Anderson Valley: No longer the best kept secret
I’ve been on a soap box (wine crate) about Anderson Valley since my first visit fifteen years ago, and now, EVERYONE is talking about Anderson Valley. In fact, I’ve been quoted and mentioned in some of the pieces that have been published recently. While less than three hours from San Francisco, the region is isolated in Mendocino County and the road to get there is windy, which has successfully kept it as one of the wine world’s best kept secrets as a travel destination.
The drive is part of what keeps this region “undiscovered”, but once you get there, the rewards are unending. It is fifteen miles from the entrance on the east (after you take 128 from 101 in Cloverdale, a road that includes miles of switchbacks), to the coast where the Navarro River meets the Pacific. Every mile you’re rewarded with giant redwood trees, misty vineyards, and wineries run by the people that live and thrive in the region. As I’ve noted on the resources page, you’ll want to/need to spend the night, especially if you plan on wine tasting, which is the primary reason to visit. Pack some ginger ale for the ride, and take your time getting there. Pull over to let people pass, and enjoy the scents of the redwoods, the wild pennyroyal, and the sea mist that winds its way up the valley.
According to a document on the history of Anderson Valley by Neill Bell, “The modern area of winegrowing and winemaking in Anderson Valley began in 1964. That was the year Dr. Donald Edmeades, a Southern California physician, planted 24 acres of premium wine grapes and hung up a sign that read, "Edmeades Folly." The grapes he chose with the help of UC Davis were Gewurztraminer, French Colombard, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon (which proved unable to ripen in the valley’s climate), and he sold them to wineries outside of the region. In 1968, Tony and Gretchen Husch bought 60 acres near Edmeades and planted Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Noir. Their first vintage was 1971, when they founded Husch Vineyards, Anderson Valley's first winery since prohibition. In 1972, Edmeades son Deron made the first official wines from grapes his father planted at the newly bonded Edmeades Winery. Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn planted a vineyard across the highway from Edmeades, and began producing wine under the now iconic Navarro Vineyards label in 1974. And over the next several decades, the region attracted the top talent that is now producing world class wines.
“One of the best examples of an American wine region that consistently delivers world-class wines at humble prices is the Anderson Valley—especially when it comes to Pinot Noir and sparkling wine.” - Kathleen Wilcox
What kinds of wines can you expect in Anderson Valley? Imagine if Alsace and Champagne were to find the perfect home for all of their varietals and styles. Exceptional Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and miniscule amounts of Pinot Blanc are made into beautiful still, sparkling, off-dry, and dessert wines. With world renowned sparkling wine house Roederer Estate (Champagne Louis Roederer’s California property), Scharffenberger, Lichen, and others creating traditional method bubbles on a smaller scale, and places like Maggy Hawk experimenting with Pet Nat (to everyone’s surprise and delight), you could spend a day drinking nothing but bubbles. Pinot Noir is being made in every style from a blanc (they press of just the juice, and with no skin contact the wines turn out clear, and taste of golden raspberries), to wines made with minimal oak creating fresh, ready to drink reds, to power houses made using new French Oak, and requiring years to evolve into a wine worthy of space in your cellar. There are fantastic whites, like Ross Cobb’s Riesling, that sells out in advance of the vintage, Chardonnay worth cellaring alongside any of the top domestic producers, and aromatic wines like Gewurztraminer that will transport you to Strasbourg.
My excitement for the region was recognized by the head of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association, and I was asked to speak on the Ageability of Anderson Valley wines for a group of press and industry professionals back in March at the Little River Inn. As a tasting and seminar have never been done on library wines for this region, it was an eye opening experience, and (although I forgot it was being recorded) the seminar is available on YouTube if you’re interested. Thom Elkjer opened with a fascinating history of Anderson Valley, and then I took over. We were fortunate enough to source wines from Navarro Vineyards, Meyer Family Cellars, Toulouse, Husch, and Handley for the tasting. Representatives for each winery including Jim Klein were on hand to walk us through the history, the wine making, and the evolution of the wines. With only one exception (and it was later discovered that the release notes specifically mention that the wine was meant to be drunk upon release and not aged), the wines showed exceptionally well. The highlight was the 2001 Navarro Chardonnay out of magnum, which we are still talking about.
“The Anderson Valley offers some of the best values for wine on the West Coast,” said Melissa Smith, a sommelier, wine educator and the founder of Enotrias. “It is comparable in terms of approachability and style to the Loire Valley and Alsace. These wines are generally low in alcohol, food friendly and grown organically without a lot of manipulation in the cellar.”
While I would encourage you to make a special trek to this Valley throughout the year, you may want to plan on the third weekend of May. Anderson Valley’s Pinot Fest, is the annual gathering of the wineries in the Valley, which I highly recommend grabbing tickets to as soon as they’re released, because they sell out every year. The Bubble Lounge is a supplemental VIP experience held at Scharffenberger, where the top sparkling wine houses are pouring, caviar is mounded on buttery bilinis, and the setting is absolutely stunning on the back terrace where you look out over the vineyards, glass in hand, and wonder if life gets much better than this. Plan your trip early, Anderson Valley is notorious for not having enough places to stay in its remote region. You will have the opportunity to taste from over 50 wineries producing incredible wines from the AVA, and meet the people behind the labels, and there are fantastic open house opportunities that weekend throughout the valley.
While it’s hard to pick my favorites in AV, be sure to stop at Pennyroyal Farm for their fresh wines, and incredible cheeses. If you have time, take the farm tour, wander the gardens, and enjoy a cheese plate with a bottle of rosé while lounging on their back terrace overlooking the vineyards and farm. It’s the perfect stop after that long drive.
As you make your way into Boonville, there will be several options for tasting rooms. You can’t go wrong. Just outside of town is Lichen, one of the coolest sparkling wine houses in the state. Micro as far as production goes, and the prices of the bottles are steep, but the wines will amaze you. Goldeneye is perfect for those transitioning from Napa Valley to Anderson Valley. As I’ve only been there for industry events, I can’t speak on the consumer experience, but I’ve heard it’s on par with the extravagance that you’ll find in the land of Cabernet. The winery itself is sleek, as is the service, and the wines are regularly found among my clients’ collections.
“My hope is that winemakers continue to make Alsatians and other whites,” she says. “Right now, the Anderson Valley still has dope ass wines at reasonable prices. I want to see that continue—and not see the trend of creating 16 different Pinot Noirs that start at $85 a pop creeping north to the Valley.”
The next town is Philo, where again, you’ll see a concentration of tasting rooms, and you can’t go wrong. Baxter, Drew, and Maggy Hawk are among my favorites. When you get a bit further down, keep your eyes out for Scharffenberger and Toulouse (one of my favorite wine producers in the world).
As you work your way towards the coast, stop at Navarro for an extensive list of delicious approachable wines, and get a feel for the epicenter of the history of this wine region at this casual spot. And then there’s Roederer Estate. Neck and neck for my favorite sparkling wine producer in California (you really can’t beat Domaine Carneros for the setting alone), Roederer is not to be missed. Grab some splits and large format bottles while you’re there. There will always be an excuse to open them. Handley is one of the last stops on the way to the coast, and the second generation owner Lulu is keeping her mother’s dream alive by consistently creating beautiful ready to drink Pinots (which can also be found in a canned format by Maker Wine).
If you can't make your way out to Anderson Valley, keep an eye out for wines from the region on wine lists and in wine shops. About 50% of the producers have wineries in the valley, and 50% are sourcing fruit from the valley, so there are ample opportunities to get a feel for the region.
While many of the wineries will have an old fashioned "Open" sign, they are also all listed on Tock, and you can very easily plan your trip through the reservation site.
San Francisco Chronicle
Paste (with quotes from yours truly)
Visit the OGs:
Husch - 1971
Navarro - 1974
Scharffenberger - 1981
Handley - 1982
Roederer Estate - 1982
Where to stay:
Worth a stop:
On my list to check out on future visits:
Harbor House - Michelin starred restaurant and inn
Disco Ranch - a San Francisco Chronicle recognized wine shop serving smoked duck breast sliders and other luxe provisions in Boonville owned by Wendy Lamer