An easy drive from San Francisco, Northern California’s sun-drenched wine country is a favorite destination among devotees of food and drink. Napa Valley, home to many prestigious, big-name Cabernet Sauvignon producers, draws the heaviest tourist traffic. Napa visitors spill from buses at lavish tasting facilities and indulge in local spas, gourmet gift shops and some of the most sophisticated, creative restaurants in the United States.
|Navarro Vineyards specializes in late-harvest dessert wines.|
But crowds can dull the countryside’s charm. And like the price of good Cabernet, the costs of Napa dining and accommodation are steep. For wine lovers who prefer the less trodden path, we recommend driving farther north, to the wild, craggy shoreline of Mendocino County and its lush, rolling vineyards in the Anderson Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area).
The Anderson Valley is still characterized by small-production wineries, family-run bed-and-breakfasts and pristine vistas of forests and meadows. The rugged Mendocino County landscape will delight travelers who intersperse wine-tasting experiences with explorations via mountain bike, kayak, canoe or on foot.
Heading north on Highway 128 from Sonoma County (the premier terrain for Zinfandel fans), the road begins to form hairpins, and farms and houses become scattered. Gray moss hangs from oaks and fir trees, and an occasional hawk circles above. As you near the Mendocino coast, vineyard hills are punctuated by dark, damp groves of ancient, towering redwoods. The forest floor is thick with ferns, and aromas of eucalyptus and wild lavender mingle with the brisk salt air.
The Anderson Valley AVA is just 24 km long. The valley is slung between two ridges and traversed by the Navarro River. The river and proximity to the Pacific Ocean create a climate cooled by fog and maritime breezes. This environment results in a lengthy vineyard growing season and a portfolio of distinctive local wines.
Valley winemakers have been drawn to wine styles and grape varietals that have proven themselves in other cool-weather viticultural areas — in particular the French appellations of Champagne and Alsace. Roederer Estates, Scharffenberger and Pacific Echo are among the area’s producers of crisp, classic sparkling wines made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
In addition, the valley is one of California’s best sources for exotic, dry, spicy white wines from grapes such as Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay.
Pinot Noir also performs with distinction here, yielding subtle, silky and elegant red wines. For more robust, ripe reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, some Anderson Valley wineries source fruit from the warmer Potter Valley AVA on the eastern side of Mendocino County.
The Anderson Valley’s fog and damp air bring the risk of botrytis (noble rot) to local vineyards. The mold attacks and perforates grapes, transforming them into dehydrated raisins. Navarro Vineyards, one of the valley’s pioneering wineries, turns the hazard of botrytis into a virtue, producing rich, succulent, late-harvest dessert wines from the shriveled, sugar-rich grapes. These small-edition bottlings were among the most memorable wines we recently sampled at the winery.
Winery tasting rooms in the Anderson Valley tend to offer a friendly, intimate and unhurried atmosphere. While they may lack the palatial dimensions and glitzy souvenir boutiques of many Napa Valley wineries, they present the chance for a leisurely, in-depth tasting with patient staff.
In the next Vineland column, we will provide tips on some of our favorite Anderson Valley wineries to visit, as well as places to stay and dine in Mendocino County.
Eat magazine, the new Tokyo-based glossy, offers an innovative take on wine reporting. In anticipation of the Japan-Korea World Cup, the magazine has launched a wine-based version of the soccer competition. Visitors to its Web site can take part in choosing the teams to compete in the World Cup wine tastings later this year. See www.i-eat site. com for further details.