California’s Mendocino County is widespread and extremely diverse, encompassing 2.4 million acres of land. The area sprawls across narrow valleys, giant redwood forests, and reaches out to the pristine northern California coastline. The scenic route and my favorite way to get there starts at Highway 128 in Cloverdale, at the northern tip of Sonoma County, and continues north until you reach Anderson Valley, an AVA (American Viticultural Area) most known for pinot noir, chardonnay, and Alsatian grape varietals.
This part of California remains relatively undeveloped, with a large number of organic wineries, which earns Mendocino County the title of “America’s Greenest Wine Region.” There are close to 20,000 acres of planted grapevines here, with 13 AVAs.
The region as a whole consists of basically two climates. On the west side of the county, the vineyards experience a cooler maritime climate with coastal breezes and fog, with temperatures ranging from 100°F during the day to 50°F at night—ideal for pinot noir, pinot gris, gewürztraminer, riesling, and sparkling wines. Inland to the east, home to the older vineyards, there are hot sunny days and warmer nights, perfect for growing sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, carignan, zinfandel, merlot, and syrah.
Growers and winemakers in Mendocino have been on the forefront of producing chemical-free wines, going back the region’s winemaking history with its Italian Swiss Settlers. Today Mendocino produces the largest number of certified organic and sustainable wines in all of California.
Mendocino County’s Frey Vineyards was the first organic and first biodynamic winery in the United States. Bonterra Vineyards is the largest producer of organic wine in the country, and Parducci Wine Cellars was the first American winery to be certified carbon neutral.
Wineries are mainly family owned and most producers have a long history attached to the land. The region is primarily known for timber and agriculture, including the recently legalized cannabis.
Founded in 1996, Goldeneye Winery (named after the Canadian yellow-eyed waterfowl that migrates through Anderson Valley en route to Mexico) is a member of the Duckhorn Wine Company based in Napa Valley. Goldeneye Winery specializes in making wines from pinot noir, using fruit from both estate and non-estate vineyards. The vineyards were included as the first to accomplish sustainable certification through the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold environmental certification. The tranquil farmhouse tasting room resembles a private living room where you feel right at home.
Handley Cellars, a family-owned artisan winery, was the former Holmes Ranch. In 1982 winemaker Milla Handley produced 250 cases of Handley Chardonnay, becoming the first woman winemaker and owner to establish a wine label with her own name in the United States. Handley produces small-lot award-winning wines including pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot gris, riesling, gewürztraminer, syrah, and zinfandel. The winery, a refurbished barn house with a garden courtyard, displays folk art from around the world and is a wonderful place to relax while tasting wines.
Since 2010, Lula Cellars, a boutique winery named after founding winemaker Jeff Hansen’s grandmother, Lula, sits on 22 acres in the heart of pinot noir region. The tasting room is a converted tractor shed that is rustic yet comfortable for tasting Estate and Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs, and their single vineyard wines. The winery produces 3,000 cases of wine each year. The goal of Lula Cellars is to produce high quality, world-class wines of great value and sell them directly to consumers at the winery and to wine club members. They produce a rich full-bodied pinot noir, as well as zinfandel, gewürztraminer, and sauvignon blanc. Summer in a glass, the Lula Rosato, a dry rosé, made from pinot noir grapes, radiates fresh cherry and strawberry flavors.
Family owned and operated by Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn since 1974. They purchased a 900-acre sheep ranch, and dedicated parts of the land to grape vines. Navarro’s first wine was a dry gewürztraminer, and today the winery produces 45,000 cases of various wines annually, that include old-vine zinfandel, estate-grown Anderson Valley pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot gris, riesling, and sweet muscat, along with a nonalcoholic grape juice. The majority of wine is only available at their tasting room or online. They have an onsite deli selling local smoked salmon, and artisanal meats and cheeses (direct from their farm) that pair well with their wines. The family still raises sheep and the tasting room was built from redwoods on the property inspired by a vintage barn, rustic and intimate, with views of the Anderson Valley. The California State Fair named Navarro the California Winery of the Year in 2014.
Philips Hill Winery
Owner and winemaker Toby Hill founded Phillips Hill Winery in 2002. A former visual artist, Hill draws out creative expressions in his wines with a focus on cool climate varietals that have a sense of place. The pinot noirs are made in an Old-World Burgundian style from modern vineyards located nearby. Hill and Natacha Durandet, his fiance and partner who was born in the Loire Valley wine region, continue to grow the winery by planting their own estate grapes. Surrounded by fresh lavender and apple trees, the one-of-a-kind outdoor tasting room and guest center is a restored apple drying barn where you can taste their award-winning wines alongside imported cheeses and meats from France.
Champagne Louis Roederer was one of the first Champagne houses to purchase hundreds of acres in the Anderson Valley in to produce sparkling wines. The wines are made only from grapes grown on the estate in the méthode champenoise style—the authentic French method for making sparkling wines. Roederer Estate’s unique style comes from over 200 years of tradition, including the addition of oak-aged reserve wines to each year’s blend or cuvee. The reserve wines age in a state-of-the-art cask room which allows an ideal balance of temperature and humidity control. Wines from this special reserve cellar are added to each blend, creating a cuvee known for its body, finesse, and depth of flavor.
This beautiful vineyard is located in the center of Anderson Valley with stunning views of magnificent oak trees and towering redwoods. Owners Vern and Maxine Boltz purchased the 320-acre property in 1998 after retiring (he was a general contractor and captain of a fire department, she was a flight attendant), planting 21 acres of grape vineyards. By 2002 they released their first pinot noir, making them official winemakers. Toulouse practices sustainable farming. One of their most popular white wines is a pinot gris, a refreshing wine with notes of nectarines, citrus blossoms, and ripe tangerines. Other wines include the Estate Riesling, gewrztraminer, and petite sirah.
One of the best times to visit Mendocino is early September during Winesong. This year's 35th annual event will be held on September 6 & 7, 2019. It's a spectacular weekend of award-winning wine, fabulous food, fine art, music, fun and charitable giving with amazing auction items. Visit winesong.org for more information and to purchase tickets.
Mendocino County offers hundreds of miles of unspoiled beaches, hiking trails, secluded lakes, campgrounds (including “glamping”) and giant redwood forests; it’s home to the largest redwood tree in the country.
Anderson Valley has some 2,500 acres of vineyards. Wineries here have both rustic and stylish tasting rooms, selling excellent pinot noir and Alsace grape varietals.
The quaint and unforgettable town of Mendocino was settled in 1850 and is perched on a steep headland above the ocean. The architecture makes it look remarkably like a New England village, and you may recognize it from movies such as Same Time Next Year and East of Eden, and TV’s Murder She Wrote.
Art galleries, antique shops, restaurants, and New Age healing centers fill Main Street. Victorian inns are everywhere, while dramatic ocean views captivate you from every corner of town. Approaching from the south on Route 1 after crossing the spectacular Albion River Bridge, you can also find numerous inns and restaurants, all with jaw-dropping views of the Pacific.
Fort Bragg is a stone’s throw north of town and a place worth visiting. Ride the Skunk Train through the redwood forest and stroll through the beautiful Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens on an easy walk to the ocean.
If you are traveling with your four-legged friend, Mendocino County is consistently named one of the top pet-friendly destinations in the nation. visitmendocino.com