The two most rugged, remote and uncrowded wine regions in California stretch from the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean in Mendocino to the high desert-like plateau where 4,300-foot Mount Konocti overlooks the freshwater oasis of Clear Lake. For decades, Mendocino and Lake counties have lured tourists with spectacular water views, fresh seafood, forests of redwood and oak and, of course, wine.
While the two counties share a long border and the ability to make outstanding wines, each is worthy of a separate visit to explore, hike, fish, relax and taste varied vintages.
The heart of Mendocino County, inland Ukiah Valley was celebrated in the 1970s for its back-to-the-land culture. Today, it earns renown for Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Chardonnay vines, as well as renowned wineries like Fetzer and Parducci.
A green gem, Anderson Valley lies on the way to the coast. In this cooler Microclimate, a growing collection of boutique wineries makes elegant Pinot Noir and complex sparkling wines. Mendocino, reminiscent of a quaint New England town, remains the soul of the region. It’s one of the most relaxed, unpretentious and artistic coastal towns in California.
Lake County offers hot summer days and cool nights, swimming and bass fishing at Clear Lake, and increasingly noteworthy wines, especially crisp Sauvignon Blanc and big but balanced Cabernet Sauvignon.
Although vineyard land is in high demand these days due to the recent recognition of the region’s wines, visitors won’t feel pressured or hurried. Both Lake and Mendocino counties still offer wide-open roads, tasting rooms and restaurants.
The Top Grapes of Mendocino/Lake Counties
Comparatively light in body, color and texture, Mendocino Coast and Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs can either be fruity and spicy, or more restrained, complex and savory.
Balance and charm trump power in Mendocino Chardonnay, which typically displays apple, melon and vanilla flavors along with bright acidity. Coastal Chardonnay is often used in sparkling wines.
Flavors can include ripe cherries and blackberries, smoky oak nuances and a hint of sweetness. Others are more classically briary, with tobacco and black-pepper accents, especially when blended with Petite Sirah.
Especially when grown on mountain ranges, Lake County Cabernet offers great tannic structure, intensely concentrated redfruit flavors and balanced acidity. Some improve with 10 years of aging.