Wine Talk

Snooth User: John Andrews

Anderson Valley

Posted by John Andrews, Apr 2, 2010.

Anderson Valley

Overview

To the majority of the world the term California wine means Napa wine.  This is even true for the majority of the United States.  Napa has done a great job at promoting itself and California wine.  This promotion does come at some cost.  The cost is the fact that other smaller regions go largely unnoticed by the general wine public.  Throw out the name Anderson Valley and you are more likely to get a blank stare than recognition of the fact it is probably ‘the premier’ pinot noir growing area in North America.  There are many people in Oregon, Sonoma and California central coast that might want to strike me down for saying this but let me outline why I believe this to true. 

Let me start with Oregon.  While it is blessed with more Burgundian climate then any of the other west coast growing areas it is also blessed with Pacific Northwest climate.  To me, that means uneven years and too much rain ... especially during harvest.  Sonoma?  Well, I work in Sonoma and while I love the Pinot from my region, Sonoma has a multiple personality disorder.  It is all of France and Italy in one growing region.  Something for everyone but no focus?  Then there is central California.  They will claim to have the perfect growing conditions.  To me, it is just too damn hot during the summer.  Sure it cools down at night.  To me Central California is more Southern Rhone / Provence than Burgundy. 

That leaves Anderson Valley.  It is what Burgundy dreams of being.  The perfect blend of climate, soil and atmosphere.  Simply put it is the terroir that Burgundy wish they had.  So why haven’t you heard of Anderson Valley?  You will ... slowly but surely it is being recognized for the purity of its Pinot Noir, elegance of its Chardonnay and the crispness of its sparkling wines.

History

The history of Anderson Valley is not dissimilar too much of California in that the original draw to the area was not wine or grapes but gold.  The draw of wealth from gold in the 1800s convinced people from all over the world.  Many came for the gold but stayed for the land.  Gold was hard to come by but the land was rich and fertile, the weather temperate and opportunities abundant. 

One of those early pioneers was the Walter Anderson family from Missouri.  The Anderson sons ‘discovered’ an untouched valley that was a short distance from where the family had settled in (modern) Sonoma County.  This valley would be named after the found Anderson Valley.  Various economic turns brought more people to the valley including a number of Europeans both Swiss and Italian.

It is not clear when grape growing started in Anderson Valley but it is speculated that the settling Europeans planted and grew grapes for their own home wines.  In the 1900’s the local Italian community began to make wine for the immigrant workers.  Like the rest of the California wine industry prohibition hit the area hard but, in some ways, not as bad.  The remote location made Anderson Valley the benefactor for the ‘back door’ wine trade. 

There were many ups and downs in the region including the ripping out of the old vines due to frost damage to the planting of varieties not suited to the climate.  It wasn’t until 1964 that the modern wine history of Anderson Valley began.  This was the first time that noble grapes were planted in the region.  By 1971, Husch Vineyards was founded, the first new winery in the region since the depression.   Growth continued through the 70s but really took off in the 80s.  Arguably the most import event in Anderson Valley’s modern history happened in 1982.  That was the year that the Champagne House, Louis Roederer decided to invest in California and did so in Anderson Valley.  For those who chose the area to produce their wine this event was vindication of their choice.  It also put Anderson Valley on the map.

Geography & AVA

Anderson Valley is located in Mendicino County north of Sonoma County.  It is an official American Viticulture Area (AVA) and is part of the larger North Coast AVA (which is actually everything north of San Francisco).   Like Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, Anderson Valley is a well defined valley that has a north west/south east orientation and bordered by the California Coastal Range on all sides with narrow passes in and out of the valley.  At the northwest end it ends up to the Pacific Ocean following the Navarro River.  At the Southeast end it collapses into the California coastal mountain range with no real outlet. 

It is a protected area that is mitigated by the cool Pacific influence.  The Pacific Ocean is 10 miles from the western edge of the valley and 15 miles from the eastern edge.  Rains are moderated by the mountains on all edges.  Elevation and latitude ensure moderate temperature but the area is prone to temperature swings of 50 F between day and night.  The sloping sides of the valleys provide a variety of soils and orientations for the vineyards all in just a 14 mile span. 

My personal experience driving into Anderson Valley is like driving into a slower pace of life.  It is a remote area that can only be accessed by a curvy, two lane road that climbs high into the mountains and slowly snakes down into the valley.  At times you feel as if you are the first person to enter into the valley.  From any point in the valley you can see the sides of the valley.   The vegetation looks more like Oregon and Washington than California.

Grapes, Wines & Wineries

I started with describing how Anderson Valley is more like Burgundy than any part of California.  I still believe this but Anderson Valley, like the rest of California, does more than just Pinot and Chardonnay.  To many people, Anderson Valley is as much Alsace as it is Burgundy.  Some very good wines made from Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  In fact, Anderson Valley is the host of annual Alsatian Wine Festival.

Navarro (http://www.navarrowine.com)

What makes Anderson Valley special (to me) is that there is still family owned wineries that still feel family owned.  Navarro is one of those wineries.  Navarro has more of an Alsatian feel than Burgundy with plenty of Riesling and Gewürztraminer.  They do produce wines from other varietals but for me it is the Alsation wines that make this winery interesting.   With most wines under $30 there are plenty of bargains to be found.

Husch (http://www.huschvineyards.com)

Husch, like Navarro, is a small family owned winery.  Established around the same time as Navarro tasting their wines is like tasting a little bit of Anderson Valley history.  While their wines are all across the varietal map they are a family winery.  To me this means the make wine they like and that they want to.  It is almost like they said, I like steak so I’m going to grow cabernet so I have something to go with it ... and they did. 

Goldeneye (http://www.goldeneyewinery.com)

The Duckhorn family had a vision.  The vision was to create a California winery that emulated the great regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy.  The namesake label Duckhorn, based in Napa Valley, represents the Right Bank Bordeaux Chateaus.  The Goldeneye label, based in Anderson Valley, is the Duckhorn Burgundy brand.  The focus has been completely on Pinot Noir until 2010 when the first Chardonnay was introduced.  Pricing is not for the faint of heart but the wines represent the style and presence that is Duckhorn.

Roederer Estate (http://www.roedererestate.com)

Cristal.  That one word has changed the Champagne scene.  From HipHop moguls to billionaires Cristal is the Champagne of choice and it is produced by Louis Roederer.  Many people are shocked to find out the producer of Cristal is also making outstanding sparkling wines in Anderson Valley.  In the early 80’s the Roederer Champagne invested in Anderson Valley. The result is some of the best sparkling wines in California.  Sticking to the classic methods of producing sparkling wines Roederer is one of the best kept secrets in California sparkling.  It is my opinion that the Roederer Estate L’Ermitage bottling is classic sparkling wine and at $45 is one the best vintage bottling around.

Elke Vineyards (http://www.elkevineyards.com)

Mary Elke is one of the wine makers that the lovers of Pinot Noir need to know about.  She crafts wines from pinot noir that are faithful to the Burgundy tradition.  That is to create wines that reflect the terrior of the place that the grapes are grown.  Elke wines are produced in relatively low quantities and there is no formal tasting room.  The wines are definitely worth seeking out.  Also, with no one more that $40 they are bargains.

Why should you care?

If you love Pinot you need to know about Anderson Valley.  If love Alsatian wines you need to know about Anderson Valley.  That should be enough but there is more.  Anderson Valley has a feeling of what wine production in California was before the marble counter tops and $25 tasting fees.  Not that I am against these but it is nice to see and feel where things came from so that you can appreciate where Napa and Sonoma are now, Anderson Valley provides this.  

Replies

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Reply by dmcker, Apr 2, 2010.

Even people in Tokyo who want to 'strike you down', figuratively speaking, of course. ;-)  No way is Anderson better than, in theoretical terms, or making better pinots, in actual terms, than the Sonoma Coast or even greater Santa Barbara (spend a year on the coast there with all the fog and prevailing winds and you'll take back your words about the Rhone).

That being said, Anderson Valley deserves a lot more recognition than it often gets, and good for you in propping them up this way. They've come a long ways since TV ads for Italian Swiss Colony Wine jingled 'NapaSonomaMendocino', the last portion mainly for the Anderson grapes. Yeah, I know, I've dated myself, but I remember well growing up with Paul Masson and Cold Duck around, too.

What caught my attention later about the area was a Navarro Gewurtztraminer that I had at the very beginning of the '80s at Chez Panisse's cafe on their second floor, on one of my trips back to California after being away in Asia for most of the '70s. Boy had Berkeley, and California in general, changed while I was gone, I thought. Of course it was me that had changed, too, but I still clearly remember the taste of that cool Navarro nectar trickling down my throat.

Now I enjoy a lot of good California wines, even in Tokyo. Not enough Anderson Valley wines, perhaps, but I'm not missing much of their pinot when I've got a Hirsch or Rivers-Marie or even an Au Bon Climat on hand....

 

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Reply by dmcker, Apr 2, 2010.

Also,

"Let me start with Oregon.  While it is blessed with more Burgundian climate then any of the other west coast growing areas it is also blessed with Pacific Northwest climate.  To me, that means uneven years and too much rain ... especially during harvest."

That sounds exactly like Burgundy, to me anyway... ;-)

 

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Reply by John Andrews, Apr 2, 2010.

LOL ... that's dmcker ... yes, I was over exaggerating to get my point of across but that is how writers do things these days, no? 

In fact, my favourite Pinot's come from the Santa Rita Hills.  The pinots from Sea Smoke are outstanding. 

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Reply by amour, Apr 2, 2010.

Where else is there but the SANTA RITA HILLS !!!

Thanks for a first-hand expose, HondaJohn.

By the way , did you hear about the legal saga with the South American Santa Rita and the Cali ?...Interesting!

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Reply by Mark Angelillo, Apr 2, 2010.

Great, great write up, John. Sounds like you could easily curate the Anderson Valley profile on Snooth. Maybe some or all of this info can make its way over there if you get a chance.

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Reply by John Andrews, Apr 2, 2010.

@Mark ... well, if you're asking, I could do that ... 

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Reply by John Andrews, Apr 2, 2010.

@Amour ... I haven't heard about the Santa Rita hills but it sounds like a Champagne problem all over again. 

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Reply by dmcker, Apr 2, 2010.

Why 'Champagne', since there is actually a Santa Rita hills in California?

And guess why they chose the name 'Sea Smoke'? It wasn't for the always sunny and hot weather....

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Reply by napagirl68, Apr 2, 2010.

I'm sorry, but Anderson Valley so far has not impressed me much.  I visited the "infamous" Navarro and was DISPLEASED.  I tasted many of the smaller wineries as well, AVERAGE at best.  I did like some of Roederer's offerings, as well as Scharffenberger's... sparklers, of course.


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