Tucked between the rugged ridges and redwood trees of Mendocino County, Anderson Valley has a well-deserved reputation for wine quality thanks to pioneering wineries like Navarro Vineyards & Winery, Husch Vineyards & Winery, Handley Cellars and Roederer Estate.
This 15-mile-long valley and its surrounding hills, just 2.5 hours north of San Francisco, are both a paradise for growing wine grapes and a quiet, counter-culture community in which to live. The valley’s cool-climate suitability for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay has also made it irresistible to wine companies based elsewhere who have bought grapes, vineyards and wineries here. In contrast to them, however, is a new generation of small-scale, top-quality winemakers who call Anderson Valley home as they pursue their own elegant styles of Pinot Noir.
Pennyroyal Farm Sarah Cahn Bennett, co-owner and general manager
It’s common knowledge that cheese and wine pair nicely on the table. Now Pennyroyal Farm is proving that they pair equally well on the farm. This 100-acre property in Boonville is the only commercial farmstead cheesemaker in Mendocino County, and it also grows grapes to make beautifully balanced estate wines.
The relationship is synergistic, says Sarah Cahn Bennett. She manages the farm for her family, which also owns well-known Navarro Vineyards in nearby Philo. In winter, a herd of mostly Baby Doll Southdown sheep “mow” the cover crops while enriching the vineyard soil with their manure. Separate herds of dairy goats and dairy sheep produce milk for the farmstead cheeses. The liquid whey from the cheesemaking process is added to compost piles and then spread back under the vines when finished.
Cahn Bennett’s idea was to take this previous pastureland and make it a closed loop ecosystem to the extent possible. She and Herd Manager and Cheesemaker Erika McKenzie-Chapter are increasing the farm’s biodiversity and carbon sequestration while also welcoming visitors to relax and enjoy goat and sheep cheeses, made from the milk of their own herds, paired with Pennyroyal wines in a scenic, peaceful atmosphere.
“With regenerative farming you can literally see it: Our fields just became this living thing, and the wines completely changed when we began adding that organic matter back into the field,” says Cahn Bennett.
Since 2012, Pennyroyal has produced top-quality estate Pinot Noir, including two outstanding vineyard-block designations— the mouthwatering, tangy Eye of the Needle and the complex, savory Jean Sheep.
“To me, there is always a slight herbal element in our wines,” says Cahn Bennett. “Whether it’s tomato vine, mint, marijuana or pennyroyal.”
Lowercase pennyroyal is an indigenous flowering herb that smells like spearmint with a hint of basil which is planted among the cover crop mix. Cahn Bennett says it has thrived in this traditional sheep-ranching valley particularly because sheep don’t like its taste. Hence its perverse suitability as a name for the farm.
Lula Cellars Ken Avery, proprietor Matt Parish, winemaker
Lula Cellars did a reset in 2017 that boosted it into the top echelon of Anderson Valley-based Pinot Noir producers. Cofounder Ken Avery (above right) brought in New Zealand-born Matt Parish (above left) as winemaker, invested in new French barrels instead of barrel inserts and moved to a new cellar. Wines from the 15-acre Lula Vineyard near Philo in the cooler “Deep End” of Anderson Valley—and from other singular properties—immediately began showing more concentration, but with good balance, rarely going higher than 14% abv.
While lighter in body and oak than many highly rated Pinots, Lula is not shooting for a lean, crunchy style. “Our goal is to make great Pinot Noir and to prove the breadth of Anderson Valley and Mendocino County,” says Avery. “And to make wines that don’t have to have food.”
Parish, an experienced consultant who sells his own self-named brand through Naked Wines, has met the challenge. All six of the 2019 Pinots are outstanding, and the two that Wine Enthusiast rated highest, Lula Vineyard and Rescue Block, come from the estate property, offering gorgeous black fruit, subtle spices and a healthy dash of tannin.
A previous owner planted the first vines on the hillside property in 2010, but by 2012, when Avery and cofounder Jeff Hansen bought the place, those vines were overgrown and abandoned. They brought them back to life as the Rescue Block, while planting more vines starting in 2013.
Lula also produces excellent, single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, the strawberry-scented Costa Vineyard and the rosemary-accented Peterson Vineyard, from two growers in the Comptche neighborhood of Mendocino. Completing the lineup are a complex and seductive Anderson Valley blend and a Founder’s Cuvée blend that memorializes Hansen, who died in 2018.
The reset that began five years ago continues. Local viticulture guru Norman Kobler is now in charge of Lula’s estate vines. The small winery on Guntly Road sports a new tented tasting pavilion with a great view. And Parish is preparing new white wines, including Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay as well as non-Pinot Noir reds.
DuPuis Wines Wells Guthrie, vigneron
One of the most promising new, small wineries in Anderson Valley is owned and operated by a man who already knew the region well. Wells Guthrie cofounded Copain Wines in 1999 to focus largely on Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley. He became influential in the stylistic transition to less-ripe, elegant Pinot Noir in California.
Copain quickly went from startup mode to expansion mode, however, forcing him to be more salesman than winemaker, before eventually selling Copain to Jackson Family Wines in 2016.
Relieved to be out from under the financial pressure, Guthrie founded DuPuis Wines in 2018 on a remote 40-acre property in the hills overlooking Anderson Valley, complete with a seven-acre vineyard and a barn converted to a winery with family living quarters on the second floor. Guthrie’s focus quickly came back to well-balanced Pinot Noir with moderate alcohol and restrained use of new oak. The three DuPuis 2019 vineyard-designate wines are all standouts, culminating in the subtle but structured cool-site Wendling Vineyard expression.
Phillips Hill Estates Toby Hill, owner and winemaker
Toby Hill uses a palette full of unique vineyards to paint the brilliant array of Pinot Noirs that put Phillips Hill in the avant-garde of Anderson Valley wineries. The simile isn’t much of a stretch, either, since he was an artist before becoming a winemaker and draws the abstract images for each label.
His minimalist approach is expressed well in L’Air de Mer 2019, an intricate blend that evokes notes of bay leaves and red cherries along with a restrained texture. “For me, the challenge is to get all the subtleties that Pinot Noir offers, and you lose those subtleties with over-ripeness,” he says.
Wentworth Vineyard Mark X. Wentworth, owner and winemaker
Mark X. Wentworth was a real estate entrepreneur in New Jersey before falling head over heels for Anderson Valley wine and an Anderson Valley chef, who worked at the area’s best restaurant, the Boonville Hotel and Restaurant. “My stomach led me to my heart,” he says.
Now married to the pastry chef, Katie Wentworth, they and their two kids live on the estate vineyard property on Greenwood Road.
Wentworth makes precisely balanced, cherry-packed Pinot Noir from the seven-acre estate vineyard and from his second property, the four-acre Nash Mill Vineyard, plus an Anderson Valley blend. With neighbor Jason Drew as a winemaking mentor, Wentworth has produced consistently outstanding Pinots since the debut 2018 vintage.
Thomas T. Thomas Vineyard Thomas T. Thomas, proprietor
During a trip to Burgundy in 1999, Thomas T. Thomas took a tour through the underground cellars of Maison Joseph Drouhin conducted by Veronique Drouhin. The highlight of the tour for him was a taste of Chambolle-Musigny, a Pinot Noir from the Côtes de Nuits.
“It was like drinking liquid flowers,” says Thomas, who at the time had an undergrad degree in music and a master’s in finance, but no career in wine. “It was the most beautiful wine I had ever tasted. I remember thinking, ‘I want to do to this; this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’”
So Thomas, then treasurer for biotech firm Genentech, started on a path to grow Pinot Noir grapes in Anderson Valley and make wine from them. He bought 37 acres on a hilltop near Philo in 2001, planted three acres in 2008 and in 2017 became a commercial winemaker with the help of Randy Schock at nearby Handley Cellars.
Soon came an outstanding inaugural 2017 Reserve Pinot Noir and then even better 2018 and 2019 expressions, which show gorgeous fruit flavors backed by great structure and balance.
His annual production of 500 cases from his meticulous hillside blocks are bottled as Estate Grown, Buster’s Hill, Reserve and T. He uses up to 30% whole clusters in the fermentors after a three-day cold soak, ages the Pinots in 30% to 40% new, tight-grain French barrels for up to 17 months, and is now letting them bottle-age for another 18 months before release.
Thomas’ wines typify the new generation of somewhat lighter, laser-focused wines that land in the mid 13% range for alcohol content (compared to commercial California brands that can top 15%) and are more bright than purely rich in taste. He says it’s a fine line to walk. “I like a wine that I can drink by itself, but not so ripe that it overwhelms the food.
Drew Family Cellars Jason Drew, proprietor and winemaker
Jason Drew was no newcomer to winemaking in 2004 when he and his wife Molly bought an old apple orchard at 1,250 feet elevation in the Mendocino Ridge appellation. He’d studied viticulture and enology, done graduate work at the University of Adelaide and worked under a series of accomplished winemakers including Brian Babcock in Santa Ynez Valley and Cathy Corison in Napa Valley.
Corison, a master of refined, nuanced Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, inspired Drew to make Pinot Noir and Syrah the way he does today. “For Cathy, it was about elegance, balance and restraint,” he says. “That was formative for me about the style of wine I wanted to make.”
That style clearly runs through Drew’s lineup of estate-grown, single-vineyard and appellation-designated Pinot Noirs. They share a sense of concentration and purity, judiciously spiced with French oak but holding back just enough in body and ripeness to create an appetizing tension and age-ability. The Estate Field Selections, Estate Mid Slope and Valenti Ranch wines are routinely among the top wines produced by any winery from the region’s grapes.
Drew planted eight acres of vines at the estate property and built a small winery and home. It’s a sloping, ridgetop property with a view of the Pacific Ocean three miles away, boasting gravelly soil and a cool microclimate that is key for him.
“I always thought that climate is what drives Pinot Noir,” he says. “Not so much the soil, even though soil is always talked about a lot.”
Drew’s winemaking approach starts with being “really anal about the picking day.” Harvested when ripe enough for about 13% alcohol, the grapes undergo a one- to three-day chilling period before they are processed into varying portions of whole clusters for a three-day cold soak. Native yeast fermentation follows, with minimal punchdowns, before 18 months of barrel aging for estate-grown grapes.
“Something happens when you go from 11 months to 18 that adds complexity—even umami,” he says. It’s just one of the details he has mastered over his long career. “There are so many things in winemaking where precision really pays off.”
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!