On the long and winding road to Anderson Valley and the Mendocino coast, even grown men ask, "Are we there yet?" California wine country doesn't get farther from the beaten path. There's a stubborn, undomesticated beauty here, from the high rocky bluffs of the coast to the charismatically rustic landscape of the valley.
Eccentricity comes with the territory—people in Boonville developed their own quirky dialect in the late 1800s, if that tells you anything—but that's half the charm of visiting. If you need the safety of Starbucks every morning, you've come to the wrong place. But if you like visiting folksy little wineries, drinking unfussy and fruit-forward wines, having dinner by a fire and getting some peace and quiet, this is your wine country.
Anderson Valley and the Mendocino coast are located about a two-and-a-half-hour drive north from San Francisco. The main access route is Highway 128, a serpentine two-lane thrill ride, at least over the 28 miles from Cloverdale to Boonville. The Anderson Valley AVA is 16 miles long and 5 miles across at its widest, and is bordered on three sides by low mountains as it twists and unfurls through small towns and vineyards, following the Navarro River out to the Pacific. From there, Highway 1 leads north along tall cliffs to the village of Mendocino.
That's the territory to map out—Boonville to Mendocino, a 45-minute drive through redwood country from one end to the other. Many visitors stay in Mendocino and stop at the wineries in Anderson Valley while driving through, but there are plenty of options. Anderson Valley has the wine, but Mendocino and the coast have most of the fine dining and accommodations.
Mendocino is California's version of a New England fishing village.
The town of Mendocino (population about 900) is situated on a steep headland above the ocean. The first settlers arrived by accident; a shipwreck brought them ashore in 1850. The architecture makes it look remarkably like a New England village, and you may recognize it from movies such as East of Eden starring James Dean and TV's Murder She Wrote. Victorian bed-and-breakfasts are on nearly every corner, and tourists take in ocean views as they browse the sidewalk shops along historic Main Street.
The coastal weather is breezy and often overcast. "Definitely wear a lot of layers and keep a raincoat in your trunk," warns Margaret Fox, former owner of Café Beaujolais, a restaurant that has been Mendocino's calling card for more than 30 years.
Finding a place to eat in Mendocino is easy. Café Beaujolais, set in a 19th-century farmhouse, remains an excellent choice, and just down the street is the MacCallum House, a Victorian inn that dates to 1882 and offers what may be the best dining experience in the area.
Just south of Mendocino, along Highway 1 and closer to the wineries of Anderson Valley, is the Albion River Inn. The rooms and dining room offer dramatic views of Albion cove and the ocean. The restaurant's menu emphasizes local seafood, and its 400-selection wine list offers an extensive array from around the world—a rarity in this area, where most wine lists are modest in size and devoted largely to local wines.
Moving inland on Highway 128, an 11-mile ramble through the Navarro River Redwoods State Park, with its dense grove of tall trees, leads to Anderson Valley.
Albion River Inn offers unparalleled views from its guestrooms and award-winning restaurant.
Walter Anderson and his family settled in the valley after he stumbled upon it while leading a hunting expedition in 1851. Early residents planted the first grapes, and some of the old vines, such as those in DuPratt vineyard, planted in 1916, still produce Zinfandel.
Modern winegrowing was introduced here in the mid-1960s, when Donald Edmeades planted a 24-acre vineyard. Soon after, Anderson Valley became a haven for flower children, and while the communes didn't last long, many of their residents stayed on and have left their distinctive mark on the community. Lumber and apples were the dominant industries until the early 1970s, when the first wineries and new vineyards began cropping up.
The climate is relatively cool, with fog in the morning and sea breezes in the afternoon, but in the summer, temperatures often spike briefly in the afternoon and can reach 100°F. Vineyards are planted mostly in the benchlands and mountains, and the ground is a mix of clay, loam and gravel. Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer have proven to be the most successful varieties in the valley, and since the 1980s, Champagne house Louis Roederer's California estate has shown that sparkling wine has its place as well.
There are 27 wineries in the valley, most of which are open for drop-in tastings; the best include Navarro, Handley, Goldeneye and Roederer Estate.
In the 1990s, Anderson Valley was in the vanguard of Pinot Noir, but while the best wines have crisp, delicate complexity, the region's reputation has lost some of its luster. Dan Duckhorn, of his eponymous Napa winery, is a newcomer to the valley with his boutique Pinot Noir house, Goldeneye. He's quick to defend local vintners but concedes that some have not kept up with the times.
Roederer Estate has been making sparkling wine in Anderson Valley since the 1980s.
"There are producers who have put in a lot more time and money and effort into clones and rootstock," Duckhorn says. "I don't think Anderson Valley Pinot fell back so much as the other areas moved forward."
But promising new Pinots made from Anderson Valley fruit are already arriving. Some are from wineries outside the valley, like Williams Selyem, Roessler, Radio-Coteau and Copaín but a few, such as Londer, are local.
If staying close to the vineyards is important, make Boonville Hotel your hub of activity. It's funky yet chic, and the restaurant offers a small menu of hearty yet refined California cuisine.
There's also something about Boonville Hotel that's uniquely "of a place," something that sums up the experience of the region. And, after all, that's why we're attracted to places like Anderson Valley and the Mendocino coast. They're distinctive. They stand apart. And it's not just because of their remote locations. It's their refreshing state of mind.