Back on April 1st, I had the opportunity to attend a trade tasting for the Anderson Valley Winegrowers, which took place on the Mendocino Coast(in a gorgeous little stretch of coastline in the town of Albion). As it turns out, my email probably had ended up in the wrong spot of their list because of the tasting was meant for locals in the Mendocino area, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to taste wines from about half of the forty or so Anderson Valley winegrowers.
I was excited about the tasting (if not the 3 hour drive each way) after having some experience with a few Anderson Valley projects. I first tasted the style of wine being produced in the Anderson Valley through Anthill Farms and their Comptche Ridge Pinot Noir, which has led us to source directly from Comptche Ridge itself (they make about 50 cases of wine per year only, you can read a bit about our experience and thoughts on their wine here) as well as working with Baxter WInery a few months back as well.
In California we’re definitely in the middle of a venable sea change in terms of the style of wine being made. A new generation of winemakers is coming of age and looking, not for the best Napa Valley vineyard that they can find, but instead for the coolest climate vineyard around. That search has led many to the Anderson Valley, which might be the most Burgundian style growing region in California. The locals definitely appreciate the style of wine that they make and it’s pretty consistent across all the brands in the Valley.
The drive into the Anderson Valley is worth a mention simply because it’s one of the most remote winegrowing regions I’ve visited in California. From San Francisco you’ll drive north through Sonoma County passing Santa Rosa and Healdsburg and eventually exiting the freeway by the famed Dry Creek Valley. Then you drive west on a winding one lane road for about 90 minutes. I went from thinking I was going to be ridiculously early, given I had two hours to make the last 45 miles of the drive, to eventually thinkingthat I would certainly end up being late. There was a period about 5 miles in (which seems to be the slowest part of the trek, that I thought I wouldn’t make it at all….heck one winemaker at the tasting joked that she lived in Sonoma when she first started and the result was listening to plenty of books on tape….yes the radio leaves almost immediately….it is a true valley after all) In the end I had enough time to grab a sandwich at the historic Navarro Market and ended up being right on time.
The drive across highway 128 to Anderson Valley really made me think of the scale of the whole place. From the lengthy drive, to the huge Redwood groves that the road is cut through, to the size of the wineries in Anderson Valley themselves…..the scale in Anderson Valley is truly different. The wineries in Anderson Valley made me laugh a bit simply because so many of them are family owned and operated (many without any additional staff, unless they have a small tasting room) so making two thousand cases of wine seemed like a fairly large operation. I had one winery tell me, they were getting pretty big…1,700 cases. When I compare that to places in Napa Valley that seem to think 100,000 cases of wine per year is still small and unknown, the sense of scale really becomes almost overwhelming. In Anderson Valley Goldeneye is probably the biggest name nationally and they pegged their own production at about 20,000 cases of wine, which would hardly even get them a tasting room in the Russian River Valley where the average production is at least twice what Goldeneye produces and probably ten times the average production in Anderson Valley. While I could talk about the about Anderson Valley for quite a bit more time here in this space, I thought taking about some of the wineries I met during the tasting on the Mendocino Coast would provide a better example of the types of wines being produced.
Panthea Wine: From Panthea Wine I had a chance to chat with Jess Boss, who owns the label along with her husband Kelly, as well as their toddler in tow. A 2 person shop they’re making under 2,000 cases per year and Jess was kind enough to give me a partial lay of the land so to speak in Anderson Valley, from a local’s perspective. I can appreciate the trials and tribulations that a small label like this goes through, after all it’s hard to take a vacation when you don’t have staff right? I came away impressed by both their single vineyard offering from the Londer Vineyard, as well as their entry level Siren offering, which is a blend from 6 different vineyards. I’ve talked about the scale of Anderson Valley before and price points here are worth a mention, at $28 and $38 respectively, they’re leaving some cash on the table in my opinion. These are both really solid offerings, more Burgundian in style than Sonoma, this is the type of label that wine lovers whom love European styled Pinot Noir, would be incredibly happy to support.
Lichen Estate: Originally called Breggo Cellars and located on a 150 acre former sheep ranch (I can attest to seeing a TON of sheep on my way through Anderson Valley, if you’re looking at buying a few hundred acres in the Anderson Valley, it’s likely a sheep ranch right now) Lichen Estate has been around since 2005 and with ten years in business, it’s one of the elder statesmen in Anderson Valley wine. That status comes through both in the wine, but as well in their variety of offerings. There’s some really unique stuff happening here such as their Les Pinots Noirs and Gris
Meyer Family Cellars: No matter what wine region you’re in, there’s always one guy in the room making something different than everyone else. I always want to find “that guy”. In the Anderson Valley I think Matt Meyer is that guy, for two reasons actually. First, Matt focuses on Syrah in the Anderson Valley. Cool climate Syrah is totally a thing and might be what ends up saving the grape in California over the long term, these are interesting and complex wines at belie their $28 price point (I saw that $28 intro red wine price point at a number of winery tables, which seems to mean it is a concerted effort at pricing, still incredible given the quality and the fact that if Meyer Family Cellars said Russian River Valley on the label, they’d easily be getting $40 a bottle for them). Matt’s also a second generation winemaker, which is rare in a part of the California wine industry where the first plantings happened in the 80’s. The first generation focused more on Napa Cabernet, which comes through with an Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon that is produced by Meyer Family Cellars.
Phillips Hill Winery: One question that I always ask at tasting events when I spend some time with a winemaker and they seem to understand what I’m looking for, is who else I should spend some time with. Toby Hill of Phillips Hill Winery was mentioned all three times I asked the question and I came away utterly impressed by his offerings. With a tasting room right off highway 128, I was surprised to hear that production was under 2,000 cases….especially given some of the multiple 90+ point scores that have come from the property already. Toby also mentioned that he was high school friends with the owner of Comptche Ridge Vineyards, a winery that largely was my introduction to the Anderson Valley and a wine that our customers will still ask about to this day.
Handley Cellars: Milla Handley is something of a founding member of the Anderson Valley. Truly one of the first female owned wineries in California, Handley received her viticulture degree from UC Davis (where else?) back in 1975. Time at Edmeades and Chateau St Jean (under famed winemaker Richard Arrowood) prepared her for her own project, which opened in 1982. One thing we chatted about for a while was the organic certification of her estate vineyard, which came at no small expense in terms of either money, or time. Most small wineries (and yes, despite the 30+ years in existence, this is still a very small production winery) don’t take the time or spend the money to achieve the certification. The aromas of the Handley Gewurztraminer will literally blow you away and it’s worth it to find a bottle of Milla’s Gewurztraminer for that reason alone. It’s a unique look into a white wine that deserves more attention than it currently receives.
There were at least another dozen wineries there, that deserve a mention in this space, but then again there’s the issue of space. Anderson Valley is well worth a look based alone on thequality of the wine being produced, but there’s also in an interesting spot where the wider wine market is coming straight into what they do well, cool climate varietals made by smaller, family owned wineries. Those are exactly the type of wineries that our customers expect to find in our wine club shipments, so you can expect to see some of these names show up in upcoming months. This was perhaps the most impressive industry tasting I’ve attended in the past two years and I’m greatly looking forward to learning more about the Anderson Valley in general, the wine in peculiar and to gain a greater understanding why so many simply nice and considerate people started their wine journey’s in one of California’s hardest to reach valley’s.