Saturday, December 11, 2010

“You Gotta Want The Wine” – Mendocino, pt. 1

The Sweet Partner in Crime’s well-timed conference in San Francisco gave me the perfect opportunity to take a couple of days off, zoom westward, and whisk her away up US 101 North. We plowed past the familiar stops in Napa and Sonoma to drop anchor in Cloverdale, California, gateway to Mendocino County.

Mendocino County is just north of Sonoma County. Cloverdale, about 90 miles north of San Francisco, is actually just on the Sonoma side of the county line.

We chose Cloverdale because it was the vertex of the two major roads – US 101 and CA 128 – heading up into Mendocino County wine country. The well-known 101 goes up along the Russian River towards Potter Valley and Redwood Valley. CA 128 snakes upwards along Dry Creek from Cloverdale towards Boonville and into Anderson Valley before ambling over to the Pacific Coast Highway.

We hitched the wagon at Vintage Towers, a Queen Anne B&B tucked away in a neighborhood a couple of blocks from the main street. It had everything you’d want…great interior, delicious breakfast prepared by Mary Stuart while her husband Don entertained, great spaces to relax, and necessary amenities. By the last, I mean that we were able to get a good enough wi-fi signal to watch the Duke-Colgate game on ESPN3 after we got there.

After we got settled and watched the game, we walked a couple of blocks to Piacére for dinner, a local Italian place. The owner/chef is Hispanic, but he has a serious flair for La Dolce Vita. We started with the most enormous barbecued oysters on the half shell we’d ever seen, topped with diced garlic, clams, parsley, olive oil, and finished with roe. The SPinC had veal & prawns in a lemon butter sauce and I had a “seafood of all sorts” pasta in a tomato-basil sauce. We washed this down with a bottle of Chianti. Mindblowingly good.

We decided to take the Anderson Valley “fork” on our first day. Empowered by an absolutely delicious breakfast at Vintage Towers, we packed up the rental car and headed northward. Our innkeeper made an offhand reference to 128 as “Mario Andretti Highway.” I’ve driven lots of curvy roads before. After all, I cut my driving teeth whipping a 1969 Peugeot 404 around the hollers of Eastern Kentucky. I figured that this would be no big deal.

I discovered that our new friend wasn’t kidding. If you like switchbacks, this is the road for you. Narrow, twisty, speed limit of 25 that’s not a joke. That sort of thing. We forged on, though, buoyed by the promise of scrumptious pinot noir. After about 35 minutes of winding through gorgeous scenery, Anderson Valley opened up before us.

The overall vibe of Mendocino, and Anderson Valley in particular, is very different from Napa and Sonoma. Napa has become, for the most part, an overpriced tourist trap. As Napa wines, as good as they can be, became more and more overpriced, it became the glamour region. Sonoma prided itself on being “not Napa.” They cultivated a laid back image, which made it very popular with wine lovers who wanted to avoid busses of bachelorette parties doing wine shots. But with success and increased visibility comes the need to live up to one’s press clippings. Sonoma seems to be shading from “laid back” into “hipster” territory. Too cool for school in many ways.

Mendocino, and Anderson Valley in particular, is geographically buffered from casual wine tourists. It’s a little too far from San Francisco for an easy drive – especially since you have to go through Napa and Sonoma to get there, so most people stop short. Once people get to Cloverdale, CA 128 can be a daunting trip, so the folks who make the trip really want to be there. The tasting rooms, as a result – at least on this weekend, were less crowded and we were able to spend more time chatting with folks and relaxing over our tastings. The majority of the wineries we visited used “organic” productions – certainly in process if not in certification.

Our first stop was Foursight Wines, a small operation run by the Charles family. Turns out that their grapes are the “Charles Vineyard” grapes from Papapietro Perry’s pinot noir – one of my faves. We spent quite awhile talking to Kristy Charles, who had come home after working in the world of public relations to work in the family business, bringing her husband along with her. They take their name from the number of generations that their family’s worked that plot of land. “Welcome to our dream,” they say. The low-yield, handpicked wines, fermented with wild yeast instead of cultured strains were an absolute delight. The highlights for us were the “Zero New Oak Pinot,” an elegant, meticulously balanced pinot noir and their Sauvignon Blanc, which was bright, lovely, and lean – very much along the style of a good white Bordeaux.

We spent quite a bit of time at Toulouse Vineyards working our way through their solid range of selections. We met the winemaker, Vern, just outside the door and had a friendly chat with him in the gathering drizzle of this gray day. Toulouse focuses on pinot noir with a few other wines with grapes sources from elsewhere. Their pinots were a more fruit-forward with a little more pepper. Their estate pinot (my note says “exquisite!”) was a glass of velvet with a finish of crème brulee. We had a chance to taste the unfermented pressing that went into the 2008 pinot. 2008 was a rough year for many winemakers in Anderson Valley because of the wildfires. The smokiness certainly comes through in the juice. Many people will turn away from that vintage – I would recommend that you give it a try. It gives an interesting twist.

Another highlight was Roederer Estates, the American production from Louis Roederer, the Champagne house that produces Cristal. We were tended to by Shyla and Pat in the tasting room. (It was Pat’s first day, and she did really well). Roederer Estate’s sparkling wines are some of the best values out there for “midpriced” sparklers. At Roederer, I learned that there’s cache in doing 1.5 liter bottlings of vintage bubbly over the normal sized bottle. The larger bottles carbonate more slowly, yielding a smoother flavor when tasted side by side. That said, of the wines poured, I preferred the 750 ml versions. I liked the bit of sharpness. Their L’Ermitage vintage bubbly was spectacular. Creamy, complex, and luxurious. They also were tasting some still wines, and their still chardonnay was a bargain for a high quality wine.

We made a stop at Standish Winery, which was founded by a direct descendent of Miles Standish (quite a path from Puritan to Premier Cru, no?) The 2007 Bosc Block Pinot Noir was superb – lots of fruit and menthol with plenty of Burgundian-style earth and chocolate to finish. More interesting was Michelle, our tastress, who had moved to the woods of Mendocino County from Columbus, Ohio. She left woodworking school to work in the tasting room.

Another winner was Drew Winery. The tasting room is in what appears to be an opulent, somewhat out of place Spanish villa in Philo. Turned out that the villa was once an interior design firm. The tasting room itself was very understated, as were the lovely, quietly fruity viognier and pinot noirs. However, for me, their 2007 Valenti Vineyard Syrah was an absolute rockstar. Subtle, peppery, and finely balanced, it’s simply a fantastic wine.

Our last stop of the day was Londer Vineyards. Londer Vineyards produces pinots in the $30-70 range and their tasting room is attached to a swanky art gallery. We pulled in there just as a heavy rainstorm was getting cranked up. There we met Joe Webb, one of Londer’s winemakers and the husband of Kristy Charles from Foursight (where Joe also moonlights). He ran us through their offerings. They had a very solid gewürztraminer and some really fantastic pinot. Their “Anderson Valley” pinot, made from grapes chosen from across the county, was the best value we found on the trip. Normally $30, they were selling it half-off by the case on the day we were there. We stocked up.

When we finished at Londer, rain was falling in literal sheets. I gripped the steering wheel hard and slowly crept down the side of the unlit mountain, trying my best to ignore the fact that there was no guardrail. Freeway driving was much easier. We’d had reservations that night at the restaurant in the Boonville Hotel, but we cancelled them, thinking discretion was the better part of valor. We ended up at Tian Yuen, a Vietnamese noodle place in Cloverdale that ended up being very, very yummy. A quick drive from there back to Vintage Towers and we were ready for some rest. After all, we had another full day coming up…

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