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Keeping It Real in Mendocino

Known for its laid-back atmosphere, this Northern California County offers an authentic wine-and-food experience
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 15, 2013 11:00am ET

In California wine country, Mendocino County is out in left field in more ways than one. Not only is it the Golden State's most remote and northernmost wine region, but the attitude there is different compared to places like Sonoma or Santa Barbara. Life moves at a slower pace and the mindset is more unconventional, some might even say eccentric.

It's not quite like any wine region you'll ever visit, which is just what we discovered while researching "A Wine and Food Tour of Mendocino" in the June 15 issue of Wine Spectator.

Mendocino is just the place for those who like to venture off the path. Located 100 miles north of San Francisco, Mendocino County is big—it could contain both Napa and Sonoma counties within its borders—and the landscape is pastoral and appealingly untamed.

From its rugged Pacific Coast to its mountain ranges covered in dense redwood forests, Mendo (as locals call it) has a distinctive vibe: a blend of artists, graying hippies and New Agers, fishermen, ranchers, farmers and winemakers.

The county's best-known wines hail from Anderson Valley, in particular Pinot Noir and sparkling wine, which senior editor James Laube details in his story "California's Hidden Wine Country" in the same issue.

You may recognize Anderson Valley labels such as Roederer Estate, Black Kite, Navarro, Goldeneye and Handley, as well as other producers in the county, most notably Fetzer, Parducci, Saracina and Graziano.

If you lead a green lifestyle, Mendo is just the place to visit. About 25 percent of the vineyards are certified organic and many of the 100-plus wineries are small, family-owned and believe in sustainable farming. Artisan food producers are increasingly calling it home and shops are well-stocked with good nibbles to pack for an alfresco lunch in Mendocino's many picnic areas. (And bring the pooch, too. It's also one of the most dog-friendly wine regions in California.)

To help you explore, my colleagues MaryAnn Worobiec, Augustus Weed and I discovered the best places to stay, where to eat and what to do in Mendocino. Since it isn't a tourist Mecca like Napa, Mendocino generally offers charming bed and breakfasts, mostly near the seaside village of Mendocino, which would look at home on a postcard from New England.

Most of the top restaurants such as Café Beaujolais and Albion River Inn have long-established reputations and the food is satisfying and typically focuses on local seafood and produce. There are a few new players such as Patrona and Piazza de Campovida that are worth checking out. While the wine lists are generally small, they're stocked with local bottles and have low mark ups.

A Mendocino wine and food tour isn't for everyone. The nights are silent, but you've got all those stars to lay back and observe. If you're in the mood for something quiet and in the country, Mendocino wine country is an authentic experience.

Kristy Charles
Boonville, CA, USA —  May 15, 2013 12:47pm ET
As a fourth-generation resident of the town of Boonville - and a local winery owner - I can attest to the fact that Anderson Valley has been transformed from a sleepy lumber town to a charming yet laid-back wine country destination. We have about 25 tasting rooms open daily or by appointment now, serving world-class Pinot Noir, Alsace-style whites and sparkling wines. Most often owners or winemakers are pouring their own wines in the tasting rooms, and the lodging and restaurants offer a personal touch as well.

For those looking to explore, the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association is a fantastic place to start -- just go to avwines.com. Or stop by the Foursight tasting room and I'd be happy to share what I know about our beautiful part of the North Coast.

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