California’s Coolest Wine

By John Winthrop Haeger

Published on February 3, 2007

Anderson Valley, in the southwestern corner of California's Mendocino County, is small, narrow, and V-shaped. A blanket of fog curls up from the coast most summer nights along the Navarro River, which runs through the valley, and then burns off under warm midday sun. There is no fog in the winter, and no snow—the valley's proximity to the Pacific keeps the weather mild—but there is plenty of rain. The valley's soils vary from clay in the flats to sand and loam over shale and sandstone in the uplands—precisely the kind of well-drained, low-vigor dirt in which apple trees and grapevines do their best work.

Among the northernmost of California's coastal wine valleys, this is also one of the coolest of the state's so-called cool-climate wine regions. Anderson Valley used to be considered too cold for wine grapes at all, in fact. Alfred White, longtime vineyard manager for Husch Vineyards, the valley's first bonded winery, recalled that in the late 1960s the University of California farm adviser for Mendocino County warned winery founder Tony Husch away from the area because of its chilly climate. But that climate has turned out to be one of the reasons for the region's success. Another is its isolation. About 120 miles north of San Francisco (considerably farther than either Napa or Sonoma) and linked to the rest of rural Mendocino County only by narrow, sinuous roads, Anderson Valley tended to attract pioneering vintners of a countercultural breed—ex-hippies from the Haight, graduates and dropouts from Berkeley, refugees from mainstream culture seeking a path "back to the land". They fit in pretty well with the valley's indigenous wool ranchers and apple farmers, agreeing—as Deborah Cahn, co-owner of Navarro Vineyards, puts it—"that the government should be kept at bay." Some of the newcomers even planted marijuana between their vines, and it is rumored that one well-known winemaker actually made a wine infused with the illegal herb. Bartering was common: Cahn remembers paying the three physicians who delivered her first child with six cases of wine and three lambs. "It was a good deal for us, too," she adds, "since the delivery turned into a C-section."

Owners and vintners alike live modestly in Anderson Valley, often in converted barns and clapboard houses. They store barrels in their garages and basements, and sell their wares from the roadside tasting rooms that earn their bread and butter. They profess to be ill at ease in chic restaurants and at winemaker dinners (though not a few of them have been sighted in such contexts). Cahn touts the region's "passion-based viticulture," adding, "This valley is left over from another generation. We don't want to be so successful that all we have is wineries and retirement homes. We don't want to become Napa-ized." She adds that making "the best wine in the world" isn't her goal. "That's a nonsense concept," she says. "No matter what you do, every wine you make will not be a religious experience. Besides, I'd feel terrible if I made outstanding wine but my employees suffered or my children lacked a healthy environment." Winemaker Fritz Meier puts it another way: "We work with what we have here," he says, "and we don't cheat."

Swiss-born Hans Kobler, founder of Anderson Valley's Lazy Creek Vineyards, was a waiter and sometime maitre d'hotel at Jack's restaurant in San Francisco before he turned to winemaking, and he remembers how patrons had often been reluctant to order white wines, claiming they were too "sour." He'd solved the problem then by serving them Alsatian gewurztraminer, whose typical low acidity and strong flavor made the wine anything but sour—and so he planted four acres of gewurztraminer at Lazy Creek. About the same time, at nearby Navarro, Ted Bennett (Cahn's husband) planted 36 acres of the grape. Before long, the varietal became, in the words of Allan Green, owner of Greenwood Ridge Vineyards, "something of an Anderson Valley trademark." Gewurztraminer thrives in the valley's cool summer nights, obligingly ripens in early September, and often produces a wonderfully botrytised late-harvest version if left to hang until November. Meier, who studied at Germany's prestigious Geisenheim wine school, says that the secret of good gewurztraminer is straightforward: "Pick early, ferment very cold, and avoid oak." This has become the Anderson Valley tradition.

Cool-climate chardonnay and pinot noir make great sparkling wine in France's Champagne region and in other parts of the world, so it is hardly surprising that Anderson Valley's two largest wineries produce sparkling wines. In 1978, John Scharffenberger, a Berkeley graduate with a passion for gardening, a well-educated palate, and some family money, decided to purchase valley grapes as the basis for a fine methode champenoise product. Hot on his heels came the French house of Roederer, which, after researching California's cool climates for the closest match with Reims and Épernay, came up with Anderson Valley. Today, Roederer Estate sparkling wines display an uncanny stylistic similarity to their French siblings, and are regarded by many critics as California's best. The arrival of this large foreign-owned winery—and the subsequent purchase of Scharffenberger by LVMH, owners of Moet et Chandon and other champagne houses—might have been expected to distress the valley's small, individualist vintners, but it has not. Roederer's large facility blends discreetly into a hillside, and the impact of its reputation (and advertising budget) is not lost on other winemakers. "Roederer," says Allan Green, "put Anderson Valley on the map."

Nonsparkling chardonnay in Anderson Valley is made in accordance with the basic new-world protocol: induced malolactic fermentation and substantial time in new oak barrels. But lower sugar levels at harvest mean that the valley's chardonnays emphasize the treble registers of this varietal rather than the bass. Bright fruit, with notes of citrus and apple, is more typical than the tropical fruit character that distinguishes chardonnays from warmer cool climates like those of Carneros and Santa Barbara. Cahn says Anderson Valley chardonnays have "more backbone, more zing, and more acidity." Local winemakers seem ambivalent about the virtues and future of chardonnay, however. Some put "elegant chardonnay" on the list of varietals in which Anderson Valley could specialize, but it doesn't make John Scharffenberger's list. "I think chardonnay needs more heat to develop properly," he says, and there are some who agree, noting that if the weather is too cold, or cold and then hot, it doesn't develop enough flavor.

Despite their obvious successes with white and sparkling wines, what gets Anderson Valley vintners really excited is that nemesis of California winemaking, pinot noir. Some two dozen examples of the wine are made from valley fruit, both by valley wineries and by winemakers from elsewhere who purchase local grapes. Many of these pinot noirs are vineyard-designated, and some are made from tiny yields on plots as small as a single acre. Ted Lemon, founder of Littorai in the Napa Valley, who learned winemaking at the University of Dijon and subsequently made meursault for the respected Burgundian producer Guy Roulot (and later for the French-owned Chateau Woltner in the Napa Valley), made arrangements in 1986 to purchase grapes from a one-acre parcel of pinot noir located on a hilltop 1,600 feet above the town of Boonville—and from another tiny parcel near Philo on the valley floor—offering innovative by-the-acre purchase contracts to ensure that the vines are farmed for quality, not yield.

John Scharffenberger, who is no longer affiliated with his eponymous winery (who went on to make gourmet chocolates), believes that the great hope of the valley might be pinot noir. "I think it will do even better as vineyards expand up the slopes," he suggests, "provided that the vines are properly trellised. It will take ten years to know, but the higher elevations should produce elegant, light-bodied, deep-flavored pinots." Lemon agrees, noting, "pinot noir is the future—though we don't want to lose chardonnays or sparkling wines."

The real issue in Anderson Valley, however, is just plain old development: More vines mean more people, more traffic, and more houses. And the valley is still as passionately antidevelopment as it was when the hippies arrived in the 1960s. Indeed rising land prices and ecologists may combine to deform the valley socially.

It's not clear how much more vineyard land would be planted, though, even if water and development were not hot issues. "By the European standard of an acre here and there," says Hans Kobler, "there is still a lot of room to plant. The more producers, the more they benefit the rest. There is no reason to destroy the valley's culture to expand the business."

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