One of our favorite destinations on the California wine route — the Anderson Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) — is an insider tip. Less familiar and less traveled than Napa or Sonoma, it is situated among the redwood forests and unspoiled ridges of Mendocino County. The area is home to a community of family-owned, artisanal wineries, the way Napa Valley was some 25 years ago. Their wines are seldom produced in sufficient quantities for supermarket distribution and as a result, few are household names. But visitors here find handcrafted, distinctive wines at moderate prices, direct from the cellar door.
Although the terrain is wild, navigation is simple even for a first-time visitor. Highway 128 winds through the heart of Anderson Valley vineyards, until it reaches the wind-swept Mendocino coast.
Navarro Vineyards, (707) 895-3686, was launched in 1974 on the site of a century-old sheep ranch. Owners Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn became contemporary pioneers of Anderson Valley winemaking. Fans of savory white wines from France’s Alsace region, they discovered that Alsatian grape varietals (such as Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir) thrive in Anderson Valley’s maritime-influenced climate.
Navarro produces dry, exotic whites; earthy, yet elegant Pinot Noirs; and stunning late-harvest dessert wines. Eighty-five percent of production goes to its tasting-room guests and mailing list. In Japan, Friends of the Vin offers a good Navarro selection; contact email@example.com or (042) 956- 5669. The 1998 Navarro Gewurztraminer Cuvee Traditional makes a beautiful summer wine (2,090 yen/bottle).
Handley Cellars, (800) 733-3151, is another essential stop. The winery was founded by one of California’s first women winemakers, Milla Handley, in 1982. At their historic ranch-turned-winery, the Handley family crafts crisp sparkling wines, graceful Pinot Noirs and fragrant whites, including Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris.
Watch for Handley’s Pinot “Mystere” Meunier, an example of the area’s unique bottlings. Pinot Meunier is what Milla Handley calls “the feisty cousin” of Pinot Noir; it is best known in France’s cool Champagne vineyards. She turns this grape into a spicy, meaty red wine (2,530 yen/bottle; Friends of the Vine).
Sparkling wine aficionados should not miss Roederer Estate, the California property of the venerable Champagne house Louis Roederer. Tastings and tours are offered daily; (707) 895-2288. Other popular wineries include Greenwood Ridge, Edmeades, Pacific Echo, Scharffenberger, Brutocao and Claudia Springs.
Add adventure to an Anderson Valley wine trip with a canoe picnic on the nearby Big River, the longest undeveloped estuary in California. Canoes, kayaks and bicycles are available at Catch-a-Canoe, (707) 937-5615.
The day ends at the craggy Mendocino coast, where small inns and B & Bs abound. The Heritage House, (707)937-5885, is a perfect secret getaway. In a guest cottage on the steep Pacific bluffs, fall asleep to the crashing of surf. No two rooms are alike; most have fireplaces or wood-burning stoves, and oversized bathtubs or whirlpools.
The Heritage House’s restaurant offers a broad, well-priced wine selection and spectacular ocean views. At our last visit, the food here was fine but unexceptional. Yet few better spots exist for savoring a glass of Anderson Valley wine while the sun sinks in the waves.
Down the road in Mendocino, the MacCallum House Inn is a gingerbread Victorian with 19 guestrooms, (707) 937-0289, and a cozy restaurant and cafe, (707) 937-5763. In the California cuisine tradition, the menu showcases local ingredients, from blackberries and mushrooms to oysters, organic meats, olive oils and Anderson Valley wines.
For a memorable conclusion, reserve for dinner at the legendary Cafe Beaujolais, (707) 937-5614. Icons often disappoint inflated expectations, yet Cafe Beaujolais continues to create feasts that inspire delirium. Try dishes such as crab and asparagus bisque with caramelized leeks, and pan-roasted Washington sturgeon in a truffle emulsion sauce with beets and wild mushrooms. This place deserves its berth among California’s best wine-country restaurants.