The maxim “Follow the money” works for good investigative journalism — and for learning about good wine.
When, during the past decade, winery heavies from Napa and Sonoma such as Kendall-Jackson, Schramsberg (as Davies Vineyards), Cliff Lede, Duckhorn (as Goldeneye Winery) and Donum invested in Mendocino County’s remote, heretofore unheralded Anderson Valley, we wine folks took note.
Only a few years ago, very few winemakers or wine drinkers considered Anderson Valley a producer of high-quality wine (except, of course, those few winemakers long there, such as Navarro Vineyards & Winery, Roederer Estate, Handley Cellars and several other under-the-radar wineries.)
Well, the money’s been spent, and the word is out on the street that Anderson Valley is a primo place for pinot noir, chardonnay and other cool-climate grapes.
Running 15 miles northwest from the town of Boonville to its terminus at the town of Navarro, a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, the Anderson Valley is 2,244 acres and is home to 88 individual vineyard plots and 49 winemaking operations.
“What I think makes the place ideal for California,” says Ryan Hodgins, winemaker at FEL Wines, “is the lateness of the growing season.”
Hodgins explains that “nine out of a dozen years in California, we get a significant heat event around Labor Day weekend.” For winemaking, that means the wine grapes may be just sufficiently ripe to make good wine, but that any significant heat (“100 degrees isn’t unusual,” Hodgins says) dries out and shrivels the grapes’ skins.
“Pinot noir could be susceptible to moisture loss for three full days,” Hodgins says, “and that makes for overblown wine.”
But the grapes in Anderson Valley are three weeks behind grapes from most other California winemaking districts and so, even if there is a heat event, the vines can easily and quickly recuperate, and the grapes will continue ripening steadily.
“We can have hot days,” says Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, winemaker at Maggy Hawk, “but there’s also a 40- to 50-degree drop (in temperature) at night. So we get concentrated fruit on top of elegant tannin structure, power and elegance at the same time. It’s rare to get both in pinot noir.”
Temperature variance is a characteristic of Anderson Valley’s terroir makeup, too, and matters to how its many wines turn out.
“The valley is 15 miles long,” says Hodgins, “and for every mile from Boonville to Navarro, you lose 1 degree in temperature. So when it’s 85 in Boonville, it’s 70 in Navarro.”
What that means, coupled with differing soil types in its vineyards, is that Anderson Valley pinot noirs will sport certain defining characteristics depending on where they’re grown in the valley.
“Boonville makes for precocious, fruit-forward pinot,” Hodgins says. “Five miles down the road in Philo, the pinot is more savory, with darker fruit. All the way up at the Deep End (Anderson Valley talk for that end of the valley closest to the Pacific), the pinot is its most herbaceous, spicy, almost tobacco-y.”
Here are some highly recommended Anderson Valley pinot noirs grouped by their place of origin along the valley itself.
From around Boonville
2012 Baxter, Langley Vineyard: Very Burgundian in style; medium bodied, with both red and blue fruit character; lively, orange-y tang to finish. $50
2012 Foursight, Charles Vineyard: Best word for it is juicy; plush texture; gets saliva running; liquid cherries. $50