Take a trip to the road less traveled
So many people either living in California or visiting California feel the need to go to Napa Valley or Sonoma Square and its surrounding area when they are wine tasting. Although these regions have fantastic wines and fun infrastructure to support wine tasting tourism, they have moved away from a more traditional wine tasting experience where you actually feel like you are on a farm tasting in a rustic atmosphere. Many have traded the intimate experience of tasting with someone very close to the winemaker for the glitz and glam of multi-million dollar tasting rooms built for many groups of wine goers to taste at once. To be clear, tasting in Napa and Sonoma is incredibly fun and you can experience some of the best wines in the world - but the prices are climbing and for someone who does a lot of tastings, it is a nice change to get out in the country and back to the roots of wine, which, at it's heart, is farming.
Navarro Vineyards & Winery
Navarro is something of a staple in the Anderson Valley region. We met a local in Mendocino who described them as "the gold standard of the region." We also heard they had some good chardonnay, so we started our short morning journey near the town of Mendocino driving down Highway 128 (an incredibly beautiful river-side drive). Aside from the property being well maintained with gorgeous flowers around the tasting room, I was struck by how knowledgeable our guide was. As she took us for a walk on dirt paths through the actual vineyard, she shared her wealth of knowledge about the winery and its winemaking process. She talked about how they use a French drainage system in the fields and how they use a special breed of sheep called Baby Doll sheep (aka Southdown sheep or Baby Doll Southdown sheep) to maintain the grass and weeds in the vineyards. These sheep are much shorter than regular sheep so they can't reach the grapes while they are on the vine. As an added benefit, the feces from the sheep provide the perfect fertilizer for the vines. Sheep out in the vineyards are easy prey for coyotes and mountain lions, so the property has a small pack of Great Pyrennes dogs to protect them. But don't expect to play with a pack of large white dogs - these pups live outside in the wilderness year round and although the staff feeds them, they are not as domesticated as an average dog. The tour continued with an in depth look at Navarro's winemaking process, which although parts of it are common, most tours don't teach you as much about what is happening at each step. Again, despite tough questions, our tour guide fielded each query we had. Even before we tasted the wine, this was one of the best, most informative tours I have been on.
The wines at Navarro were quite good. The chardonnay that underwent malolactic fermentation was nice, but it probably did not have enough oaky butteriness to make it into a Chardonnay Box. They also had a wine aged in stainless steel, which was a nice representation of the chardonnay grape. However, this winery is mostly known for its pinot noir. They had a really interesting tasting where you could try both a filtered and unfiltered pinot from the same year and same vineyard, which gave a fantastic side by side comparison of two different winemaking styles. If you get the chance and have time for the tour, make a reservation at Navarro. You won't be disappointed.
Husch Vineyards & Winery
Husch was our second and final stop on this unfortunately too short trip to Anderson Valley. As we drove up, the head winemaker and his staff were having a picnic-style lunch in the shade before heading back to work. There is something about seeing a wine team like this that really reminds you, as I mentioned above, that you are on a farm and that this delicious product we consume starts in a field, not from some Hollywood-esque wine celebrity, but from a person who walks the field in jeans and is just a normal individual. The winery itself was very cute with a tiny little cabin used as a tasting room. Husch decorates the property with many beautiful flowers just like Navarro and the whole experience had a fairy tale charm to it. For the free tasting, you only get to taste 6 out of their 16 options, (which is hard for someone like me who wants to experience it all) but it challenges you to be selective and really taste the wines you want to experience most. Here, like at Navarro, the chardonnay was delicious, but not quite right for a Chardonnay Box. Interestingly, their "Vine One" chardonnay, which originated from one grape vine that they cloned and replanted to now 5,000 vines, has many of the usual chardonnay flavors but it also has a bit of orange peel, which you don't find in many chardonnays. We enjoyed the other wines quite a bit and the staff was super friendly.
An option on where to stay
We chose to splurge a little for our night in Mendocino, and stayed at the Heritage House Resort. The lodgings here are a little more modern and upscale than some of the more quaint bed & breakfast style accommodations closer to the town of Mendocino. The Heritage House had a nice restaurant and all these little private sitting areas, some with their own gas fires or fire pits, which made for some fun exploring after dinner. In the morning, we got lucky with blue skies and were able to enjoy the waves crashing on the cliffs from the bluff on which the resort sits. It is truly an example of a gorgeous California hotel.