We first visited the Anderson Valley on a rainy day at the end of January. As we were driving along the Route 128, the fog was creeping through the hills. Tall, Spanish moss-draped trees surrounded the narrow winding road. The mobile connection was lost, and there were no other cars or people in sight. If a gnome appeared from behind a tree, it would have not surprised me at all.
No gnomes were in sight, however, and weathered-wood barns, which could have been their perfect homes, mostly housed tasting rooms. Wines were poured inside to the sounds of quiet conversations, promising a day of vinous delights.
When we came back to the Valley on a bright sunny day a few months later, the fog was gone, and the number of visitors visibly increased. Yet, the place felt hardly more hurried, and its magic remained.
This magic perhaps stemmed from a homey atmosphere and a bit of imperfection in story-telling (in lieu of standard tasting room scripts), which felt genuine.
Or it could be those small details, like a handwritten dinner menu or a generous offer to taste some cheeses on top of the wines, which made us feel like discoverers of hidden treasures, even though all these treasures had already been unearthed and well documented before.
The first treasure literally sparkled in our glasses. Roederer Estate’s beautiful top cuvée, the 2005 L’Ermitage, exuded aromas of peaches, freshly cut citrus fruit, dried apricots and toasted bread. Its long full finish left a lasting impression.
Pale salmon-colored Roederer Estate Brut Rosé (NV) was another fine sparkling. Made from 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay, it had delicate floral, strawberry and cherry aromas and a refreshing acidity.
Looking like a barn from the outside, Roederer Estate’s tasting room is all about wine rather than architecture, art or glamour, and the estate makes some of the best sparkling wines in northern California, in my opinion.
French enologists from the mother company, Louis Roederer, are still very much involved in the winemaking, said our host Jim. They come to California every February to taste through base wines from 80 different plots, a well as 60 reserve wines, in order to decide on the final blends.
Jim, who’d been with the Estate for four years, had as many winemaking stories, technical details, and own opinions to share, as we were willing to hear. This was definitely one of the better tours we’d been on, and at $6, a great value.
For lunch, some sizzling delights from the oak firewood oven were expecting us at Stone & Embers inside the Madrones. The tangy Spanish white anchovy pizza on the fabulously thin, crunchy crust was a perfect pairing with a glass of Anderson Valley Brewing Brother David’s Triple Abbey Ale. Wood roasted asparagus and the salad of charred and raw vegetables were equally delicious.
We were told that the restaurant makes a maximum of 60 pizzas a day, which sell out quickly. We believed it – a dozen or so tables were full, and a few more people came to pick up their take-aways.
While waiting for the table, we dropped in at Knez tasting room*, which is also conveniently located inside the Madrones.
The stylish tasting room featured Magis One stool look-alikes outside and Eames chairs inside. The wine labels were equally well-designed.
Though a young winery (its first vintage was just 6 years ago in 2009), Knez makes wines from older biodynamically farmed vineyards, Cerise and Demuth.
Pronounced in a slow, smoky voice, which belonged to Margaret, the tasting room manager, the vineyard names sounded mesmerizingly foreign. I particularly liked Demuth, or rather Knez Demuth Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012. Made from 30-year-old vines that grow at the 1400-1700 feet (430-520 m) elevation, the wine oozed aromas of fresh sweet strawberries, cherries, candied fruit and rose petals.
An afternoon walk in the Navarro Vineyards and the ensuing tasting gave us some additional insights into the Valley’s enchantments. Navarro probably receives the biggest tourist traffic, not least due to its California’s Winery of the Year** award in 2014, yet it manages to keep the old-world charm and a relaxed atmosphere.
“To get a job here, someone must retire or die,” laughed Jen, our tour guide. “Our winemaker Jim Klein has been here for over 20 years, and the owners still live on the property.” She herself is a relative newcomer, having joined Navarro 2,5 years ago. But as a local private chef, she’d been pouring Navarro wines for many years.
It’s a very family-oriented place, added Jen, and even seasonal workers from Mexico come here with family members year after year.
Both the tour and the tasting at Navarro are free, which is surprising given the unparalleled number of wines to taste – 15! The prices, too, are modest by California standards: all the whites but one are under $20, and the reds are under $30.
I liked several wines from the extensive list, e.g. Gewurtztraminer, Anderson Valley, Estate bottled (Dry) 2013 with its muted aromas of tropical fruit (melon, banana, pineapple) and peaches. The wine has a nice acidity and sufficient body to pair well with some seriously spicy Asian food.
One other thing that seemed apparent in the Anderson Valley was a very direct link between the farm and the table, be it a glass or a plate. When walking in the Navarro Vineyards, we saw sheep from the sister farm Pennyroyal enjoying their maternity leave. Penniroyal Farm was started a couple years ago by the owners’ daughter, Sarah. “We only milk goats and sheep about six months in a year,” said Jen, explaining why the cheese selection in the tiny deli was smaller than usual. “And we don’t store milk: everything is made fresh.”
If you have ever wondered, like me, what the French ever found in the salty brown liquid full of cooked onions and a piece of soggy bread, try the soupe à l’oignon at Coq au Vin, and you’ll never wonder again. This gem of the French country cuisine is located in a unassuming roadside cabin with the toilet entrance from the outside.
It was of course my half-French husband who ventured to order the soup (my previous experiences, even in France, were quite upsetting) but the bowl somehow quickly traveled to my side of the table.
“We make everything from scratch: cook unsalted beef broth for several hours and caramelize the onions,” explained Madame Marie, the owner. They also don’t skimp on good cheese, I noted.
Madame Marie was the only staff in the dining room, swiftly moving between the kitchen and ten or so tables, bringing out food, opening wines and seating new guests.
Hand-written menus, the decor, which didn’t try to look French and felt authentic for that reason, genuine cordiality without affectation, and most of all, delicious food, had a hypnotic effect on us. We simply lost the sense of time and place.
Magic does happen in the Anderson Valley.
P.S. Coq Au Vin sadly closed in the summer of 2015.
*Knez has since closed (update: 2019)
**Award by the California State Fair