A Mix of Wine, Weirdness and Raw Nature
When you drive north from San Francisco into Mendocino County, the first thing that strikes you is raw nature -- an almost complete lack of urbanization. The landscape varies dramatically from crashing seashores to windblown fields to apple orchards to roaming cattle to gently rolling hills that often turn into mountains above the fogline. And everything is bathed in golden light. This is Mendocino -- the spirit of Northern California.
The people here are a blend of humanity as diverse as the landscape -- old timers mixed with a fringe of newer arrivals: ex-hippies and environmental visionaries; right-wing survivalists and pot growers; seekers, wizards and wanderers, all coexisting in a community largely unspoiled and unconcerned with modern civilization.
And there's another spirit -- Mendocino's far under-appreciated wine industry. Despite it's size (there are 42 wineries in the county), its unending diversity of things to do, an abundance of outdoor activities, dozens of historic hotels and great restaurants, Mendocino remains hidden in the shadows of the redwoods that surround it.
That's the secret: Mendocino's combination of people, nature and excellent wine. That's what makes it the ideal escape destination.
HWY 101: Leaving San Francisco
Heading north from the Golden Gate Bridge you'll pass strip malls in Marin, experience the heart of Sonoma County wine country, then, as if entering another world, the landscape unfolds into gently rolling coastal mountains. The highway narrows from four lanes to two, and the developed world -- fading in your rearview mirror -- becomes a farmscape of wandering cattle and distant horizons. It's approximately 75 miles from San Francisco to your first stop: Hopland.
As the name suggests, Hopland is a town where hops were grown. The town and surrounding area was a major supplier to the American brewery industry until the 1940s, when giant breweries stopped using hops in mass-produced beers. Since then, Hopland has become a hub for Mendocino wineries, providing a comfortable stop on the way to or from a day of touring.
When you reach the center of town, approximately three blocks total, check into the Thatcher Inn -- a large and lavish old-world hotel dating back to the late 1800s. Drenched in atmospere, rooms evoke the turn of the century. Nevermind the off-hand service, and forget about the restaurant, the hotel speaks for itself.
Across the street are two tasting rooms: Brutocao Cellars and Domaine St. Gregory. Brutocao recently finished converting an old school house into a tasting facility, which includes bocci ball courts adjacent to the building. Why bocci ball in Hopland? "Because it's the perfect social event," says Steve Brutocao," owner and winemaker. "Besides, it's one of the few sports you can play while holding a glass of wine in your hand."
When in Hopland, stop, taste and have a ball (literally) at Brutocao!
A few hundred feet away is the tasting room of ambitious Domaine St. Gregory. With three lables to his credit, proprietor Gregory Graziano has quickly established a reputation as a winemaker willing to push into new territory. In addition to producing Burgundian-styled wines, ambitious Domaine St. Gregory's ancilliary lable, Monte Volpe Vineyards, produces Italian varietals, including pinot bianco, pinot grigio, tocai friulano, sangiovese, barbara and peppolino. A definite try is the late harvest dessert wine. Have it with a piece of cheesecake from The Cheescake Lady immediately next door.
Mendocino monolith Fetzer Vineyards is about a mile outside Hopland on Hwy. 175 Fetzer has been around forever, establishing itself in 1958. It has since grown into one of the most successful wineries in the United States, producing everything from chardonnay to viognier, cabernet to zinfandel. Progressive vision permeates everything Fetzer touches, from its organic Bonterra Vineyards label that's been winning raves, to more ambitious projects like the Mariah zinfandel, which is grown in the newly approved Mendocino Ridge appellation (see sidebar).
Perhaps the most impressive angle to Fetzer's philosophy is a commitment to progressive environmental practices in the winery. The operation is as close to 100 percent organic in the Bonterra wines as possible (given the shortages of available certified organic grapes), and work with other winemakers to encourage similar vineyard and winemaking practices.
If you continue east for about another mile on Hwy. 175 you'll encounter McDowell Valley Vineyards. As far as proprietor Bill Crawford is concerned, he exists deep within the Mediterranean. McDowell's a winery devoted exclusively to Rhone varietals: syrah, viognier, marsanne and grenache. Why Rhone varietals? "It just makes sense," Crawford says. "We exist in a Mediterranean climate. So it should come as no surprise that grapes from the Rhone region of France do very well here." He isn't kidding. Pay a visit, taste the syrah. Life is good!
Two more stops while you're visiting Hopland should include: Duncan Peak Vineyards, which is located off Hwy. 101 on Mountain House Road. Duncan Peak is a respected producer of cabernet sauvignon. Jepson Vineyards, Winery and Distillery, as the name suggests, is into everything: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir on the "still" side, Blanc de Blanc Mendocino Champagne on the "bubbly" side, and traditional Rare Brandy, which is produced in an alambic copper pot still.
After tasting wine all day, you might be in need of an "alternative" beverage. The Mendocino Brewing Company was launched in 1983 by Michael Laybourn, a Berkeley hippie who fled north in search of the promised land. An avid home-brewer, Laybourn started making beer and selling it locally in the late seventies. Within a few years he set up shop, starting the first American brewpub since Prohibition in Hopland. "I call this a hobby gone berzerk," says Laybourn -- this in light of his recently completed huge state-of-the-art brewing facility in Ukiah. The brewpub serves its flagship Red Tail Ale along with other brews and a hearty menu of good pub food.
The Ukiah Valley, anchored by the county seat, Ukiah, is Mendocino's largest growing area. This is a hot, arid region, and the grapes planted here reflect it. Cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel are the two big stars.
There's not much in the way of wine touring or nightlife in Ukiah, but it does serve as a launching point to the northern Mendocino appellations: Ukiah Valley (Parducci, Lonetree, Zellerback and others) and Redwood Valley (Fife Vineyards, Lolonis Winery, Gabrielli Winery, Redwood Valley Cellars, Elizabeth Vineyards and Frey Vineyards).
Okay, so Ukiah may not be a mecca of urban delight, but it does have Vichy Springs Resort -- the antithesis of urbanity. Vichy Springs dates back a century, with natural mineral springs drawing everyone from Jack London to former U.S. presidents. The resort's a place to get away from it all. There are no televisions and no telephones; the only excitement you should expect is spotting a deer from your cottage under a perfect, star-ladened sky. There's nothing better than soaking in the springs and receiving a private massage on the grounds.
HWY 128: The Gateway to Anderson Valley
The Anderson Valley is Mendocino's most noted and visited wine region. This is not to say it resembles Napa or Sonoma in volume or character. Most of the area residents wouldn't want that anyway. The Anderson Valley is a localized region where everyone knows everyone else. People live modestly, and many vintners reside in converted barns or clapboard houses, often using their garages as an adjunct to their operations. Life may be simple here, but the wine has risen to world-class standards.
As one of California's coolest growing areas, the Anderson Valley was long viewed as an unfavorabe climate to grow grapes. That changed in the 1960s, when Tony Husch ignored the warnings of U.C. Davis and established the valley's first bonded winery. The chill of Anderson Valley actually became one of the key reasons for its success. Pinot noir and gewurztraminer are the area's stars, with chardonnay and riesling also doing well in the fog-cooled hills.
Over the last two decades the 25-mile stretch of Anderson Valley has become recognized as one of the premier wine regions in the state, even winning the enthusiasm of better-established wine regions that buy a tremendous amount of Mendocino grapes for blending.
Beginning at the town of Boonville, this tranquil valley is easily navigated from Highway 128 -- a circuitous winding two-lane road that cuts through quilted landscapes of vineyards, rising redwood forests and split-rail fences -- terminating at the town of Mendocino on the beautiful sunswept coast.
Small, quirky Boonville is the nucleus of Anderson Valley and home to the bizarre language of Boontling. It's rumoured that Boontling originated as a way to speak about "city slickers" in their presence but without their knowledge. Now, citizens speak English but revert to their homespun lingo in bits and pieces. Boontling can be attempted by picking up a translation booklet around town and trying out phrases like "buckey walter" (telephone) or "horn of zeese" (cup of coffee) -- also the name of a popular local cafe.
If you're staying in town, the Boonville Hotel is an historic building with cozy accomodations and a good restaurant with an impressive wine list. The Anderson Valley Brewing Company is a great place for lunch, serving up good pub food and handcrafted beers. If you want to stock up for a tour of the wineries, the Boont Berry Farm is a great place to pick up prepared pizza, sandwiches and deli food for a day on the road.
Leaving Boonville, and passing through the tiny towns of Philo and Navarro up the road, your first stop should be Pacific Echo (formerly Scharffenberger Cellars). Sparkling wine has become an Anderson Valley sensation, and Pacific Echo is leading the charge. This is a winery specializing exclusively in sparkling wines, and the staff here are very good at what they do. So good, in fact, that in 1989 they were acquired by a French company which understood the valley's potential for making great sparkling wine.
Now, with winemaker Tex Sawyer at the helm, the bubbly is better than ever. "Sparkling wines are about so much more than aperitifs and special occasions," says Sawyer, "Because they have higher acid and lower alcohol levels, sparkling wines have the potential to relate well to food -- even spicy or complex foods, which are usually a challenge to pair with still wine."
The French have known for centuries that cool microclimates (i.e., the Champagne region) are ideal for producing sparkling wines. That's why Champagne Louis Roederer, which sought land similar to its Champagne property for making sparkling wine in the states, knew it had found a home in Anderson Valley for its American venture, Roederer Estate. The results have been spectacular. Roederer is now one of the top producers in the United States.
Greenwood Ridge has gained a quite a reputation among critics and consumers alike, especially for its zinfandel and pinot noir. Owner Allen Greenwood believes Anderson Valley's future success lies in establishing a place in the minds of consumers. "As an entire county, we have so much diversity that it's difficult to pull it all together into one unified message," Greenwood says. "But that doesn't mean it's not possible. We just haven't managed to pull it off yet."
Also in the neighborhood is Handley Cellars, launched in 1981 by winemaker Milla Handley, who got her start in Sonoma County. Visit the friendly tasting room, enjoy the great chardonnays and pinot noirs, and marvel at the huge totem pollesque lizard hanging above the door. Also close at hand is Navarro Vineyards, a pioneer and advocate in the production of gewurztraminer. And don't forget to stop at Husch Vineyards for a sip of the pinot noirs. For a taste of the Old Country (that would be Europe), visit Lazy Creek, launched by longtime San Francisco waiter and Austrian native Hans Kobler, whose rustic, homegrown tasting facility is housed in a barn. (Get a taste of their estate gewurtztraminer. It's quite possibly the the best in California.)
Town of Mendocino: New England On The Pacific
Not long after you merge from Highway 128 onto coastal Hwy. 1, you can see Mendocino in the distance -- a village sitting high on a bluff overlooking jagged seaside cliffs and the pounding coast. It's a scene that appears to have been created for a postcard. The blue, foaming Pacific rushes up to a cove. A background of red, yellow and blue oceanside homes dot the landscape. Seasonal wildflowers grow in patches along the roadside. And the sun streaks through the mist, giving the whole picture a muted, airbrushed quality.
Mendocino was built on lumber, serving for almost 30 years as the primary supplier of redwood to the then booming West Coast. The community went through a period of neglect after most of the sawmills closed in the 1930s. In the sixties the town began a comback. It soon became home to artists, writers and urban exiles. Today, many of the artists have moved to cheaper rent districts and sell their wares to out of towners who come to Mendocino to escape the hustle of urban life.
Mendocino is picture-perfect, almost too photogenic. Everything in town is designed to bear the look and charm of a 19th century New England town. In fact, it looks so much like New England all the exteriors for Angela Landbury's Murder She Wrote were filmed here. This, for many, is its draw; for many others, its misfortune. Thus, critics decry that the majority of Mendoncino's shops, inns and restaurants cater to tourists rather than locals.
The main shopping area is definitely a tourist mecca -- card shops, ice cream parlors and antique stores, all harboring quaint impulse-purchase appeal in the background of new age music. But if you grab comfortable accomodations in one of many historic hotels, enjoy a seaside walk at sunset and have dinner at one of many great restaurants in the city, Mendocino's touristed image fades.
The Mendocino coastline is a trully amazing spectacle. As one of America's most photographed regions, the area is famous for its scenery -- abundant plant and animal life, and the redwood and pine forests lining the river valleys that empty into the Pacific. Seagulls hang on ocean breezes before a backdrop of rocky islands and tidal pools. Winds ripple the tall grasses while seals occasionally nap on shore. In the spring, whales can be seen on the horizon migrating to warmer southern waters.
This is a place where meditation and spiritual awakening happens without effort. If you wander the coast long enough, you'll be at peace with the universe. For outdoor pursuits, Mendocino can't be beat. Beachgoers and campers will find a cluster of state beaches and parks dotting the coastline (reserve campsites well in advance). Sea kayaks can be rented along the coast, and bicycles can be obtained in town. Great walks and hikes can be had in almost every direction.
After a day of wandering or touring the wine country, settle into one of Mendocino's excellent eateries. First on most lists is Café Beaujolais, a widely lauded restaurant in a converted Victorian mansion surrounded by beautiful gardens. The place has tearoom ambiance, a blazing wood stove, hanging brass lamps and flowery wallpaper. The food is terrific -- mostly innovative California fare -- and the atmosphere comforting. Highly recommended.
The McCallum House Restaurant is very much a part of Mendocino's past. Romantic dining takes place beside riverstone fireplaces in period-inspired rooms. Tables are set with crisp linens, white china and candles. The menu showcases regional North Coast seafood and organic meats and produce. This is a special-occasion restaurant and one of Mendocino's best.
Just south of town on Hwy. 1 is the Stevenswood Lodge. You can't miss it. Just look for the enormous metal sculpture of a swiss cheese wedge impaled with a cutting knife. The restaurant serves up masterful renditions of classic dishes, which are usually given a modern-California flourish. Rooms are also available, and a hottub overlooking the redwoods is open to guests.
Life is slow in Mendocino County, as will be your pace of travel. Allow two to three days for visiting the county. Distance is a factor, as are slow winding roads. A gas station pit stop can turn into a half-hour conversation with a local, and a supposedly quick tour of wine country can easily turn into an all day excursion as you mingle with winemakers and their families.
But who's in a hurry? When savoring the enticing spirit of Mendocino, some things just take time.
Wine grapes were first planted in Mendocino County in the 1850s, following the California gold rush. Immigrant farmers, failing as prospectors, returned to agriculture as a way of life. Most vineyards were planted on hillsides and ridge-tops, leaving the flat-lands, which are easily tillable, for food crops.
Mendocino Ridge is a newly designated appellation that holds promise for the future of Mendocino County as well as providing testament to its past. Towering on magestic ridges south of Anderson Valley, Mendocino Ridge starts the 1200 foot elevation, above the fog line, providing views from the heavans.
The appellation was designated soley due to its elevation -- a uniquely defining charactoristic for grape growing appellations. There are merely 73 acres planted currently, devoted mainly to zinfandel which thrives on the sun-drenched ridgetops. There are also limited plantings of syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
Three vineyards, Ciapusci, Zine and Dupratt, have survived since the 1800s, when Italian settlers came to peel tan bark, an essential ingredient to the leather tanning process. And all three produce award-winning wines to this day. Edmeades Vineyards produces an amazing zinfandel comprised of Mendocino Ridge Grapes and Fetzer Vineyards has gotten in on the game with their world-class Mariah zinfandel. This is an appellation to watch.