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Mendocino travel guide: classy wineries and stunning places to stay

In the centre of Mendocino County is the bucolic Anderson Valley, home to a string of renowned wineries, superb restaurants and effortlessly excellent places to stay, all within a short drive.

Now a destination in its own right, the Anderson Valley has developed into more than just a stopover for visitors on their way to the Pacific coast. And a good place to base yourself when exploring this northerly cool-climate wine region is the idyllic coastal town of Mendocino.

It was founded in 1851 but fell into economic decline with the dissipation of the logging industry, and didn’t really bounce back until the late 1950s, when it became a haven for artists. Since then, Mendocino’s quaint charm has made it beloved by visitors near and far – a town frozen in time, thanks to much of it being on the National Register of Historic Places and many of its original buildings qualifying as California Historical Landmarks.

About 50km inland, in the Anderson Valley, development was slower. It wasn’t until the 1970s, more than a century after early settlers arrived here, that the first commercial wineries planted vineyards. Due to the cool weather, making it harder for thicker-skinned red wine grapes to fully ripen, the initial focus was on white varieties such as Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer. This was still the case when Anderson Valley was officially designated an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1983.

While small amounts of Pinot Noir were planted in the 1970s, its popularity increased in the 1990s, and the potential for the grape in Anderson Valley was more widely recognised. Today, Mendocino County produces considerably more Pinot Noir than it did in the 1980s – some 1,200 tonnes were crushed in 1980 compared to more than 6,700 tonnes in 2021 (source: California Wine Institute) – with much of that grown and made in the Anderson Valley.


Mendocino County: the facts

Planted area (2020): 7,070ha

Main grapes (by area): Red; Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Carignan, Grenache, Sangiovese, Barbera
White; Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer

AVAs: Anderson Valley, Cole Ranch, Covelo, Dos Rios, Eagle Peak, McDowell Valley, Mendocino, Mendocino County, Mendocino Ridge, North Coast, Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, Talmage Region, Ukiah Valley, Yorkville Highlands


Along the wine trail

In the centre of the valley, about 60km southeast of Mendocino along Highway 128, is Pennyroyal Farm one of the region’s newest estates. Proprietor and head winemaker Sarah Cahn Bennett – daughter of the founders of Navarro Vineyards – practises regenerative and sustainable farming on her 40ha property, growing vegetables, herbs and fruit, including 10.5ha of Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. The Pennyroyal team hosts tastings by reservation on the outdoor patio from Thursday to Monday, and picnic tables are available to those wanting to stop for a glass of wine and something from the ‘Farm Fare’ menu.

Mendocino_Pennyroyal_Farm

The tasting patio at Pennyroyal Farm

Driving back up the highway toward Philo you’ll arrive at the Drew Family Wines tasting room at The Madrones complex, where visitors can enjoy award-winning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made from fruit grown primarily in the winery’s cool, fog-shrouded, high-elevation Mendocino Ridge vineyards. The tasting room (where you’re likely to find owners Molly or Jason Drew serving) is open by appointment on weekends but walk-ins are accommodated if space permits.

Toulouse Vineyards is just a two-minute drive back up the highway. Offering one of the nicest views in the valley from the rear deck, overlooking the Navarro river and Hendy Woods state park, it is the perfect place to stop on a sunny day for an afternoon tasting of aromatic whites and Pinots. The ambience here is relaxed and fun, just the way that owners Vern and Maxine Boltz like it. You’ll find one of the winery’s slogans proudly displayed on a sign outside: ‘Too tense? Toulouse’.

A further three-minute drive along Highway 128 brings you to Navarro Vineyards & Winery, set against a gorgeous backdrop of rolling hills and vineyards. Founded in the 1970s by Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn, Navarro was one of the first commercial wineries in the Anderson Valley, and is best known for its aromatic, Alsace-style white wines and friendly, casual atmosphere. A favourite with visitors for almost five decades, Navarro is also one of the few wineries in the valley where tastings are still free.

Roederer Estate is just up the road, about 45km from Mendocino. While the roots of this property are tied to the venerable Champagne house that created Cristal, the estate itself is humble, choosing to highlight the natural beauty and relaxed style of the Anderson Valley. Seated tastings are offered indoors or outdoors and feature flights of the winery’s estate-bottled traditional-method sparkling wines, with or without food prepared by the winery’s chef. At weekends, visitors can also enjoy a picnic with bottle service.

My perfect day in Mendocino Wine Country

Lunch & Afternoon

Arrive in Boonville, in the centre of the Anderson Valley, and enjoy a farmstead cheese and charcuterie board with a wine tasting flight at Pennyroyal Farm. After lunch, head back up Highway 128 to Navarro Vineyards for a wine tasting on the patio.

From there, take a 40-minute drive towards the coast to check into your room at The Harbor House Inn in Elk, south of Mendocino, before enjoying a walk down to the inn’s private cove and beach to search for abalone shells or watch for dolphins, sea lions and birds at play.

Evening

Take your seat at The Harbor House restaurant, which offers views of the chef’s gardens and the coastline. This isn’t just a meal, though – it’s an interactive experience, as your server and sommelier describe each dish and wine and the origin of the ingredients.

End the day with a book by the fire in your room, or bundled up on your deck, stargazing and listening to the ocean.

Next Morning

After breakfast, visit the charming town of Mendocino for a scenic walk along the remote, rugged headlands, beginning at the visitor centre. Breathe in the crisp air mixed with the fresh scent of saltwater, bay and redwoods and let the hypnotic sounds of crashing waves lull you into a zen-like state.

After your walk, stop at the Goodlife Cafe & Bakery in the centre of town for a freshly made sandwich, a hearty salad or a bowl of soup.


Your Mendocino Wine Country address book: Where to stay, eat and shop

Mendocino_County

Accommodation

Little River Inn

On Highway 1, just 5km south of the town of Mendocino, this fifth-generation, family-run oceanfront hotel and resort gives guests an expansive view of the Pacific, comfortable rooms equipped with jacuzzi tubs and fireplaces, and an on-site restaurant and golf course. There are also pet-friendly rooms.

The Boonville Hotel

A cosy, understated but upscale rural roadhouse, this is an institution in the Anderson Valley. Originally built in the late 1800s, it has 17 accommodation options, including a few ‘casitas’ or cabins, offering additional privacy and space. The concept throughout is ‘simplicity by design’, rejecting clutter for quality.

The Harbor House Inn

Perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, The Harbor House Inn features six luxurious rooms and five private cottages, a two-star Michelin restaurant (see right), expansive gardens and access to a private cove and beach. Built in the early 1900s and renovated in 2018, the property exudes effortless and comfortable elegance.

Restaurants

The Harbor House restaurant

Run by chef Matt Kammerer (among the first to earn a Michelin Green Star), this offers an immersive dining experience. Ingredients are sourced from within a small area, focusing on regenerative farming methods. For dinner, the Full Experience tasting menu is paired with mainly local and often rare wines.

Wickson

Opened in late 2020, this is a partnership between chefs Alexa Newman and Rodney Workman and the owners of The Madrones complex where it is located. Wickson is an homage to the Wickson apple variety, historically grown in the Anderson Valley before grapes became the main crop. The focus is on wood-fired dishes and pizzas, and on working with the farmers, foragers, fishermen, brewers and vintners of Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

Shops

Farmhouse Mercantile, Boonville

Featuring items made or designed by local artists, this has the look of a country store and the feel of a workshop. It features simple but expertly crafted items such as handmade plates and bowls, leather bags, kitchen linens and carved utensils made (as far as possible) using natural resources and repurposed materials.

Mendocino Art Center

Founded in 1959 by artists who spurred the cultural revival of the town, this is a gallery showcase of paintings, photography, sculptures, ceramics and other mixed media creations by local talent. The centre runs regular exhibitions, classes and workshops, and sponsors several artists in residence throughout the year.

How to get there

It’s a 2.5- to 3-hour drive from San Francisco International Airport to the Anderson Valley. Or it’s just over an hour’s drive from the smaller Sonoma County Airport, which offers flights to/from US destinations including Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Seattle, Las Vegas and Phoenix.


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