A ‘wine’ding trip through Mendocino County
By Mike Rosenberg
A well-timed conference in San Francisco gave my wife and me the perfect opportunity to take a couple of days off, zoom westward, and whisk away up U.S. 101 North. We plowed north past the familiar wine stops to drop anchor in Cloverdale, California, gateway to Mendocino County, just north of Sonoma County.
Cloverdale is the vertex of the two major roads – U.S. 101 and CA 128 – heading up into Mendocino County wine country. The well-known 101 goes up along the Russian River towards Potter Valley and Redwood Valley. CA 128 snakes upwards along Dry Creek from Cloverdale towards Boonville and into Anderson Valley before ambling over to the Pacific Coast Highway.
We hitched the wagon at Vintage Towers, an excellent Queen Anne B&B tucked away in a neighborhood a couple of blocks from the main street. We walked a couple of blocks to Piacére for dinner, a local Italian place. The owner/chef has a serious flair for La Dolce Vita. Mind-blowingly good.
We decided to take the Anderson Valley “fork” on our first day. Our innkeeper made an offhand reference to 128 as “Mario Andretti Highway.” He wasn’t kidding. If you like switchbacks, this is the road for you. Narrow, twisty, speed limit of 25 that’s not a joke. We forged on, though, buoyed by the promise of scrumptious pinot noir. After about 35 minutes of winding through gorgeous scenery, Anderson Valley opened up before us.
Mendocino, and Anderson Valley in particular, is geographically buffered from casual wine tourists. It’s a little too far from San Francisco for an easy drive. Once people get to Cloverdale, 128 can be a daunting trip, so the folks who make the trip really want to be there. The tasting rooms, as a result – at least on this weekend, were less crowded and we were able to spend more time chatting with folks and relaxing over our tastings. The majority of the wineries we visited used “organic” productions – certainly in process if not in certification.
Our first stop was Foursight Winery, a small operation run by the Charles family. They take their name from the number of generations that their family’s worked that plot of land. “Welcome to our dream,” they say. The low-yield, handpicked wines, fermented with wild yeast instead of cultured strains were an absolute delight. The highlights for us were the “Zero New Oak Pinot,” an elegant, meticulously balanced pinot noir and their Sauvignon Blanc, which was very much along the style of a good white Bordeaux.
Another highlight was Roederer Estates, the American production from Louis Roederer, the Champagne house that produces Cristal. Their L’Ermitage vintage bubbly was spectacular. Creamy, complex and luxurious. They also were tasting some still wines and their still chardonnay was a bargain for a high-quality wine.
Our last stop of the day was Londer Vineyards. Londer Vineyards produces pinots in the $30-70 range and their tasting room is attached to a swanky art gallery. Their “Anderson Valley” pinot, made from grapes chosen from across the county, was the best value we found on the trip. Normally $30, they were selling it half-off by the case on the day we were there. We stocked up.
The “other fork” of the road from Cloverdale was a much smoother ride up Highway 101 on day two. The viticultural areas along that stretch tend to be warmer as they’re farther inland, away from the cooling influences of the ocean breezes. They grow heartier grapes like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. The wines in these regions tend to be less expensive and a more readily available than their Anderson counterparts.
We found ourselves at Lolonis Winery, an organic producer with an understated warehouse of a tasting room that happened to have a fabulous spread of cheeses for our snacking pleasure. We were their first visitors of the day this Sunday. Petros Lolonis, the owner, is one of the most charming gentlemen to whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking. He’s a quiet, thoughtful man – which are some of the adjectives that I’d apply to his Redwood Valley Merlot, which at $18 a bottle is a steal. Their petit sirah and late harvest zinfandel (the latter is Cuvée Lorrane, named after the winemaker) are also excellent.
Also, Cole Bailey – at the top of a hill at the end of a twisty, muddy driveway sat a somewhat ramshackle tasting room where Bob Anderson held court, pouring his “Sesquipedalian” cabernet and sauvignon blanc. His name may not ring a bell, but he’s better known by his fraternity nickname – “Otter.” Bob was in Alpha Delta at Dartmouth – the inspiration for the Deltas in Animal House. His sauvignon blanc was very pleasant, as well. In case you’re wondering, a “Sesquipedalian” is “a sophistical rhetorician inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity.” In other words, a poser who uses fancy-pants words when simple ones would do. Alternatively, a wine writer.
Mendocino certainly made its mark on us. I used to think that heading back to Sonoma would be my wine destination of choice, but Mendocino certainly has its appeal. I’d head back there in a heartbeat.
Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the blog at www.TheNakedVine.net