Anderson Valley's Surprises
White wines from this region are proving to be among California's best.
It's far better known for the caliber of its Pinot Noirs, but little Anderson Valley—the fourth-smallest American Viticultural Area in California at only 600 acres—has been quietly turning out some of the most interesting and affordable white wines in California.
The climate and soils in the valley are perfect for crafting whites of subtle nuance and balance. Like most of California's coastal valleys, Anderson runs on a southeast-to-northwest orientation, allowing cool maritime air to pour in through gaps in the hills. "It's a Region I growing area," says Vern Boltz of Toulouse Vineyards, although the climate approaches Climate Region II (grows warmer) the further inland you go. High temperatures in the summer can get pretty toasty, especially eastward toward Boonville. But Anderson Valley has a huge diurnal spread, with the mercury falling off rapidly overnight. And then there's the fog.
"Almost every morning, we look out at a solid valley of fog below us,"says vintner Allan Green, whose Greenwood Ridge Vineyards overlooks the valley. Under the circumstances, it's too cold for full-bodied reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre or Zinfandel; they wouldn't ripen. "Even Viognier is a risk," warns Claudia Springs' Bob Klindt.
But the cool conditions allow most other whites to thrive. Gewürztraminer first attracted the notice of wine lovers back in the 1960s and 1970s through the pioneering efforts of Donald Edmeades and Tony Husch, at their eponymously named wineries. Gewürz remains a star today. "If you named the region in California that grows the best Gewürz," declares Green, "it would have to be Anderson Valley."
Gewürztraminer is an Alsatian variety, and lately the winegrowers of Anderson Valley have been putting lots of effort into other Alsatian grapes as well, especially Riesling, Pinot Gris and Muscat. Last February, Glenn McGourty, the viticulture advisor for the University of California in Lake and Mendocino counties, stood before a crowd at the Anderson Valley International Alsace Varietals Festival, in Boonville, and announced that "Mendocino is making a serious play to be the Alsatian capital of California."
The similarities between Anderson Valley and Alsace exist but should not be exaggerated. Alsace is considerably further north than the valley—at the same latitude as Seattle, in fact. Although both areas are long, narrow valleys, Alsace has cold, dry winters, whereas Anderson Valley's are very wet; December and January precipitation averages close to 8 inches each month, and Anderson's average annual rainfall is 50 percent higher than Alsace's. But both regions are cool, which allows them to grow the same varieties.
The two regions are perhaps more alike culturally than they are in their terroir. Both are dominated by small family wineries and possess what Arnaud Weyrich, from Roederer Estate (he spoke at the Alsace Festival) calls "conviviality," a trait of friendship and informationsharing among local winemakers. In both areas, there is intense investigation into new clones and varieties. And both regions have a Route du Vin, in Anderson Valley's case, Highway 128—although, unfortunately, Anderson Valley does not yet boast any 2- and 3-star restaurants.
The fact that the valley even hosted an "international" Alsace festival was telling. (There were only a handful of wineries from outside Anderson Valley, but it was a good start.) "With these white wines, we have something we can do well here that can't be done everywhere," says Deborah Cahn, who co-founded Navarro Vineyards with her husband, Ted Bennett, in 1973.
Room for Gewürz?
There are only about 25 wineries operating in the valley. Most of them specialize in Pinot Noir (which accounts for about half the grape acreage), but an increasing number are turning toward the Alsatian varieties. Klindt's story, at Claudia Springs, is typical. He'd been making Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah and Viognier (the latter three from warmer inland vineyards "over the hill" in central Mendocino) for years, but always longed to produce a white wine from Anderson Valley. "I looked at Gewürz, which kind of scared me off, and Riesling, which I don't know that you can sell for anything. But then Glenn McGourty was saying how Pinot Gris is perfect for this area, so I planted it." It was a gamble that paid off, Klindt says; Pinot Gris (AKA Pinot Grigio) now has become one of the hottest white wines in America.
Boltz, at Toulouse, has a similar story. He planted Pinot Noir in 1997 and had specialized in that wine until he got hit with Alsacemania. First, he tinkered with Pinot Gris. This year, he released his initial Riesling and Gewürztraminer. "Our first year out of the gate," he grins. "We just want to support the Alsatian program here in the valley." Over at Husch, owner Zac Robinson recently T-budded a Chardonnay vineyard to Gewürztraminer. He sells his 2006 for a modest $14, "but the one thing we're scratching our heads on is, is there room for a reserve-level, single-vineyard Gewürztraminer that will fetch a high price?"
Only time will tell (although there does seem to be a level beyond which the public is resistant to paying for any white wine other than Chardonnay). But Robinson's and Boltz's remarks provide a clue into another aspect of the new Alsatian plantings. It's not merely because they feel the terroir is right that vintners are doing it. There are economic incentives as well. Anderson Valley is far off the beaten path when it comes to California's prime wine regions. A hundred miles from San Francisco, it can take up to three hours to drive there along traffic-snarled freeways and over the tortuous roads that snake across the rugged Mendocino coastal mountains. As well-received (and pricey) as the valley's Pinot Noirs (and to some extent Chardonnays) have been, growers and vintners say they can't depend on Pinot Noir alone to make a living. "That would be wrong," says Cahn, adding, "It's much easier to market more than one type of wine." Fred Buonanno, the owner-winemaker at Philo Ridge, agrees. "Our main grape has been Pinot Noir, which Anderson Valley is extremely well known for. But we looked at the market, and it's also getting known for Riesling, Gewürz and Pinot Gris. So finally this year we made the decision [to produce whites]."
Pure, bright and balanced
So what are the wines like? The top Anderson Valley Alsatians show the purity of varietal flavor and balanced acidity characteristic of a cool coastal climate. (Chardonnay, which at 593 acres is the second most widely planted wine grape, shows similar purity and brightness.) Although Anderson Valley, being so far north, is at far greater risk of autumn rains than areas further south in California, white wine grapes typically are harvested earlier than red grapes (with Chardonnay and Viognier being exceptions), and in most years Anderson Valley has a good vintage. My top-scoring wines, such as Navarro's 2006 Muscat Blanc, Roessler's 2004 Riesling and Handley's 2006 Gewürztraminer, are clean and fruity, and alcohol levels tend to hover around 14 percent—not too bad by today's standards. Sometimes a flourish of residual sugar can be detected, but it provides a honeyed richness that balances out the acidity. Some vintners, like Navarro's Bennett, enjoy engineering a range of sweetness levels in their wines; Navarro produces several Rieslings, from their dry White Riesling to the unctuously sweet Late Harvest Cluster Select.
With such superior fruit, many winemakers are loathe to put too much of a stamp on the wines when it comes to interventions. Klindt, for example, partially ferments his Pinot Gris in older, neutral barrels, but the majority is made in cold stainless-steel tanks. Robinson, at Husch, never lets his Gewürztraminer touch wood. Milla Handley does, in a combination of oak and stainless steel,"but it's neutral oak," she says.
Sauv Blanc on the rise
As good as the Alsatian wines are, they're not the only whites that bear a distinctive Anderson Valley stamp. Sauvignon Blanc may be the surprise of the bunch. A real sleeper, it seems to enjoy the weather. You'll often find unripe, green flavors in California Sauvignon Blancs that were grown in a too-cool climate or were overcropped, but almost never in Anderson Valley Sauvignon Blancs. They retain a racy acidity that brightens mineral-laden citrus and peach flavors in a particularly savory way.
There's not a lot of it planted, but examples from Navarro and Breggo attest to the potential. "This is great terroir for Sauvignon Blanc," asserts Breggo's owner-winemaker, Douglas Ian Stewart. "It likes the cool climate." As good as Anderson Valley Sauvignon Blanc can be, there will probably never be much of it, and the reason is economics. As Stewart points out, "The [grape] price is below $1,500 a ton, whereas Anderson Valley Pinot Noir is in excess of $3,000, so it's not worth it" for growers to plant in the same soil. (And with water availability a huge issue in Anderson Valley, there's not likely to be a lot more vineyard acreage put in.) Stewart used to obtain his Sauvignon Blanc from the esteemed Ferrington Vineyard, but the owners replanted most of it to other varieties last year. Stewart is planning on planting his own Sauvignon Blanc to compensate for the loss, but even he admits, "It's hard to argue economically to plant a new Sauvignon Blanc vineyard when you can do Pinot Noir."
Lots of wineries from outside Anderson Valley buy grapes from there, either to round out their own wines, or to bottle them with an Anderson Valley appellation. With the popularity of Anderson Valley, more local wineries will likely use the grapes, meaning fewer available for outside wineries. This has been the case in places like Monterey and Santa Barbara Counties.
Though the cost of Anderson Valley Pinots will likely stay high, the valley's whites offer good value for their high quality: typically about $20. (Chardonnay tends to be more expensive.) They represent real quality-for-value on an everyday basis. Vintners may regret that they can't charge as much as they might like for these useful white wines, but consumers are the beneficiaries.