Partly because of a rising taste for cool-climate wines worldwide, more and more wineries have decided to set up shop in the Anderson Valley full-time. “In the last 10 years, this place went from enormous potential to realizing that potential,” says Zach Rasmuson, the winemaker for Goldeneye, a Pinot specialist that is owned by Napa-based Duckhorn Vineyards. Rasmuson’s beguiling Estate Grown Narrows Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009—from the northernmost outpost of this northern valley—has a funky, complex nose, fine sawdust tannins, and a hint of black licorice.
Forward-thinking Anderson Valley pioneers, like Deb Cahn of Navarro Vineyards, are delighted (and vindicated) by the region’s newfound success. Back in 1973, she and her husband, Ted Bennett, had a choice: “We could either get 40 acres in Napa or 910 acres up here,” Cahn explains. They took the road less traveled and now preside over a successful operation specializing in crisp, delicious Alsatian varietals, well represented by their zingy 2009 Gewürztraminer.
Eco-friendly, sustainable, and organic are more than buzzwords around the valley—they’re a true lifestyle. Cahn, for instance, is a rancher and farmer in addition to being a winemaker. She raises sheep to eat and sell, but also for a unique wine-related purpose. “We use the lambs for weeding,” she says, of the short-statured Babydoll breed. “They can get the weeds, but they aren’t tall enough to eat the grapes.” (Check them out on the Lamb Cam on the winery’s Web site.)
The Roederer, Goldeneye, and Navarro wineries—as well as two other must-visits, Breggo Cellars and Foursight Wines—are all within 15 minutes of one another on Route 128. But once you get this far north, it only makes sense to venture onward along the narrow roadways to Mendocino, the well-known burg on the wave-beaten coast. About an hour’s drive north of Boonville, you’ll find the village on one of the most spectacular oceanside stretches of the famed Highway 1.
If views are your thing, consider a stay just south of Mendocino proper at the Albion River Inn, home to 23 simply decorated rooms and cottages on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. It’s easy to ignore the slightly faded furniture because the big show is the crashing surf just outside your window. Just sit a spell and stare. Similar accommodations at the nearby Little River Inn are mostly on the other side of Highway 1, but here you’ll still enjoy fabulous ocean views, as well as country club–style amenities, including golf and tennis.
Mendocino itself is full of Victorian wedding-cake houses—and at times a too-cutesy vibe. But the journey is worth it for a meal at Cafe Beaujolais, located in a tiny yellow clapboard house. Starting in the late ‘70s, former owner Margaret Fox, joined later by Chris Kump, put this spot firmly on the map for food lovers across the country. Today chef/owner David LaMonica turns out local-focused, French-inflected fare, steering clear of preciousness with lunchtime dishes like a hearty short-rib sandwich alongside excellent fries.
The next town up the coast is Fort Bragg, and though it won’t win prizes for its looks, it does offer a heckuva good pizza joint: Piaci Pub & Pizzeria. A local favorite, it’s got a surprisingly good wine-by-the-glass list, the medium-thick crust comes out perfectly crispy, and conversation remains boisterous at the bar, where everyone seems to already know one another, even if they’ve just met.
That kind of bonhomie is typical of Mendocino County, and the wines that are luring people to the area are similarly unpretentious. It’s worth a few twists and turns to get to know both the place and its bottlings better.
Ted Loos, author of the Tasting Notes column on Epicurious.com, also contributes to Vogue, The New York Times, and other publications. He last wrote for Gourmet Live about France’s Loire Valley. Follow him @LoosLips on Twitter, where he tweets the #WinoTheDay.