Tag Archives: Mendocino Wines

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

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The Winery Report – Baxter Winery, Mendocino, California

The Winery Report: Baxter Winery

By Lauren Mowery

Phil Jr. at the “wine-cabin in the woods”

Who: Baxter Winery.  A small, family affair. Phil Baxter Sr. heads up vineyard management and finances, having been in the biz since ’69, which includes a 10-year gig as head winemaker for Rutherford Hill.  Phil Baxter Jr., Baxter winemaker, earned his winemaking creds first from UC Davis; then later in Burgundy at Domaine de La Vougeraie, Domaine Raymond Launay and several spots in Napa.  His wife, Claire Baxter is the marketing brains behind the team, with seven years PR experience.

Wine: Small-production, single-vineyard Pinot, with a Rosé, Carignan and Zinfandel to round out the portfolio. Their top of the line Pinot is expensive at $60, but quality is high and only 150 cases of the Oppenlander were produced.

When: Founded in 2002.

Where: Mendocino, California. The winery is perched on a ridge-top above the Anderson Valley, a glorious 4-mile stretch from the Pacific Ocean.  Grapes are sourced from vineyards throughout the region including Oppenlander, Run Dog, Langly and Caballo Blanco.

Why: Winemaking is their life, their trade. They are the antithesis of the uber-rich who scoop up land to erect temples and bottle egos.   They live where they work, and are humble, young and cool. They are having fun, but take their wine seriously, and they care for their wines as much as their neighbors whom they depend upon to grow much of their fruit. They prove multi-million dollar facilities aren’t required. They make it a pleasure to drink wine because it is pure and simple and good.

How (to visit and buy): The winery isn’t open to the public. Call for an appointment.  Wines can be purchased online or through their Club Baxter Membership.

The Comedy Cellar with Phil Jr.! Two shows a day, folks. Except during harvest.

The Visit:

Driving along Greenwood Road in Mendocino County, the path lifts us higher into the dense and lofty redwoods; sunlight periodically glimmers through breaks in the trees, stamping holes through the veil of shadows. I finally spot glimpses of the ridge’s famous clouds, pooled between the mountain valleys, creating islands out of peaks.  Although we are mere miles from the pounding surf of the Pacific, the drive feels like a scene from Twilight.  Yet we are on a hunt for wine, not RPatz (or his action figure), and we’ve been told to follow this path.

I called Phil and Claire Baxter about a visit, having heard through the proverbial grapevine that they were making some special juice, tucked away in a “cabin in the woods.”  Their wines, not surprisingly, if they are in fact made in a cabin, are produced in small amounts with limited distribution. I hadn’t come across them on the East Coast, so I wanted to sample them while in the region.

When we arrived, I was bemused to be greeted by a young, married couple, maybe late 20’s (I have been in NCY too long), who seemed fit, happy and smiling—these weren’t your typical Napa/Sonoma vintners. Their home nearby was a 120 year old farmhouse, and their winery was a converted redwood building (cabin!), once a cabinet maker’s shop.  Their set-up was a recluse’s dream, yet they were outgoing and eager to share their story. I thought that I should like to BBQ with these guys.

Phil Jr. had been in the business about 10 years, and his time making Pinot in France helped solidify his winemaking style: “don’t mess with it.” The couple was working with Phil’s dad, Phil Sr., who came to Baxter with 40 years of experience.  Together, they bought the property on the Greenwood Ridge—about 24 acres—and founded the winery before they even had a grapevine planted.  Their mutual winemaking philosophy was low-intervention: allow native yeast fermentation, use neutral oak barrels, no fining or filtering of the wines, and let the grape and terroir speak louder than the winemaker.

Their winemaking philosophy certainly felt on point after tasting the wines.  The fruit was fresh and vibrant, tannins soft and silky.  We went through their current releases, some barrel samples and an off-the-books Syrah I hope to see bottled.  Baxter is a keeper in my opinion, and one to seek out if you are in the region. The drive to the winery is worth the trip, let alone the outstanding wines and the chance to recreate your Team Edward fantasies among the trees.

Nearby redwoods. They don’t live THAT deep in the woods!

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