Nestled between Highway 101 and the Pacific Coast in Mendocino County about 120 north of San Francisco lies wine country Shangri-La. Google “Anderson Valley” and do a scan of the images this search returns—you’ll begin to appreciate why this bucolic valley is so dear to the relatively small number of wine lovers that visit. It’s also the sources of some the most magnificent wines made in America.
Winemaking in Anderson Valley began to take off in the 1980s when the region’s pioneer wineries like Handley Cellars, Christine Woods, Pullman Vineyards and Pepperwood Springs Vineyards opened their doors. Without access to hoards of visiting wine lovers from any nearby metropolitan areas, the wineries remained small. But their reputation grew.
Today, Anderson Valley wines still represent a drop in the ocean, but what a beautiful and elegant drop it is. Among the wine congnescenti, Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs have become among the most sought out examples of this popular varietal.
Anderson Valley is among the cooler winegrowing regions in California and that’s something Pinot Noir grapes love. But even more, they like the wild temperature swing the Valley experiences. During the growing season, temperatures can experience fifty-degree swings between day and night and it’s this “diurnal” temperature swing that allows the grapes to retain beautiful and refreshing acids while the sugars and flavors develop fully.
These same conditions also favor cold climate white grapes like Gewurztraminer and Riesling and Anderson Valley is the source of some of the state’s finest examples of these wines. Each February the Valley’s winemakers host an “Alsace Festival” that celebrates these cold climate white wines, attracting winemakers from across the globe. The Alsace Festival is followed up each May with the Valley’s Pinot Festival, a celebration of all things Pinot and a perfect excuse for wine lovers to get off the beaten path and visit this remarkably beautiful locale.
For the wine lover who does want to get beyond Napa and Sonoma, Anderson Valley is the perfect getaway. But you have to want to go there. From San Francisco, the drive up Highway 101 to Cloverdale where you head west on Highway 128 takes about two hours. Another alternative is to take a flight in to the small Santa Rosa Airport, which will leave you with about an hour drive into the Valley. But what a magnificent drive it is.
The jaunt between the Cloverdale/Highway 101 exit and the town of Boonville in Anderson Valley is the quintessential back road. Around the corner you emerge into a grove of redwood trees; the next corner opens up to an ancient, imposing barn; around the next turn you may come across a heard of sheep grazing in a pasture. It’s the kind of drive you happily take slow and leisurely.
There are not many places to stay in Anderson Valley, so make sure you plan ahead with reservations. You’ll likely be staying in or around the little town of Boonville. While in the Valley, wine tasting must be your first priority. There are about 30 wineries open for tasting in the Valley. Among my favorites are Handley Cellars, Navarro Vineyards, Roederer Estate, Goldeneye and Phillips Hill.
In preparation for your getaway, you’ll want to visit your local wine shop and let them know you want to taste the wines of Anderson Valley. They will point you toward Pinot Noirs and Gewurztraminers that can range from $25-$50+ a bottle. Take the leap and explore this region’s wines. Then go visit what might be the most beautiful wine region in California.