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The Next Best Weekend Wine Tour: Mendocino

Sara L. Schneider

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From a bluff-top hot tub on the Mendocino Coast, the brooding Pacific meets a delicate filigree of stars on the far horizon. The ocean is exclusively yours, in this secluded spot. With elaborately carved wood detail, and boulders and redwoods appearing inside and out (décor as compelling as it sounds), the Inn at Newport Ranch—north of the town of Fort Bragg, which is itself north of Mendocino Village proper—is one of a handful of new luxury properties that make a trip to this spectacular waterfront stretch of northern California a terrific idea now.

But make reservations for paella night (that would be Sunday) at the Boonville Hotel inland, and you’ll understand the other reason to come now: You’ll be surrounded by a community of winemakers and growers who are crafting extraordinarily delicious wines from the Anderson Valley, which Highway 128 bisects on its way north through thick stands of old redwoods to the coast.

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The Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and white Alsatians (Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris) these maverick artisans are crafting in this valley have been flying under the radar for some years now. The whole of Mendocino County, in fact, has been a stealth wine-producing region going back to vineyards planted by immigrants in the 1800s. It’s a well-kept secret that much Mendo fruit goes into pricy wines to the south, in Sonoma and Napa Counties (it’s legal to splash in a percentage of wine from outside the named appellation, to keep the cost of goods down); the ringing endorsement in that is that Mendocino fruit is good enough for those wines.

But the vineyards in Anderson Valley, the cool western wine region in this vast county, have become sought-after sources of fruit for top-notch wine producers—both in and out of county (Sonoma’s Kosta Browne comes to mind; they own a vineyard here now)—who are proudly identifying their wines from this trending Mendocino region. The Pinots, especially, are marked by bright red fruit, juicy acidity, and growing polish and sophistication. Add in gracious tasting rooms, a handful of terrific restaurants and the new lodgings on the coast, and a wine adventure on the grand scale is awaiting in Anderson Valley now.

There’s no better perspective on said valley than the top-most block at Ferrington Vineyards, home to Fathers & Daughters Cellars. At a picnic table overlooking the 75-acre swath of Ferrington (some fruit from which goes to Sonoma icon Williams Selyem), down across vineyards owned by Cakebread, Roederer, and Goldeneye (Duckhorn’s Anderson Valley outpost), we make a promising start to the day with croissants and Fathers & Daughters “Pét-Nat,” otherwise known as Sarah’s Rustic Bubbles, a breakfast wine if there ever was one. (Short for Pétillant Naturel, Pét-Nat is wine that has been bottled before its fermentation is finished, so some carbon dioxide is trapped—an old method of making a sparkler. And since the lees aren’t removed, as they would be in Champagne-method disgorging, the yeasty wine is a perfect foil for our croissants.)

Against the backdrop of the sweeping view across the valley to the mountain range to the west—beyond which is the Pacific Ocean—the wines get more serious. A 2016 Gewürztraminer is wildly aromatic, but crisp and clean. Florals and tropical notes are balanced by a dry minerality that belies the common view that Gewürz is generally sweet. A Pinot Noir (also 2016) is powerful but elegant—savory, with hints of bay and wild herbs, but bright with strawberry flavors and warm with baking spices. Winemaker Phil Baxter (who has his own namesake label, which he pours in a tasting room in Philo, a town-in-miniature north of Boonville) explains that he picks on the early side, with good acidity in mind, but goes for as much extraction during fermentation as possible: The wine spends a full month on the skins.

The heartbreaking truth is that Fathers & Daughters has no tasting room at Ferrington Vineyards. But visitors looking for a deep dive can contact the winery and arrange a tasting at this eyrie over the valley.

Down on the valley floor, at Goldeneye, we take our second golf-cart vineyard tour of the day, clutching our wine mugs so as not to lose them. (Never lose a sip of Goldeneye, if you can help it.) This vineyard, named Confluence, is planted in the shape of a duck. (Fans of parent company Duckhorn will recognize the theme.) Our destination: a table tucked beside the massive trunk of the “Marker Tree,” shaped by the Pomo natives to, in fact, mark the way. Rustic linens, sweet flowers, and spreading branches overhead set the scene for a side-by-side tasting of three Goldeneye Pinots—Confluence Vineyard, Lower Bench, and Hillside—ranging from dark, spicy and foresty, to a little richer and robust, to brightly aromatic and lighter-bodied. The range of the valley terroir is on view here.

And back on the patio, along with an indulgent platter of charcuterie, a real view unique to Anderson Valley is waiting. This might be the only wine region in the world where verdant vineyards melt into a backdrop of dark redwood forests. And at Goldeneye, you can now indulge in that view over caviar and sparkling wine, which they produce too.

But today, we’re pacing ourselves, saving taste buds for a Michelin-starred dinner on the docket for tonight. Emerging once again from redwood stands at the coast, this time we head south, to Elk, and the newly remodeled Harbor House Inn, which presides over the Pacific from a picturesque, rocky promontory. In the foreground of the private view west from our deck, the sea surges incessantly around a series of stone arches. A bottle of bubbles on ice makes it tempting to settle in and be mesmerized.

The dining room, though, makes it worth a change of scenes (albeit just a different angle on the same view), where, under chef Matt Kammerer, the restaurant earned its first Michelin star this year. A multi-course dinner in his hands is a progressive taste of the sea and the land close by. Seaweed drying over racks on the deck plays a role, with savory, briny dishes ranging from scallop crudo to abalone to uni. And after a tranquil night with the French doors cracked, to embrace the crashing waves, our breakfast tray—which doubles as a work of art—continues the savory embrace of the sea, with eggs shirred in a seaweed-laced butter sauce, surrounded by bites of abalone, pickled radishes from the garden with briny butter, local cheeses…

To relish the tastes of this broader place just a little longer, on retracing our trip down 128 for the last time, we turn in at Roederer Estate. The long, sweeping drive leads to a lovely perch over the valley—and some of California’s best sparkling wines. It was Champagne Louis Roederer, in fact, that put Anderson Valley on the map almost 40 years ago when, in a search of the northern part of the state for a US outpost, it discovered the potential for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in this cool strip of a region. Now, the sparkling-wine house owns more than 600 acres of vineyards here, representing some 25 percent of the valley’s fruit. A tour of the winery bears out the large numbers, skirting the cask room and its gorgeous, 1,700-gallon outsized oak ovals, then a sea of steel bins holding some 350,000 cases of sparkling, aging en tirage (on the lees).

Over sips of bright, citrusy Classic Brut and red-berried and floral Brut Rosé, we learn that Roederer has a plan up its sleeve—a trip it will offer into the valley from Napa Valley, by helicopter, for a Caviar & Bottle Experience. It will involve, we’re told, a series of pairings, from truffled potato chips (the best bubbly snack ever!) through lobster rillette. Now there’s an excuse to come back to Anderson Valley soon.

Travel planner

The strategy: Book a room at one of the indulgent inns on the coast (below), and plan day-trips inland down 128, to tasting rooms that hug the highway through Philo, Navarro and Boonville. Check ahead of time (and make reservations) at our restaurant picks here, as hours can be limited.

Where to Sip

The Madrones, Philo

This gracious Mediterranean-style compound is home to several tasting rooms. At Drew, you’ll find wines that lean biodynamic. Two Pinot Noirs stand out—The Fog-Eater and Valenti Ranch—for their savory, earthy profiles under red fruit. But don’t overlook the minerally, textural Albariño. Long Meadow Ranch pours Chardonnay and Pinot from the Tan Bark Ranch—acquired recently by the well-known Napa company—with its almost 70 acres of vineyards now certified organic. The Pinots here are elegant, light on their feet, coming in on the lower end of the alcohol spectrum. Don’t miss the unique Pinot Noir Blanc, and nab a bottle of killer house bloody Mary mix before you go. And in case you’d rather stay in the valley instead of out on the coast, know that the rooms in the inn at the Madrones are lovely (as are the grounds).

Black Kite Cellars, Philo

As with Fathers & Daughters, Black Kite has no tasting room. But collectors interested in these sophisticated wines, proprietor Michael Green assures us, can make an appointment to come taste in the “barn” nestled at the bottom of his three tiers of vineyards (if a handsomely finished Craftsman can be called a barn). Third generation to own vineyards here, Green pours (among other things) a fascinating trio of Pinots—wines from each of the three blocks, all made exactly the same way. The distinctions are remarkable, and the wines complex and expressive across the board.

Goldeneye Winery, Philo

The homelike setting at Goldeneye (of Duckhorn fame) offers some of the valley’s richest, most polished Pinots. Settle in on the patio—one of the most scenic places in the region to taste—with some cheese or charcuterie to nibble as you take in the vineyard-to-redwood view. Make a reservation for the Taste of Confluence Experience, a golf-cart trip around the vineyard, to the tasting under the Marker Tree described above. Or opt for caviar and sparkling wine, because you can.

Phillips Hill Winery, Philo

History meets modern winemaking in the old apple-drying shed turned winery and visitor center that is Phillips Hill. The Alsatian grapes show well here, in a Riesling and a Gewürztraminer. And for the Pinot lover’s inner geek, several versions offer great vineyard comparisons.

Roederer Estate

On a tour at Roederer, the US branch of Champagne Louis Roederer, every step of making sparkling wine is on view—a process that general manager Gregg Lamer describes as twice as hard as still-wine making. And as you sip the L’Ermitage Brut and Rosé, know that you’re tasting some of the best sparkling-winemaking this side of Champagne.

Where to Eat

The Bewildered Pig

Whether bewildered or not, “The Pig” serves up the most creative food in town locals say. Balanced between rustic and refined, the menu always celebrates the products, finds and catches of nearby ranchers, foragers and fisherfolks. Even the flour that goes into the house-made bread here comes from the Mendocino Grain Project, and there’s generally a Mendocino Heritage Pork dish on offer, naturally.

Boonville Hotel, Boonville

The much-beloved Boonville Hotel has anchored this small town since the late 1800s, and come dinnertime (especially for those paella-night Sundays), the bar on the patio turns into a favorite local gathering place, to watch chef Perry Hoffman build an enormous paella over the equally outsized grill. Hoffman is newly on board here—he most recently headed up the kitchen at Healdsburg’s über-popular Shed—with cooking that combines, in his words, “Mediterranean, Basque and French elements, with a California local-produce gestalt.” But he’s no stranger to the historic roadhouse, which is owned by his uncle, Johnny Schmitt. “I’ve always wanted this,” says Hoffman, who serves up a varying fixed menu through extended weekends. Come in time to take a stroll around the chef’s dream garden in back before dinner.

The Harbor House Inn Restaurant, Elk

Chef Matt Kammerer earned a Michelin star at The Harbor House with multi-course menus designed to make delicacies from the sea and vegetables from local farms shine. Dishes like local halibut with a cured egg yolk, seaweed with purple sea urchin, and zucchini custard with trout roe reflect the ocean’s influence on his cooking. You can put yourself in the hands of the wine director for individual pairings with each course, or you can go adventuring through the extensive wine list; the cellar here is impressive. Either way, settle in for a few hours and let the ocean view sink in.

Penny Royal Farm, Boonville

Not a restaurant or café per se, but a food and wine pairing at this sweet farmstead, creamery and winery all rolled into one makes a delicious lunch. Winemaker Sarah Cahn Bennett is the daughter of Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn, who pioneered winegrowing and -making in this valley back in the early 1970s, with Navarro Vineyards & Winery (still one of our favorites, and Sarah oversees the wine there as well). At Penny Royal, the components of the operation support each other, with sheep doing vineyard work as well as providing milk for cheeses from the creamery. You can walk in and taste the bright Sauvignon Blanc and Pinots, with views of cheesemaking through large glass windows, or you can make an appointment to tour the farm, including the sheep and goat barn, which we highly recommend.

Stone & Embers, Philo

Everything hot in this postage stamp of a restaurant (Stone & Embers is located in The Madrones) comes from the wood-fired oven. As you can imagine, pizzas here are a treat. Hours are limited, so check ahead.

Disco Ranch, Boonville

If a vineyard picnic is in your plans (and it should be, as the valley isn’t overpopulated with great lunch places), stop in at the new Disco Ranch. Part wine bar and part gourmet food shop, the Disco stocks a deep stash of local wines, as well as plenty of bottles from farther afield. Take cheese and salami with you. Or, if you have no vineyard plans, take a seat here and enjoy owner Wendy Lamer’s Spanish tortilla with romesco, roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese…

Where to Stay

The Harbor House Inn

The newly renovated rooms at The Harbor House Inn make the most of their bluff-top perch, with stellar private views across the rugged coastline and over the Pacific. The appointments are luxuriously cozy, inviting you to settle in and sip a flute of bubbly on your deck. Dinner and breakfast are in the hands of a Michelin-starred chef, so all will be well.

The Inn at Newport Ranch, Fort Bragg

On a remote bluff north of Fort Bragg, The Inn at Newport Ranch offers delicious solitude on trails both waterside and up into the hills on the extensive property. Yet there’s a sense of camaraderie when guests meet in the dining room for dinner and breakfast. You can even join in for s’mores by the fire on the patio after dark (that is, if your private Grove Suite hot tub isn’t calling). For sheer craftsmanship, the place stuns with intricate woodwork and massive boulders in-house that tie the structures in spirit to the land.

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