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Discover California’s wildest, most earth-friendly wine region.

Betsy Andrews
June 18, 2018
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A winding, hour-long drive north from Sonoma lands you in Mendocino County, California’s wildest, most earth-friendly wine region. From its main growing area, the Anderson Valley, on up and further inland through Hopland and Ukiah, Mendocino’s 10 appellations boast the most organic, biodynamic, and certified fish-friendly vineyards in the state.

Here, high altitudes, ocean breezes, and big swings in daytime and nighttime temperatures keep the fruit fresh and in balance, for lithe, layered wines. Cool-climate Pinot Noir is a Mendo specialty, but all sorts of grapes are cultivated here. Whether you’re sampling in the tasting rooms along the Anderson Valley’s Highway 128, or finding bottles online or in stores, there’s a Mendocino wine for you. Here are 14 to start with:

($32)

To produce this whole-cluster, blush-hued riff on Germany’s Spätburgunder Weiss, innovative winemaker Alex Crangle makes beautiful use of the natural acidity in organically farmed grapes picked a week before the main Pinot harvest. Snappy-sweet, it sings of early-season peaches. (Available July 1)

($35)

Pennyroyal is on the valley floor, but for this melony, mineral Chardonnay, winemaker Sarah Cahn Bennett vinifies fruit grown in a bespoke block on the slopes of her parents’ Navarro Vineyards up the road. Full malolactic fermentation on the lees lends a buttery wash that helps it pair perfectly with aged goat and sheep’s milk cheeses, including the wheels made at Penny Royal. 

 ($28)

Winemaker Stephanie Rivin hops in the tank herself to foot tread old-vine grapes dry farmed at Hopland’s acclaimed Poor Ranch for this wonderfully complex carignan. Tight, flinty earth girdles lush mixed berries, both tart and red, and dark and brambly. It’s great stuff for pairing with summer’s barbecued meats. 

($22)

Deborah Cahn and Ted Bennett came to the Anderson Valley back in 1973 and recognized their property’s cool, breezy hillsides as prime acreage for Alsatian-style wines. Fresh as can be and relatively low in alcohol at 12.8 percent, this bright, apple-blossom Riesling is a great summer picnic refresher.

 ($40)

Plenty of Napa and Sonoma wineries source grapes in the Anderson Valley. Some Sonoma grapes do the reverse commute. While producing vibrant Mendo Pinots, the Anderson Valley’s husband-and-wife winemakers Eric Story and Allison Smith-Story also made just 76 cases of this deliciously aromatic Semillon. Its flowery nose opens onto a bittersweet herbaceousness and a rippling, dry finish. 

($45)

Way back in 1982, the big Champagne house Roederer recognized that cool-climate Anderson Valley could yield vivacious sparkling wines. This is the best of them. Made only in exceptional years, the cuvée—including the addition of some older reserve wine aged five years in French oak—has rested on the lees for five years and then another five months in the bottle. All that time brings creamy body and a yeasty, bready maturity to the citrusy chardonnay-pinot blend. $48; wine-searcher.com; roedererestate.com

($45)

With a tasting room in Anderson Valley’s Boonville but an estate further inland where it’s hotter and drier, tiny Seabass pulls from their own old vines for this primitivo-style bottling. Aged for 33 months using just 10-percent new oak, it’s big and dark, yes, but with a smooth mouthfeel and nuanced plummy, pruney, slightly peppery flavors. 

 ($48)

Winemaker Phil Baxter naturally ferments and basket presses the heritage champagne-clone grapes he sources from 36-year-old, dry-farmed vines in the heart of the Anderson Valley for this lush, raspberry-like Pinot. Nice and bright yet with a touch of smoky spice reminiscent of the Piment d’Ville peppers that grow nearby, it wears its complexity with joie de vivre—if that can be said of a wine. Pair it with smoked meats

($25)

Yes, they use saignée method, blending bled-off juice from various vineyards’ pinot production. But winemaking couple Jennifer Waits and Brian Mast still make a darned tasty rosé. Pale-hued and mineral, with a lovely sour cherry flavor, this is a -on summertime sip. 

($45)

From grapes planted in 1998 up in Mendocino’s woodsy, mountainous Comptche, this Pinot might have a fantastically floral nose, but on the palate, it’s all earth, mushrooms, and evergreens. With the coast just a dozen clicks due west, it resolves in a lean, fresh finish. 

($22)

From the Ridge’s Islands in the Sky Vineyard, the dry-farmed grapes for this Sauvignon Blanc lend an herb-laced intensity to the wine’s sweet-tart citrus-and-passion fruit foundation. If you visit the Anderson Valley tasting room, you can sip it between yucks as Lula’s Dan Reed delivers his comedic schtick. 

($50)

If a cherry and a blueberry hooked up in a bed of wild herbs and had a love child, it would be this luscious yet savory Pinot Noir. It’s the inaugural release of the winery’s own estate label, vinified from grapes grown 1,250 feet up on the Mendocino Ridge overlooking the Pacific.

 ($48)

Like Frost’s woods, this Pinot Noir from a Mendo Ridge Vineyard is lovely, dark, and deep—a bottle to linger over. Funky, mushroomy, and earthy, yet with loads of fruit, it’s like black cherry candy spilled in a barnyard. Trust us; it’s addictive. 

 ($44)

Itsy-bitsy newcomer Maryetta has a minimalist, garage-like tasting room on the south end of Boonville, where you can sample their lean, food-friendly Pinots. This bottling offers Burgundian-style earth and Bing cherries, lit up by a blaze of spice. 

See here for tips on where to eat, shop and stay in the Anderson Valley.

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