By Laura Ness
It had been far too long since we’d been to Mendocino County’s Hopland and the Anderson Valley, two of our favorite destinations that we often dream of visiting. There are so many new tasting rooms in both places, we felt like kids in a candy store that had been taken over by aliens.
To avoid weekend traffic through Petaluma and Santa Rosa, which is almost as bad as L.A., we took the back roads, going up highway 29 through Napa and then through Alexander Valley where 29 becomes 128 and dovetails with 101 just north of Geyserville. It’s a quick jaunt to Hopland from there.
In Hopland, many tasting rooms abound, including Graziano Family of Wines, whose Arneis, Pinot Grigio, Aglianico and many Italian blends are stellar. Drop into McNab Ridge for some Pinotage or Petite Sirah, and check out Sip! Mendocino, the be all and end all of wine shops that features wines from all over Mendocino County. It’s open every day, and the bubbly, outgoing proprietor, Bernadette Byrne, serves local beers too. She often brings her two sweet-natured yellow labs to work and everyone loves to come and see “the girls,” sip a glass of rosé, and admire the flowers in the courtyard.
It’s too bad the Hopland Inn, right across the street from Sip!, has gone to pot, quite literally. It used to be such a great place to stay, and the old bar was a thing of wonder that drew folks from miles around. So, instead, head over to Boonville on Highway 253 to spend the night at the Boonville Hotel, which is thriving in a town that just keeps reinventing itself quite successfully. Many tasting rooms, including Foursight, Harmonique and Philo Ridge await you there, and be sure to stop at Lauren’s or the Buckhorn for a meal. There’s also Paysanne, an adorable ice cream stop, and a couple of fun antique shops, along with a Mercantile, and the delicious Boonville General Store. The restaurant at the Boonville Hotel is also excellent, and plentiful outdoor seating awaits you.
Next, head north from Boonville on bucolic 128 to explore the Anderson Valley, where you’ll be captivated by the hills covered with apples, sheep and vines.
Relative newcomer, Baxter, in downtown Philo, drills down on local Pinot (the Oppenlander is amazing), while Sharffenberger delights with their sparklings. Further north on 128, Navarro stuns with pretty much everything winemaker Jim Klein crafts, especially their 2012 Gewurztraminer, which won the White Sweepstakes at the 2013 Mendocino Wine Competition.
Quaint and homey Husch offers an excellent Chenin Blanc and the Red Sweepstakes Winning 09 Old Vine Zinfandel – juicy and tangy. Right next to Navarro, Greenwood Ridge thrills with their aromatic whites, especially the 2012 Riesling, and their gorgeous silkscreened bottles are festooned with dragons and sensibly screwcapped.
Handley pretty much rocks it with everything they’ve got in their extensively delicious portfolio. Winemaker Milla Handley has been turning out stunning wines for 30 vintages now, and her 2012 Pinot Gris is top of the heap, although the 2012 Claudia Springs Pinot Gris gives it a good, steely run. The Handley tasting room boasts an international art collection, hearkening back to Xanadu, the Gallery in San Francisco that Milla’s father founded decades ago.
One of the best winetasting experiences can be had at Balo, just outside of Philo, where they have two bocce courts and a pizza oven, plus a cute guy, Travis, behind the bar who has an English bulldog that does not like his picture taken: he tried to bite my camera. Their light-as-air Pinot rosé is spectacular, and their Pinots are svelte and ballerina-esque.
If you’re making a two-nighter out of your trip, I’ll suggest the hottest new spot for lodging, winetasting and hanging out: The Madrones, in Philo. It’s just across from the Balo tasting room. Madrones proprietor, architect and designer, Jim Roberts, has created a wonderful oasis with accommodations that have fantastic beds and luxurious linens, EO salon products in the well-tiled baths, and all rooms include coffee makers, microwaves and fridges. Each morning, proprietor Jim delivers freshly baked croissants to your room, and your fridge will be stocked with juice and yogurt to help you face another brilliant fog-kissed morning in the Anderson Valley. (themadrones.com)
Four tasting rooms call The Madrones home, including Bink, Drew, Knez and Signal Ridge. Winemaker Deb Schatzlein of Bink sources much of her fruit from the Yorkville Highlands, where her partner, Cindy Paulson, tends the vines. Deb’s tasting room manager, Monika, will delight you with her charming German accent and a sense of humor as dry as the Bink Sauvignon Blanc, as crisp and refreshing as the enchanting Merlot Rosé and as smokey as the Bink Syrah. Fantastic prints of the posters that inspired Hermes scarves make the walls come alive with color.
Drew, one of the newer brands, is headed by young stud winemaker, Jason Drew, who also makes Balo wines. Drew specializes in Albariño, Valenti Syrah, Fog-Eater Pinot Noir, and the tasting room is right next to a neat garden shop called Sun & Cricket, billed as “Fine Rural Living and the Tools for the Journey.” Quite honestly, this shop is the whole reason why Jim Roberts originally purchased and developed this property more than twenty years ago. He’s gathered eclectic books, antiques, garden tools, classic toys and gourmet foods from all over the world. He also offers a cheese counter and cheesemonger to help you pair the right “tastes” to accompany the vast number of wines that are literally right in the courtyard.
Jim’s gardens are dizzying in their colors and fragrances: he’s a huge fan of roses and has created quite an oasis in which to wander, listening to his collection of exotic doves. The newest Madrones tasting room, and the one closest to the rose gardens, is Signal Ridge, named for their estate vineyard that sits at 2,760 feet, not far from the ocean. They produce Zin, Syrah, Chardonnay and Pinot: they make a sparkling from the latter two, and a rosé from the former.
Also at The Madrones is the latest sensation, Knez, who grow and produce all Burgundian varietals, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir at their estate in Boonville. These wines are restrained and well balanced. Outside the charming and well-appointed Knez tasting room are benches to enjoy the breezes, and tables and chairs to enjoy a glass of wine, perhaps accompanied by some cheese from Penny Royal Farmstead cheeses, the newest taste sensation in Boonville, made from the goats and sheep that tend to the weeds at Navarro’s newest vineyards at the west end of town.
Check out The Madrones new restaurant, Stone and Embers, with its wood-fired brick pizza oven, where you can enjoy the creations of Chef Patrick Meany, whose impressive culinary resumé includes stints at both Bouchon and Gary Danko. The beer and wine list features all local selections. All ages are welcome. Open for lunch and dinner: www.stoneandembers.com
If you’re hankering for authentic Mexican food, head to Libbey’s in Philo, near the Philo Post Office: it’s legendary. You can also stock up at Lemon’s market, where the locals shop for everything, including fresh fish.
Wherever you travel in this fog-kissed land of stellar cool climate Pinot Noir, you will not find a bad bottle of wine unless you buy it from a dive grocery. It’s easy to be transfixed by this place, where fence posts lean craggy elbows against flower-filled fields, ancient water towers stand sentinel over vine rows hemmed by roses, and barn roofs glow green with decades of moss. Anderson Valley is not just a place you can drink some of the best aromatic whites and Pinots you’ve ever had, it’s a soul-soothing elixir that cannot quite be bottled. Drink up!