Top Ten Anderson Valley Wineries That Every Pinot Lover Should Get to Know
Pinot Noir, more than anything, should tell the truth. And it does that very well. But you have to take a risk in order to hear the truth and then you might not always hear what you expect - Scott Wright
Much has been said about the ravishing, raw beauty of Anderson Valley. To be there is to catch a glimpse into God’s vision of Heaven on Earth. The hills and valleys, the proximity of the Pacific, the pristine environment that engulfs your very soul.
I have been coming to Anderson Valley for several years. However, each visit touches me in a new and unique way. It is the kind of place that unconsciously allows you to get up close and personal with yourself, to find your most authentic voice.
What does it do for winemaking? I suspect it forces winemakers to strive for great things. It brings out the true artisans in them. Wine lovers can certainly taste moments of greatness that reflect not only a sense of place, but a sense of being.
Large swaths of Anderson Valley vineyards are owned by corporations. However there are numerous boutique vintners and growers who chart their own path and push the creative envelope. These renegades have turned the mountains and valleys of this magical spot into a virtual Pinot Paradise. Additionally, there are a number of Alsatian varieties grown there as well and I can happily attest to a solid quality of Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling bottlings.
Anderson Valley is located about 2.5 hours north of San Francisco and stretches from the Yorkville Highlands to the Navarro River. The sprawling metropolis of Boonville (pop. 700) is at the heart of what used to be a brief stop on the way to Mendocino is now a booming wine town.
An area deeply steeped in agrarian roots, its traditional logging and ranching trades experienced a steep decline in the ’60s. The area soon became known for growing California’s number one cash crop, marijuana. (Hence the stretch of highway clean-up that is sponsored by medical marijuana patients union.) Grape-growing took hold in the 1980s. The Anderson Valley AVA was established in 1983 and the area is now home to over 30 wineries and numerous stellar vineyards.
Many don’t realize that the legendary French Laundry Restaurant shares a connection with the Anderson Valley. After selling the French Laundry to Chef Thomas Keller, Don and Sally Schmitt, the restaurant’s original owners, purchased the Philo Apple Farm. It’s now a wildly successful, picture perfect orchard that produces dozens of varieties of heirloom apples. They also own the beautiful Boonville Hotel that is known for its restaurant, Table 128, which turns out Michelin-quality food.
My top 10 Anderson Valley producers are as follows:
My obsession with Black Kite started long ago, in fact with their first vintage. The wines were lush, generous, yet refined, deftly balanced and most compelling.
In the late 90s Donald and Maureen Green bought a 40 acre parcel overlooking the picturesque Navarro River and replanted a Gewürztraminer vineyard with Pinot Noir. In 2003 Black Kite Cellars was born, named after Donald Green’s favorite bird.
My readers are familiar with my sentiments about their stellar winemaker, Jeff Gaffner, who has over 25 years of experience in the wine industry and has produced some of my favorite wines over the years.
Champ de Rêves specializes only in Pinot Noir and is fiercely dedicated to the authentic expression of the region and the complexity of flavors it can deliver. Perched nearly 2,000 feet above Boonville the Champ de Rêves vineyard is planted to a variety of different Pinot Noir clones. Winemaker Eric Johannsen crafts wines of distinction showcasing the signature characters of Anderson Valley unique fruit and earthy minerality, striving for hands-off approach and representing balance and harmony.
Jason and Molly Drew made a move from Santa Rita Hills to Anderson Valley in 2,000 after decades of winemaking and vineyard management. Their first wines produced in miniscule quantities were Pinot Noir and Syrah which immediately found favor with consumers. Jason is a traditionalist winemaker and does not utilize fining or filtration.
In addition to Pinot Noir and Syrah Jason recently started producing small lots of exceptional Albariño. Extreme dedication to all aspects of his vineyard, being a meticulous farmer and an astute, flexible winemaker, Drew secured a well-regarded spot in the wine community, earning critical acclaim and consumer loyalty.
Cliff Lede, vintner and rock music lover extraordinaire launched FEL in 2014 in honor of his Mom (Florence Elsie Lede.) The name was changed from Breggo Cellars, but the consistently delicious wines crafted by Ryan Hodgins remain. FEL produces several Pinot Noirs for renowned vineyards such as Savoy (which Lede acquired in 2011), Donnelly Creek, Ferrington, Wiley and Hirsch, and several whites, including Chardonnay, and Alsatian varieties. The winemaking philosophy is simple – maximum viticultural dedication to all aspects of grape growing, minimal intervention in the cellar. The result? Some of the best Pinot Noirs I have tasted from the region.
Foursight Wines was founded in 2006 by the winegrowers Bill and Nancy Charles with the idea of producing small lots of handcrafted Pinot Noir, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc in partnership with their daughter and son-in-law.
The foursome is a dedicated bunch with meticulous farming practices and the renegade, fearless style of winemaking by Joe Webb whose past projects include Joseph Swan and Londer Vineyards. Joe oversees all winemaking and winery business operations—spend a few minutes with him and his intensity and passion become obvious. The wines are pure, honest, edgy, stimulating and quite age-worthy.
Dan and Margaret Duckhorn founded Goldeneye in 1996, after a 15 year successful Napa Valley run with their namesake label. Their quest for quality was evident form their Merlot and Cabernet track record as they set out to produce world-class Pinot Noirs from Anderson Valley. The first wine was released in 2000 and Goldeneye quickly established itself as an important player on the Pinot scene, earning multiple accolades for its uncompromising viticultural standards and thoughtful winemaking. Today Goldeneye has four estate vineyards, a thriving wine club and a state-of-the-art LEED certified facility with an eye on a bright Pinot future.
A quintessential family winery, Handley Cellars is a small estate twelve thousand case operation in Anderson Valley. The disarmingly charming historic ranch house, barn, and water tower greet you upon arrival. Proprietor and winemaker Milla Handley is a local legend, a pioneer of the region who makes soulful, balanced wines that are varietally pure and are deeply representative of the land. Milla honed her craft at Chateau St. Jean and Edmeades prior to launching Handley Cellars in 1982. Inspired by the beauty of Anderson Valley and the quality of the fruit it’s capable of producing and the idea of charting her own path in winemaking she set out to honor the land in her stewardship—she achieved just that and much more. Her wines won numerous awards and accolades and are worth seeking.
Anthony Filiberti, the winemaker at Knez is a deep believer in soil and insists on the profound terroir knowledge of his vineyards, so much so, that he lives on property.
His past winemaking jobs included Penner Ash and Bergström in Oregon, Williams-Selyem, and his ongoing partnership with Anthill Farms. Handcrafted, traditional winemaking are his hallmarks. Farmed organically and biodynamically, the vineyards bear complex and multi-dimensional fruit that Anthony turns into elegantly beautiful Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
Former owner of Breggo Cellars (which has been acquired by Cliff Lede) Doug Stewart is a consummate entrepreneur and a passionate vintner. Naming his brand after a lacy, elegant moss representative of nutrients that sustain the vineyard’s very terroir his four wines are head turners. The sparkling Blanc de Gris is unlike anything I have ever tasted, with glorious acidity and sexy, playful fruit. Les Pinots Noir and Gris 2012 is a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris is a refreshing palate pleaser, guilt free with only 10% alcohol. A revelation, Solera, composition of 2011 of 2012 is aged and blended in the similar fashion to Sherries and Madeira. My wine of the weekend was Lichen 2012 Estate. Sourced from an organically farmed vineyard it showcases opulent red fruit and dreamy vanilla flavors. A glorious 45-sec finish seals the deal.
Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn started Navarro in 1974 when grape growing was a novelty in the Anderson Valley. They took over a sheep ranch and planted it to pinot noir, and a number of Alsatian varieties, such as Gewürztraminer, Pinot gris, Muscat blanc, and Riesling. Today Navarro Vineyards enjoys cult like following among hardcore fans.
Their most famous Pinot noir, the flagship Deep-End Blend is a very limited production wine that delivers exceptionally high quality experience for under $50. Navarro brand became synonymous with well-priced, remarkably consistent Anderson valley wines.
They also produce a few non alcoholic wines.
Please note that all of these wineries are estate based and grow or source fruit from local vineyards.
The Anderson Valley is a special place that touches the heart and soothes the soul. The Pinot Noirs dramatically differ stylistically from other regions. These wines are often haunting and unforgettable. They tell the tale of rugged beauty, emerald hills, larger than life redwoods, and winemakers that have formed an unseverable bond with the land.
I hated driving away. I knew a part of me will remain. Till next time.