At Standish Wine Company, sample Pinot paired with cheese inside a historic apple-dryer building that conjures up the valley's rural past.
The Philo Greenwood Bridge in Philo CA is a world unto itself. Beneath it is the Navarro River where locals hang out; on one side is Hendy Woods State Park for hiking and on the other is the Philo Apple Farm with its farmstand and lovely gardens.
A WINE COUNTRY UNLIKE ANY OTHER
Most people, even otherwise well-traveled Northern Californians, would be hard-pressed to tell you where the Anderson Valley is. For the record, it's about 120 miles north of San Francisco, and about 40 miles southeast of Mendocino. But some of the wines coming out of the area have, in the last 10 to 15 years, become household names: Navarro Vineyards, Handley Cellars, Husch Vineyards, Roederer Estate. Cooled by the fog that rolls in from the ocean, the valley is ideal for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and sparklers made out of them, as well as the increasingly appreciated cool-weather whites: Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Gris.
The excellent wine we consistently find here is not the only thing that keeps my husband and me coming back to this valley. An even more compelling draw is what we can't find here: namely, Versailles-style villas, fancy resorts, traffic, standard tasting fees, lines. From State 128, which snakes its way circuitously from Cloverdale out to the Mendocino coast like a zipper slicing the gently rolling hills in half, all you see are miles and miles of trees draped in fall color this month. They're interrupted only by tiny towns such as Boonville and a couple of other crossroads so small that they don't even register as towns.
There's only one road, one hotel, one excellent restaurant (and a couple of more casual eateries), a growing number of wineries, a state park with about 8 miles of hiking trails, and not much else to do besides admire the wine, the food, and the scenery. As a result, the valley feels manageable, approachable, and somehow a lot more authentic than other wine countries in California.
That authenticity stems in part from the back-to-the-land culture that thrives in this valley, where everyone we meet seems to be raising their own cows, sheep, and chickens. Fresh eggs, in fact, become the unifying theme of our three-day trip. We find them under the chickens at Lazy Creek, sold at the Boont Berry Farm in Boonville, and served at each place we eat: the Boonville General Store ― where the food is so good that we return not only for every breakfast but also every lunch ― and the Boonville Hotel, where Johnny Schmitt, as chef-proprietor, serves simple, honest, outstanding food.
The Schmitt family is one of the main reasons the Anderson Valley has retained its integrity in an age when every other wine region seems to morph into the same predictable monoculture.
In addition to running the Boonville Hotel, Schmitt has committed himself to reinvigorating the inevitable development of Boonville. He's just opened a complex of artist studios across the street from his hotel to add to what he considers the already thriving alternative cultural scene in the valley. He hopes these "off-street studios" will encourage drivers to stop and linger.
"What I don't want is for people to come here for a monoculture ― for just winery and B&B hopping," Schmitt says. "I want them to come for the apples, the art community, the river, the natural beauty. Napa is like a honeymoon vacation; people don't bring their kids. Here I hope people bring their kids, take them to the river and the woods, let them run around."
Which is exactly what we do. After visiting the chickens at Lazy Creek, we hit Standish Wine Company, where the tasting room is an old apple dryer set high up in the trees like a fort. Here a tiny kitten named Bluebell leaps and skids around the kids while my husband and I pair aged goat cheese with Pinot Noir. At Hendy Woods State Park, we walk along sorrel-lined trails, look up at towering trees, and visit the hermit hut, where a recluse really did live for 20 years as recently as the 1980s. Back outside the park, in Philo, we take off our shoes and wade in the river that serves as the locals' swim hole in summer. Then we sit on the banks, watching the occasional car rumble across the Philo Greenwood Bridge above.