Anderson Valley wineries you need to visit on a California road trip
No road trip to Mendocino County is complete without sipping a few of the best Anderson Valley wines. From casual newcomers to expansive long timers, here are a few down-to-earth wineries you must visit on your next California road trip.
No need to worry you if can’t identify mushrooms, butter, or apricot scones when tasting wine in Anderson Valley on a California road trip. Although some wine regions may feel daunting to those who love wine but aren’t connoisseurs, that’s not the case in this Mendocino county wine region. No glamorous gardens, opulent tasting rooms or theme park attractions to impress or attract. Here, in Anderson Valley, the wineries are real, authentic, down-to-earth — and they pour delectable wines for every palate.
The first winery in Anderson Valley, about 45 minutes southeast of the charming village of Mendocino, didn’t set down its roots until more than a hundred years after the first one in Napa Valley, where many of the renowned names of California wine began. Think Charles Krug and Robert Mondavi, among others. Perhaps that’s one reason why Anderson Valley wines have remained the best, off-the-beaten-path, not-so-secret appellation in California for so many. Another reason? The Anderson Valley wine-growing area is not really a day trip destination from San Francisco, and it is a very small-town area (not a Starbucks café or Safeway supermarket in sight).
Sarah Cahn Bennett, second-generation winemaking owner at Navarro, described the area as “flannel and jeans,” with Napa being more about pressed shirts. “You get more honesty here.”
Winemaking icon Matt Parish said the area “reminds me a lot of what I envision as a traditional wine-growing area. “It’s rural…. You drive through Napa, and it’s like Disneyland.”
Don’t get us wrong, there are plenty of oenophiles who know and adore Anderson Valley wines – that’s why I say it’s the best not-so-secret region. But all those casual wine tourists and drinkers? Not so much. And since you aren’t riding trams or taking castle tours in the Anderson Valley wine region, it can be easier for the road-tripper to pop casually into any winery of the approximately 40 there. They are all part of the Anderson Valley American Viticulture Area (AVA) within the North Coast and Mendocino wine areas. (Remember, not all offer on-site tasting, and with COVID safety protocols there could be other limitations, required appointments, or even closures, so always check prior to a planned visit because things change quickly.)
Road trippin’ in California to Mendocino: Anderson Valley wineries await
We cruised along the main route through Anderson Valley, Highway 128 on one of our recent California road trips. The highway is a curvy mostly two-lane affair with some run-down shacks here, a broken tractor or rusty shell of a car there. Then you get to Boonville, the largest town in the region, population 1,000, if everybody’s home. The town is so isolated long-time residents still have their own spoken jargon called “Boontling.” Some wineries honor the local argot by naming wines using Boontling words. Yup, we were “brightlighters” (Boontling for “visitors”) on a short California road trip up to Mendocino with several stops to experience a few of the best Anderson Valley wineries. Don’t wait for the locals to pander to your needs – they won’t — but they may “eeble” (scrutinize) you when they “harp” (talk).
Here, the Anderson Valley area’s renowned cooler climate (one of the coolest of California wine-growing regions) combines with warm but not hot summer temperatures (average summer high is just 77). Add in more than the U.S. average of sunny days (216 per year) and you get about the best weather in California for the Pinot Noir varietal. Still, you’ll also find Alsace varietals (some of my favorites) such as Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Riesling, along with Chardonnay. And there are small plantings of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.
Tasting and enjoying down-to-earth Anderson Valley wines near Mendocino
Does all that varietal and appellation stuff make your head spin? You just like good wine that makes you smile? Then welcome to Anderson Valley! Our own tasting and winery visits included five establishments, with a couple of the wineries considered founding “fathers” and “mothers,” and a couple of the “youngsters” among Anderson Valley wineries for your list.
Here is our selection of great Anderson Valley wineries for tastings on a California road trip. Definitely verify with each winery you plan to visit whether it is open, if you need an appointment, and about any other current safety parameters.
Navarro Vineyards & Winery – One of the “grandparents” of area vineyards, Navarro was founded in 1974 by Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn, Berkeley hippies looking for a more rural life and a great wine-growing area. You simply can’t pass through Anderson Valley without a stop at the unpretentious property that was formerly a sheep farm. But you are not likely to find Cahn or Bennett hanging around. They have basically retired and handed over the reins to their daughter Sarah Cahn Bennet, who is the viticulture graduate, and her brother Aaron, who does IT and marketing. Sarah is the face of the winery today, a woman who loves the soil, the wines, and is hands-on in the field during harvest. However, she did say her dad still shows up during crush to poke around, peer over her shoulder, and give his opinion.
“I always joked I wanted to be a vet or a winemaker,” she told us, while managing part of the 2020 crush and expressing worry about the summer’s smoke and fire’s effect on it. Navarro has had big success as one of the larger wineries in Anderson Valley with its, among other things, Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer. Do NOT dare stop at Navarro and not try the aromatic, Alsace-style Gewürztraminer. “I hope as a second generation,” she added, “that I don’t screw it all up.”
Handley Cellars – Founded by one of the original woman winemakers, Handley remains a leader in the valley. Milla Handley, who died in August 2020 at 68 from complications from COVID, worked hard to legitimize the nascent Anderson Valley wine region. Milla was in fact the first female winemaker in California to have her own label with her name on it, said Mary O’Brien, who led us on a walking tour of the property. “She was hands-on everything.” The business is now being run by her daughter Lulu McClellan.
Handley, too, runs on the motto, come as you are and hang out with friends. The outdoor Wisteria-draped tasting patio is a shady area in a casual setting that was amazingly pleasant on a hot, late summer afternoon.
We were joined briefly by winemaker Randy Schock who arrived in 2012 from Los Angeles in his search “to get back to the land.” Compared to some winemakers, even Navarro’s Sarah, he is not university trained but life-trained, using what he called a “natural perspective.” Handley of course offers the area’s specialty Pinot Noir, but also has Pinot Noir Rosé (Rosé fans alert! Yum!) and an array of Alsatian whites. A cool aromatic Alsatian – like Handley’s dry Gewürztraminer — really can’t be beat, and well-made ones, as we experienced here, aren’t always easy to find. So happens, Schock said, those are his favorites to make. “There’s nowhere to hide in those wines in winemaking,” he said, naming Riesling and Gewürztraminer.
Pennyroyal Farm – Why is a farm in a wine story? Because it’s also a winery! And also run by Sarah Cahn Bennett of Navarro, as if she doesn’t have enough to do there. On this boutique farm that was founded in 2008, she has a mere 23 acres of vineyards on 100 acres of farm. When open, you can sit on a beautiful outside patio looking out over the vineyards. When they pour your wine, your server will likely point to one plot or another and say, this came from there, that came from there…. The PinoTrio wine is what you imagine: A white blend from Pinot Blanc, Gris and Noir that combine to lend a deeper flavor with Rosé florals and a beautiful mouthfeel –This glass was one we drained. And you may too.
But there’s more here than wine: the cheese, which of course gives it the name “farm.” All are goat’s- or sheep’s-milk cheeses, from soft to blue to aged. And those cute animals are housed right there on the property (In normal times, Pennyroyal gives farm tours and has farm events.)
The soft Laycee cheese with chive flowers is bright and savory, which pleased me immensely, being a goat cheese fan, while the Boonter’s Blue rocked Michael’s world, being a big blue kinda guy. Like something? Buy it now. Pennyroyal in Anderson Valley is small production and will run out late in the season, returning only once the goats and sheep “come back from maternity leave.” How does she run both Navarro and Pennyroyal” “It’s been a little crazy,” she said. You think?
Lula Cellars – In the “deep end” of the Anderson Valley (i.e. farther west), a visit and tasting at Lula is like going over to a friend’s house and hanging out in the backyard. There are not flower-draped, rose-coiffed patios, or terraced decks; instead, you get a super casual, back-to-nature feel outdoors at picnic tables next to a pond – these days under COVID-safe tents — with official greeter Kepler the dog. Owner Ken Avery and renowned winemaker Matt Parish have combined skills to produce an array of wines that are “reasonably priced, approachable, and friendly,” Parish told us, “ones you enjoy and not just pair.” Despite harking from New Zealand, which many still connect with Sauvignon Blanc, Parish is a huge fan of reds, naming an Italian varietal called Nebbiolo as his favorite. Lula’s goal is to be a “Pinot house,” he said. “We want to be known for our Pinots.”
And there is an array of them on the list. We tasted three side-by-side. Sales guy, pourer and resident funny man Dan Reed (whose card gives him the title of “pushy salesman”) called the Costa Vineyard Pinot Noir as having notes of leaves, branches and mushrooms; the Peterson Vineyard Pinot Noir as being more minerally with hints of black fruits; and the Anderson Valley Pinot as being red fruit-forward. Then came the arm wrestling over which one was better: I liked the Costa, while Michael wouldn’t share the Anderson Valley, whose fruit is grown right on the Lula property. That’s not to say that the Rosé of Pinot Noir and the dry Gewürztraminer didn’t make us do a happy dance, too.
Lula’s story is also one of sustainability, with vines grown using the “dry farming” technique meaning vineyards are not irrigated after the first four years – a technique perhaps only 10 percent of wineries are implementing, per owner Ken Avery.
Lula may seem like a tiny blip of a winery along the Anderson Valley wine route – their directions tell you it’s next door to Handley — but do stop in to sit a spell, throw a slobbery tennis ball to the dog, and yak it up with Reed or Avery.
Fathers+Daughters Cellars – With grapes coming from the Anderson Valley, Fathers+Daughters is one of the newbies on the block, not launching until 2012. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find deep winemaking roots: “Father” Guy Pacurar and his wife, Sarah, along with her winemaking father, Kurt Schoeneman of the Ferrington Vineyard, run the business (the other “daughters” are Schoeneman’s granddaughters, Taylor and Ella).
F+D is a small-production family venture, with only about 600 cases for the year offering everything from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to Gewürztraminer and other whites or bubbles. We took a particular liking to a white blend called “The Dance” that combines Old Vine Sauvignon Blanc with Gewürztraminer and a bit of Chardonnay, all from the Ferrington Vineyard. Another specialty is “Sarah’s Rustic Bubbles,” which uses the Petillant natural style of fermenting bubbles. Named after Sarah because of her particular affinity for bubbles, Sarah’s Rustic Bubbles is in fact a rustic bottle of bubbles for dressed-down affairs or just a warm summer evening. Without an official tasting room, a Fathers+Daughters wine tasting would need to be arranged at least 72 hours in advance with Pacurar, who also runs the splendid casual yet luxurious Brewery Gulch Inn in Mendocino, at either the inn or the winery in Anderson Valley, weather permitting.
Standing in her vineyard at Navarro dressed in, indeed, flannel and jeans, Sarah Cahn Bennett’s gaze sweeps across the acres of grapes. She has taken a moment to step away from the 2020 crush – “It’s been a long 10 days” – and enjoys a moment of warmth in the sun: “I love this place. To me you have this great wine region that’s small and pretty open, the proximity to the ocean…. The diversity of the wines is so great. It’s a beautiful place to be.”
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