From the mouths of locals, check out the wealth of info provided by the Mendocino County Visitor’s Guide.
Driving Directions: From San Francisco to Mendocino (155 miles)
Route 1: Leave the city heading North on Highway 101. Avoid the temptation to veer off-course and drink Pinots in Sonoma; rather, continue on to the Cloverdale exit. From there, take Highway 128 west toward Mendocino.
Route 2: As an alternative to 128, you can drive through the West Sonoma Coast region, where you DO have permission to veer off-course and drink Pinots. Take Highway 101 to River Road just north of Santa Rosa, CA. Take a left onto River Road for 17 miles, passing through Guerneville, until hitting Historic Highway 1 along the coast, then head North up to Mendocino. This is a slow, scenic route.
If you take Highway 1, I am deadly (almost) serious when I suggest you try to incorporate Hirsch, Peay or Flowers into the itinerary. All three are exceptional West Sonoma Coast wineries that are generally difficult to visit due to their far-flung location, so seize the opportunity. Appointments are a must, however, so call in advance. If you didn’t call ahead, you can always try my technique of showing up at the door. Winemakers seldom refuse you, but don’t say I sent you…
Where to Taste: Highway 128 leads straight through the Anderson Valley, starting with Yorkville, a blip on the map. Then 128 leads past the, comparatively speaking, larger towns of Boonville and Philo, before hitting the dramatic tunnel of redwoods that leads to the coast. The majority of the wineries begin after Boonville. Most are within sight off Highway 128, with a few up in the Greenwood Ridge along Greenwood road.
If you got an early start out of San Francisco, say 8 AM for a perfectly timed 11 AM arrival right as the wineries open, you can start tasting immediately! Below is a list of both tastings from my trip, plus other recommended wineries I didn’t have time to visit. The wineries are listed in geographical order from South to North through the Valley, assuming entry to the region on Highway 128.
Londer Vineyard — Didn’t taste, didn’t visit. Was recommended by locals and has received press for their Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer. They sold off the vineyard to their neighbor, but still produce wines from the Londer site, as do many other winemakers. Tasting room located inside the John Hanes Fine Art Gallery, across from the Boonville Hotel. Thursday to Monday, 11 AM to 5 PM (summer hours). Call for off-season 707-895-9001.
Elke Vineyards and Winery— We didn’t have time to visit or taste, but heard Mary Elke is not only making great Pinot from Donnelly Creek Vineyard but a reasonably priced American “grower” sparkling wine at $20. She sells grapes off to the sparkling houses Mumm and Roederer, but decided to make a few bottles of her own. Her wines are reasonably priced for the region. Friday to Monday, 11 AM to 5 PM. No appointment.
Breggo— My first stop of the trip. Humble tasting room, excellent wines. Disappointed to know that Cliff Lede bought them out (the purist in me likes family wines to stay in the family), but the juice was still high-quality. The Alsatian varieties and the less expensive Anderson Valley Pinot were highlights. Daily 11 AM to 5 PM. No appointment.
Goldeneye — Charming, country tasting room, with outdoor picnic tables and tableside tasting service; found the wines to be lacking in character, particularly for the prices. Owned by another major player, Duckhorn in Napa. Daily 10:30 AM to 4:30 PM, reservations suggested.
Drew Family Cellars — One of the highlights of the trip and the reason I fell in love with the region. The wines are savory and earthy with notes of the forest floor; a rarity in Cali Pinot these days. Loved the FogEater and Weir Vineyard. This is a do not miss. The tasting room is located inside The Madrones. Open 11 AM – 5 PM, but not every day. Call ahead.
The Madrones (multiple tasting room facility) — While in the building tasting Drew, you can check-out Lula Cellars and Bink. Lula has a friendly proprietor and approachable if uneventful line-up of wines. Bink wines are made by two women from the Yorkville Highlands, including a lovely rose. I originally stopped in to taste their Weir vineyard Pinot, but found it less interesting than others on offer.
Berridge — Intense, aromatic Pinots; another favorite of the trip. However, the vineyard designates are a $100 a bottle. Production is miniscule, so if you can afford it, you are one of few with the privilege. Budget for a bottle (two if you’re rich), but wait to purchase at the end of your trip in case you find others you like for less. Tasting room at The Madrones building. Open Seasonally, Friday – Monday, 11 AM to 6 PM, or with an appointment in off-season.
Phillips Hill Estates— Toby Hill, a formally trained artist now winemaker, samples and sells his wines in this country-chic tasting room off the highway. Each bottle label features his artwork. I enjoyed the Gewürztraminer at $18, as well as the Oppenlander and Wiley vineyard Pinots. Daily 11 AM to 5 PM.
Toulouse Vineyards— Former fireman turned winemaker, and beloved by everyone in the region, Vern Boltz produces a handful of balanced Pinots, a rose and a few Alsatian varietal whites. Daily 11 AM to 5 PM.
Baxter — Love the elegant, pure Pinot Noir fruit of Baxter wines. Another regional favorite! They make an unusual Carignan as well. Brand new tasting room opening in downtown Philo in October/November 2012. See my winery profile for more on Baxter.
Navarro — Didn’t visit, didn’t taste, but they are one of the better known wineries of the region. Daily 9 AM – 5 PM, 6 PM during summer. No charge, no reservations. This is a good one to catch on the way out of town, or for an early start to the day, since they open at 9 AM.
Black Kite — Didn’t visit, but tasted the wines on recommendation after returning from trip. Wow. Pinots are intense and profiles varied, depending on the vineyard. Would definitely seek an in-person visit on a return trip. Small, family winery focusing on artisanal Pinot. No tasting room open to public; email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 415-923-0277 to ask for an appointment.
Standish Winery (their website isn’t working, so link is to another informational site) — Recommended by locals, Standish is located in a 2-story apple dryer from the late 1800’s. Extremely limited production wines; as a result, on the pricey side. Only tasted one or two, as they were out of many bottlings at time of visit. Worth a look for the atmospheric digs alone. Daily 10:30 AM to 4:30 PM, Friday-Saturday until 5 PM.
Lazy Creek — Well-known, older winery as far as Anderson Valley recognition goes. Excellent white Alsatian varietal wines made here. Brought several back, which is saying something considering the limited space in my wine shipper. New winery under construction, so tasting room temporarily closed. Check their site for updates.
Husch — Didn’t visit, didn’t taste. Recommended by locals. Tasting room in an old pony barn with outdoor picnic tables. Daily 10 AM – 5PM, summer until 6 PM.
Roederer Estate— Didn’t visit, but have had the sparkling wines in the past. Focus is on bubbles, a nice change from all the Pinot drinking. (Strangely, website is not functioning, so I don’t know tasting room hours.)
Handley — Interesting tasting room featuring international folk art, but wines overall came too generously recommended, although I appreciated the RSM and Zin. They have a big line-up of styles and varieties, from whites, reds and sparkling in a range of price points, so tasters might find a gem or two. Daily 10 AM to 5 PM, summer until 6PM.
Esterlina Vineyards — Located in the smallest AVA in the country, Cole Ranch, Esterlina has a dramatic ridge top perch offering sweeping valley views. Tasting room, however, is a little rough around the edges. Perhaps expectations were set too high based on all the praise, but I found the wines underwhelming for the price point. Tasting by appointment only.
Claudia Springs — Didn’t visit, didn’t taste. Recommended by locals. Call the tasting room for hours: 707-895-3993
Next up: Where to stay!