Magazine article Sunset

Anderson Valley, and Eden Explored

Magazine article Sunset

Anderson Valley, and Eden Explored

Article excerpt

The secret's out: Mendocino County's wine region has a flavor all its own

Most Sunday mornings in the Anderson Valley, it's so quiet you can almost hear the steam rise from your coffee. At the Horn of Zeese Cafe in Boonville, the waiter is likely to be playing a hand of gin rummy with a couple of regulars while keeping tabs on his tables. But this is late summer, and outside there's a certain expectancy sharing the air with the heavy fragrance of apples. The crush is nearing.

Historically, the valley's economy has been dominated by lumber, the raising of sheep, and farming. What has finally put this little area on the cultural map, however, is the rise of its small collection of wineries and vineyards to national prominence.

From woods to wine

The Anderson Valley lies along serpentine State 128, one of the main routes to the Mendocino Coast, and formally consists of some 18 miles of rolling terrain cut by the Navarro River. In rough terms, its limits are marked by the small town of Boonville to the south and the tiny hamlet of Navarro on its north end. In the south, the hills are open and strewn with oaks; farther north, they become dense with mixed evergreens and redwoods.

First populated by Coastal Pomos, the valley was "discovered" in 1851 by one of Walter Anderson's sons while he was trailing an elk on a hunting expedition up the Russian River. The elder Anderson's decision to live in this "Garden of Eden" created the first trickle in what became a stream of white settlers.

Through the early 1900s, about 100 families, mostly subsistence farmers, lived here. Their relative isolation gave rise to a distinct lexicon known as Boontling. Horn of Zeese, for instance, translates to cup of coffeeZachariah Clifton Zeese, the official coffee brewer on hunting expeditions, was known for making strong java.

These days Boontling is rarely if ever spoken, and the Anderson Valley's economy is in a postlumber transition that could very well end with its development into a miniNapa. Over the past 25 years, bluecollar residents have been joined by progressive, monied back-to-thelanders, most of whom, thus far, have been interested in planting vineyards.

The pioneers

While grape growing has long been pursued by a handful of valley dwellers, the current movement started when Donald Edmeades planted 24 acres in the early 1960s and Tony and Gretchen Husch showed up in '68. Several other would-be wine growers followed on their heels.

The key to success for most of these contemporary wine growers was their introduction of grapes that would thrive in, or at least adapt to, the area's relatively cold climate. Bill Mitchell, who has been working with owners Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn at Navarro Vineyards since 1984, says the area's climate has more in common with Oregon's Willamette Valley than with Napa or Sonoma county. He says you should "get out of your normal California mind-set when you visit the Anderson Valley"-that is, be open to tasting the northern European-style varietals that thrive here, namely, Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Noir-in addition to Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons.

These varietals and some fine sparkling wines are now being cultivated and perfected at more than 15 wineries and vineyards in the Anderson Valley-most in and around Philo-as well as a handful in the neighboring Yorkville Highlands. Many of these wineries consist of little more than a modest tasting room up a long dirt drive. But the wines speak for themselves.

Good wine, good beer, good food

Perhaps it's a tribute to the valley's humble origins that the winemakers here are not afraid to help one another. Josh Chandler of Lary Creek Vineyards often recommends other wineries for people to visit. "We want people to have a good experience here. In the end, that's what will keep people coming back."

That, and a few other things. …

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