In the Anderson Valley, slow is beautiful
Even the silence is different here. Despite a woodpecker working furiously on the eaves of a not-too-distant water tower and the buzz of tractors trolling, the quiet—like the canopy of fog—settles around you, pulls you in and ultimately disorients you. I wake early to a dense, poetic mist on the vineyards and the local folk and bluegrass show “Humble Pie.” I make some coffee and toast and watch the tractors and men in dungarees, at first startled by the activity; the view looks like a watercolor in motion. The fog gradually trails off, and when I check the clock it’s already past noon. It would be enough to stay right here—as I’m sure many do—making a journey of simply this pastoral view, sitting on this wraparound porch for hours, drifting.
Some destinations are distinguished by their remoteness; others by their incantatory ruggedness; still others by their mystery. The Anderson Valley, which runs about 25 miles from Yorkville to Navarro in Northern California’s Mendocino County, is characterized by a little bit of all of that. On the way in you can’t see much of it from the road—maybe a plume of smoke from someone’s fireplace just above the ridgeline, possibly a lone jogger. That road in tells its own oblique stories: a little house collapsed in on itself, its chimney bricks spilled like a derailed toy train; the uneven patchwork of gently sloping vineyards; aloof sheep grazing, egrets strolling; a stand of burnt and broken trees. Alongside, the skeletons of new wood-framed buildings rise, and freshly painted wine-tasting rooms pop up at intervals.
Once little more than a series of stagecoach stops from Cloverdale to the coast and known for apples, prunes and peaches, the Anderson Valley has survived killer frosts, biblical floods and Prohibition. It is physically breathtaking, but physically demanding. The grapes that are now grown here are tough enough to weather inclement conditions, and so are the people—the loggers, the self-described hippies, the wine folks, the farmers and the urban refugees who have cultivated this place and continue to carefully tend its character. Which is why some locals are still surprised at even incremental change—upscale tasting rooms, notions shops, showplace homes—in a valley that is difficult to get to and difficult to depart.
My otherworldly lodgings are just north of Philo proper, at Handley Cellars, on winemaker Milla Handley’s 30-acre Estate Vineyard. It’s on the other side of what she calls the “twisties,” 20-some miles of rolling two-lane road that can discourage those souls made queasy by a waltzing set of bends and turns that feel like an elaborate digression. It’s the stretch you hit if you’re driving in from Oakland or San Francisco, by way of the 101 north to Highway 128, the main drag through the valley. On my way here the day before, I passed billboards advertising September’s county fair, the venerable Gowan’s Oak Tree Fruit Stand and its Burma Shave-style signage, and the Grange No. 669, which functions as a multipurpose town hall and headquarters for the area’s NPR stations.
Once I got to the turnoff for the Apple Farm in Philo—which along with an opulent orchard is home to a cooking school I’d attended a couple of years ago—I knew I wasn’t too far from Handley Cellars. The winery sits at the base of Holmes Ranch, where a cluster of historic wood buildings remains—the barn and water tower, as well as the ranch house where I’d be staying. I arrived just as the light began to wane, and there was Handley herself, a silhouette with flapping skirt, waiting at the wide curve of the drive with the key. The apartment—decorated with folk art from around the world, the beds covered with handmade quilts—overlooks one of the winery’s working vineyards. There was a bowl of fruit on the dining-room table, and fresh coffee beans (and a grinder) on the kitchen counter, as well as a loaf of local Bruce Bread—deep brown, studded with raisins and nuts—for morning toast. All touches that said: Make yourself at home.
Milla Handley tells stories of her first years here that are as twisty as the road leading into the valley. And in this, her 25th year in the business, she’s accumulated all manner of tales. She’s been here long enough to see how dramatically it has changed: how it has evolved from a region considered inhospitable to grapes and thus to winemakers into one that is producing world-class Pinots, Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs. After coffee on the porch of the ranch house, I make my way down the dirt path to the winery’s sunny tasting room. It’s already busy, but Handley is gracious enough to clear off a chair in her small office so we can talk awhile.
It was 1982 when Handley made her first bottles of Chardonnay in her basement. A graduate of fermentation sciences at UC Davis, she had moved here a few years before with her husband, Rex, after the birth of their first daughter. They were definitely early settlers in a region still thought of as mysterious viniculture territory. “I didn’t know much about the area,” she says. “I’d only cruised through it on a motorcycle, and I thought: Oh my God! It’s far out! Far out in every possible way and meaning.” But the couple quickly fell into routines and friendships. “The community was very small, but it was a community.” She had her horse-riding friends, her baby group; her husband played on the Winos softball team against other aptly named teams, such as the Clams (“the hippie team”) and the Loggers.
Despite the isolation, Handley says, she was more comfortable with rural. “One of the reasons I picked winemaking is that I wanted to do something in the country. I never liked cities. It might have to do with getting dressed up and wearing gloves.” Straight away she got her hands dirty, studying and working under winemaker Jed Steele at Edmeades, one of the valley’s seminal wineries. (It was named after Donald Edmeades, a Pasadena cardiologist who planted 24 acres of grapes in the ‘60s in spite of scoffing neighbors. He christened the spot with a handmade sign declaring it “Edmeades’ Folly.”) In her time here she’s done a little bit of everything, from driving tractors to fixing broken pumps—”I learned to be mechanical because everything broke”—and she keeps a folding handsaw in her car “because if there’s something in the road, you don’t always want to wait for the guys with the chain saw.” But most of all she’s learned the quirks of this place. “It is not a vague valley,” she says.
As a point of illustration, she loads us into her Honda SUV and heads up Holmes Ranch Road into the hills—so that I can actually see the valley. “We get a lot of thunder-bumpers,” she says, gesturing toward a brooding bank of clouds in the eastern sky. The climate, says Handley, “has a lot of different personalities when you leave the twisties. It’s vivid in personality and climatically when you get to the Yorkville end.” She still remembers the intensity of the seasons when she first moved here. “There were spring frosts and fall frosts right before you’d pick. So you can’t grow everything here.” Over the years, through trial and error, farmers and winemakers began to learn what worked in a region that seemed not just obstinate but merciless: Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, they found, grow well here. As do Rieslings. “They excel with personality on the deep end of the valley—lemony, apple and a mineral quality,” she says. “That’s because of the cold nights.” Along with local varietals, she reels off the names of some of the valley’s eminent residents past and present: a former Playboy Bunny, writer Alice Walker and Kary Mullis, who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the polymerase chain reaction—a.k.a. DNA “fingerprinting.” “He was driving down 128 when he figured it out!” she says.
We rattle slowly up the dirt road, passing indolent sheep and family-owned wineries such as Esterlina, then pause at the top of the ridge, high above Handley’s property. “Harvest can be pretty intense,” she says. “Twenty percent of it is traffic control, deciding what vineyards need to be picked and when. I always have to wonder if I’m over-thinking or paranoid. But we see every vineyard within a day or so of picking.” And just how many vineyards is that? “I don’t know, let’s just say I drive 150 miles before 11 a.m.” She points out the topography—how the valley fits together like a vast earth-toned jigsaw puzzle. “There’s Roederer’s Pinoli vineyard, and where it gets narrow, that’s Navarro. That second batch of trees, with the haze, that’s the Hendy Woods. The valley is very rolling, and it’s here where you can see it best, the slow, gradual change—the opening of the subdivision in the ‘70s, later more architectural houses.
“But the biggest change, agriculturally, in my time, has been from apples to grapes.” With that, Handley observes, came “the dot-comers, the rise in property values and people coming up here to live with expectations of less ruralness. That and more people coming up just for the weekend.” Yet despite what change has brought to the valley, from this perch in the sky, looking at those vines stitched across the hills, you can’t imagine that this land was ever meant for anything else.
Just down the road from Philo is Boonville, population fewer than 1,000, a hamlet where a couple of centuries ago the locals devised their own language, Boontling, as a way to converse in code around outsiders. The town’s main street looks familiar, like a movie set or a delicately hand-colored photograph. And “town” is a cluster of side-by-side anachronisms: a general store serving organic food, an olive oil bar, the Zina Hyde Cunningham Tasting Room and a tavern called the Highpockety Ox (“highpockety” being Boontling for classy, refined or fancy).
My dinner reservations are for the 7 p.m. seating at the Boonville Hotel, with its Old West wooden facade. Up a couple of steps, past the cozy sitting room filled with books and board games, I enter the dining room. If the locals are wary of outsiders or interlopers, as the case may be, they are polite enough not to let on. (I meet three Angelenos in as many days, and so many San Franciscans I give up counting.) A restless cycle of folk moving in and out has become an integral piece of the town’s narrative. Still, even the slightest augmentation—a new art gallery, a posh wine bar—must alter life in a place where funeral announcements are taped to the post office’s front doors or where you might see a man walking his calf on a leash down the main road.
After a flute of Scharffenberger sparkling wine at the softly lighted five-stool bar, I’m led to a small table near a glowing fireplace. One of the men at a lively four-top nearby rises occasionally to keep the fire fed, checking to see if I’m cold. I am. It’s 32 degrees, and I too am from Los Angeles. People are conversing cross-tables, visitors and regulars remembering their first glimpses of the Mendocino coast and then the valley. “Here you had loggers, hippies and freaks right next to this Maine architecture,” says Gary Church, an artist who’s stopped by for a drink, maybe a little dinner. “It was like Disneyland. Like, ‘Why put this here? How did a place like this get here?’ I’d hitchhiked with a backpack—and just like so many others, I thought I’d stay.”
Dinner arrives: a deep bowl of Prince Edward Island mussels in a tomato-wine broth with chorizo and fingerling potatoes, prepared by the hotel’s proprietor and “cooker,” Johnny Schmitt (whose family operates the Apple Farm in Philo). Schmitt, a native of the San Joaquin Valley who grew up in Yountville, says he found himself drawn to the Anderson Valley for the usual reasons—the coast, the trees, the remoteness—but also for a set of incongruous ones: its beauty and its severity, its peculiar diversity and its intense sense of community. It’s a place where “off the grid” possesses layers of meaning—relying on renewable energy sources rather than the utility grid, living below the radar, untraceable, or just dropping out for a while on a weed patch.
“Back in the horse-and-wagon days it was an all-day trip back to Ukiah,” says Schmitt, taking a break between dinner seatings. “Even now, it’s far enough off the commuter track. There is no easy way out.” It’s changed, but not as fast and not as wholly as other surrounding places—Napa, of course, and Calistoga and St. Helena, and even Yountville. “I go to Napa Valley now and I don’t know anyone anymore. So many outsiders. This is what Napa Valley was years before. Everybody knows every- body. You may not like ‘em, but you know ‘em.”
Even Schmitt, himself a long-timer, got some blowback when he took over the hotel in 1987. “People would ask, ‘Are you going to shut out the locals?’ If it’s nice, they think it won’t be for locals.” He understands the worry, and while he too has observed (and been a part of) the changes here, he knows that the Anderson Valley is less likely to shift as dramatically as neighboring towns. “There’s never going to be an infrastructure here to grow and grow and grow. The county won’t allow it. There’s no more subdivisions, no utilities except electric—just a septic system. It’s restricted by its own nature. And that’s been a natural filter,” he says.
“People are drawn to it and they don’t know why. We consistently attract eccentrics. But you have to want to be here, because it’s hard. Mendocino is one of the poorest counties in the state. It’s hard to be here, hard to get here, hard to make a living here. But Boonville has this slow way of life that has become valuable. It’s not something you can buy.”
Time does a strange thing here, as Johnny Schmitt warned me. Life moves at a different pace—you have to set yourself to it. Still, I try to pack a lot of activity into not very much time. I run to Navarro for a quick tasting of a Gewürztraminer that hints of litchis, and then back to Boonville for some browsing at the Bates & Maillard Farmhouse Mercantile (co-owned by Schmitt’s sister, Karen Bates), where I linger over a potpourri of goods—Victorian nightdresses and cast-iron dish-warmers—and decide whether or not I should stock up on plum jam or pomegranate jelly from the Apple Farm.
There’s a quick trip to Goldeneye, the Duckhorn Wine Co.’s tasting room in Philo, which some locals view with an upraised brow as “more Napa-like.” It’s elegant, with glossy wood floors, cushy leather club chairs and a long dining table that looks out onto a fairy-tale garden. Nat “King” Cole tunes infuse the backspace as we taste two exclusive Pinots—the 2004 Goldeneye and the 2005 Migration—just weeks before their release to the public. A nice counter to this might be to go up the road to the Lazy Creek Vineyard for a more retro Anderson Valley experience. The tasting room there is a rough-hewn barn, and you can wander around the grounds and say hello to Sophie, the pot-bellied pig.
It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that I felt thwarted to learn that Libby’s Restaurant was closed—the family had taken its annual sojourn home to Mexico. So Saturday evening was rounded out at Lauren’s, known for its desserts—particularly the caramel bar pecan sundae and coffee pot du crème. With its knotty-pine paneled walls, a sofa full of dolls, the bar and stage, Lauren’s has become a de facto spot for community meetings, benefits, memorial services, jazz on Thursday nights and movies on Saturdays (tonight: “An Inconvenient Truth”).
Come Sunday, I’ve yet to see the coast, a craggy stretch of beach about half an hour out that has worked its siren charms on generations. I decide to go upscale. Dinner is at the Heritage House Inn, between Little River and Albion, a small fishing village. I ride out with Milla Handley and the manager of the ranch house, Jeanne Eliades. We thread north on the 128, through Navarro and rows of stately redwoods. There are more twists and turns, and then the Pacific behind a scrim of fog. We arrive a few minutes before our reservation, and the restaurant is still setting up. The hostess escorts us to the lounge, a sunken room with a huge fireplace and a northwest wall, all glass, that overlooks the jagged coastline.
We forgo our dining-room reservation to stay here as the last of the light slips away. We order appetizers—crab cakes, scallops, veal and sweetbreads, risotto and a green salad to share—and Handley decides to pair them all with one of her Pinots, the 2004 Anderson Valley, which is on the list. “This is something I don’t usually do, ordering my own wine,” she says. “But really, I think it will work!” Below, the water grows dark and indeterminate except for the surf line, which looks like white ink on a black page. Just a reminder that it is out there, drifting out and back, big and persistent. Handley’s and Eliades’ chat eventually turns to local matters, concerns from town to town, the interlocking stories, the one-degree-of-separations, the next generation of the Anderson Valley—the Rainbows, the Poppys, the Saffrons, the Sages. The hippies who eventually married loggers, those farmers’ sons who’d thought they’d grown tired of such a small place, but who decided to come back.
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