Fantastic wines, au courant cuisine, sticker-price delight in Mendocino County.
Note: The Anderson Valley tasting rooms described below are closed until at least mid-May because of California’s coronavirus shelter-in-place order, but on May 2nd at 1 pm PDT you can take a free online master class about this Mendocino County appellation. The moderator is the Corrina Strauss, formerly sommelier at the Harbor House Inn on the coast in Elk.
Northern California wine lovers nostalgic for the days before glitz and high prices overtook Napa and Sonoma often head to the Anderson Valley. The bucolic Mendocino County wine region’s three dozen or so tasting rooms pour Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and other wines reflecting the valley’s distinctive near-coastal microclimate. (The Pacific Ocean is as little as 10 miles west of parts of the 15-mile-long valley.) With restaurants serving au courant cuisine based on local produce and proteins, an Anderson Valley Pinot Noir tasting trip provides a low-pressure, high-quality wine and culinary experience.
In recent years large outfits have purchased some major vineyards, but for the most part the farms here are small. Don’t be surprised to find the winemaker or owner—at some places the same person—on hand to answer questions, providing a personal touch not possible at more prominent wineries.
Most tasting rooms charge $10 or $15 for four or five pours, with a few charging a little less or occasionally more and some with no fee at all. Especially if you’ve noticed the upward creep in Sonoma County prices the past few years, prepare for sticker delight instead of shock at the cost per bottle for wines this fantastic.
Taste the Difference
This itinerary moves east to west along Highway 128 the first day and west to east the second. Several of the wineries purchase grapes from the same vineyards, giving you the chance to compare different winemakers’ approaches to the same fruit.
Day One, East to West
Start the day with an intimate introduction to Anderson Valley winemaking at Foursight Wines, whose grapes are grown by the third generation to farm the land its 15-acre vineyard occupies. The fourth generation makes the wine—Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc plus several Pinot Noirs— and runs the winery. Two Pinot Noirs to seek out are the Clone 05, made from the Pommard clone (known for firm tannins and rich flavors), and Paraboll, a blend of Pommard and Dijon 777 clones that takes its name from “para,” an art term for “deep cherry red,” and “boll,” which means “excellent” in the local Boonville dialect.
The next stop, Pennyroyal Farm, sits across the highway a bit east of Foursight, making it easy to arrive on time for the daily 11 am tour, on which you’ll visit Pennyroyal’s creamery and the goats and sheep that provide milk for several excellent cheeses before entering the tasting room to sample Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
Have lunch in downtown Boonville—it’s a few blocks long—at casual Lauren’s or the Mosswood Market (salads, sandwiches at both). If it’s open (usually April through October), treat yourself to organic ice cream or another sweet delight at Paysanne, a few doors west of Mosswood.
Bee Hunter Wine
After lunch, backtrack 100 feet east to Bee Hunter Wine, which sources grapes for its whites and reds (several of each) from top Mendocino County vineyards. As at Foursight and Pennyroyal, one or both of the owners will often be on hand.
Continue west from Boonville to the town of Philo and Goldeneye Winery, known for its lush lineup of single-vineyard Pinot Noirs. The founders of the Napa Valley’s Duckhorn brand established Goldeneye, one of several wineries that put the Anderson Valley on the enological map. Lush Merlots made Duckhorn’s reputation, with refined single-vineyard Pinot Noirs sister winery Goldeneye’s calling card. The grapes come from four estate vineyards planted with more than 20 clones (variants) of Pinot Noir. If the weather’s nice, enjoy your tasting on the back patio.
Visiting five wineries in a day is pushing it, but tastings in the valley tend to be quick, and the wineries aren’t that far apart. Cleanse your palate with a little bubbly at Scharffenberger Cellars. For a small fee you can taste a few wines at Scharffenberger’s tasting room, a modest repurposed 1950s home. After the short tasting, you can purchase a glass to enjoy on the veranda or in the pet-friendly garden.
If you’re game for still more tasting, Lula Cellars is open until 6 daily. (It’s the optional first stop on day two’s tour, so no worry if you’re not.) The Lula Cellars tasting room, constructed of rough-hewn wood and the antithesis of Napa chic, is a chill setting to sip robust, affordable Pinot Noirs, a few from single vineyards, others from multiple sources. Zinfandel from the dry-farmed (no irrigation) Mariah Vineyard represents another strong suit. Lighter wines include Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and rosé,
Day Two, West to East
Optional Early Start
If you didn’t stop at Lula Cellars on day one (see above), begin day two there; otherwise, proceed 1.5 miles east to the next stop, Roederer, which opens at 11.
Toast the morning with great valley views and a little Roederer Estate bubbly courtesy of the California offspring of France’s Champagne Louis Roederer.
Phillips Hill Winery
Anderson Valley Pinot Noir (plus one from the nearby Comptche appellation) is the specialty at the next stop, Phillips Hill Winery, but for lovers of whites the winery also makes Chardonnay, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer. Tastings take place in a former apple-drying barn from the 1880s.
Philo Apple Farm
Continue the apple theme 1.5 miles east at the next stop, the self-service stand at the Philo Apple Farm. Look for apples and pears in season (fall) and apple products the rest of the year, along with jams, jellies, chutneys, and vinegars. The farm’s owners, who also operate the delightful Farmhouse Mercantile shop in downtown Boonville, also have four lodgings, three of them cottages, for overnight stays.
Lemons Philo Market
Stop by Lemons Philo Market for a deli sandwich before continuing to the next tasting.
Tasting Rooms at The Madrones
The days and hours of the three fine tasting rooms at The Madrones complex vary, but one or more will be open whatever day you visit. Drew Family Cellars has an outsize reputation for its coastal Pinot Noir and Syrah. Smith Story Wine Cellars is another fine producer of Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs. Many of the other wines—among them Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon—are made with Sonoma County grapes. The Napa Valley-based Long Meadow Ranch serves Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from its Anderson Valley estate.
Backtrack 1.5 miles west from The Madrones complex to this winery whose “Too Tense? Toulouse” sign near the entrance encourages all guests to kick back and relax. In addition to the expected Pinot Noir, Toulouse Vineyards also makes Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Riesling whites (plus a rosé). Also in the lineup: Petite Sirah, made in a smooth, almost Pinot Noir–like style. The wines are good, the staffers are cool, and the views west to the ocean are often sublime.
Shop Downtown Boonville
Slip east another 3.5 miles to downtown Boonville, where the Farmhouse Mercantile contemporary general store is worth a peek.
Dine Upscale or Down
The Boonville Hotel & Restaurant serves prix-fixe meals family style at Table 128 (reservation recommended). Current chef Perry Hoffman, who grew up in these parts but made his reputation in the Napa Valley and Sonoma County, is reintroducing some of the recipes of his grandmother, Sally Schmitt, who started The French Laundry with Perry’s grandfather in the 1970s (they sold it to Thomas Keller in 1994). Nearby Lauren’s provides variety with an international array of comfort food. One of the two restaurants should be open no matter what day you visit.
Tips and Suggestions
Pre-trip to-do list: Reserve space on day one for the morning Pennyroyal creamery tour, which includes cheese and wine tasting. The rest of the day’s wineries don’t require reservations. Make reservations if having dinner at Table 128 or the Bewildered Pig.
Best days to visit: This itinerary works best from Thursday through Monday, when all of the tasting rooms and most of the restaurants are open. Tastings are pretty straightforward at most of these places. Except perhaps with ones that have views there’s not too much reason to linger unless you really love the wines, though in most cases you’re welcome to.
Lodging: The Boonville Hotel and Philo’s The Madrones (and affiliated The Brambles) and Anderson Valley Inn rank among the valley’s best lodging options. Overnight amid the redwoods in a cabin or a tent at Camp Navarro. For upscale rustic charm, the award goes to the Philo Apple Farm for its three tastefully appointed cabins and lodge room. To steep yourself in the winery experience, book yourself into the on-site guest accommodations at Foursight Wines in Boonville.
This story first appeared online in 2017; it was fact-checked and updated in 2020.