An Anderson Valley winemaker once told me, “If you see redwoods growing, Pinot Noir can’t be far away.” Thanks to the cooling influence of the fog that follows the Navarro River through much of Anderson Valley, grapes like Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer are able to flourish amongst vast groves of verdant redwoods. It’s one of the prettiest regions in California, and produces some of our finest wines. And while Anderson Valley doesn’t have the quantity or glitz of Napa Valley wineries, it does have far more intimate tasting rooms, warm and friendly locals, and enough great dining options for a very memorable — and romantic — weekend getaway.
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Family Wineries and History
The journey into the Anderson Valley is not an easy one, not compared to Napa or Sonoma, but if you enjoy going off the beaten path this is the place for you. From the west, the road follows the Navarro River in towards the coast through an 11-mile “redwood tunnel to the sea.” From the east, the road twists tightly like a roller coaster, weaving through a band of oaks and brush.
It’s wise to stop in Cloverdale for gas, as this will be your last opportunity for a while. Turning onto Highway 128, it doesn’t take long for the road to start looping through hills, climbing in elevation. Don’t be deceived by the sign that says 28 miles to Boonville — it will take longer than expected. The road doesn’t go in a straight line until you reach the speck of a town called Yorkville. It is here you’ll start to see signs of rural life: rusty barns, goats, chickens, and sheep grazing in vineyards. That’s when you know you have made it.
Yorkville is the start of the 25-mile stretch that makes up the Anderson Valley grape-growing region, continuing onto Boonville, then Philo, and ending in Navarro, about 15 miles inland from the coast just before the Navarro Redwoods State Park.
Your first stop in Boonville should be Foursight Winery, family owned and operated by Bill and Nancy Charles, their daughter Kristy, and son-in-law Joe Web. Bill was born in Boonville in 1950 and fluently speaks Boonville’s native language, Boontling (you can learn more about this fascinating language by visiting the Anderson Valley Historical Museum). The Charles family only produces 1,000 cases of Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and a rare Semillon that is out of this world (they make 75 cases from the only 2.7 acres planted in the AV). I like their Zero New Oak Pinot Noir for a pure expression of Anderson Valley fruit.
Pick up a sandwich at the Boonville General Store made with the store’s own freshly baked bread. Then head just northwest of town to Mary Elke’s tasting room where you can sit outside at picnic tables and enjoy a glass of sparkling wine in the middle of the vineyard. Look for the hand painted sign “ELKE 900 feet” and turn right onto the small dirt road. This is as rustic as tasting rooms get. You’ll sit amongst barrels inside what looks like a small barn, painted red with a heavy wood door. Try special bottlings, barrel samples, and library wines (older vintages). Primarily growers, the Elkes make some of the best value wines you’ll find in the valley. The Boonville Barter Pinot Noir, only available in the tasting room, is a steal! The tasting room is open Friday through Monday 11am to 5pm, but call ahead in the fall and spring months.
Next, head to Philo and walk through Hendy Woods State Park on Philo-Greenwood Road. If you’ve never seen old growth redwoods, you’re in for a treat. Some of these are more than 1,000 years old. If you’re a redwood veteran, this won’t be the most spectacular exhibit you’ve seen but a nice reminder that these ancient wonders still exist. You’ll no doubt enjoy strolling along the two miles of nature trails or relaxing at one of the 25 picnic sites along the Navarro River.
Heading back toward Boonville, stop at the Drew Family tasting room in Philo for some of my favorite wines in the valley. Jason and Molly drew just planted a biodynamic vineyard up the Philo-Greenwood Road (about 15 miles beyond Hendy) in the nearby Mendocino Ridge AVA (American Viticulture Area). Vineyards qualify to be part of this AVA if they are 1,200 feet above sea level and less than 10 miles from the ocean. Taste the Valenti Vineyard Albariño or Pinot Noir for a good representation of this unique grape growing area. It is more likely you’ll see Molly in the tasting room than Jason, but regardless, you’ll be talking to someone who is friendly and knowledgeable. This is a tiny producer of top-notch wines that shouldn’t be missed.
Have dinner that evening at local’s favorite, Lauren’s Restaurant. The menu here is driven by fresh local produce, as well as local wines and beer. Lauren’s encourages all customers to be artists with “table art.” Colored pencils are provided. Lauren’s is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
Apple Farm, Wine and Beer
For good coffee and pastries the next morning, start out at Mosswood Café in Boonville and then head back toward Philo. If it’s too early for wine tasting, spend some time at the Philo Apple Farm, a certified organic/biodynamic orchard where you can taste up to a dozen varieties of apples and purchase juice, jams, and chutneys hand made from the fruit of their 80+ heirloom trees.
Your first winery stop should be Toulouse Vineyards. Owner Vern Boltz is a wonderful host and loves to recommend things to do in the valley or nearby coast. Dogs are welcome and sometimes outnumber people. Vern is building a new tasting room, but I like his current makeshift tasting area inside the winery surrounded by barrels. Pull up a stool to one of the barrels placed on its head for extra seating. My favorite wines to sip on are his Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Rose (made from Pinot Noir), and an interesting Pinot Noir made 100% in Hungarian barrels.
Get lunch to go again at Mosswood Cafe, Booneville General Store, or Boont Berry Farm, a small organic market inside dark weathered walls. Then head over to the Anderson Valley Brewing Company, one of California’s first microbreweries. The ambiance inside the tasting room is all business and they don’t serve food (that’s why you bring your own), so enjoy your lunch at their outdoor tables with a flight of beer, then sign up for a game of disc golf on their 18-hole course (BYO frisbee or rent one there). If you’re a fan of the beer-making process, you can also go on one of their daily tours of the brewery.
Finish your afternoon on the patio at the Breggo Tasting Room. I like all their wines, but their whites are exceptional (Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling). If available, you might want to buy a bottle or two. These don’t stay in stock long. Their Pinot Noirs are wonderful too, easily enjoyed in this friendly, laid back environment. Spend your evening fine dining Thursday through Sunday at the Boonville Hotel Restaurant with their prix fixe dinners in the courtyard. Everything I’ve mentioned above is just a fraction of the things to see and do in Anderson Valley, a region rich with history, nature, food, and wine. A one-day trip won’t be enough and you’ll want to allow plenty of time for exploring, so plan a weekend getaway. You can count on an adventure every time, no matter which path you choose. And on your next visit, combine it with a trip to the Mendocino Coast where you can walk along the bluffs, canoe or kayak up the Big River, or bike ride along the sand dunes starting in Fort Bragg.