redwoods, ramshackle old barns, and grazing sheep and cows.
Changes to the infrastructure occur agonizingly slow, if at all, which is why this wine-growing area will never become another Napa Valley. Simply put, retirees and urban refugees with money won’t find creature comforts here.
One bright spot, however, is a relatively new oasis in Philo, where I stayed during a recent visit. Called The Madrones, it’s a Mediterranean-styled complex of four guest quarters (construction of five additional rooms starts in August), four winery tasting rooms (Bink Wines, Drew Family Cellars, Knez Winery, and Signal Ridge Vineyards), and an excellent casual restaurant, Stone and Embers, whose toque is Patrick Meany, formerly of Bouchon, and Gary Danko restaurants. It is the first designation lodging in Anderson Valley with all the modern amenities sophisticated travelers expect. Ideally situated for winery visits, it’s adjacent to Goldeneye, across the street from Balo Vineyards and Domaine Anderson, and only a short drive from the wineries and other tasting rooms that dot Highway 128.
The personable owner is Jim Roberts, who has lived in the Anderson Valley for almost 25 years. The Madrones and The Philo Collective are partnering with the Mendocino Film Festival for the 2nd annual Cinema in the Vineyards May 30 to June 1. The wine-related documentaries, “American Wine Story” and “Red Obsession” will be shown. Visit themadrones.com for further information.
Boonville is the largest town in the Anderson Valley. It’s known as Boont in the valley’s local language of Boontling, which consists of about 1,500 words completely unique to this valley. It combines Gaelic, Scottish, Pomo Indian, and Spanish. In the 1800s, this secretive code-like dialect became the spoken word for many residents. The exact origins are unclear, but one theory attributes it to the isolation of the valley and the distrust of city people (known as “brightlighters” in Boontling). Wine-related Boontling terms include “baul seep” (lovers of wine), “baul hornin’” (good drinking), “frati” (wine: Mr. Frati was a local vineyard owner), and “frati shams” (wine grapes). If you don’t want to incur the wrath of Anderson Valley locals by appearing to be a brightlighter, leave your designer jeans, Louis Vuitton bags, and Polo shirts at home.
The pinot noirs from this unique area offer a multiplicity of styles that range from wines that are readily drinkable upon release to those that need years to uncover deep complexities. Within stylistic differences, two constants are apparent: The wines can have lower alcohols than their counterparts from California’s warmer growing areas, and they nearly always have a lively tug of acidity that makes for refreshing drinking and age-ability. Because of the valley’s cool climate, the grapes ripen slowly, achieving full ripeness without high sugars, while still retaining brisk acidity. The resulting pinot noir wines are easy to love and recommend.
Some producers of premium Anderson Valley pinot noir to seek out include Balo Vineyards, Baxter Winery, Black Kite Cellars, Drew Family Cellars, Elke Vineyards, Foursight Wines, Handley Cellars, Harmonique, Husch Vineyards, Knez Winery, Lazy Creek Vineyards, Maggy Hawk, Navarro Vineyards, and Roederer Estate. Many Anderson Valley pinot noirs are only available by visiting the tasting rooms or consulting the websites of these wineries. For more information on the area’s wineries, consult the Anderson Valley Winegrowers website at avwines.com or The PinotFile website at princeofpinot.com.