A Weekend Of Wine in Mendocino's Anderson Valley
Where are all the tourists?
It's the first question you'll undoubtedly ask upon arriving in Anderson Valley.
Just an hour's drive north of California's widely known wine region of Sonoma, the tiny rural farming town of Boonville marks the start of what is arguably the state's most underrated destination for wine tasting. Here, rolling hills of verdant vines and gold-hued grasses are flanked by thick forests of magnificent ancient redwoods. The region's lone thoroughfare, Highway 128, snakes through picturesque vineyards, apple orchards and state-protected wooded parks before spitting you out at the cliffside coastal town of Mendocino. Stop off at one of the many quaint tasting rooms along the way and it's likely you'll be the only visitor - and the person filling your glass none other than the winemaker themselves. Unlike tourist-laden Napa or Sonoma you won't need a reservation, and most vineyards will wave their tasting fee if you opt to take a bottle home.
We visited Anderson Valley over a stifling hot Labor Day weekend. It was a spontaneous trip, but thanks to the Valley's relative lack of tourism we were able to secure a hotel room just days before the holiday. Armed with a corkscrew, GoVino glasses and a foldable cooler bag (come prepared for impromptu picnics!) we hopped in our Jeep and hit the highway for the two hour journey from San Francisco.
Our first destination was an old favorite, Goldeneye. David and I discovered the winery four years ago during a pit stop en route to Mendocino, and I can still recall the moment we first laid eyes on the vineyard. Swathed in sunshine, neat rows of twisted vines cover a gently sloping hillside met by dense Redwood forest. The guarding, stately effect of the surrounding trees leaves you feeling as though you've stumbled upon The Secret Garden version of a vineyard, and to this day it's my favorite winery to visit in California - and my preferred location to pick up a bottle of the region's famed Pinot Noir.
Although we chose to nibble on the complimentary truffled Marcona almonds during our visit, Goldeneye does offer a prepared picnic basket for hungry visitors complete with fresh fruit, salame, brie, fig spread and crackers. They'll set you up with GoVino glasses (yours to keep!) and a wine cooling sleeve - all you have to do is select a bottle, post up with your provisions in a picnic spot of your choosing and enjoy the views.
With time for one more tasting before checking in to our hotel, we circled back on Hwy 128 to Lichen Estate. Tastings here are conducted in a 100-year-old restored farmhouse, and at the time of our visit we were the sole sippers. The organically farmed vineyard has amassed a following for something that few others produce: white Pinot Noir. An unconventional blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, it has a sweet, refreshing flavor similar to sparkling wine (sans bubbles).
From Lichen Estate it was a short jaunt back to town, where a room awaited us at the chic modern roadhouse known as The Boonville Hotel. Sitting mere steps from the highway, the hotel oozes with the kind of Americana charm my heart often longed for while living overseas. Rambling vines encase two stories of long, wide porches - the upper level being guest room porches - complete with hammocks and sitting chairs. This was the first time since I've returned to the U.S. that I felt those warm pangs of nostalgia, and I practically floated through the hotel's front door.
Within moments The Boonville Hotel revealed a surprise that warrants stopping here whether you plan on spending the night or just happen to be passing through: their garden restaurant.
Spilling out the back doors of this unassuming roadhouse is Table 128, a reservation-only restaurant that serves a nightly prix-fixe dinner of thoughtful, seasonally-inspired dishes. While the setting alone would be enough to pull me off the road (I'm a sucker for farm tables and market string lights), the fare here also happens to be superb. Their menu changes daily, but on our particular visit the main dish was grilled northern halibut with agua chile, ground cherries, shaved fennel and toasted hazelnut. However, it was the starter - chilled sweet corn chowder with blistered cherry tomatoes, fried herbs and creme fraiche - and the dessert - vanilla bean rum cake with fresh peaches and chantilly cream - that made the meal deliciously memorable.
If you forget to book a reservation or have dining plans elsewhere, it's still worth popping into the hotel to take a stroll in their garden. Grab a glass of wine from the bar indoors before wandering outside, where you can plop yourself down in a number of comfortable seats.
Everything here seems to grow in perfect, wild abandon. There are sunflowers teetering in the warm wind, their cheerful amber faces balancing carefully atop spindly legs. A wood pavilion housing rattan chairs and a giant Jenga set is barely visible beneath an old growth of trumpet vines whose fiery blossoms drip from the ceiling. If you came here and decided to spend the entire weekend moving back and forth between the restaurant and this garden, I would not fault you for it.
My time in Japan left me with a deep appreciation for simplicity and quality. Americans tend to have a "more is better" mentality, but this usually results in an abundance of mediocrity. What's the need for having 20 different food items on a menu if you can't make any of them really, really well?
I am quite taken with The Boonville Hotel for this reason. During the reservation process I was informed that a "simple" breakfast of coffee, baked goods, fruit, granola and yogurt was included in our stay. The next morning we came to find those simple baked goods were hot-out-of-the-oven cheddar biscuits accompanied by homemade apricot jam. (The following day we were presented with the most divine freshly baked scones.)
Simple? Yes. Basic? No way.
The following morning we set out to explore the nearby forests and rivers. I was determined to put the aforementioned cooler to good use, so we stopped by Lemon's Philo Market, a little old-fashioned grocery that prepares a stellar deli sandwich (tip: they're huge - get one to share). If you're planning a picnic lunch this is a great place to pick up all the necessary supplies.
Sustenance in hand, we were on our way.
The beauty of driving in Mendocino County is that the journey is as enjoyable as the destination itself. In its final leg before reaching the Pacific coast, Highway 128 meanders through an 11-mile-long stretch of dense forest that follows the Navarro River, known locally as the "redwood tunnel to the sea."
Driving through the Navarro River Redwoods State Park is a breathtaking experience. Sunlight filters softly through the towering trees and dapples the leaves of giant ferns below. I rolled back the sunroof in our car and inhaled deeply, the scent of piny earth filling my lungs. The beauty of this place is immense and magical; it beckons for exploring. If you feel inclined to stop, park your car at mile marker 3.66 and follow the path towards the river where you'll find a secluded swimming hole with a sandy embankment.
After a quick refreshing dip, we pressed on to our final destination.
Just south of the town of Mendocino lies the mouth of another scenic waterway: Big River. Here you'll find Catch a Canoe & Bicycles, Too!, your one-stop shop for exploring the state's second longest estuary. A gorgeously moody meeting of tide and stream, Big River Estuary is prime for long, leisurely paddling aboard one of the shop's locally crafted outrigger canoes. If you're feeling particularly adventurous there's stand-up paddle boards, but with firsthand knowledge of the frigid temps in nearby Navarro River we opted for the more stable option.
Cooler in tow, we glided effortlessly over tranquil sea-green waters for what felt like miles. We floated past wide grassy marshes and over fallen trees, their enormous trunks sinking slowly into the riverbed. We were alone with the methodic sounds of our paddles, rising and falling together in rhythm. This is the kind of place where you forget about time, and without my stomach to remind me of the hour we might have paddled the entire length of the 6-mile-long estuary.
With hunger pangs raging, we steered the outrigger onto a muddy narrow embankment and unpacked our long-awaited picnic.
After returning our vessel, I was eager to get back to Boonville (and that charming hotel garden). We took in the golden hour amongst the sunflowers, sipping wine and reflecting on a perfect day. When hunger struck again, we ventured five minutes up the highway to Philo, where you'll find Stone & Embers cranking out mouthwatering pizzas from their 750-degree oven. It's a relaxed setting with both indoor and outdoor seating and affordable glasses of local wine on offer.
Our last morning in the valley I rose at dawn to beat the heat for my weekly long run. I'm in the middle of training for the Golden Gate Half Marathon, and this particular weekend called for a 9-miler. I set out with the sun for an out-and-back run on Highway 128, where my unexpected presence was monitored with a watchful eye by grazing cattle and deer. As the first rays of light began to peek over the surrounding hills, I heard a faint voice over the music blaring from my headphones: "Good Morning!" I looked up to see a silver-haired gentleman jogging along the frontage road beside me, smiling and waving eagerly. Folks, this just doesn't happen in the city. I grinned and waved happily in return, my feet instantly feeling lighter.
One long, cold shower and lazy breakfast later it was time to check out of The Boonville Hotel. Not yet ready to bid farewell to our blissful countryside escape, we opted to kill a few more hours in Anderson Valley with - you guessed it - more eating and drinking. Our first stop was Balo, a winery that boasts free tastings and two commercial-grade bocce courts. We enjoyed a crisp glass of Pinot Noir Blanc over a friendly bocce match, in which I surprised both David (and myself) by winning.
We couldn't leave Anderson Valley without a visit to the famous Philo Apple Farm, a biodynamic farm run by the original owners of a little restaurant operation in Napa that you may have heard of: The French Laundry.
The bucolic orchard operates a self-service farm stand, selling everything from chutneys to hard cider on a cash-only honor system. (I scooped up some jam that is currently being rationed in our refrigerator.) Simply select what you want from the stand and enter your transaction in the barn ledger. If you're interested in learning more about living on a working farm, you can rent out one of the property's four cottages with their "Stay & Cook" overnight option, which invites guests into the kitchen for meal preparations.
Those willing to go the extra distance to Anderson Valley will encounter a wine country reminiscent of Napa's early days - a promising region on the verge of world discovery. While I hope that places like Boonville and Philo will forever retain their pastoral charm, my advice is to go see them before the secret gets out.
If you make the trek, don't miss these favorites from our trip!
Eat + Drink
14050 Highway 128, Boonville
Serving prix-fixe dinners ($48-68 per person) Thursday through Monday in warmer months (Apr-Nov) and Friday through Sunday in winter (Dec-Mar). Menus released every Wednesday, available here. Call (707) 895-2210 to reserve.
Stone & Embers
9000 Highway 128, Philo
Open for lunch and dinner Thursday through Monday. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
Lemon's Philo Market
8651 Highway 128, Philo
Open daily from 7:30AM to 8:00PM.
11001 County Road 151, Boonville
Open daily from 11:00AM to 5:00PM.
9001 Highway 128, Philo
Open from 11:00AM to 5:00PM daily June through November, and Thursday to Monday in December to May.
We didn't visit on this particular trip, but I recommend craft beer lovers take a tour of Anderson Valley Brewing Company.
Catch a Canoe & Bicycles, Too!
1 South Big River Road, Mendocino
Open daily from 9:00AM to 5:00PM. Rentals are $32 per person for 3 hours or $45 per person for the day.
Philo Apple Farm
18501 Greenwood Road, Philo
Self-service farm stand open daily from 9:00AM to 6:00PM.