BY KIMBERLEY LOVATO
Napa Valley – home to some of the world’s most famous vineyards – often steals the wine world’s limelight. But here’s where you should consider going next: the Anderson Valley, northwest of Napa and and just 90 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge. It beckons oenophiles on a different kind of wine country quest – one that’s a little more relaxed, a lot less crowded, and where prize-winning wines are poured with the friendly charm of yesteryear.
“Anderson Valley is laid back and a fun day trip from the Healdsburg area,” suggests Lisa Meisner, a Healdsburg-based Virtuoso advisor. “Check out the local wine festivals, such as Holiday Wine Passport in December, the International Alsace Varietals Festival in February, the Pinot Noir Festival in May, and Barrel Tasting Weekend in July.”
Here are five more reasons we fell hard for the Anderson Valley.
The bygone era aura:
Exit the traffic-clogged 101 freeway, zip through the town of Cloverdale, and hang a left on highway 128. Within minutes the road knots through forests of gnarled oaks toward Yorkville Highlands, an adjacent AVA (American Viticultural Area) before descending into a pastoral scene. Cell phone service drops off from time to time (sorry Mom), and there’s not a gaudy strip mall or fast food joint in sight. You’ll see vineyards dotted amidst flaxen hills, while horses and sheep graze on farms – some dilapidated barns look as if they’ll topple in a stiff wind.
Tasting rooms are relatively easy to get into, especially mid-week. Fees – if any – are so low you might think you’ve time-warped back to 1980. Plan for around $3 to $6 per person, which is usually credited back if you buy a bottle.
As in most of California wine country, great food is easy to find here. Boonville’s four blocks classify it as the area’s “big city” (population: around 1,000). Aquarelle wins praise for its popular outdoor barbecue and Taqo (yes, spelled with a Q) Tuesday. The Boonville General Store makes everything from scratch, including soup, pizza, scones, and bread. From April through October, the town holds a Saturday farmers’ market that brings vendors from the Anderson Valley and the Mendocino coast. If you miss it, head west to the hamlet of Philo (population: around 350), where the family-owned Gowan’s Oak Tree fruit stand has you covered year-round.
Practice the the honor system at the self-service farm stand of The Apple Farm, a weekend cooking school and orchard co-owned by Don and Sally Schmitt – they sold their Napa Valley restaurant, The French Laundry, to Thomas Keller in 1994. (You may have heard of it.) Nearby, the Bewildered Pig’s unassuming roadhouse exterior belies the white-tablecloth, refined rustic dining experience inside.
With the cold Pacific Ocean nudging at its western flank, plus warm, sunny days, and foggy mornings and nights, the Anderson Valley has the ideal climate for growing prizewinning pinot noir, chardonnay, and Alsace varietals. Tour bus fleets haven’t descended on the area yet, and the only train to speak of is the one that once cut through the valley hauling redwood to build San Francisco.
Though small, the Anderson Valley offers around 36 wineries and tasting rooms, from the acclaimed pinots at Foursight Wines in Boonville to Handley Cellars about 12 miles west. Most are small and family-run – picnicking is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. The owner may be the one pouring your wine, as was the case during a recent visit to Toulouse Vineyards – Vern Boltz, a former Oakland fire department captain, often greets his guests. Don’t miss Navarro Vineyards, an award-winning winery and valley mainstay since 1974. The winery’s hour-long tour (prebook online) – is worth the dirt on your shoes amassed while walking the vineyard, peaking into barrel rooms, and tasting juice from the vats.
Husch Vineyards the valley’s oldest winery, crushed its first grapes in 1971. Their tasting room is a converted pony barn dating to the late 1800s. Roederer, one of France’s most prestigious Champagne houses, opened its doors in the Anderson Valley in 1982 and makes their prized bubbly from pinot noir and chardonnay grapes grown on the property. For sparkling wine lovers, Scharffenberger Cellars is a worthy stop with a bonus: their tasting room doubles as a local art gallery.
Need a break from vino? Belly up to the Anderson Valley Brewing Company and taproom just outside Boonville.
Anderson Valley is close to the Pacific Ocean, but before you get there, highway 128 parallels the Navarro River and dips into a lush redwood tree forest that opens onto the pristine and craggy coast dotted with historic towns such as Mendocino and hiking trails that meander above crashing surf. Few wine regions on the planet pair up sea air and towering trees as perfectly as this stretch of Northern California.
You won’t need a dictionary to visit Anderson Valley, but you should know what “Boontling” is. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the residents of Boonville – then an isolated logging and farming community – spoke a jargon called “Boontling,” a blend of Scottish, Gaelic, Irish, Spanish, and Pamoan. Apparently, it was formed by field hands who wanted to keep their conversations private and by gossips who wished to dish openly without being understood. Today, no one speaks it, but locals seem to know a few words and are willing to teach them.
A few to know:
- A buckey walter = a pay telephone (there are a few left in Boonville!)
- Apple head = a girlfriend
- Bahl hornin’ = cheers!
- Horn of Zeese = a cup of coffee
- Kilockety = to travel by train
- Harp = to talk Boontling (harp away, readers!)
All photos by Kimberley Lovato.