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Mendocino County: California's rustic treasure

 

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Outside of California the wine region of Mendocino is little known, but it is fast gaining popularity as a top-tier producer of pinot noir and Alsace varietals. The tiny sub-region of Anderson Valley is, among pinot noir lovers, the new hot item, taking a place alongside Oregon's Willamette Valley and France's Burgundy. Mendocino is also known for its focus on organic winemaking practices – more than 25% of the grapes grown in Mendocino County are certified organic, more than anywhere else in the United States.

Like its neighbor to the south, Sonoma County, Mendocino contains two major climate zones: the hotter interior and the cooler coastal zone. Although no grapes are grown on the Pacific Ocean, vineyards in the Anderson Valley, Yorkville Highlands, and Mendocino Ridge are all cooled substantially by fog that rolls in off of the ocean. The county contains ten distinct subregions, including the smallest American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the United States: Cole Ranch, which is less than a quarter of a square mile. The county also contains the country's only non-contiguous AVA, the Mendocino Ridge, where vineyards must be planted above at least 1,200 feet above sea level to qualify.

The Anderson Valley is Mendocino's most famous region, with a number of small-scale, world-renowned pinot noir producers. Although the county had been planted since the 1860s, it wasn't until the 1970s that it began to produce wines exported in any volume – largely because it lacked the proximity to San Francisco enjoyed by neighboring Sonoma and Napa counties. The first real successes in Mendocino County's wine came when Louis Roederer, one of the top Champagne houses, planted pinot noir in Anderson Valley to produce French-style American sparkling wine. Beginning in the 1980s pinot noir began being used in still wines, and from 2000 on the region has seen a drastic increase in wine production, with many Sonoma and Napa producers opening their own wineries or sourcing grapes from local vineyards.

Tasting in Mendocino County is a very different experience than nearby Sonoma and Napa. Without the large numbers of visitors from San Francisco, and without the enormous wineries driving the movement, tasting rooms have remained intimate. Winemakers still often pour their own wines, tasting fees are relatively rare, and the settings are bucolic – reaching a winery to taste may involve driving down a long dirt road past dilapidated fences, over old wooden bridges, and through stands of old growth redwood trees.

Aside from pinot noir, the Anderson Valley is also known for its Alsace varietals – gewürztraminer, riesling, and pinot gris. The inland region is primarily known for zinfandel, chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. Older Italian varietals such as sangiovese, nebbiolo, and tempranillo can also be found inland – vestiges of the region's original Italian settlers.

 

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