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A Sommelier’s Tour


Posted on September 20, 2016

When a wine getaway is on the calendar, it helps to have an expert’s advice about where to go and what to drink. Here’s a guide to four prime Northern California wine-tasting regions.

William Hill Estate Winery, open by appointment, has expansive views of the southern Napa Valley.
William Hill Estate Winery, open by appointment, has expansive views of the southern Napa Valley. Photography by Rudy Meyers

Inspiring: It’s when you taste an intriguing glass of wine at a new restaurant. Or a friend brings a bottle you’ve never heard of to a dinner party and you can’t stop thinking about it for days. It’s the sort of thing that gets you thinking about packing your bags and heading to one of the world-class wine regions within a few hours of Sacramento. 

Sacramento is surrounded by great wine country, from the hills of Amador, El Dorado and Placer counties to points slightly farther away: Napa, Sonoma, and the coastal regions of Mendocino and Monterey. You don’t have to get on a plane—just hop in the car and you’ll find pretty destinations dotted with vineyards, farms and ranches, innovative restaurants and luxurious inns. 

Here’s a sommelier’s view of what’s happening and where to go in the great wine-tasting regions of Napa, Sonoma, Monterey/Carmel and Mendocino.

Napa Valley

There is no doubt that Napa Valley is a bucket-list destination for people from around the globe. It’s interesting when you consider that the valley is only 30 miles long, a few miles wide, and produces roughly 4 percent of the total amount of grapes picked in California. But despite its relatively small size, it has a big reputation built during the 1960s when the region began to focus on making world-class wines.

One of the patriarchs of this movement was Robert Mondavi, who ventured away from his family’s investment in the historic Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena to start his own winery in Oakville in 1966. In 1973, two former members of his winemaking team, Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski, crafted two wines—Chateau Montelena chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. cabernet sauvignon—that beat top French producers at the famous “Paris Tasting” in 1976. From that point on, there’s been no looking back.

Wine

Squeezed between the Mayacama and Vaca mountain ranges an hour west of Sacramento, Napa Valley was the first American Viticultural Area to be designated in California in 1981. Back then, there were only a handful of wineries in the region. Today, there are more than 500 wineries with a shared dedication to growing premier vineyards in diverse soils and arid climate conditions similar to those found in the famous winegrowing regions of Europe.

Cabernet sauvignon is the king of Napa Valley. Depending on where the grapes are grown, flavor profiles can range from earthy, tangy and spicy with emphasis on red fruits to bolder styles with notes of dark berries, cherries, chocolate, fresh herbs and varying levels of oak. The more full-bodied, opulent cabs have the potential to age for decades in the cellar.

Other complex red wines are blends that include percentages of merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. Let’s speak wine for a moment: These blends can be very sophisticated, with aromas of blue fruits, violets, lavender and accents of fine French oak, flavors of ripe berries, blueberries, cassis and chocolate; they’ve got chewy tannins and silky texture.


Charles Krug Vineyard

At Charles Krug Winery, the Family Reserve Generations red wine is an elegant example of this style of blend. Created by winemaker Marc Mondavi in 1991, it’s named after the multiple generations of the Mondavi family that have worked at Charles Krug since Cesare and Rosa Mondavi purchased the historic brand in 1943. You can find the wine at the beautiful new tasting room located inside the original winery, started in 1861. 

“Although we were not the first family to come to Napa Valley, we’ve always believed that the combination of soil and climate makes this an ideal area to grow grapes that rival the best in the world,” says Peter Mondavi Jr., Marc’s brother and co-proprietor of Charles Krug. 

Before these styles became popular, most full-bodied red wines were made with zinfandel, petite sirah and other legendary grape varietals referred to as “mixed blacks.” Magnificent offerings made with fruit from these old heritage vines can be tasted by appointment at premium wineries that include Robert Biale Vineyards, Ballentine, Hendry, Turley Wine Cellars and Tres Sabores. “It’s history in each glass,” says Biale winemaker Tres Goetting.

For white wines, the diverse styles of sauvignon blanc offer a spectrum of flavors from bright, crisp and tangy to more complex styles with a creamy texture. Many of the vines are planted in the middle of the valley between Rutherford and Calistoga, where warm daytime temperatures and deep soil result in flavor profiles that often include notes of ripe melon, peach, mango, citrus and passion fruit. 

Although he is well-known for growing some of the top cabernet sauvignon grapes in Napa Valley, Andy Beckstoffer of Beckstoffer Vineyards is a big fan of sauvignon blanc as well. “I love the refreshing flavors this grape variety can provide on hot day,” says Beckstoffer. “It’s all about drinking and enjoying.”

In contrast, chardonnay is primarily grown at the southern end of the valley, where the clusters ripen slowly in the cooler conditions to develop expressive aromas and concentrated flavors. The richer styles often feature elegant notes of ripe apple, pear, peach, citrus, banana, brioche, vanilla and toasted oak. Many wineries have also launched newer styles with less oak to capture fresher and fruitier flavors that often include green apple, grapefruit and lemon, with vibrant acidity and a clean, crisp finish.


The Fatted Calf

Food

Napa Valley is paradise for foodies as well. For breakfast and lunch, visit Oxbow Market in Napa to enjoy fresh pastries at The Model Bakery, oysters on the half shell from Hog Island Oyster Co., charcuterie at Fatted Calf, fine cheeses at Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant, a gourmet pizza from Ca’ Momi, or a juicy burger or ahi poke tacos at Gott’s Roadside. Deeper in the valley, another great stop is Oakville Grocery on Highway 29, which serves delicious muffins, sandwiches, salads and espresso shots that come in handy between visits to wineries. If you want to spice it up instead, don’t miss the hot links and ribs at Buster’s Original Southern BBQ in Calistoga.


Oakville Grocery

In the evening, finish off your Napa Valley adventure with drinks, appetizers and memorable dining at 1313 Main, Morimoto Napa, La Toque, Celadon, Oenotri, Torc or Bistro Don Giovanni, all in the city of Napa. In the northern part of the valley, try PRESS, Goose & Gander, Archetype or Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena; and Sam’s Social Club or Solage in Calistoga. 

Lodging

As one of the most visited destinations in the United States, Napa fills up fast, so it’s important to book your stay as far in advance as possible. While accommodations at charming B&Bs are available in most of the downtown areas, the bigger hotels have continued to update what they can offer their guests. The latest case in point is Marriott Napa Valley in Napa, which recently refurbished its rooms and added a more expansive pool, new spa treatment programs and daily wine tasting opportunities. At the on-site VINeleven Restaurant, chef Brian Whitmer uses produce from the hotel’s heirloom garden. The Meritage Resort & Spa has a gorgeous pool; just beyond, the spa inside a wine cave built into the hillside just off Highway 12 provides a soothing spot for massage and other therapies. A boutique property, Napa River Inn, sits beside the river within walking distance of Morimoto and other waterfront restaurants—an easy spot to stumble back to after a late dinner or dancing at Silo’s Music Room in the Historic Napa Mill a few doors down.

Playtime

For fun, easy adventures, wake up with a hot-air balloon ride from Balloons Above the Valley or take a casual gondola trip up to Sterling Vineyards. Take a hike or learn about the valley’s old traditions with visits to Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park and Bothe-Napa Valley State Park along Highway 29 between St. Helena and Calistoga. In the southern part of the valley, you can ride bikes along the new Napa Valley Wine Trail. If you want more wine immersion, you can enroll in cool classes at Copia, the new Culinary Institute of America campus in Napa, or reserve your spot at the Ampelography Master Class at St. Supéry Estate Winery, which allows you to learn about growing grapes and identifying grape varieties by foliage. (You also get to taste the distinctive differences of the finished wines.) 

Exploration Tour: Yountville

Until the French-owned champagne house Moët & Chandon established its new American label, Domaine Chandon, in the 1970s and chefs Cindy Pawlcyn and Thomas Keller opened Mustards Grill and The French Laundry, in the 1980s and ’90s, Yountville was a very simple farming community between Napa and St. Helena.

That has changed considerably over the past two decades, thanks to the wide range of new restaurants that have popped up around the small downtown area, including Bottega, Bouchon, Bistro Jeanty, Hurley’s, Redd, R+D Kitchen, Brix, and Lucy at Bardessono.

In addition to the culinary experiences now associated with Yountville, there are 4,000 acres of vineyards planted around the city and more than 20 wineries with significant holdings inside the boundaries of the appellation. 

For fun, wine-savvy tasting rooms in the downtown area, check out Handwritten Wines, Girard Winery, Priest Ranch Wines, Cornerstone Cellars, Jessup Cellars Tasting Gallery and Silver Trident Winery, where you’ll find chic Ralph Lauren furniture for sale along with fine wine. To broaden your palate, great wines by the glass are available at V Wine Cellars inside the historic V Marketplace (formerly called Vintage 1870) and the new Wine Country Connection shop, which recently took over the historic downtown site that was once home to Groezinger, the oldest wine shop in Napa Valley, established in 1970.

For an experience in the vineyards, check out the comfy deck at the newly renovated tasting room at Goosecross Cellars on State Lane, or sample an elegant collage of delicious wines while viewing the provocative art at Cliff Lede Vineyards on Yountville Cross Road.

SONOMA COUNTY

With a unique series of mountains, valleys and benchlands, and a strong maritime influence from the Pacific Ocean, Sonoma County is one of the most diverse winegrowing regions in the world. 

It’s a place where the temperature at noon can vary from 85 degrees and sunny in downtown Healdsburg to 62 and foggy at Jenner on the coast, and where the same vineyard can have three separate types of soil based on a combination of tectonic plate movement under the ocean, volcanic activity and gravel deposited by an ancient river. 

To many wine consumers, this sounds like geeky science talk. But these natural phenomena are the secret to success for a growing number of vineyards that produce some of the top chardonnay, pinot noir, zinfandel, syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapes in the nation.


Willi’s Wine Bar

Wine

Located less than two hours from Sacramento, the historic town of Sonoma is considered by many the birthplace of winemaking on the West Coast. The decade after Russian fur traders planted the first vines near Fort Ross on the coast in 1812, Spanish padres began cultivating vineyards for the mission that is now a historical landmark at the northeast corner of Sonoma Plaza. As more immigrants moved down from the mountains after the gold rush, Hungarian-born Count Agoston Haraszthy started Buena Vista, the first bonded winery in Northern California, in 1857. 

Today you can see a detailed history of Haraszthy’s life, a rare collection of the interesting tools he used, and sometimes even “The Count” himself as played by local wine educator George Webber when you visit the beautifully restored winery, located 2 miles east of the plaza.

Down the road, another historic stop is Gundlach Bundschu, California’s oldest family-owned winery, founded in 1858. Located near the southeastern edge of Sonoma Valley, the winery has earned a reputation for producing high-quality wines for decades and always making guests feel welcome. 

“While our main goal is to make world-class wines and preserve the history of our family, it’s also very important to us to create fun educational experiences for everyone who comes to our estate,” says CEO and sixth-generation Sonoma vintner Jeff Bundschu. 

While cabernet sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel and syrah are the main grape varieties grown in Sonoma Valley and other warm-climate regions like Dry Creek, Rockpile, Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill and Knights Valley, Sonoma County’s most widely planted red grape is pinot noir, which flourishes in the cooler areas closer to the coast.

Depending on where the grapes are planted, pinot noir can offer a wide range of flavors and complexity. For example, in the cool and windy areas of Sonoma Coast, Petaluma Gap, Green Valley and Sonoma Mountain, the flavor profiles often lean toward red fruits like cherry, strawberry, raspberry and pomegranate, along with forest floor, wild mushrooms, earth and savory spices. Grapes grown in slightly warmer areas, such as the Russian River Valley, Carneros and the northern portion of the Sonoma Coast above the fog line, produce wines with dark fruit flavors of black cherry, plum, blackberry and black raspberry, as well as cola, sassafras, allspice—wines that tend to have long, deep finishes. 

To showcase the impact a special site can have on finished wines, Arista, Williams Selyem, Bacigalupi Vineyards, Thomas George Estates, Gary Farrell and other top pinot noir producers on Westside Road near Healdsburg all offer special opportunities for guests to taste a series of limited-production wines they make with fruit from different zones inside the county line. 

For white wine grapes, the majority of 16,000 acres of chardonnay planted in the county is grown in cool climate conditions where wind plays a role in the ripening process. In the more protected Russian River Valley, for instance, the flavors are typically more tropical with notes of ripe exotic melons, mango, papaya, pineapple and banana. The flavors of wines made with fruit grown in the breezier zones of Sonoma Coast and Carneros are often highlighted with notes of ripe citrus, apple, pear, peach, mineral and earth.


Gloria Ferrer

In addition to the exciting aromatic white wines made with pinot gris, pinot blanc, viognier, roussanne and vermentino, another popular white grape variety grown in Sonoma County is sauvignon blanc. Great examples of crisp, clean and citrusy styles from Sonoma County include Rochioli, Rodney Strong, Dry Creek Vineyards and Kunde Family Estate’s Magnolia Lane.

Food

While there are plenty of lunch spots in Sonoma County, wineries including Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards and Corner 103 in Sonoma, St. Francis in Santa Rosa and Rodney Strong and Jordan Vineyards in Healdsburg all offer food-and-wine pairings that are delicious and extremely educational.


Chouriço-Crusted Day Boat Scallops at La Salette

For dinner, some of the hot restaurants to check out around the county include Oso, Girl and the Fig, Cafe La Haye and LaSalette in Sonoma; Cucina Paradiso and Central Market in Petaluma; Zazu Kitchen + Farm in Sebastopol; Backyard in Forestville; Stark’s Steakhouse and Willi’s Wine Bar in Santa Rosa; Seaside Metal in Guerneville; Underwood in Graton; Valette, Campo Fina and Mateo’s Cocina Latina in Healdsburg; and Rocker Oysterfeller’s and Terrapin Creek in western Sonoma County.


Kenwood Inn and Spa

Lodging

With breathtaking views and settings in and around vineyards, a multitude of B&Bs and boutique hotels beckon throughout the county. Depending on where your wine tours take you, a smart option would be to position yourself in an area to call home base. Recommendations include The Lodge at Sonoma, the Sheraton in Petaluma, Vintners Inn and Hilton Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa, Hampton Inn in Windsor, and Best Western Dry Creek Inn in Healdsburg. Or, if you want to splurge (highly recommended), luxurious accommodations include Kenwood Inn and Spa in Kenwood, Farmhouse Inn in Forestville and Hotel Les Mars in Healdsburg.

Playtime 

For shopping, nightlife, fine dining or a nice selection of urban tasting rooms, spend some time at the downtown plazas in Sonoma or Healdsburg. For hiking with great views of vineyards, check out Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Kenwood or Lake Sonoma at the northern end of Dry Creek Valley near Cloverdale. If you are in the mood for music, check out McNear’s Mystic Theater or the more intimate setting at Speakeasy in the historic downtown district of Petaluma. To simply explore, drive west on River Road from Santa Rosa to Jenner, which will give you the option to taste wines at Martinelli Vineyards, Joseph Swan and Korbel Champagne Cellars; take a dip in the Russian River; picnic or hike at Armstrong Redwoods State Park; or stroll through the small towns of Guerneville, Monte Rio or Duncans Mills on your way to the coast.

MONTEREY/CARMEL

When most people think of the Monterey/Carmel area on the coast, the first things that pop to mind are Monterey Bay Aquarium, John Steinbeck novels, Cannery Row, Pebble Beach and Monterey Bay. 

While it’s true that at first glance, the bay looks like a picturesque point where fish live in harmony along the California coastline, there’s more to it. The deep underwater canyon just offshore is an ecosystem in itself, and for grape growers and winemakers, the cool afternoon breezes influenced by that deep underwater chasm have a serious impact on the ripening process of the premium chardonnay, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, merlot and syrah grapes they work with in Monterey County.


Bernardus: Courtesy Bernardus Lodge

Wine

Running east to west between Highway 101 and Salinas Valley, the winegrowing areas of the Santa Lucia Highlands and Arroyo Seco appellations have become very popular over the past few decades. These two regions are known for their foggy mornings, sunny, chilly, windblown afternoons and ancient sandy and riverbed-based soils—all hugely beneficial to the cool-climate grapes grown in the region. 

Many of these vineyards blend into the colorful agricultural landscape that includes vast plantings of lettuce, broccoli, beets and other row vegetables along Highway 101. You can get a much better perspective of what the winemakers are up to by visiting the tasting rooms at Talbott Vineyards, Ventana, Hahn Estate, Paraiso Vineyards and the other special wineries located along River Road at the base of the highlands between Gonzales and Greenfield. 

If you don’t have time to head inland, don’t worry. Many producers who work with grapes from the interior regions, including Morgan Winery, Puma Road, Wrath, Manzoni and McIntyre Vineyards, also have tasting rooms spread around the downtown areas of Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea. 

In downtown Carmel, one special stop is Albatross Ridge. Named after the specialized seaplanes tested on the Monterey slopes by famed engineer and pilot William Hawley Bowlus in the 1930s, this small winery was started by his descendants in 2006. Today, Bowlus’ great-grandson Garrett crafts a stellar selection of his family’s estate wines with chardonnay and pinot noir grapes grown at elevations of 850 to 1,250 feet above Carmel Valley.

“Thanks to our heavy maritime influence, the grapes ripen very slowly, which helps them develop more layers of flavors before we pick,” says Bowlus. “My job is to capture these flavors inside each bottle we make at Albatross Ridge.” 


Albatross Ridge

Down the street is Dawn’s Dream, a winery founded by Dawn Galante, who helps create dreams for others by donating a large percentage of her products, profits and time to nonprofit charities. Around the corner is Galante Vineyards, another tasting room, started by Dawn’s husband, Jack, in 1994. While the grapes used for the more fruit-forward wines come from Santa Lucia Highlands and Arroyo Seco, the cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes used in the bigger, richer and fuller-bodied wines are from the vineyards Jack’s family began developing in Cachagua Valley in the 1960s. 

Today, this isolated area is part of Carmel Valley, which became a special sub-appellation of Monterey County in 1983. Running north to south between Highway 1 and ridges on the western side of Santa Lucia Highlands, the area covers nearly 20,000 acres, but only 300 acres are planted with grapes. Because the mountains block the heavy maritime winds, the area is relatively warm. As a result, the Bordeaux-style wines made with the fruit tend to have more developed fruit flavors, balanced tannins, bright acidity and structure.

Another great area for tasting wines is Carmel Valley Village. This charming town features a great assortment of Monterey-based wines, and very few places require appointments. Examples include a flavorful selection of aromatic white wines and fruit-driven reds that won’t break the bank from Arroyo Seco-based Mercy Vineyards; a signature dry rose and other food-friendly wines from Folktale Winery; and an exquisite selection of full-bodied reds and crisp whites from Chesbro Wines.

Food

At Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, try Cafe Fina, Crabby Jim’s, Cindy’s Waterfront or Ambrosia India Bistro for lunch. For dinner, The Sardine Factory, a couple of blocks from the aquarium, serves fresh seafood and juicy steaks, and the wine list was designed by Fred Dame, the first master sommelier in the United States. Closer to downtown at Montrio Bistro, talented chef Tony Baker creates memorable dining experiences in a very relaxed and casual setting. For a taste of history, Restaurant 1833, housed in an adobe building built in the 1830s, hosts a fun "social hour” Sunday through Thursday. Passionfish in Pacific Grove serves some of the best seafood in town.

In downtown Carmel, check out Casanova, a whimsical family-style restaurant started by Belgium-born chef and musician Walter Georis, who also owns Georis Winery and the more relaxed Corkscrew Cafe in Carmel Valley Village. For authentic Italian cuisine, Peppoli at Pebble Beach has fresh-made pasta, roasted meats, stunning views and a magnificent wine list designed by two of the best sommeliers in the nation, Wendy Heilmann and Paige Bindel. And if you are traveling on Highway 68, don’t forget to stop by Tarpy’s Roadhouse, a locals’ favorite known for its selection of local wines, beers, craft cocktails, edgy cuisine and cozy atmosphere based around the original stone structure built in 1917.


Peppoli: Scott Campbell

Lodging

For a more relaxed setting, a number of lovely B&Bs are available in Carmel and Pacific Grove. If you want to add a little more fun to your stay, the Rooftop Lounge at Hotel 1110 in Monterey is another hot ticket. The 360-degree view of Monterey Bay, a fire pit and artisan cocktails make an ideal ending to the day. 

At the ultra-premium level, the luxurious hotels at Pebble Beach—The Lodge, The Inn at Spanish Bay and Casa Palmero—offer stunning views, world-class golf, spa treatments and access to less-peopled beaches. For an inland wine country experience, Bernardus Lodge & Spa pours award-winning wines paired with seasonal and local dishes at Lucia Restaurant & Bar near Carmel Valley Village.

Playtime

In addition to offering year-round access beaches, trails and woodlands for fishing, swimming, hiking and biking, Monterey and Carmel are premium areas for whale watching in the winter and spring months. Migrating butterflies flock to this region, too, and can be seen at Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary. Beyond creating childhood memories at the aquarium and beaches, parents can also add an extra cherry to their little ones’ experience with a visit to the elaborate Dennis the Menace playground in downtown Monterey. It tends to bring out the kid in everyone.

Just Say Cheese

Pairing fine cheeses and wines is an art. That’s what John and Nancy McCormick had in mind when they opened The Cheese Shop in San Jose in 1973. Two years later, they moved their operation to Carmel Plaza at the corner of Ocean and Junipero streets in Carmel-by-the Sea.

The shop carries a wide selection of cheeses from around the globe, including standards like aged asiago, manchego and Alsace muenster from Europe; domestic gems like Beecher’s Flagship and Vella dry jack; and stinky cheeses like Epoisses de Bourgogne, which often starts conversation the minute it hits the table. Against the wall, a stellar wine selection includes a nice mixture of local brands and other specialty wines from around the globe. 

“I think it’s safe to say that everyone has their own personal favorites when they walk in the store,” says cheesemonger Kent Torrey, who has been with The Cheese Shop since 1986. “Our job is to take them beyond that level. We do this by introducing them to tasty brands of cheese they might not know and complement them with wine whenever possible.”

ANDERSON VALLEY, MENDOCINO COUNTY

Located above Sonoma County, about a three-hour drive from Sacramento, Mendocino County is known for its magnificent coastline, rivers, mountains, redwood forests, sweeping valleys, rustic landscape and some the most intriguing wine-growing regions of Northern California.

Wine

For fans of elegant sparkling wines, aromatic white wines and spectacular red wines made with world-class pinot noir grapes, Anderson Valley is calling your name. Located on Highway 128 between the smaller wine-growing region of York-ville Highlands and the beautiful Navarro Redwoods, this pristine valley was originally discovered by Walter Anderson and his family during their migration from Sacramento toward the Pacific Ocean in the 1850s. 

For the first 100 years, the valley was best known for fruit trees, sheep, redwood mills, a small production of distilled spirits and an amusing vernacular called Boontling—its own language, in a way. That began to change after World War II, when new vineyards were planted to test the ability of ripening grapes in this cool climate region only 10 miles from the ocean. 

One of these early pioneers was Tony Husch, who planted chardonnay, gewurztraminer and pinot noir vines on 60 acres of property he purchased with his wife, Gretchen, near the small community of Philo in 1968. Once the vineyard was ready, they started Husch Vineyards in 1971, the first winery in the region after Prohibition.

The following decade saw the founding of wineries that included Navarro Vineyards, Lazy Creek, Greenwood Ridge and Handley Cellars. At the time, chardonnay and the more aromatic white grapes such as gewurztraminer, riesling, muscat and pinot blanc were the main varieties planted. Today, most of the chardonnay grapes are used to make sophisticated sparkling wines by Handley, Scharffenberger Cellars and Roederer Estate, a high-end label started by French-based champagne producer Louis Roederer in 1982. The other grapes are primarily used to make some of the most award-winningest Alsatian-style versions of dry, off-dry and dessert wines in the United States. 


Harmonique

For red wines, pinot noir is the gem of the region. Anderson Valley is one of the coldest wine-growing areas in California, so early growers feared that the fruit would not ripen. But thanks to research on climate, soils, new plant material and farming techniques, the plantings of the noble red grape increased from a mere 47 acres in 1982 to more than 1,500 acres in 2012. 

During this 20-year period, the valley gained a reputation among critics and consumers as one of the top areas in America for pinot noir, and that image increased with new investments by high-profile wineries including Jackson Family Estates, Duckhorn Wine Company, Ferrari-Carano, Silver Oak, Cakebread, Cliff Lede and Copain.

Today, the classy new releases include reds that are soft and elegant, rich and fruity, as well as deeper styles that are complex, acidic and earthy. Delicious characteristics of pinot noir from Anderson Valley often include flavors of strawberry jam, fresh raspberry, dark plum, blackberry, wild mushroom, fresh herbs, mineral, forest floor and black spices. 

Here, a day of tasting is very relaxed. In Boonville, for instance, the tasting rooms for successful brands like Foursight, Harmonique and Philo Ridge are within easy walking distance of the town center. Near Philo, a grouping of boutique brands can be found at The Madrones. This elegant Mediterranean-style enclave is home to tasting rooms for Signal Ridge, Bink Wines, Knez Winery and Drew Family Cellars. And across the street, Balo Vineyards, another rising-star brand, pours an impressive selection of pinot noir, riesling, pinot gris and pinot noir blanc.

One advantage to visiting Mendocino County: The wines are reasonably priced. This is especially true for the big, rich, fruity wines made with cabernet sauvignon, syrah, chardonnay, pinot blanc and sauvignon blanc grapes grown in the warmer interior area between Hopland and Ukiah along Highway 101. 

In the small inland region of Redwood Valley, Italian and French varieties including sangiovese, barbera, syrah and grenache, and older heritage vineyard plantings of zinfandel, petite sirah and carignane, are now being used to make a wide range of wines by local artisan wineries. Recommended wineries to visit include Barra of Mendocino/Girasole Vineyards, Testa Vineyards, Rivino, Jeriko Estate, Brutocao Cellars and the SIP tasting room in Hopland.

Food

In Anderson Valley, check out Table 128 at Boonville Hotel, which specializes in paella and other tasty dishes made with local products, including piment d’ville, a Basque-style red chili powder mastered by the restaurant’s chef, John Schmitt. Across the street, Aquarelle Cafe & Wine Bar offers fresh salads, seafood and tapas-style delights. For more casual dining, try The Buckhorn and Lauren’s on the same block. In Philo, enjoy gourmet pizzas and dazzling desserts at Stone & Ember at The Madrone and authentic Mexican cuisine at Libby’s. Near Navarro, the hottest new restaurant in the valley is star chef Janelle Weaver’s The Bewildered Pig, which features baby kale salad with local goat cheese, rabbit pot pie and heritage pork, along with a fantastic lineup of wines by the glass and bottle. 


MacCallum House

Along the coast, check out Circa 1962 at Inn at Schoolhouse Creek, Albion River Inn, Wild Fish (a teeny-tiny place with huge flavor), Little River Inn, Cafe Beaujolais and MacCallum House. For lighter fare, it’s hard to beat the pizzas and beer selections at Piaci Pub and Pizzeria in Fort Bragg. In the greater Ukiah area, top restaurants to visit include Schat’s Bakery & Café, Chop Chop, Saucy and Patrona.

Lodging

When residents of Anderson Valley say farming comes first, they’re not kidding. Thus, with the exception of the lucky folks who score the few available rooms at Boonville Hotel, The Madrone or the limited number of B&Bs scattered between the Yorkville Highlands and the Navarro Redwoods, most travelers head to the coast for lodging.

Family owned and operated for over 75 years, Little River Inn is one of the great destinations on the California coast. Enjoy a round of golf or spa treatments, relax in your room with great views of the ocean, or gather in Ole’s Whale Watch Bar in the iconic white building built by proprietor Cally Dym’s great-great-grandfather Silas Coombs in 1863. To add a seaside twist to your wine country experience, don’t forget to check out the fantastic breakfast, lunch and dinner menus and the well-priced wine list designed by the talented duo of executive chef Marc Dym and wine director John Sverko at Little River Inn Restaurant. 

For more intimate lodging options, visit Blue Door Inn, John Dougherty House or Packard House on the coast. Way up north on the coast, beyond Fort Bragg, the new Inn at Newport Ranch overlooks the ocean. Inland in Calpella near Ukiah, check out Testa Ranch House.


Glass Beach

Playtime

Getting close to nature is easy in Mendocino County. From Anderson Valley, explore the trails at Hendy Woods and Navarro Redwoods or visit Montgomery Woods State Preserve on the way over the mountains to Ukiah. 

On the coast, see the ocean from a new perspective at the beautifully maintained historic lighthouses at Point Cabrillo and Point Arena. Enjoy great access to trails, beaches and campsites at Van Damme, Russian Gulch and Mendocino Headland state parks, and get even more personal with sea caves or estuaries by renting a canoe or kayak.

Around Fort Bragg, watch the commercial fisherman in action at Noyo Harbor. Play in the sand on Glass Beach. Walk along the coastline for seasonal views of seals, sea lions, otters and whales, and explore the tide pools at MacKerricher State Marine Conservation Area. 

Inland, go for a swim at Lake Mendocino (or take a relaxed stroll with the peacocks) and have lunch at Jyun Kang’s Vegetarian Restaurant at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah.

Going Green

Long before wine became popular in Mendocino County, natives here have always taken a natural approach to raising produce, dairy and livestock. In the early ’80s, Don and Judye Butow’s family vineyard in Redwood Valley became the first California Certified Organic Farm vineyard in Mendocino County. Throughout the next two decades, many other families would follow, most notably the Frey, Fetzer and Barra families, who put organic and biodynamic farming processes on the map. 

At last count, Mendocino is home to 570 vineyards, 20 percent of which are certified organic. For that reason, Mendocino represents nearly one-third of the CCOF certified acreage in California. More than 50,000 acres in the county are certified by Fish Friendly Farming, an eco-friendly program designed to encourage respectful farming practices and water management techniques to protect the endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout that spawn in the Eel and Navarro rivers and other waterways in Mendocino County and Northern California.

In addition to fine-tuning the vineyards without the use of pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, many of these grape growers cultivate fruit trees and vegetable gardens, as well as graze sheep, maintain owl boxes and keep their chicken coops stocked.

According to vineyard manager Mark Welch, who works with Ferrington Vineyard in Anderson Valley and Bald Eagle Ranch in Potter Valley, the liveliness of these sites ultimately adds to the quality of the grapes. “Anderson Valley is not about monocultural viticulture,” he says. “Instead, it’s a place where you can see healthy vines, fruit trees, birds, animals and ladybugs, all living together in harmony.”

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