The Anderson Valley, an appellation only fifteen miles long and a half mile wide in places, is a hidden jewel among the rolling hills of Mendocino County, close to the coastal areas of Northern California. Lurking the shadows of its better known brethren in adjacent Sonoma County, and over the next ridge, Napa County, Anderson Valley has been undergoing a slow metamorphosis from orchards and ranch land to vineyards. This obscure valley now flaunts some excellent wineries catering to the well-honed tastes of California and international wine aficionados. The last decade has seen an explosion in Pinot Noir acreage, increasing from just 350 acres to 1,200 acres and growing. The slow pace and laid back attitude of the vintners reminds us of Napa decades ago, and Sonoma more recently. A unique feature of the area is the continued use of an esoteric language called Boontling. Information about the origin is sparse, but the English-based language may have been made up by local people in the 1800s, intermingling words from their native languages of Scottish, Gaelic Irish, Spanish and even some Pomo words from the local Native American tribe.
My husband, Steve, our friends John and Linda, and I made our way up winding Highway 128 from Cloverdale, enduring hairpin turns to enter a typical Northern California coastal region characterized by rolling hills. Hills give way to steeper inclines where redwoods thrive, reaching for the sky and nuzzling the moisture-laden fog that envelopes this area in the summers providing the ideal conditions for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and the forgotten grape, Gewürztraminer. Orchards and sheep ranches remain in abundance, while the hills and valleys bend and twist so one never knows what is around the next corner. Coastal Live Oak trees dot the lower ranges, their massive gnarled trunks coiling around themselves, some standing sentry for over 200 years, mere babies compared to the tall, straight trunks of the elegant redwoods, some living for more than 2,000 years and reaching heights of 300 feet.
A good place to start a wine tasting tour of the Anderson Valley is with a little bubbly at Scharffenberger Cellars. The cool coastal influence and plentiful sunshine creates an ideal environment for maturing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes on the vine a long time to craft their sparkling wines. The Scharffenberger name, well established in California, represents a company that has gone through many changes, now under the management of Maisons Marques & Domaines. Located right off the highway in the wooded hills of the Anderson Valley, the small but welcoming tasting room is stocked with interesting art and crafts from local artists. Cool and refreshing, the sparklers feature fine bubbles carrying the aromas of berries and tropical fruits.
Turning onto a narrow lane from the highway we saw no evidence of vineyards or a winery on Monte Boyle Road, but we pressed on. Eventually we turned onto a driveway and before us opened a small valley replete with vines, a barn, house and flowering gardens. This is the home of Shirlee and Larry Londer, who sometimes invite interested parties to their kitchen to taste wine, but who were holding an open house in the barn on this day. Having sampled their impressive array of wines the year before, we were eager to replay the experience. The 2007 Corby Chardonnay did not disappoint, the pure fruit flavors bursting forth with tart apple and citrus, mellow nectarine notes and a round finish. Londer has been discovered, with Wine Spectator awarding 95 points to this luscious wine. The 2006 Paraboll (“good red” in Boontling) Pinot Noir demonstrated the effect of this prime location on the delicate pinot noir grapes, the deep fruit flavors unfolding gracefully on the palate, showing its complex plum and cherry flavors balanced with herbal notes, displaying good structure and finish. Accolades have been pouring in for this Pinot, with an award of 91 points from Wine Spectator. This is currently my favorite Pinot Noir.
Being fans of the overlooked grape, we are always on the lookout for a tasty dry Gewürztraminer. Suffering from the incorrect impression from many that these wines are always overly sweet, we appreciate the complex flavors that a good Gewürztraminer can bring. We’ve been looking for a replacement for the excellent Gewürztraminer that Murphy-Goode used to produce since they haven’t brought one out in a few years. We loved the Londer 2007 Dry Gewürztraminer, savoring the lychee and honeysuckle flavors balanced with a hint of citrus to provide tartness, following with a long finish. We got a mixed case of Pinot and Gewürztraminer, then wandered through Shirlee’s lovely garden laden with strawberries, plums, figs, tomatoes, lavender, vegetables, olives and raspberries. In talking with Joe Webb, who manages the wine club, we learned not only about his upcoming wedding and wine tasting honeymoon tour of New Zealand, but also about the expected opening of the Londer tasting room in Boonville, since opened. This is a welcome addition so that visitors to the area can experience the lush Londer wines in a convenient location.
Standish Wine Company
Our next stop was the nearby Standish Wine Company, notable for their fine wines, but also for their family history, as they are descended from Myles Standish of Mayflower fame, the pilgrim who was part of the English separatist contingent that sailed from England to America in 1620. We enjoyed a wide range of wines as they generously poured a variety of Rose, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines. We were keen on the 2006 Watson Chardonnay, finding it fruity and smooth with a touch of oak, and the 2006 Mayflower Pinot Noir, complex and rich with berry flavors. Located on lovely grounds visible from the highway, they have ample space for picnicking. The tasting room is located in a unique wood-shingled barn-like structure that was originally an apple-dryer in the 1920s, with drying racks and other equipment on display.
Just down the road is Foursight Wines, another historically interesting family operation. We talked with Kristy Charles, a fourth generation native of Mendocino County, whose family launched their winery on the land of their old redwood “airtight” (sawmill in Boontling) operation, the Charles Lumber Company. The bar in the small tasting room is a beautifully hewn piece of redwood made from a “deadman” found in their lumber yard, a wooden anchor buried underground to secure a steam donkey in place as logs were winched out of the forest. The Charles’ family ancestors arrived on the Eastern shore of America around the same time as the Standish family, around 1635, from Alsace, France. We were intrigued to learn that Kristy was engaged (now married) to Joe Webb, mentioned above in connection with Londer Winery—the Anderson Valley is truly a place with strong family ties.
We enjoyed several samplings of Pinot Noir, especially the 2006 Charles Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir, the grapes hand-picked by the family to ensure that the fruit arrives at the winery in perfect condition. Bing cherry, raspberry and cola flavors caressed our palate with a silky mouth feel. Rated 91 points by Wine Spectator, they have been discovered as well.
Breggo, meaning “sheep” in Boontling, is located on the site where sheep once roamed on this 200 acre parcel, reflecting the heritage of ranching in the valley where sheep thrive in the same environment where grapes now flourish. We sampled a crisp Pinot Gris and lively Pinot Noir, then enjoyed a bottle of rich Chardonnay with our picnic, where we were graciously encouraged to stay as long as we wanted. The friendly staff came out on the porch to chat with us, reinforcing the homey nature of the wine tasting room, which used to serve as the headquarters of the sheep ranch operation.
Esterlina Vineyards & Winery
Located high on a hill above the village of Philo, Esterlina commands expansive views of the Anderson Valley spread below. Another family operation, all the wines are handcrafted by the Sterling family from grapes sourced from various landholdings in the area. One of their vineyards, Cole Ranch AVA, encompasses the smallest appellation in the US at one-quarter square mile, perched at around 1500 feet elevation. Tastings are by appointment (you can call from the highway and see if they are available) as they have just a couple of small areas for conducting family-style wine tastings, meaning that you sit on the deck with one of the family members, sip wine, munch on some unusual food pairings such as Cheetos, Doritos, kettle corn and pretzels, and chat about wine in a very informal setting. We enjoyed the 2006 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, noting the cherry, raspberry and vanilla flavors topped off with a touch of spice and a long finish. The 2005 Syrah was less full bodied than many Syrah’s but we enjoyed the multifaceted flavors of plum, blueberry and spice with a hint of smoky flavor.
We had a “bahl hornin” (“good drinking” in Boontling) time tasting our way through the beautiful wooded hills and dales of the Anderson Valley, discovering friendly, low key people, excellent wines that are being recognized by the industry, unique history and a rich agricultural tapestry.
Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association (contains information, maps and links to the wineries in the area)
Esterlina Vineyards & Winery
1200 Holmes Ranch Road
Philo, California 95466
14475 Highway 128
Boonville, CA 95415
4830 Monte Bloyd Road
John Hanes Fine Art Gallery
14051 Highway 128
Boonville, CA 95415
8501 Highway 128
Philo, CA 94566
Standish Wine Company
5101 Hwy 128
Philo, CA 95466