Category Archives: Mendocino and Anderson Valley

Mendocino – Wineries-to-Watch List

Drink Pinot, taste the forest

If you are like me, then you dislike buying what other people try to sell you. Retailers tend to stock the same bottles, from the same distributors; a rather unromantic and uninspired experience. One of the joys of wine is the opportunity to discover, often through travel, truly wonderful winemakers that nobody else knows about.

So, if you are looking for the rising stars of Mendocino, here are my favorite, hard-to-find and rather unknown (especially on the East Coast), small producers of Anderson Valley (AV) and Mendocino County (MC)* wines. Each winery selected is a diminutive and independent, often family-owned operation either located in or buying grapes from Mendocino County vineyards for single-designation wines.

Please note a couple of points about AV and MC wines. Most are not cheap or even mid-range in price. Pinot Noir is a finicky grape, tough to grow successfully, and production from small wineries is extremely limited. Consequently, expect to pay in the range of $30-$65 a bottle.

When buying Pinot from the area, keep an eye out for the following vineyard designations on the label. These sites have established reputations for producing excellent fruit:

  • Oppenlander Vineyard
  • Londer Vineyard
  • Morning Dew Ranch
  • Monument Tree Vineyard
  • Weir Vineyard
  • Wiley Vineyard

­THE LIST

Black Kite

Named after the red-eyed endangered hawk that floats above the valley, Black Kite is a small, family-owned producer of Pinots out of the North end of the AV. Their wines have received a lot of professional press for their power and elegance, and their line-up features four block designated, single vineyard Pinots that you can purchase individually or in a pack, if they haven’t sold out.  Put yourself on the mailing list if you want a shot at next year’s vintage of “Angel’s Hawk”, a wine that sold out after a 95 pt review from Wine Spectator.

Wine to Find:

Stony Terrace 2009  One of the heftier AV Pinots in body and alcohol, yet this wine manages to keeps its balance. The bottle was open for three days, developing in complexity, and moving from assertive on day one to soft yet firm by the third. The palate echoed purple flower aromatics, saturated black cherry and black raspberry fruit, with layers of spice filtered through tannins so fine, a Turkish-coffee barista would be proud.

Baxter

Two generations of winemakers, Phil Sr. and Phil Jr., are crafting sincere, graceful Pinots sourced from single-vineyard AV and other MC sites, including the outstanding Oppenlander Vineyard. Their secluded, scenic location on the beautiful Greenwood Ridge must be a source of daily inspiration for their expressive winemaking style, which combines a minimal intervention philosophy, old-world techniques and an ultimate goal of purity of fruit.  They absolutely nail it.

Wine to Find:

Oppenlander Vineyard, 2009  This bottle was assertive with vibrant red raspberry and cherry fruit; layers of sexy tannins, smooth like the silk purse of a Chinese Empress, yet full of finesse from the mountain air acidity. Hints of savory earth and wild herb are followed by a lightly spiced finish.

Drew

Drew family wines, crafted by husband and wife team Jason and Molly, were the first I tasted during my visit to Mendocino that left me speechless. Their wines are the antithesis of ripe Pinots overloaded with oak, and lacking finesse or a connection to the land. Drew renewed my faith that some California vintners were still producing earthy, sensual Pinot with a profound sense of place. The wines are stunners.

Wine to Find:

Weir Vineyard, 2009  Take a mouthwatering journey across the forest floor. This Pinot offers prominent notes of mushroom, loam and wet pine needle, laced with cinnamon stick and wrapped in bright, pure red fruit. Silky, lush and lingering. (2010 is the current vintage available from this vineyard)

Couloir Wines

Named after steep mountain gorges, Couloir wines was founded by Jon Grant, a backcountry ski enthusiast who developed an equal passion for wine while in the restaurants of Utah, and later the cellars of Napa.  Jon’s wines showcase his artistic interpretation of Pinot Noir from unfamiliar but exceptional single-vineyard sites.

Wine to Find:

Oppenlander Vineyard, 2010  Lighter in body, this wine was squeaky clean with pure fruit and earth flavors. Redolent of freshly pressed, tart red cherry and raspberry juice and a delicate, sassafras and spice finish.  Gentle, smooth tannins and a bright frame of acidity showcase a wine that is honest about its source.

Waits-Mast

Wine lovers turned winemakers, Jennifer Waits and Brian Mast took the leap into professional winemaking that many of us wish we had the cajones to do.  They fell in love with Pinots from the Anderson Valley, having spent many a trip up there, tasting and learning.  They did their homework, seeking out the best fruit in the region for their various bottlings.  Oppenlander was added to their portfolio after tasting the Baxter’s wine; a wise move.

Wine to Find:

Oppenlander Vineyard, 2009  Fresh, focused and elegant offering beautiful aromatics of rose petal tea, lavender and red fruits. The palate echoes the nose, with baking spices; tart red pomegranate and cranberry; and plump, ripe raspberry with a swirl of fresh, churned earth. Like a ballerina – delicate, nimble yet sturdy.

Brogan Cellars

Garagiste Pinots crafted by Margi Williams, the daughter of revered, now retired Burt Williams of Williams-Selyem.  She has a deft hand with Pinot, despite working out of a makeshift facility (following in her father’s footsteps) in the Dry Creek Valley.  She has since improved upon her digs, with the former winery garage now serving as storage and a tasting room, and the winemaking moved to Hopland. She produces a line of RRV Pinots plus wines using fruit from her father’s AV vineyard and other MC appellations.  These bottles are impossible to find on the East Coast.  Get on her mailing list or try to catch her in person while out there—her jovial style makes for a merry visit.

Wine to Find:

My Father’s Vineyard Margi’s Reserve, 2009  Medium-bodied, elegant and smooth, this wine shows deep aromatics of dark red and black fruit, dried fig, raisin and notes of mocha. Spice, cedar and a pervasive earthiness result in an appealing wine that is more delicious dirt than fruit.

Woodenhead

Owner/winemaker Nikolai Stez has been producing beautiful Pinots and Zins for years, tucked away off the tourist circuit in Sonoma.  His foundation in fermentation began as a boy making a traditional Russian drink “kvas” using a recipe from his parents. He later graduated from home winemaking enthusiast to an assistant position with Burt Williams of Willams-Selyem fame.   It was inevitable Nikolai would open his own winery.  I have been on their mailing list for several years now, but only realized after a trip to the Anderson Valley, that he produced an AV wine from the Wiley Vineyard site.

Wine to Find:

Wiley Vineyard, 2007  Second to last release of this wine ever, so try to snag one.  Beautifully structured with silky tannins, the wine is highly aromatic showing dark fruit, lavender and hibiscus flower on the nose, followed by flecks of black fruit, cherry, red berries and a hint of tart pomegranate on the palate. Notes of wet tea leaf and a vein of earthy loam linger like an old friend.

Shandel’s Oppenlander Vineyard

Generations of the Shandel Family

The fifth generation owners of Oppenlander Vineyard, an outstanding source of Pinot fruit in Comptche, have been making a few cases of their own wine, winning awards and quietly selling them to the local community. I should probably kick myself for writing this in a public space, but their 2006 Pinot (served and sold by Glendeven Inn) was hands down one of the best Pinots for the money I have come across in years.  Try to get your hands on a bottle, but you will have to work for it. The Glendeven will ship, but for a whopping $60/bottle plus cost of the wine ($30).  Try calling the owners instead at 707-937-5594. Or better yet, just go to Mendocino and put a few in your suitcase.  A one-of-a kind treasure.

Wine to Find:

ANY!

That sums up the list based on wines I have tasted, and I have plowed through many. However, this is an ongoing project. If you know of any other small producers that deserve acclaim, please email me. I will continue to develop this list as I make new discoveries.

* Most Pinots I tasted and recommend are from Anderson Valley fruit, an AVA within the broader Mendocino appellation.  Overall, Mendocino County has 9 more AVAs: Mendocino AVA, Yorkville Highlands, McDowell Valley, Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, Dos Rios, Covelo, and Mendocino Ridge and America’s smallest AVA, Cole Ranch.  Two are pending approval: Ukiah Valley and Sanel Valley.

1 Comment

Filed under Mendocino and Anderson Valley

Mendocino County, Part 3 – Where to stay

The coast, a short walk from the Glendeven Inn

CHOOSING A RETREAT

Mendocino County is home to a number of boutique inns, B&B’s and small hotels which take hours to wade through when choosing accommodation online. Although I spend an obscene amount of time researching where my head will lie at night, I inevitably discover places I didn’t come across online, while visiting in person. The following list of properties was culled from my online research paired with visual confirmation of each place.

A note about my search criteria: I am somewhat value oriented (different than cheap) when picking a property. I don’t want to overpay for a pedestrian room (who does?)  I generally look for lodging that is between $150 and $225 (if that is the average range for the region) that offers modern renovations with a unique perspective: A renovated farmhouse or a Victorian home with updated furnishings and lavish breakfast.

I also don’t like cookie cutter or corporate (usually synonymous) hotels, so I rarely stay at chain properties unless we are traveling on points in a horribly expensive area.  I also love the concept of B&B’s, but don’t want to sleep in Aunt Sarah’s bedroom.  The goal is to find the perfect blend of contemporary and charming; unique and “reasonably” priced.

GLENDEVEN INN

The wine bar(n) offers tastes of local wines

This inn beat all the others, having met all the criteria listed above.  We paid $215 w/tax for a lower-priced room (not the cheapest), in November.  The property is modern, renovated and charming.  The owners converted a barn into a wine bar that features regional wines, as well as host a farm-to-table dinner three nights a week. When the innkeepers care about wine and food, it is generally reasonable to assume they care about the rest of the property.

Breakfast with a small view at Glendeven

We partook in the evening dinner which was fantastic and absolutely worth the price at $65/person (coming from an NYC dining perspective).  There were several courses which included use of the region’s famous candy-cap mushrooms plus wine pairings.  Dinner begins at 6 pm and only accommodates 12 guests, creating a very intimate but jovial atmosphere. The owner John, after learning I was interested in wine, pulled out several more bottles from his personal collection.

We loved our high floor Garret Room with view of the ocean and llamas in the backyard. The breakfast was lovely and served at the breakfast nook by our window.  Hot, freshly baked scones and cream were served alongside fresh squeezed juice, baked pears and a savory egg dish.

A view to a llama

OTHER LODGING

We did not stay at any of these properties; they merely looked promising online and in-person.

Albion River Inn- This was my second choice based on the price for a cliff-side cottage with gorgeous ocean views.

Stanford Inn

Brewery Gulch Inn

Stevenswood

Little River Inn

Cottages at the Little River Cove

Boonville Hotel- This property is located in the Anderson Valley in Boonville.  A good option if you want to stay closer to the wineries, albeit not necessary.

2 Comments

Filed under Mendocino and Anderson Valley

Mendocino County, Part 2 – How to get there, Wineries to visit

Good morning! Mendocino off in the distance

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.

Good fences make good neighbors

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.

Map of Anderson Valley Wineries

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.

Tasting through the Breggo line-up

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.

Elegant tableside tasting service at Goldeneye

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.

Toby Hill’s original art on every Phillips Hill label

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.

Phil Jr. at Baxter’s Greenwood Ridge Winery

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 info@blackkitecellars.com 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.

Standish Winery tasting room in an old apple dryer

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.)

Exotically themed decor of Handley’s tasting room

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!

2 Comments

Filed under Mendocino and Anderson Valley

Magical Mendocino, Part 1 – Why go?

Mendocino coast at sunrise

Magical Mendocino: Why go? (Part 1 of 3 posts)

If I had guts, I would move to Mendocino County, California.  People believe it takes a lot of nerve to live in New York City, but it is in fact easy for those of us used to urban life. Building superintendents handle household repairs; the city takes out our trash; maids clean the apartments; and bars, restaurants and bodegas are open when you need them (and when you don’t).  Someone is always there to manage the details of our lives while we work hard to pay for it all.

To live in Mendocino, one needs to be a self-starter to succeed.  Jobs at banks, ad agencies and PR firms don’t exist, and money ebbs and flows into the region with the seasons.  During the summer, tourists flock to the wineries of the Anderson Valley and the town serves as a popular seaside retreat.  When winter arrives, it feels as empty as an abandoned fishing village off the coast of Newfoundland.  It takes guts to survive, but the lifestyle payoff is enormous.

Mendocino is the antithesis of the more populated, cultivated counties found further South (Sonoma, San Fran, L.A.).  The scenery is moody and romantic, wild and at times empty; and the landscape is split between coast and country. The setting changes so dramatically during the ten-mile stretch from ocean to valley, that in the late 19th century the ranchers and farmers of Boonville, feeling a sense of (if not real) isolation, devised their own dialect called Boontling. Meant to discourage outsiders with their secret lingo, they took to calling those from the coast Fog Eaters.  And fog they eat.

Along the shore each morning, vaporous plumes roll off the pounding surf of the Pacific, and over the rocky beaches to swallow the streets of Mendocino like a scene from Stephen King’s The Mist.  In contrast, the valley is filled with dense forests of towering, ancient redwoods; misty mountain peaks; and sunlit valleys filled with farms and vineyards.

The enchanted forest, where mushrooms taste like candy

But what do people do here?  I posed that question to the owner of the Glendeven Inn where we were staying (see post #3).  His reply: “they do what we do, they own a B&B or an Inn.”  Of course, someone must also own the seasonal restaurants in town or the nearby grocery.  I also discovered another local career path involves foraging mushrooms, specifically Candy-Caps, which taste like maple syrup and are used in cookies and ice cream!  For me, however, the most intriguing work is done by those making the wine.

Having spent many years drinking Pinot Noir from all over California, I was growing tired of the wines trending towards an over-ripe and heavily oak-influenced profile.  I wanted to taste purity of fruit, but also the dirt. The wines of Mendocino County capture the qualities that originally drew me to Pinot.   Many of them offer balance and grace, berries and soil, and a sense of place in this remote region. I had found my fairy-tale in this enchanted land of maple candy fungi and wines offering a drink of the forest floor.

Getting to this beguiling place is easier than it sounds.  As undeveloped (for California) as it feels, Mendocino is a surprisingly easy 3-hour drive from San Fran, considering New Yorkers travel 3+ hours to the Hamptons every summer weekend.  Maybe Mendocino County receives far less traffic, and therefore development, because the road North along 101 is dense with distractions.  From a tourist perspective, that is a very good thing.

Coming soon, Part 2: How to get there and Wineries to Visit

Andrew Wyeth could have painted here

2 Comments

Filed under Mendocino and Anderson Valley