An oasis from Napa’s glitz and glamour, this is the wine region to visit for unpretentious dining, redwood forests and excellent Pinot Noir, says Stephen Brook, who shares his Anderson Valley travel guide.
Anderson Valley travel guide
One of California’s coolest wine regions, Anderson Valley lies in Mendocino County, following a roughly parallel course to the shore. Its northern extremity emerges from a redwood forest onto the Pacific shore. Some 60 years ago this was a major logging region, but over-exploitation of its forests led to economic decline, and once bustling towns dwindled to scraggly villages. In the 1960s and 1970s hippies seeking a secluded life moved up here, to contemplate their navels and cultivate their marijuana patches; some of them are still around, their beards and ponytails greying fast.
Italian settlers had planted Zinfandel on the highlands above the valley a century or more ago, but the modern development of Anderson Valley began in the 1970s, when wineries like Edmeades, Husch and Navarro planted vineyards. A final seal of approval was awarded in 1982 when Champagne house Roederer chose the valley as the source for its American sparkling wine, regarded by many as the country’s finest.
Gradually Anderson Valley has become a haven for low-key tourism, offering a craft brewery, a thriving creamery, unpretentious restaurants often using organic produce, 28 tasting rooms, numerous festivals and accommodation ranging from chic to a camping site in redwood forests. Don’t come expecting for sophisticated dining or luxury resorts, although you can find both in spades along the nearby Pacific shore.
Highway 128 traverses the valley, and Boonville is the main village. It’s a laid-back place. Step into the road and oncoming cars often glide obligingly to a halt. The lumber boom made the little town’s fortunes and 60 years ago it was more populous and busier than it is now. The Boonville Hotel, an ancient establishment, is the only substantial place to stay and offers comfortable if not luxurious accommodation. There are plenty of options for meals, although opening hours can be lax and haphazard. Remember: Anderson Valley hasn’t quite made it into the 21st century yet.
The General Store opposite the Boonville Hotel, and Mosswood Market a few paces to the south, are good spots for breakfast or lunch, while Paysanne, which offers organic ice cream, and the Boonville Chocolate Shop (in a former freight train carriage) will top up your calorie count. Lauren’s is a popular dinner option, but don’t expect refined cooking.
The only other village of any note is Philo, a few kilometres north up Highway 128. You’ll pass the valley museum in a former school house, but it’s only open on weekend afternoons. You may not find logging implements and quilts riveting, but there’s information about the local Boontling language, created so that people from Philo couldn’t understand what Boonville folk were saying.
Blink and you’ll miss Philo, but there are a couple of tasting rooms and a fascinating sawmill and shop called Architectural Elements, which specialises in recycling barrels and salvaged redwood beams to create furniture.
Anderson Valley offers a range of wine styles and plenty of tasting rooms in which to sample them. It gained a well-deserved reputation for Pinot Noir – generally fresher than more heavyweight styles from further south in California. But there’s excellent sparkling wine here, plus the West Coast’s best whites from aromatic Alsatian varieties.
In Boonville, visit the Foursight tasting room. Kristy Charles’s family have been farming here for generations; she and her husband Joe Webb make excellent wines from their vineyards. There’s delicious Semillon as well as elegant Pinots aged without new oak. North of town is Goldeneye, an offshoot of the Napa winery Duckhorn. Here there’s a more formal tasting room and garden, and a range of quite powerful Pinots that still have fine red fruits beneath their surface of new oak. Knez is a fairly new winery, producing Chardonnay and Pinot from some of the valley’s top vineyards: Demuth and Cerise. Its tasting room, as well as Drew’s, is in the small complex known as The Madrones. Both wineries offer first-rate wines with finesse and poise.
North of Philo you’ll reach Toulouse, a tasting room popular with visitors thanks to its friendly owner Vern Boltz, a former fireman. A few kilometres further north is the always crowded Navarro tasting room and picnic area. Deborah Cahn and Ted Bennett founded Navarro 40 years ago, and quality has never wavered. Try their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir by all means, but the stars here are the Riesling and Gewürztraminer, including sensational late-harvest wines.
A newcomer to the valley is Phillips Hill, which produces a range of serious Pinots. The tasting room is a former apple-drying barn that’s roofed but has no walls, so in poor weather tasters move upstairs. Here there’s an aroma room, with large jars containing components of a Pinot Noir’s bouquet such as orange peel or fading leaves. Nearby, and in complete contrast, is the grand but welcoming Roederer tasting room.
Anderson Valley loves to party. Time your visit right and you could join the Alsace Varieties festival in February, the Pinot Noir Festival in May or the Yorkville Highlands wine festival in August. Yorkville Highlands is a separate wine region about 25km south of Boonville along Highway 128, and its warmer climate allows Bordeaux varieties and Syrah to ripen. There are three tasting rooms there for you to sample a variety of wines.
Anderson Valley is the antidote for those turned off by Napa Valley bling, traffic, stretch limousines, and inflated prices. A visit won’t break the bank, and an enjoyable, stress-free stay is guaranteed.
How to get there
San Francisco is the closest international airport, about 200km drive away. A local airport in Santa Rosa is about 100km away.
Anderson Valley travel guide: My perfect day
Awake at the Boonville Hotel, grab a coffee at the bar, then head for a more substantial breakfast at the General Store over the road. Head south to visit the Foursight tasting room then the Pennyroyal Creamery for excellent goat and sheep cheese that you can taste with Pennyroyal’s own wine. North of Boonville visit the four tasting rooms at The Madrones (open from 11am).
Continue to Philo to lunch at Libby’s (open Tuesday to Saturday), a long-established Mexican restaurant that’s popular with the locals, especially for its carnitas. Alternatively you can head back to Boonville and eat salads or sandwiches at one of the many cafés such as Mosswood Market.
Just south of Boonville, on the corner of the road to Ukiah, is the Anderson Valley Brewing Co. Aim to get here by 1.30pm when a tour is offered (no reservations required), plus a tasting of its large range of beers, from IPA ales to heavier Belgian-style and flavoured brews. To walk off any excess consumption, drive past Philo, then left on Greenwood Road to the Hendy Woods State Park. Walking trails take visitors to imposing stands of ancient redwoods, and the Navarro River flows through the park so you can take a dip in its bathing holes. Then continue north on Highway 128 to the Navarro tasting room to sample its splendid wines. Close by, you can relax in the gardens at Roederer with a glass of fine fizz.
Evening and overnight
Continue north on Highway 128 another 25km through magnificent redwood forests until you emerge onto cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Continue to Albion for happy hour at the Albion River Inn. The hotel has a magnificent Californian and international wine list, but head back to Boonville for dinner. Table 128 is a prix-fixe dinner at the Hotel Boonville, but the generous, locally sourced plates at Aquarelle over the road are a less formal alternative. Sleep either at the hotel or a bit further north at The Madrones, tranquil and luxurious suites at affordable prices.
Anderson Valley travel guide: Where to stay, eat, shop and relax
Anderson Valley hotels
Charming, laid-back roadside inn with verandahs and hammocks. Stay in the main building or in one of the seven cottages set among lovely gardens. Light breakfasts and prix-fixe dinners in the evening. boonvillehotel.com
Just north of Boonville, this offers four individually furnished suites in a quiet location, and is the most sophisticated option in the valley. There’s also an on-site restaurant, Stone & Embers, featuring fresh food from a wood-burning oven, that only opens at weekends. themadrones.com
An unconventional choice is the bucolic setting of the Apple Farm near Philo, which cultivates 80 varieties of apple. It offers three surprisingly spacious cottages within the orchards, offered on a B&B basis. There are picnic areas and improvised meals. philoapplefarm.com
Although not in Anderson Valley itself, this luxurious hotel may appeal to those who don’t seek the more rustic charms of the valley, which is just 25km away. There are 22 comfortable rooms with superb views over the Pacific, as well as a popular bar and fine restaurant, with a superb wine list, featuring some bargain bottles at the top end. A cooked breakfast is included in your stay. albionriverinn.com
Anderson Valley restaurants
Although calling itself a wine bar, Aquarelle serves proper dinners. The copious salads are organically grown, while main courses have a more international background. Prawns caught in the wild, crab cakes and ahi tuna are all good choices, though there a few meat options too. Small plates available for diners into sharing. Local wines and friendly if sometimes sluggish service. Tel: +1 (707) 895 2767
‘Good Food, Good Times’ is Lauren’s motto, and an accurate one. Don’t come to this cavernous Boonville bar and restaurant for refined cooking, but the portions are hearty and the range of cuisines – Asian, Mexican, Italian and American classics – imposing. There are pizzas and sandwiches to go too. laurensgoodfood.com
Coq au Vin
In an isolated roadside spot north of Philo is this cosy, family-run restaurant serving classic French bourgeois cuisine with an American accent. Attentive service, good local wines, and generous portions make this a firm favourite with locals and visitors alike. Open Thursday to Monday only. Reservations advised. Tel: +1 (707) 895 9255
Anderson Valley shops
Wine shops? There are no wine shops in Anderson Valley! That’s because most visitors tend to buy directly from tasting rooms. But groceries in Boonville such as Lemon’s and the Navarro Store at the northern end of the valley carry a decent selection of local wines.
Since 1955 this company has specialised in salvaging wood from redundant old buildings in the region and refashioning them as tables and other furniture. Ancient redwoods are protected now, but a century ago this was not the case, so this is the only way to acquire furniture from this beautiful wood. Shipping is possible though costly. Open Tuesday to Friday. architecturalelementsofav.com