The vintners of the Anderson Valley face a real dilemma.
For decades, the vineyards arrayed along the valley’s sweeping green hills served as little more than scenery for passing motorists. Anderson Valley lies between Highway 101 and the North Coast, and few people slowed down as they traversed inland Mendocino County, let alone took the time to sample the wines.
That began to change in the 1990s as the valley – like so many other previously unsung California grape-growing regions – developed its own appellation and audience. Today, while cars still buzz through on Highway 128, the valley is fast becoming a destination.
And therein lies the predicament.
Speak to the vintners of the Anderson Valley – and its wineries are by and large friendly, family-run operations – and they will tell you they welcome the growing interest. With one repeated proviso:
“We don’t want to be another Napa.”
At first blush, there seems little chance of that. After all, the Anderson Valley lies more than an hour north of Santa Rosa, still considered the Bay Area’s northernmost outpost. It lacks both the reputation and proximity that turned Napa into a wine-world Disneyland.
The winemakers’ fears reflect the Faustian bargain that accompanies tourism. Anderson Valley residents want the economic advantages of a thriving wine industry while preserving the quality of life that first drew them to the area.
It’s a tricky balancing act, one the valley’s population will grapple with for years to come. In the interim, Anderson Valley remains an overlooked gem among California wine regions, one marked by quaint, uncrowded tasting rooms; personal service, often from the vintners themselves; no or minimal tasting charges; and a wide variety of excellent vintages. All that in a locale as lovely as any in the Golden State.
The Anderson Valley experience actually begins in the Yorkville Highlands, the top-of-the-hill plateau that travelers encounter after leaving Highway 101 at Cloverdale. Yorkville is the first of the four towns that stretched along 128, each of them small and picturesque.
Follow Highway 128 west, and it takes you into the valley proper. At the crossroads of Highway 253 toward Ukiah lies Boonville, at 1,000 population the region’s largest town. Its fairgrounds draw thousands each year for the Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show; the Boonville Hotel and Restaurant is a favorite destination.
Boonville is known in California history for Boontling, a private language that local sheep ranchers and apple farmers created in the 19th century.
Vestiges of Boontling remain, most notably as part of the lore and marketing surrounding Anderson Valley Brewing Co., whose brewery is based nearby. There’s no brewpub in town in the strictest sense, although you can taste Anderson Valley’s best beers at Boonville’s Buckhorn Saloon.
Philo is Boonville’s sister city, just five miles west. It doesn’t measure up to Boonville in population but there is still plenty to do.
From there, check out Philo. The wineries west of Philo fall into two categories, remote and rustic, or modern and convenient. All pour wines that, like the rest of the Anderson Valley’s, are becoming more familiar to California palettes. For Northern Californians, however, an Anderson Valley weekend is about more than just wine tasting. It also offers
an opportunity to explore yet another excellent but little-known wine region.
How long the valley will remain overlooked is another matter.
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