Off the Beaten Path: Mendocino Wine Country

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About 120 miles north of San Francisco, dispersed between the towering Redwoods and rugged Pacific coastline, are scores of vineyards belonging to Mendocino Wine Country. This region may be lesser-known than it’s southern grape growing neighbors, but the wines Mendocino puts forth can certainly rival Napa and Sonoma.

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Vineyards span across several narrow valleys, including Anderson Valley, one of North America’s top Pinot Noir growing regions. Only a few miles from the coast, the vineyards of Anderson Valley benefit from a ocean-cooled climate. Summer fog maintains mild daytime temperatures creating the perfect haven for the finicky grape, Pinot Noir.

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One Pinot Noir house that has built a fine reputation for itself is Goldeneye, Duckhorn Wine Company’s premiere Pinot producer. Goldeneye was founded in the 1990’s when Anderson Valley was in the vanguard of Pinot Noir production. Today, it its recognized for its innovative winemaking approach and commitment to sustainable practices. Goldeneye, along with fellow regional wineries, are championing the organic wine movement. Indeed, Mendocino Wine Country has the most acreage of certified organic vineyards in the country.

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This boutique winery is quite dissimilar from its sister wineries in Napa Valley, offering a quaint atmosphere on a casual Sunday in December. Cozying up next to a sunny window, five Pinot Noirs and one Chardonnay were poured out in front of me. Each glass sat on a card with its namesake and was ordered from lightest to fullest in body. My favorite sip was of the 2014 Narrows Vineyard Pinot Noir, coming from marine-influenced vineyard sites in the northernmost tip of Anderson Valley.

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Lucky for this bubbles-loving girl, Goldeneye’s Sparkling Brut Rosé had just returned in stock the day of my visit. Their bottles were extra photogenic for the holidays, decked out in red, white, and gold glitter. I was sad to hear the bottles do not come with glitter, but it didn’t keep me from buying some wine for my personal collection.

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Anderson Valley has also earned acclaim for its production of Alsatian varietal wines such as Gewürztraminer and Riesling. For some of the region’s finest examples of these wines, I next visited Navarro Vineyards. Oozing with bucolic charm, this family-owned winery has been in business since 1974 and continues in its winemaking tradition generation after generation.

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The wine tastings are complimentary and hosted around a horseshoe shaped bar where guests can circle the wines they wish to sample on a menu at will. I started with drier white wines before moving on to their late harvest selections. I enjoyed their Sauvignon Blanc and late harvest Riesling the most and opted for a bottle of each. The prices are moderately priced and refreshing to see after wine tasting in Napa Valley so frequently. It reminded me of the Finger Lakes in New York State – very “home-towny” and welcoming.

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Unsurprisingly, sparkling wine has its place in Anderson Valley as well. The relatively cool climate shaped by summer breezes and morning fog, sets the stage for the production of spectacular sparkling wines. Champagne House, Louis Roederer, recognized the region’s grape growing potential in the 1980’s which led to the creation of its Anderson Valley estate. Several methode champenoise sparkling houses have since joined the bubbles party.

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Despite coming from a 200 year old French lineage, Roederer Estate has a rather rustic appearance with distressed wood paneling and modest landscaping. But don’t let looks deceive you. Their wine tasting includes seven wines, five sparkling and two still wines, each one transporting me back to Champagne, France.

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Their tasting is different in that they pour standard bottles next to magnums to compare how the wine ages differently in larger bottle formats – an experience I’ve never had before. The winner for me was their Sparkling Brut Rosé (sensing a pattern?) This Rosé is a multi vintage sparkling wine made from a blend of both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay estate-grown grapes. It is delicate and smooth with dominating notes of ripe raspberry on the nose and palate.

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After exploring the many wine styles of Anderson Valley, we drove farther north to get a dose of mother nature. The redwoods swallowed the waning afternoon sunlight as we drove by headlight on the curving road. Patches of sun prodded through the monumental trees reminding us that it was still daytime beyond the forest.

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Eventually the tree line ended, revealing an untouched coastline that was shockingly mild for December. Wild waves crashed into the bluffs, spraying white foam into the wind. My boyfriend and I hopped out to explore by foot when we reached Sea Glass Beach in Fort Bragg. Echoing its name, Sea Glass Beach is a trove of treasure but the treasure is not easy to find.

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We sat along the cliff to watch the sun dip down. It was the end of another wonderful day in Northern California Wine Country. I felt truly lucky to have a place like this so close to my home in Napa. What could be better than vineyards, forests, and beaches all within a day’s drive away? I hope 2018 brings many more of these small but fruitful adventures!

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