In the parlance of the wine world, where landscapes are often defined in fashion-model terms—stunning, gorgeous, even jaw-dropping —no one would describe the drive from San Francisco’s airport to Boonville in Anderson Valley as a “good-looker.” For nearly two and half hours drivers navigate the tedious, car-choked Route 101, the primary artery of California’s wine heart. They pass exits for Napa Valley’s Architectural Digest-styled wineries, and the understated, but consciously chic Healdsburg. But 20 more minutes farther north, the exit for Route 128 changes your perception, and life is beautiful.
The two-lane road provides 28 miles of hillside corkscrew turns, roller-coaster mountain climbs and descents into valleys and canyons, passing farms, sky- scraping trees and wilderness. No town; only a store or two. Then, you turn left and see the sign: “Boonville population 1,035.”
Driving from Beaune, Burgundy’s unarguable wine heart, you travel north through the Cote de Nuits wine villages where pinot noir reigns: Aloxe-Corton, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Chambolle-Musigny, Gevrey-Chambertin and others. Or, you head south through the Cote de Beaune towns with vineyards of pinot noir and chardonnay: Pommard, Volnay, Meursault and the hyphenated Montrachets of Puligny, Chassagne, Batard, Bienvienue-Bartard, Chevalier and the madonna of all chardonnay wines, Montrachet.
Anderson Valley is much smaller, but as I discovered, no less impressive. There are the pinot noirs of Boonville and next door Philo (population 349), and chardonnays, too.
And just as Burgundy makes first-rate Cremant de Bourgogne sparkling wine using the traditional method of second fermentation in the bottle, Anderson Valley has its excellent sparkling wines employing the same techniques.
Unlike the city of Beaune, Boonville’s downtown is two blocks long and one story high, and more countrified, too. There’s Lauren’s restaurant where schoolchildren’s drawings substitute for wallpaper, and toys hanging from the ceiling are the décor. And the chicken pot pie is as authentic as any coq au vin I’ve eaten in Burgundy.
On both sides of Boonville’s center are wineries as unassuming as those in Volnay and Chambolle-Musigny. Being American, the Anderson Valley owners are more approachable, their tasting room doors open wider.
Winemaking in Anderson Valley dates from California’s Gold Rush era when Italian immigrants arrived, then Prohibition ended it, until 1964 when Pasadena cardiologist Donald Edmeades opened Edmeades Folly winery, making him the first modern-day grower to plant in what was then a remote stretch of western Mendocino County.
Today there are 30 bonded wineries here ranging from ridge to valley, with a diversity of lifestyle philosophies influencing Anderson Valley wines. Sitting five miles up a dirt and rocky road is Philo Ridge Vineyards, an operation completely off the grid. Built by Fred Buonanno and his winemaker wife, Heather McKelvey, from redwood trees cut and milled on the property, all the energy for their home and winery is supplied from solar panels and a wind generator.
On the other end of the spectrum–on Booneville’s valley floor–the polished Goldeneye winery, whose wines bear the modernist stamp of owner Dan Duckhorn of Napa Valley’s highly-regarded Duckhorn Vineyards.
While tasting more than 100 pinots noirs at the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival in May, I found myself comparing them to Chambolle-Musigny, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Volnay, Beaune and Chorey-Les-Beaune wines– something I never thought appropriate for pinot noirs from any other California appellation.
Anderson Valley Professional Tasting Room
Some Anderson Valley pinots contained the delicate texture, and Chinese five-spice aroma and flavors mingled with raspberry accents that enchants me the way Chambolle-Musigny does. Others had Nuits-Saint-Georges’ black-cherry and pomegranate fruit flavors girded with minerality. Volnay’s character of integrated tannins and black-cherry aroma and flavor with a velvety, round texture and endless pleasure emerged in certain Anderson Valley pinots. Then, there were the cranberry, strawberry or cherry compositions with bright acidity that recalled Savigny-les-Beaune and Beaune 1er Crus. And the character of next-door-neighbor Chorey-Les-Beaune appeared in Anderson Valley’s juicy red fruit flavors structured with soft tannins and acidity.
The hillside vineyard wines were laced with minerality and a stony accent. But rarely found were the high alcohol, overoaked, extra-ripe pinot noirs constructed in other parts of the Golden State.
From the two-day tasting, here is a selection of each pinot noir style with a base rating of 90 points. All carry the Anderson Valley appellation. Small production is the rule–sometimes fewer than a 100 cases–but if you make the effort to find some of these gems, you will be rewarded. For some wines, you’ll have to contact the winery.
Ethereal, spicy, and raspberry accented:
2010 Philo Ridge, Marguerite Vineyard; 45-year-old vines at 1,500 feet, displaying a leather component and long, lingering finish. 95 points
The 2012 Marguerite Vineyard is the last vintage of this vineyard from Philo Ridge. It has the same leathery accent and a mild cola taste in the finish. 95 points. $36. 325 cases
2014 Copain, Les Voisin vineyard is located at Anderson Valley’s “deep end,” at the western end of the appellation and closest to the Pacific Ocean, meaning its cool climate yields grapes with higher acidity and lower sugar levels. Raspberry and Chinese five-spice aromas are followed by delightful raspberry and cherry flavors. 94 points. (See Copain’s 2013 Wendling vineyard review below.)
Susan Wuetarich, Copain’s newly appointed Assistant Winemaker.
2013 Lichen is winemaker and owner Doug Stewart’s new estate wine.
Adding to its allure, this vintage was made in his garage, which is a registered and bonded winery. After creating the highly-acclaimed Breggo pinot noirs, Stewart sold the brand name to Napa Valley’s Cliff Lede in 2009. Under his new Lichen label, Stewart sends us this delightful leathery, cinnamon, raspberry-scented and-flavored pinot noir. 94 points. (See the 2014 Lichen Moonglow review below.)
2012 Toulouse, Weir Vineyard, Yorkville Highlands
While Toulouse winery is in Anderson Valley, Weir Vineyards is in Mendocino’s Yorkville Highlands appellation, seven miles south of Anderson Valley. The wine has a pleasing raspberry personality with an elegant texture and finish. 90 points $55.
Black cherry, pomegranate fruit aroma and flavors with minerality:
2009 Knez winery, Cerise Vineyard. Extending from 700 to 1,100 feet the Cerise vineyard was planted in 1995. The 2009 was the oldest wine in the tasting and still fresh; a mix of black-cherry, leather and blackberry aromas and flavors, elegant texture and depth on the palate made this one of my favorite wines. 95 points. $36. 325 cases.
2014 Balo Vineyards has 10 acres planted and farmed organically on its 14-acre property. Its red fruit aromas and very tasty raspberry and pomegranate flavors are supported with minerality and stony undercurrent. 91 points. $45. 454 cases
Black Cherry, integrated tannins, round fruit-filled mouth feel:
2013 Phillips Hill Winery, “Terrior.” A blend of fruit from three vineyards; vibrant aromas and flavors, long, balanced finished. Age it for a few years, if you can resist its youthful appeal. 97 points. $42. 175 cases
2014 Navarro Vineyards, Deep End Blend delivers a cornucopia of fruit fragrance and flavor, elegant texture and a long, balanced finish. 94 points $55. 1,355 cases
2013 Goldeneye Winery is Anderson Valley’s California touchstone: more vanilla oak flavor and fuller body, but its black-cherry fruit flavor is laced with round tannins and a stony backbone, giving it a long, tasty finish. 93 points $50 14,297 cases
New Jersey resident David Rossi bought Donnelly Creek vineyard fruit for his 2014 Fulcrum. The wine competes with Goldeneye for pushing the Anderson Valley envelope of new oak influence and ripe fruit character. Vanilla, coffee and blackberry aromas and flavors flow on an elegant, big body with a long, cola tasting finish. 93 points. $57. 152 cases
2013 Donum is from its Angel Camp vineyard, but it reserves that name for its other pinot noir bottling that is bigger and bolder. This wine is no slouch when it comes to new oak aging (78 percent), giving its ripe fruit a black-cherry bonbon aroma and taste. Its big body has more in common with Donum’s Russian River and Carneros pinot noirs than Anderson Valley. 92 points. $69. 423 cases
2014 Cakebread Cellars, Two Creeks blends fruit from Apple Barn and Annahala vineyards, yielding black cherry and blackberry aromas and flavors underlined with a smoky, toasted oak accent. 90 points. $42.
2013 Pennyroyal Farm has delightful fruit, very good balance and length. This is the second vintage from the Boonville sister winery and creamery of Navarro Vineyards. 92 points. $39. 678 cases
2013 Husch winery, Reserve, Ferrington Vineyard is a special bottling of two parcels of pinot noir from the acclaimed Ferrington Vineyard. It has an appealing mix of strawberry and cherry flavors, integrated tannins and minerality. Husch is celebrating its 40th anniversary, making it Anderson Valley’s oldest winery. 90 points. $38. 130 cases.
Cranberry, strawberry or cherry aromas and flavors with bright acidity:
2014 Lichen, Moonglow is a blend of two-thirds Lichen’s organic, mountainside vineyard and one-third purchased fruit from the sought-after Ferrington vineyard. 93 points. $35. 732 cases
2013 Copain, Wendling vineyard is the second vintage produced from this vineyard that Copain planted in 2008 at the “deep end” of Anderson Valley. The 2013 displays fresh raspberry and cherry aromas and flavors with a crisp, red fruit finish 92 points. $60.
In May, Copain was purchased by the international wine conglomerate, Jackson Family Wines. Let’s hope this tiny gem’s unique wines are not bastarized by the bean counters; the history of boutique wineries being bought by mega-corporations is one of sacrificing quality on the altar of quantity.
2013 Williams Selyem, Burt Williams’ Morning Dew Ranch Vineyard delivers new oak cinnamon, raspberry and cherry pinot noir structured around integrated tannins, minerality and noticeable acidity in the cola finish. 92 points.
Red-fruit aromas and flavors stitched to soft tannins and acidity:
Scharffengerger winemaker Tex Sawyer
While Champagne-method sparkling wine is the raison d’etre for these two wineries (Scharffenberger is owned by Roederer), their still wines are classy, too. My palate preference leaned towards Scharffenberger’s aromatic and tasty raspberry, white pepper composition with integrated tannins and mild acidity. 92 points
2013 Foursight, Charles Vineyard, Clone 05 is owned by fourth-generation Boonvillian Kristy Charles and her winemaker husband Joe Webb. All the Foursight wines use wild yeast for fermentation, and are both unfiltered and unfined. Its strawberry and cherry-flavored fruit is seasoned with a cinnamon-like scent. 91 points. $49. 125 cases
Kristy Charles (right) with husband-winemaker Joe Webb and Mrs. Charles
2013 Foursight Zero New Oak brings a Chorey-les-Beaune-styled wine packed with fresh cherry, raspberry and mild white pepper that belies its light body. Only second and third year barrels are used. 91 points $38. 163 cases.
2014 Nelson Hills, Deep End Vineyard, Mendocino If this wine was a song, it would be titled, “All about Cherry.” That’s the color, aroma and primary taste with mellow tannins. 90 points. $42. 279 cases.
2014 Maryetta, Valenti Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge. The color of rose petals, and mellow raspberry and cherry fruit; balanced and pleasant drinking. 90 points. $38. 48 cases.
The 2013 Elke Vineyards, Donnelley Creek Vineyard recalled one of my favorite Burgundies: Chassagne-Montrachet rouge. Its combination of strawberry, cherry and white pepper aromas, and delicate body bearing tasty strawberry, cranberry and cherry flavors with minerality and mild acidity was delightful. 90 points. $36. 150 cases.
Elke’s 2012 Donnelley Creek Vineyard told the same storyline but with a little more black cherry and spice-box accents. 93 points. And owner, Mary Elke poured her decanted, brick-orange-colored 1998—a tough vintage of cold spring and hot spikes during harvest–whose leathery, dried-raspberry aroma and flavors recalled decades-aged Muga and Vina Tondonia Rioja wines. 90 points.
2013 Brutocao Cellars, Slow Lope’n Vineyard limited the new oak to 40 percent in this tasty raspberry, strawberry and cedar-scented and- flavored wine. 90 points. $24. 1,875 cases.
2013 Williams Selyem, Ferrington Vineyard. In 1992, Williams Selyem produced the first Ferrington Vineyard-designated pinot noir, drawing attention to what became one of California’s most important pinot noir sources. This vintage is cherry-driven with a background of stony, red fruit taste. 90 points.
2014 Twomey Cellars is the Anderson Valley arm of Napa Valley’s renowned Silver Oak winery. Here, a cranberry-cherry pinot noir is sent that is balanced and immediately drinkable. 90 points. $50.
Saturday night Festival dinner at Scharffenberger with Tex Sawyer (black & white shirt lower left)
all photos by John Foy.