Mendocino: California’s BEST Wine Country

LZvinesWEB.jpgNot Napa or Sonoma or Paso or LA-proximate Santa Rita Hills. MENDOCINO’S Anderson Valley my frengs is the top wine country destination in the Golden State offering a look back in time at what used to be the norm everywhere. Forget the limos, the tasting palaces and the $40 tasting fees. Keep the superb dining experiences, some world class and great value wines, and the friendliest tasting rooms you may never have experienced or in the case of one old timerWalter_Brennan_WEB.jpg [ed. no brag just fact!] you believed were long gone…although they may be coming back.
Drive north on the 101 through Healdsburg all the way to Geyserville. Jump on the 128 north heading west to your first stop in Boonville which is considered the southern end of the Anderson Valley. The Valley goes from Boonville to the coast passing through Philo and Navarro on the way. When you arrive at where the Navarro River meets the Pacific you drive a few miles north and you are in Mendocino.
Mendocino town is a very cool place to visit. Population ~600. The calendar stopped in 1970. Buildings are historical landmarks with all kinds of kitschy architectural details mendogals1CROPWEB.jpgthat make Pacific Coast historians wet their pants. The coastline is s-p-e-c-t-a-c-u-l-a-r. the town sits on a flat promontory that was the landing cove for the once thriving redwood logging industry. The town wasn’t settled by white people until 1852! Of course there were indigenous folks [ed. the Pomo Rancheria] but once logger barons from San Francisco made their move the place filled up with would-be townsfolk from the East and West coasts including a sizable Chinese community. Here is the kicker – lots of original families still live there!
headcut1WEB.jpgThe car ride to the entrance to the Anderson Valley – state road 128 – without stopping from Oakland is about 2 hours. 128 is a classic hilly two lane blacktop lined with oaks, running through little valleys with vineyards here and there. The road pretty much hugs the Navarro River all the way to the coast so you are riding in the pocket. The sun flashes on and off depending on how deep you are. Take in the ride, the air, the sheer pleasantness of it all.
Boonville is our first wine stop at Foursight Wines. This charming family operation is right on 128 like everything else. Daughter Kristy pours six wines made by husband Joseph Webb. The fee? Zippo. The ‘tude quotient? Also zippo. You can read the story of three generations of farmers turned vintners at the website.
2008 Foursight Wines Charles Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc $20: Almost clear with no color at all. Lively, grassy, acidic. 278 cases. 14.2%
foursightsemillon08.jpg2008 Foursight Wines Charles Vineyard Semillon $28: More color and fruit. Pretty and floral aroma and taste. 25 cases. First vintage of this wine. 14.5%
2007 Foursight Wines Zero New Oak Pinot Noir $38/$30 club: All malolactic fermentation, she says. Very nice. Vanilla, creamy.14.1%
2006 Foursight Wines Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir $37 club: This is the big ticket and the one that got the 93 Spectator rating. So it is Spectator sweeter with lush mouth feel. Has one-third new oak so there is a good dose of tannin. 14.9%

2007 Foursight Wines Clone 05 Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir
$39: Half new French oak. 97 cases. Can taste the wood. Least interesting. 14.2%
Summary on Foursight Wines: Fairly recent small production winery with the family playing all the roles. Will take time to find their legs. Need to pump sales for small production winery. Pricing and style reflect a move to the middle of the road. We wish them the best fortune and hope they sell out every year.
Why is the Anderson Valley so good for Pinot Noir? The valley and the river is a fog channel. Never gets too hot and it is always cool in the pocket at night. Keep the vineyards at sufficient height to ensure enough sun but not too high to miss the evening fog. This is Pinot Noir country!
PHwelcomeWEB.jpgWe arrive in Philo a short ride after. Philo is where we leave the southern end and enter the northern valley with its cooler temps. The whole stretch is barely 30 miles long. We easily find our next stop, the Phillips Hill Estates tasting room. Philo makes Boonville look like New York City (which is where winemaker Toby Hill started his career in art).
Phillips Hill Estates is the project of Bay Area artist Toby Hill who not only makes the wines but also designs the labels. Carlon the business manager is staffing the tasting room. “I am a beer drinker. I have no palate.” tBoW knows Carlon just needs the right context to find his palate. Toby sources all his fruit from local sources. His wines are generally lush without the sweetness factor. Yes the Wine Spectator could love these wines as well but we wonder if Toby does not really care about that. All wines are same price – $42. Show me.
PH-Label-Toulouse-07.jpg2007 Phillips Hills Estates Toulouse Pinot Noir: Wow. Sold. Toffee flavor. Sasparilla. Very nice. Elegant. Exotic on the fruity side. No barnyard or forest floor or cherry or strawberry. Must be in some part the Toulouse terroir? Whenever tBoW thinks this will impress Mouse and Dotoré that is a good sign. 14.2%
2006 Phillips Hills Estates Oppenlander Pinot Noir: Here is the forest floor. Funk, lean flavors and still lush in a very masculine style. Sweeter than the Toulouse but still harmonious. Lovely. Preferred. 14.1%
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2007 Phillips Hills Estates Oppenlander Pinot Noir: Even leaner than the 2006. Almost meaty. High tone, sweet-ish. 14.2%

2007 Phillips Hills Estates Coby Pinot Noir
$40: Cola flavors. Exotic. Losing the contract with this vineyard. Very exotic wine but is it Pinot? We think so and buy some. 14%
All the Phillips Hill Estates Pinot Noir wines are very well balanced in flavors, nose, finish, alladems. Robes are rich dark ruby red. Weight is light all round. He is going to blend a new bottle that he will call Beeson Tree which is Boontling for “everything’s all right”. These are very well made Pinot Noir wines that do not remind us of anywhere else. Too light for Santa Rita. Too dark for Sonoma but not as dark as Oregon’s Willamette top regions. If we are reminded of one wine it is the 2007 Bergstr√∂m covered by tBoW May 09. We place our order and join the club. Toby Hill will continue to find sources equal in stature to those lost. We look forward to putting away several shelves of PHE wines.
At Carlon’s urging we look for and find Toulouse Vineyards down the road apiece. Co-owner (with Maxine) and winemaker Vern Boltz is pouring at the tasting room bar which is in the bottling and storage facility. He has 20 acres planted to Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Riesling, and Gewurtztraminer. Anderson Valley has a tradition of growing cold site Euro grapes. We did not ask why but would guess it probably has something to do with ethnic heritage in the valley and the idea that the Anderson Valley needs to stake out some special spot on the NoCal wine map. We tasted quite a few of these wines from different producers. Nobody in the Alsace or Mosel or Wachau should lose any sleep. Same for Australia and South Africa. Vern gets close to $5,000 for a ton of his prized Pinot fruit. When the price doubles, a lot (not all) of Alsace varietal vineyards are going to get pulled up.
The folks at Toulouse are nice as can be. Between sticking labels on bottles Maxine poured tastes of everything in the winery and more. Vern was not always a winemaker, kind of like what we see in Malibu. He is one of these meticulous growers who wants to try his hand at winemaking. He produces 3,100 cases of his own Pinot Noir and lots of people love it. Only two lucky others get some for their own bottlings (Phillips Hill and MacPhail). There were two of Vern’s bottles in particular we preferred.
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2009 Toulouse Vineyards Rosé of Pinot Noir
$24: Rose petal color. Perfumed nose, balanced. Elegant. 14.1%
2007 Toulouse Vineyards Anderson Valley Pinot Noir $42: This is a vineyard blend that is 80% Toulouse. Lots of flavor. Mocha, dark. A big mouthful but not too rich or ripe. Delicious. 14.5%
Vern makes a style bigger than we prefer. You will see his wines everywhere all the way down to Healdsburg. Great folks and a sure stop on the road.
Next stop Navarro Vineyards. I had fantasized driving right on by because I knew if we stopped in that it would be all over for Mr. and Mrs. tBoW. These guys are one of the top if not the TOP QUALITY value vintners in the state. I already knew I had never tasted a wine they make I did not like. Fortunately, we yielded to fate and parked.
Navarro Vineyards has 92 estate acres planted and they source throughout BillNvroWEB.jpgMendocino. Total production is 45,000 cases. They have been doing this for 38 years. I would guess this is one of, if not the “fanciest” tasting room in the valley. However, it is “normal” by standards of other notable California wine regions. Tasting fee was the same. Bill poured until we gasped uncle. A sample of what we tasted follows.

2008 Navarro Vineyards Estate Gewurtztraminer
$19: Spicy, outstanding. A bargain and a terrific wine. 13.5%
2007 Navarro Vineyards Mendocino Chardonnay $17: Blended from estate and sourced fruit. Green apples, lean. Loved it. Another winner. 13.5%
2007 Navarro Vineyards Mendocino Pinot Noir $19: This is the friendly priced Pinot Noir blended from estate and sourced fruit. Clean, pure. Tastes like Pinot. If I owned a restaurant I would pour this all night week and month for $5 a glass. I would go through 10 cases a week. 13.7%
Did you see the alcohol levels? Does Navarro do anything wrong?
2007 Navarro M√©thode √† l’Ancienne Pinot Noir $29: Other wineries would label this Reserve or Select and up the price accordingly. They make this wine in two styles: filtered and unfiltered. We preferred the filtered which is clean and complex. The unfiltered is leaner, brighter, more feral. We also tasted the 2006 filtered and found it lovely, leaner, more masculine than 2007 filtered. 13.8%
navdeepend07.jpg2006 Navarro Deep End Pinot Noir $49: If you ever had any question about whether Navarro could produce a world class Pinot Noir here is the answer. The fruit is from the upper older section of the vineyard. Recall we are in the northern end [ed. the Deep End – Boontling] where the temps are cooler and the fog rushes in for a longer period of time. The wine is elegant, regal. Has stuffing. It is beautifully made. There are 1200 cases. Light to middle weight. There is also a 2007. 13.9%
We left Navarro with a bottle of the 2007 Late Harvest Riesling ($19, 11%) for sipping the next day. Turned out to be a good decision. We made one more stop at Lazy Creek Winery based on a local tout from someone who should know. He said the magic word: “if you like a Burgundian style check out these guys.”
tBoW team taster and NoCal local Bonedry says Lazy Creek Vineyards is one of the long standing under-the-radar winemaking gems in the Anderson Valley. The half mile ride up the lazy creek is like a fantasy; only thing missing are fairies. We are greeted in the humble tasting room by a lively and lovely lady named Victoria. It is late in the day so we get all the attention. The photo at top is taken at Lazy Creek. The ranch was bought by the Ferrari-Carano family who also own the humungous Ferrari-Carano label. [ed. F-C brand is very reliable for quality value wines]. Their pride in the Lazy Creek brand is obvious on the website where there is one reference to the big label and no cross-marketing. The ranch is turn of the century and the vineyards are more than 30 years old. Lazy Creek is the second oldest licensed winery in the Anderson Valley.
Victoria poured a Gewurtztraminer from 1999 and 2007, a 2007 Riesling, a 2006 Chardonnay, a non-vintage Pinot Noir that is mostly 2006 fruit and a 2007 Proprietors Reserve Pinot Noir. All the wines were nice, some better than others. However, we were there to taste the Burgundian style wine that had been promised.
LCV-Pinot-Noir-06.jpg2006 Lazy Creek Vineyards RPD Pinot Noir $46: From the oldest Pinot Noir vines on the property. 40% new French oak. Classy. Big and masculine. Brawny and new world without the ripeness. Impressive. Has some forest floor, berry fruit, silky smooth. Unique and not like other wines we have tasted but still tastes like Pinot. tBow is a buyer. 14.3%
The purchase of Lazy Creek by a larger and essentially local (Sonoma) winery is a story we hope remains the exception. Given Anderson Valley is a relatively small region we would not expect to see many short sales that might change the charm and forebearance of this special place. Goldeneye is an Anderson Valley winery with origins in the more famous region of Napa. Duckhorn Vineyards Рexclusive Bordeaux varietal specialists Рstarted this Pinot Noir project in 1996 with 7 acres. They now have 149 planted. Napa is in Anderson Valley in more ways than one. Pricing for Goldeneye wines start at $55 for the Anderson Valley blend and tos at $100 for the extra special cuveé of a highly selected vineyard. Damn.
Wineries may change but this never will. Get up there soon as you can.
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