Enjoy A Road Less Traveled In Mendocino County
By Garry Scholz
When I toured some of the wineries of Mendocino County not long ago, I timed the drive. From the moment I left the car rental lot at San Francisco Airport until I turned off the freeway in Mendocino County, it was two hours flat. I was pleasantly surprised, yet the best surprise still awaited me: the incredible wines of this beautiful region.
Mendocino County is bisected east/west by the Anderson Valley which funnels cool, moist air from the Pacific Ocean into the valley at night. This fact—combined with warm, sunny days— means the valley is ideal for world class production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Not only are many outstanding varietal wines made from these grapes, but you’ll also encounter outstanding Champagne-style sparkling wines as well. In fact, there’s a direct link between a famous French Champagne producer and Mendocino County which I’ll detail a bit later.
The following handful of wineries are on my recommended list to visit if you’re pressed for time, but there are so many others that also offer a very good experience. You’ll have a memorable experience exploring on your own. Plan your visit for two or three days to really explore this unique wine region.
(Note: go to www.mendowine.com for an excellent map to use with the following narrative.)
Anderson Valley (Highway 128)
Roederer Estate/Scharffenberger Cellars (www.roedererestate.com)
Roederer Estate was founded in 1982 by the world-renown Champagne producer, Louis Roederer and today includes Scharffenberger Cellars as a sister winery. Like its French counterpart, Roederer Estates uses Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (all estate grown) to make several outstanding sparkling wines.
In an elegant tasting room, you can sample the two flagship sparkling wines: Brut and Brut Rosé. They are blends of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the Pinot usually being the greater percentage.
Two other exceptional sparkling wines available for tasting are the L’Ermitage Brut and L’Ermitage Rosé, produced only from the very best lots in the vineyards in exceptional years.
Roederer also offers outstanding Pinot Noir and Chardonnay still wines.
If you have time, you might also consider visiting Scharffenberger Cellars, just down the road, which offers a greater selection of styles of sparkling wine, including Blanc de Blanc (entirely Chardonnay), Extra Dry (slightly sweet), and Crémant (non-Champagne style).
The winery also offers Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah still wines as well.
Brutocao Cellars (www.brutocaocellars.com)
Brutocao is a winery with an Italian flair and two tasting rooms. One is located in the Anderson Valley in a rural setting. The other is a well stocked facility in the town of Hopland and includes a very nice restaurant attached to it. Either tasting room will give you a sampling of the winery’s outstanding wines.
In addition to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Brutocao also produces Dolchetto, Merlot, Primitivo/Zinfandel,
Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
I especially liked the Chardonnay, Reserve Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley vineyards), and Zinfandel (Hopland Ranches vineyard).
If you have the time, stop in first at the winery's tasting room (show above), then go to the Hopland tasting room for dinner (or lunch the following day).
Navarro Vineyards (www.navarrowine.com)
Navarro is a great place to enjoy a picnic lunch because of a very pleasant patio set away from the tasting room that’s complete with a small bubbling fountain. There’s also a spacious deck with tables and chairs right outside the tasting room.
Inside, you’ll find a pleasant and cozy setting in which to sample a number of white wines as well as the flagship Pinots.
Among its red wines, Navarro makes a unique Pinot Noir called Méthode a l’Ancienne, meaning ‘traditional method.’ This rich, complex, very drinkable Pinot comes in two versions, filtered and unfiltered, and it’s fascinating to compare the subtle differences between the two.
Husch Vineyards (www.huschvineyards.com)
Husch is a small, family owned winery that makes wines of exceptional quality. The cozy, rustic tasting room gives you the feeling of yester-year when almost all wineries were small, family operations. One of the quaint things about the place when I visited was seeing sheep grazing in the nearby vineyard.
Husch produces a wide variety of wines, including (to my pleasant surprise) a New Zealand style Sauvignon Blanc. There were six other whites, both blends and varietals, that I sampled and enjoyed.
It was the Pinots, however, that knocked my socks off. Their Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and Reserve Pinot Noir are both wonderful on the palate, having a wondeful mix of red and dark fruit, moderate tannins, and a hint of pepperiness. In fact, I thought the Reserve was a truly exceptional wine.
In addition to these Pinots, Husch makes other Pinots, as well as very good Old Vine Zinfandel, Syrah, and Cabernet.
Toulouse Vineyards (www.toulousevineyards.com)
If you have time, stop in at Toulouse Vineyards, truly a small, family operation that puts you right in the barrel room for tasting. The biggest reason to stop here is that the folks at Toulouse not only make very good Pinot Noir, but they also produce a very special one you won‘t find anywhere else. It’s called ‘The Drippings’ and is made from the wine left in the lees.
Let me explain. The lees are the sediment on the bottom of a wine barrel as all kinds of stuff settles out as the wine ferments and/or ages. At periodic intervals, wine is siphoned off from the barrels in the winery (this is called racking), leaving the lees behind.
However, instead of discarding this stuff (which is saturated with wine), Toulouse saves it and puts it all in one barrel and ages it for another year. Then, they carefully rack off this extraordinary wine and bottle it. It’s incredibly rich, smoky, complex – let’s just say it’s a very, very special treat.
(Photo at right shows hand corking a large format bottle.)
Greater Ukiah Area (Highway 101 Corridor)
Many wineries and tasting rooms are located within a short driving distance of Ukiah, both north and south of the city.
Barra of Mendocino (www.barraofmendocino.com)
Starting north of Ukiah, stop in at Barra which has a spacious and classy tasting room built in the shape of an inverted Champagne flute. There are two labels available: Barra and Girasole. Both offer quality wines.
Although great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are offered, Barra also offer others varietals like Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Cab, and Petit Sirah.
In fact, the Mendocino Valley that Highway 101 runs through offers growing conditions suitable for Petite Sirah, so you’ll find this varietal offered at many of the wineries in the area. Take advantage of this unusual opportunity to sample this unique grape.
(Photo at left shows the inside of Barra's gorgeaous tasting room. Notice that the ceiling sweeps upward and inward. It eventually reaches an apex so that, in fact, the entire room resembles an upside down Champagne flute.)
Parducci also offers two labels: Parducci, and a boutique label called Paul Dolan (named after the winemaker). Both labels offer wines with vibrancy and outstanding fruit.
The product line at Parducci is extensive and includes many white varietals as well as red. Here again, you can sample Petite Sirah which, in my opinion, is among the best that can be found anywhere.
(Tip: if you spit like I do instead of swallowing your tasting pours, the staff is much more likely to allow you to sample more wines than most customers get to. The menu of wines made at this winery is very extensive and you can spend an hour or more sampling them.)
Jaxson Keys (www.jaxsonkeys.com)
This winery is south of Ukiah and offers a tasting room in a large farmhouse. Like Parducci, Jaxson Keys offers an extensive product list of many white and red wines. Unlike other wineries in Mendocino County, however, Jaxson Keys also distills spirits, so they offer brandy and Port as well, although, unfortunately, the brandy cannot be tasted because of ABC laws.
If you enjoy Sauvignon Blancs that aren’t as tart and grassy as, say, New Zealand Sau Blancs, then you’ll like the ones at Jaxson Keys. Of the reds, I really enjoyed the various Zinfandels (Mae’s Block in particular), and the Syrahs were excellent as well.
Of the Cabs, I enjoyed the Redwood Valley (Peterson Vineyard) the best. It’s a nice big, bold red that can stand up to any steak. It can easily be aged for 5-10 years.
Jeriko Estate (www.jeriko.us)
The Jeriko Estate winery encompasses a number of eye-catching buildings with red tile roofs to welcome you as you drive in. The tasting room is cozy and comforting, and the wines quite good. For the whites, I enjoyed both the Estate Chardonnay (not overly oaky) and the Semillon.
In regard to the reds, I liked both the Estate Pinot Noir and the big, bold Sangiovese. In fact, the Sangiovese that was one of the best American versions I have tasted.
But my favorite red was the Redwood Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a big wine the way a Cab is supposed to be: lots of lush dark fruit notes and strong tannins. This is a wine with backbone and can certainly be laid down to age for 5-10 years and it’ll still be prime for drinking.
By Garry Scholz
Carneros: The Best of Napa & Sonoma
By Garry Scholz
At the southern end of both Napa and Sonoma Counties, and not far from San Francisco, lies the Carneros wine region. Known officially as Los Carneros, it is a legal AVA (American Viticultural Area) that overlaps both counties and includes approximately three dozen wineries and tasting rooms.
This delightful wine district specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which means it’s also ideal for Champagne-style sparkling wines and, indeed, you’ll find some of the best in the world here.
If you have just one day, here’s how to spend it in Carneros:
Domaine Carneros (www.domianecarneros.com)
This is one of the most stunning winery buildings you’ll ever see, being modeled on a spectacular French chateau. Start your day here at 10 a.m. when the tasting room opens and before the crowd builds.
Order a small plate and enjoy it while sampling a flight of wines. Personally, I like the Champagne-style sparkling wines best, but the Pinot Noir is excellent as well. If the weather is nice, skip the tables in the tasting room and choose one on the patio instead.
If an alien planet had a winery, then Artesa would be it. Photogenic fountains, pools, and modern art sculptures transport you to Planet Artesa, a winery that’s also an earthen pyramid. Inside, the modernistic theme is continued in the tasting room which borders a lovely reflecting pool.
Artesa offers excellent Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and sparkling wine. Relax at a table, preferably on the veranda, and enjoy the spectacular overview of the valley spread out before you.
Gloria Ferrer (www.gloriaferrer.com)
At this point in your wine odyssey, it’s timee to enjoy a late lunch, so stop in at nearby Gloria Ferrer, makers of outstanding Champagne-style sparkling wines. Sample the flight of the day at the tasting bar, then purchase a glass to enjoy with lunch. The winery offers sandwiches to take out on the stone veranda to enjoy with your wine. Relax and savor the view.
For a total change of pace, stop in at nearby Jacuzzi winery for an Italian experience. Jacuzzi offers two tasting rooms: one for wine and one for a variety of flavored olive oils. Start with the oils first and choose one to use at your next dinner party.
Next, amble over to the other tasting room and sample a wide range of Italian-style wines made from Italian grape varieties grown locally. Purchase a glass and enjoy it in the spacious stone courtyard. In the summer there is often live music here. Before leaving, go up into the bell tower and marvel at the view of the vineyards (sheep often can be seen grazing the grass between rows of vines).
Domaine Chandon (www.chandon.com)
Another maker of fine Champagne-style wines, Domaine Chandon offers tasting of flights at a table in their elegant tasting room. Afterwards, stay for dinner in the outstanding Étoile Restaurant, open from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Reservations are recommended and can be made on the winery’s web site).
The World Class Wines of Walla Walla
By Garry Scholz
alla Walla, Washington, is one of the fastest growing wine regions in the United States. Twenty years ago, there were only a handful of wineries; today, there are over 150. And for good reason, too, because truly exceptional wines are being produced and wine enthusiasts are discovering them.
You’ll find excellent white varietals such as Semillon, Viognier, Riesling, and Chardonnay. For reds, the area is best known for outstanding Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah, as well as red blends.
The following five wineries are on my must visit list, but there are so many others that also offer a good experience combined with outstanding wine. You’ll have a memorable experience exploring on your own. Plan your visit for two or three days to really sample this unique wine region.
Northstar Winery (www.northstarmerlot.com)
Northstar is located a short drive south of Walla Walla and has a really neat half mile drive through vineyards to get to the winery building. The facility is architecturally pleasing, being chic and modern in style. Sited on top of a hill, the view is pleasingly pastoral. There’s a very nice, spacious patio outside where you can relax and enjoy a picnic, or order lunch from a server. (Northstar is one of the few wineries in Walla Walla that serves food.)
Northstar offers a range of wines, but I like the elegant, honey-colored Sémillon best for white, and their awesome Merlots for red. In fact, in my opinion, Northstar is one of the best wineries anywhere for truly great Merlot. There are several in the product line and, although somewhat different from each other, they all offer rounded, supple tannins balanced with wonderful red berry fruit flavors.
Basel Cellars (www.baselcellars.com)
My-oh-my, what a magnificent place this is! It would have been my favorite winery except that I liked the view at Northstar better.
Also located south of town, Basel Cellars is a large complex consisting of a number of buildings built in the European style with extensive use of wood and castle-like features. The tasting room is spacious and beautifully decorated, and there’s a large, lovely outside patio for lingering and sipping.
As for the wines, I enjoyed the heavenly, complex Chardonnay and the robust, bold Syrah best. The product line is extensive, though, and they’re all good, so take your time tasting and choose your own favorites.
Saviah Cellars (www.saviahcellars.com)
Not far away is Saviah Cellars, a boutique winery with truly artisanal wines. The facilities here are much more basic, but the wines are worth the stop.
For a white wine, I particularly enjoyed the Star Meadows white blend with its refreshing crispness and lots of citrus notes. For red, I really liked the Une Vallée blend with its luscious black cherry taste and balanced tannins.
Don’t overlook a red blend that’s mostly Merlot called ‘The Jack.’ Not only is it quite good, but the label is a replica of a playing card featuring, naturally, a jack of spades.
L’Ecole No 41 (www.lecole.com)
Out west of town a few miles is a truly unique winery. It’s actually a real school building originally built in 1915 and designated Number 41. The winery purchased the building once it was no longer in use as a school and renovated it. The name, L’Ecole, is French for ‘school.’
If you’re of the older generation, you’ll relate quite well to the wooden interior with its exceptional wide staircases and high casement windows. (Just like the schoolhouses of your youth.) The former library and an adjoining classroom were combined into one large area for the tasting room. The tasting bar is topped with a real green chalkboard and visitors are given chalk so they can write notes on it.
L’Ecole is well known for their white wines and their Syrah, but they are best known for two Bordeaux style blends: Perigee and Apogee. The power of these wines derives from the fact that the owners are also part owners of one of Walla Walla’s highest quality and oldest vineyards – Seven Hills.
Okay, I fudged a little; there are actually six wineries in this tour. Just northeast of Walla Walla is the airport district with many boutique wineries. You won’t find large estate wineries here; this is strictly basic industrial business park chic.
However, of all the wineries, there are two especially worth visiting and they’re just a stone’s throw from each other.
Owner and winemaker Doug Simmons of Eleganté Cellars opened in 2006 and has quickly established himself as one of the top winemakers in Walla Walla. His ultra-premium wines were the favorite of my group of all the wineries we visited. Be sure to check out his Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. You’ll discover why the world will soon beat a path to the door of this boutique winery.
The other boutique winery I recommend in the airport district is Patit Creek Cellars where the owners have done an outstanding job transforming their industrial space into a modern, spacious, elegantly decorated tasting room. There’s also a cozy patio to linger over a glass of wine.
I particularly enjoyed the Riesling which was crisp and fruity, and the Merlot which was a wonderful medium-bodied wine that nicely balanced tannins and fruit. They also make very good Cabernet Sauvignon that’s round and soft with a palate of delicious fruit.