Rustic getaway in Mendocino County
The bucolic vineyards, sheep ranches and apple orchards of Anderson Valley often race by in a blur as drivers navigate Highway 128 on their way to the Mendocino coast.
But as more wineries plant grapes in the valley's cool climate and new restaurants open their doors, the rural valley is gaining a reputation as a destination.
"We're getting a lot of day-trippers from Sonoma (County)," said Jim Roberts, owner of The Madrones in Philo. "I had guests check in today who said, 'We've passed through so many times. ... We just wanted to stay this time.'"
The Madrones — a complex that encompasses four guest rooms, four wine tasting rooms, a gift shop and the new wood-fire restaurant Stone & Embers — is located in what's known as the "deep end of the valley," a prime grape-growing region for cool-climate varietals such as pinot noir and gewurztraminer.
According to Roberts, winemakers in Mendocino County tend to be independent-minded. Far from the pressures of Sonoma or Napa counties, they are free to follow the fruit and the climate, resulting in unique wines. And the ambiance is decidedly down-to-earth.
"Travelers are searching for a region that's not quite developed and still feels rural," he said. "You can meet the winemakers, and tasting fees range from nothing to $5."
At old favorites like Roederer Estate, Navarro and Husch wineries in Philo, you can sip delicious sparklers, pinot noirs and chardonnays while soaking in the views and the rustic charm. But more adventurous types may want to seek out under-the-radar, boutique wineries, such as Toulouse Vineyards, Balo Vineyards and Esterlina Vineyards in Philo.
If wine is not your thing, there are lots of other things to do, including beer tasting. Just outside of Boonville on Highways 253 and 128, the Anderson Valley Brewing Company offers two daily tours plus an 18-hole disc golf course.
"We've got 30 acres of land," said Rebecca Toohey, tasting room manager at the brewery. "And some real enthusiasts on the staff."
Tours start in the hops field, then wend their way through the brewhouse and the cellar. Afterward, you can taste a few of the 20 beers on tap, including small-batch brews not found anywhere else.
Outdoorsy types can head to Hendy Woods State Park for a hike among the old-growth coast redwoods or a dip in the river. On the way, make a pit stop at The Apple Farm, a renowned cooking school and orchard with a farmstand that sells fresh fruit, jams and chutneys. The farm also rents its three cabins and guest room on select weekends.
If you're staying the night in Anderson Valley, consider taking a day-trip to the coast. From Hendy Woods, keep driving on the Greenwood Philo Road to Elk, a stunning hamlet perched over steep, coastal cliffs.
For breakfast, Queenies Roadhouse Cafe in Elk is an institution, drawing fans from miles away. The former livery stable will warm you up with hot coffee, hearty fare and a cozy woodstove in the corner.
After fueling up, head up to the town of Mendocino for some shopping and lunch at Cafe Beaujolais.
Sporty types can rent a bike or an outrigger canoe at Catch A Canoe and Bicycles Too at the Stanford Inn, a dog-friendly eco-resort on Big River. The outrigger canoes, built of redwood by Bob Cummings of Potter Valley, are stable and efficient vessels.
"You can navigate Big River for up to eight miles," said Rick Hemmings, manager of Catch a Canoe and Bicycles Too. "It's a tidal estuary. ... We recommend calling ahead to find out the best time to arrive, based on the wind and the tide."
If you're looking for dinner at the coast, The Stanford Inn offers high-end vegan fare, and Little River Inn and Wild Fish restaurants in Little River lure in fresh-seafood lovers.
But why not head back to the Anderson Valley to try one of its new eateries? Acquarelle Cafe and Wine Bar in Boonville (the former Horn of Zeest cafe) offers seasonal, small plates, and Coq Au Vin in Philo (the former Floodgate Cafe) serves country French fare.
Coq Au Vin chef/owner Candis Buchanan, who grew up in Willits, opened the bistro earlier this month with her French in-laws.
"To me, it's a little piece of heaven," she said of the valley. "To have the redwoods and go to the ocean, or go sit and look over the valley and have champagne. ... It's perfect."
You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or email@example.com.