Touring and Wine Tasting in California’s Anderson Valley
The cool-climate wines of Northern California’s Anderson Valley are finding their audience. This temperate region, close to the ocean, is home to several well-known labels and farmers who practice sustainable and organic farming — even those who aren’t certified organic. They view responsible stewardship of the land as the baseline to making great wine. And great wine it can make! The area produces exquisite Pinot Noir, Alsace varietal whites, sparkling, and a soupçon of Syrah and Merlot.
All photography by Leila Seppa.
Our first picturesque Anderson Valley all-in-one was at the west edge of Boonville, at Lichen Estate’s tasting room/vineyards/winery. Their hillsides are gorgeous and terraced with vines. The tasting room is flanked by the barrel room and winery equipment and nestled in a lovely picnic area.
Ully Povoa was a ray of light that greeted us at the Lichen tasting bar. You would be forgiven if you thought she was simply the charming, good conversationalist hired to pour for guests. You would, however, be mistaken. She is actually the assistant winemaker at Lichen and a graduate of the UC Davis enology program who previously worked at wineries in Napa and Chile.
She gave us a tour of Lichen Estate vineyards, told us about owner/winegrower/winemaker Doug Stewart’s history beginning with his first winery there, Breggo, its sale and the subsequent development of the land for Lichen by Doug and his wife, Ana Lucia Stewart. And then came the lovely wines. They produce still and sparkling, and we started with the 2014 Blanc de Gris, a pleasing, fruit-driven bubbly that would be very happy on a brunch table.
My favorite wine from the tasting menu was the 2014 Estate Pinot Noir: medium-bodied with nice structure that framed dark cherry, cola, spice and the right amount of wood. But my very favorite Lichen wine was the off-menu 2016 White Pinot Noir, made from grapes that spent no time on the skins. It had a freshness and contrasting weight and depth unlike any other white I’ve tasted.
The Black Kite Pinot Noirs are refinement … liquefied. We tasted through the impressive line-up with Mike Green at his kitchen table. The estate vineyard wines present pure Anderson Valley flavors: cranberry, dark cherry, green earth and rainwater. We also tasted their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Sonoma County’s well-known Petaluma Gap, as well as the Santa Lucia Highlands. These showed crowd-pleasing, richer characteristics.
Mike’s family had the foresight and smarts to buy property in the Anderson Valley in 1964. He feels a deep connection to the land, and such inspiration from the valley that he has become president of Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association. His aunt and uncle, Rebecca and Tom Birdsall, founded Black Kite Cellars in 2003 with Rebecca’s parents, Donald and Maureen Green.
The Black Kite Anderson Valley property is a stunning expanse of hillside and valley vineyards, with a long, winding driveway that leads you to the house in the redwoods, by the creek, next to the vineyard. The house that will hopefully host dinners and events once the outdoor kitchen and bocce ball court is finished.
I am excited to taste the wines from their vineyard property in Freestone that Mike said was about to come online. Another spectacular cool-climate growing region, stay tuned for Freestone additions to Black Kite offerings. Right now I recommend booking an appointment for a tasting, or picking up and enjoying a bottle of Angel Hawk (the Native American nickname for the black kite bird), a wine produced from the most age-worthy barrels sourced from each block in their Anderson Valley vineyard. These wines are very happy to be decanted for optimum pleasure.
I’m not going to lie, there is a Doodle in this story. The curly blond beast has followers in the tens of thousands and his own non-profit, Socks for Sandwich. Just getting that out of the way for all of you wine and dog lovers.
Winemaker Eric Story and his wife Allison Smith met while working at a wine shop. Between them they have years of experience in the wine business. Allison Smith Story was kind enough to meet us at her and Eric’s (and Lord Sandwich the Doodle’s of course) tasting room at the Madrones in Philo. The room manages to be spacious and cozy, an eclectic spot to go on your own or bring a group.
They now have a sizable line-up of Smith Story Sonoma AVA wines, a German Riesling and a delicious Rose of Pinot Noir that I was lucky enough to bring home with me. To stick with our theme though, we tasted their three current Anderson Valley wines—two Pinot Noir, one Pinot Gris. All three were smooth and precise and easy to drink. Pinot Gris grows well in the valley and their 2017 Filligreen Farm was bright, fresh, crème brulee, apples, and pears.
After tasting us through, Allison led us to Helluva Vineyard in Boonville where fruit for one of their more available vineyard designate Pinot Noirs is grown. We talked shop and shot some photos of the newly budding vines. We truly had a fun time hanging out and listening to the journey that led to Smith Story wines. These are hardworking, talented people at the helm of Smith Story, making wines poised for lasting success.
If I had to wake up as Snow White anywhere on earth, I’d want it to be on the Drew Family farm. Wine grapes, truffles, apples, oh my! Oops, that’s from the Wizard of Oz. The Drew Family property is also a little bit like Oz … except the people there run the show in front of the curtain. Molly and Jason Drew were awesome hosts as they gave us a tour of the 26 acre property they’ve planted and managed since 2000.
Three miles from the ocean, the Drew’s Mendocino Ridge site is bursting with bounty. The apple trees and grape vines were just beginning to bud. The sheep are wooly, stoic and ready to graze. The winery is just what they need to produce their small production, world class Pinot Noir, Syrah, Viognier and Albariño with fruit from their estate vineyard as well as a couple of other local vineyard partners. You can also taste Drew wines at The Madrones. The Pinots and Syrah gracefully balance fruit, earth and acidity, utilizing varying degrees of whole cluster fermentation.
I flipped over their Albariño, bottled under their other label, The Suitcase. Named for the luggage used to smuggle the vine clippings into the U.S., this is a surprisingly common way for clones to travel. The wine is crisp saline and mineral heaven, and only available to their list. We finished with a new estate brut cider project, Sur La Mer, a delicious addition to the increasingly popular dry cider sector.
PRO TIP: A trip to Anderson Valley is not really complete until you visit the deck at Toulouse Vineyards. Great wines, great view, great people.
HOW TO GET THERE
Take 101 North over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. When you get to Cloverdale, drive west. You’ll wind your way through and up and around, and are highly advised not to take on CA Hwy 128 any way but cold sober. (Always drive sober!) The road is not that crazy — it’s just not Hwy 29 in Napa or even Dry Creek Road in Sonoma; 128 is a bit steeper and windier. According to a few people we spoke with on the trip, Hwy 128 is what keeps the buses full of drunk bachelorettes and their male equivalents out of Anderson Valley.
Once safely in Boonville, feel free to get properly drunk. Properly is, of course, a relative term. What’s proper for me will most likely be different for you … but that’s off-topic. I actually recommend you go to Lemon’s Market in Philo before wine-tasting and get a made-to-order sandwich. A good sandwich is a fine companion for a proper drink wherever you are. (I’m sure Allison Smith Story would agree with me.)