For years, Mendocino and Lake counties served as sources of affordable grapes for its southern sisters, Napa and Sonoma. Now each region is establishing its own identity.
Comprised of 10 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), Mendocino County boasts the highest percentage of certified organic and biodynamic grapes in the nation.
Parducci Wine Cellars is Mendocino County’s oldest winery, still going strong after more than 80 years, having been founded in 1932. Fetzer Vineyards started here in the 1960s and continues to be a global force in organic grape growing. Mendocino also receives renown for its Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and Alsatian whites.
Once a popular resort destination, Lake County today depends more on wine than tourists. Its 8,380 acres of vineyards ring around Clear Lake, one of the oldest lakes in North America.
It’s largely around this geological wonder that 140-some growers have made their living selling affordable grapes.
In recent years, the buzz has revolved around the Red Hills Lake County subappellation. High in elevation and rich in red volcanic soils, the district is becoming known for high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon.
Everything you need to know about this vast vino paradise.
To Mendocino County winemakers and growers, building a showcase winery or hanging out with wannabe collectors isn’t what’s important.
It’s all about the wine.
Some grew up in Mendocino County, and it’s what they know. Others left and came back to restore a family legacy. There are those who made wine elsewhere and ruled out other suitors, putting down deep roots here.
Beauty in Contrasts
This is a vast county that possesses extreme coastal beauty, hot and cold climates, old and new vines, and a growing reputation for world-class wines.
Mendocino County has earned much of its fame from the wines of its Anderson Valley subappellation.
Cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay flourish here, as do Alsatian-style whites like Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris. The area also produces some of the best sparkling wines in California.
Inland, American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) like Redwood Valley and Hopland, farmed for decades by descendants of Italian immigrants, contribute old-vine Zinfandel, Carignan, Petite Sirah and Syrah.
The continued presence of many of these family farmers, and the tenacity shown by subsequent generations, has helped preserve many of these coveted old vines.
Great Grapes, Great Value
In adjoining Lake County, grapes often cost half the price per ton of those grown in Napa Valley. Within the county, much excitement has grown around the Red Hills Lake County subappellation, high in elevation and rich in red volcanic soils.
There are also many areas within the AVA that excel with Sauvignon Blanc.
Two mountain ranges create the unique topography of Lake County. To the west are the Mayacamas Mountains, which also divide Napa Valley from most of Sonoma County.
On the east, the Vaca Ranges corner Napa’s heat from escaping further inland toward Sacramento.
Here, vineyards grow at relatively high elevations—95% are more than 1,000 feet above sea level.
Growers and winemakers believe the elevation gives Lake County grapes a signature intensity of ripeness, but also keeps them in balance.
“We get small berries with thicker skins,” says Peter Molnar, owner of Obsidian Ridge Vineyards. He’s also chairman of the Lake County Winegrape Commission. “The soils, slope, elevation and temperature swings all contribute to the retention of acidity here.”
Lake County’s climate and porous, mineral-rich soils are also heavily impacted by Mount Konocti and Clear Lake, which help maintain some of California’s cleanest air.
Lake County remains quiet and sprawled out, the presence of its 28 wineries and 140 growers subtle. With five subregions already defined, Lake County awaits approval of two more AVAs, Big Valley and the Kelseyville Bench.
Longstanding Napa Valley star grower Andy Beckstoffer is also firmly entrenched in Lake County. He grows acres of Bordeaux varieties for such wineries as Duckhorn Vineyards, Joel Gott, Robledo Family, Steele and the Francis Coppola Diamond Collection.
In 2012, the Gallo family bought the gorgeous Snows Lake Vineyard in Red Hills Lake County, with 900 acres already planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and other grapes. This top-tier interest illustrates how Lake County has grown in stature.
Mendocino/Lake's Top Varieties
Mendocino Coast and Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs are relatively light in body, color and texture, with invigorating spice, floral and red fruit notes.
Typically display notes of apple, melon and vanilla. Thanks to bright acidity, coastal Mendocino Chardonnay is often used in sparkling wines
Aromas include ripe cherries and blueberries, cocoa powder, toasted oak and coffee; others are more classically briary, with tobacco, nutmeg and black pepper accents.
Lake County Sauvignon Blanc is among the most sought-after of the North Coast’s offerings, crisply ripe in stone fruit and tropical flavors.
Lake County Cabernet, especially when it’s grown on mountain ranges, has great tannic structure, intensely concentrated red-fruit flavors and balanced acidity.
Stars on the Rise
Maria Testa, Testa Vineyards
More than 100 years ago, Testa Vineyards was planted in Calpella, a town between Ukiah and Redwood Valley. The founder was Gaetano Testa, who had emigrated from Italy to San Francisco to clean up after the massive 1906 earthquake.
Today, Maria Testa keeps alive the tradition that her great-grandfather established.
She farms the 25 old-vine acres of Carignan, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Charbono, Zinfandel and Barbera, all certified organic, head-pruned and lightly irrigated. Some of the vines are more than a century old.
She uses some of the fruit to make 2,000 cases of Simply Black, a Cabernet blend, and Simply White, a mix of Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc.
She sells the rest to Horse & Plow, Coturri Winery, Graziano and Sonoma-based winemaker Leo Hansen, who makes Leo Steen Calpella Red Table wine, a delicious field blend of Testa Carignan and Petite Sirah.
Alex MacGregor, Saracina Vineyards
The oldest of 11 children born to Fetzer Vineyards founders Barney and Kathleen Fetzer, John Fetzer founded Saracina Vineyards in 2001 on the site of the former Fetzer Sundial Ranch. In 2002, he hired winemaker Alex MacGregor to work alongside famed consulting winemaker David Ramey.
MacGregor focuses on making great red blends, tapping nearby blocks of Petite Sirah and Zinfandel planted in the 1940s, as well as the winery’s own Malbec. Saracina also produces Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, the latter from a block John planted in high school, and buys Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.
“John wanted to show people we could compete on a stage with Sonoma and Napa,” MacGregor says. “I think we’ve succeeded.”
Jason and Molly Drew, Drew Family Cellars
In 2004, Jason and Molly Drew drove up a long, twisty road along the Mendocino Ridge to look at a remote coastal property overgrown with heirloom apple trees. They bought a hillside spot elevated at 1,200 feet and planted seven acres of Pinot Noir.
“Everything added up for greatness,” Jason Drew says.
A Mendocino-only brand, Drew makes Pinot Noir, Syrah and Albariño, producing about 1,500 cases a year.
“I saw a lot of wines from Mendocino that had very nice structure, and to me, structure is a big, important part of the way I want to make wine,” Jason says. “I also saw a certain element of finesse. You’d have that ethereal quality, but also have all the richness I thought was there to make high-end Pinot Noir, but not too much.”
Adrianna Oster Gozza, Oster Wine Cellars and
Jake and Ben Fetzer, Masút Vineyard and Winery
Adrianna Oster Gozza is the daughter of Teresa Fetzer Oster and granddaughter of Barney and Kathleen Fetzer.
That makes her a third-generation winemaker on her mother’s side and fifth-generation grape grower through her father, Ken Oster. With advanced degrees in viticulture and enology, she’s the assistant winemaker at Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley.
Gozza worked briefly for several of her uncles at Jeriko Estate, Saracina and Ceàgo. She now works with her parents at Oster Wine Cellars, in Redwood Valley, producing organically grown Cabernet Sauvignon from their 40-acre estate vineyard. Gozza grew up close to her cousins Ben and Jake Fetzer (left), sons of the late Bobby Fetzer. The brothers were raised on the famed Home Ranch in Redwood Valley, where Fetzer Vineyards began.
After their father died in 2006, Jake and Ben continued to farm their parents’ 1,500-acre Redwood Valley ranch, which borders the old Home Ranch. Set on the western side of the valley, the property is largely planted with Pinot Noir.
After selling the grapes to wineries like DeLoach and Paul Hobbs, Ben and Jake produced their own wine in 2009, Masút, named after a former Pomo Indian settlement meaning “dark, rich earth.”
The Restaurant: Blue Wing Saloon
Courtesy of Chef Mark Linback, who also makes a delicious Mustard and Herb Rack of Lamb dish.
Olive oil, to sauté
8 center-cut lamb shanks
1 cup flour, optional
2 onions, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon rosemary, chopped
1 tablespoon oregano, chopped
2 cups tomato purée
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 x07bottle red wine, preferably same or similar to dinner wine
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat, and add oil to coat the bottom. Toss the shanks in flour, if desired, and place in pan. Sear until golden, then turn. When both sides are browned, place in a deep roasting pan.
Top with vegetables, herbs, tomato purée, salt, pepper, wine and enough water to cover at least halfway up the lamb.
Cover with foil and bake in a preheated oven for 2 hours or until tender.
Serve over creamy polenta or your favorite starch. Serves 8.
Brassfield Estate (Lake County) Eruption Proprietary Red Wine
The Dining Scene
In addition to growing wine grapes and making wine, residents of Mendocino and Lake counties maintain long histories of eating from the land, of raising their own meat, growing their own vegetables and fishing for their own seafood.
The Mendocino Coast thrives on freshly caught seafood, with inns and restaurants finding new ways to delight diners year round. In winter, Mendocino holds its annual Crab, Wine and Beer festival, during which top chefs in the area vie for “best crab cake” honors. Spring brings wild mushrooms, while in summer, the town of Fort Bragg on the coast hosts the world’s largest salmon barbecue.
The climate supports growing just about any type of fruit or vegetable. In particular Lake County remains a still-prolific region for crops that have sustained the county for decades, such as pears and walnuts. Here, as in Mendocino, the dishes people enjoy reflect the local agriculture and the Italian roots of so many forebears.
Though Lake County is sparse in restaurants compared to Mendocino—and certainly in comparison to its Napa and Sonoma neighbors to the south—there are a few destination spots worth seeking out.
The lovingly historic Tallman Hotel in Upper Lake is one of them, set in an 1895 building restored to its rightful grandeur over several years beginning in 2003.
It now serves as a romantic retreat and wonderful place for visitors and locals alike to gather, eat and drink within its on-site restaurant, the Blue Wing Saloon. With an emphasis on freshly picked produce, some of it grown around the hotel itself, and local wines, the Saloon offers both indoor and outdoor seating, beer on tap, fresh cocktails and live music.
“We love being able to use our local Shannon Ridge Ranch lamb for all menu items, and it pairs beautifully with our local wines,” says general manager Susan Mesick, who previously worked at nearby Six Sigma Winery. “The braised short ribs is a typical recipe, and the herb-crusted rack of lamb is one of my favorites.”
Tallman Hotel co-owner Bernie Butcher says when he first opened the Blue Wing he couldn’t find enough good local wines to serve so he made a bit of his own. Flash forward a couple of years and nowadays he has so many fine options from all around him he doesn’t need to do that anymore. The Saloon serves as a hangout for winemakers and growers to try each other’s wines.
Favorite Farm-to-Table Finds:
Green beans: An abundant crop best dressed with a twist of lemon, garlic and olive oil and ideal with Lake County Sauvignon Blanc. Green bean season peaks in summer when area farmers’ markets feature everything from traditional to crunchy, mildly sweet Blue Lake green beans, a gourmet variety that originated in Lake County.
Lamb: Vintner and longtime grape grower Clay Shannon of Shannon Ridge and Vigilance Winery raises his own sheep, which graze and weed (best landscape artists on the planet) among the vines. The resulting grass-fed Shannon Ranch USDA lamb is among the best in the state and available through his wineries.
Pears: The second-largest supplier of premium fresh pears in America, Lake County’s pickings are often called mountain pears because they grow in the county’s high elevation, though the variety is traditionally Bartlett. A massive pear festival takes place in Kelseyville every September.
Cruising the Mendocino Coast
The Mendocino Coast is dotted with some of the most breathtakingly beautiful views this side of, well, anywhere.
It captivates in different ways at different times of the year. Its vistas are well suited to winter and early spring, when fog is less present and whale-spotting begins.
In summer, it offers cooling and mystical appeal when inland temperatures lure visitors to the coast.
Most people get to Mendocino’s coast via the Anderson Valley. Highway 128 cuts a lovely swath 15 miles from Boonville northwest through Philo, and continues another 15 miles toward the Pacific Ocean.
It’s among the coolest places in California to grow grapes. The ocean influence drifts in precipitously along the Navarro River and up the valley’s hillsides and ridges, where grapes hang long and low, maintaining natural acidity.
After a series of gentle twists through redwood forest, Highway 128 meets the coast and California’s famous Route 1. Heading north, the small towns of Albion and Little River offer comfy inns and fresh seafood, as well as rugged beach stops and campgrounds.
The gem of the coast is the town of Mendocino itself, set on a wind- and wave-swept bluff out of central casting.
Book a room at one of several B&Bs or historic hotels and say goodbye to the car. Restaurants and cafés await within walking distance.
Recipe Courtesy Grey Whale Bar, Mendocino, CA
The Grey Whale Bar adheres to the local, sustainable ethos of Chef Alan Kantor, who, when seeking a sparkler to add effervescence to this martini, goes straight to his Mendocino neighbors at Roederer Estate.
Fill a shaker with ice.
Add 2 ounces Skyy vodka, 1 ounce St-Germain, ½ ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice, ½ ounce Roederer Estate sparkling wine and 4 dashes of orange bitters. Shake well and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with 1 dried rose bulb and rose petals and serve.
And Don't Miss:
In the Anderson Valley town of Boonville, Anderson Valley Brewing Company holds its legendary Boonville Beer Festival each May. Inexpensive camping is available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds. North of the town of Mendocino, coastal neighbor Fort Bragg is home to North Coast Brewing Co., maker of PranQster, Brother Thelonious and Old Rasputin, its Russian imperial stout.
Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn of Navarro Help Pack Your Basket
Navarro Vineyards’s Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn were drawn to the Anderson Valley in the 1970s to plant Gewürztraminer, a favorite variety.
They are now 40 years into making delicious Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and late-harvest wines. Most lunch hours the redwood picnic tables on the winery’s tasting room deck and throughout its gardens fill with travelers.
“Views of the vines, redwood-covered hills and flocks of sheep help slow down even the most hassled ‘bright lighter’ (‘city slicker’ in Boontling, the local language),” says Cahn.
The tasting room sells cheeses from Pennyroyal Farm down the road in Boonville, the going concern of the Cahn-Bennett’s grown-up daughter, Sarah.
Pennyroyal gets its milk from Babydoll Southdown and Panama sheep and a plethora of goats that graze in Navarro’s vineyards, as well as a 66-acre farmstead in Boonville, peppered with wild grasses and pennyroyal mint, the genesis of the name.
Navarro Cuvée 128 Sauvignon Blanc (Mendocino)
Navarro Méthode à l’Ancienne Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley)
Navarro Riesling (Anderson Valley)
Navarro Cluster Select Late Harvest Gewürztraminer (Anderson Valley)
Three Granddaughters' Butter Cookies
½ pound (two sticks) organic butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup sugar
1½ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
Heat an oven to 375°F. It is not necessary to grease the cookie sheets but use a baking mat for faster cleanup—and eating. Cream the butter with the vanilla. Add the sugar and eggs and beat well. In a separate bowl, add the flour and salt to the butter mixture, blending thoroughly.
Arrange ½ teaspoons of dough on cookie sheets. Flatten slightly with a wet metal spatula and bake until cookies start to brown, about 8 minutes. Makes a dozen cookies.
- 2Mastering Mendocino
- 3Next Gen Mendo
- 4Mendocino/Lake Counties Food
- 5Mendocino/Lake Counties Travel
- 6Mendocino/Lake Counties Entertaining