Northern California’s secret wine country

Like anything worthwhile, the tiny Northern California town of Boonville takes some effort to reach. Nestled among rolling hills and vineyards, it’s the hub of the 25-mile Anderson Valley in southern Mendocino County, accessible by a twisty, 30-mile ribbon of two-lane highway that runs through its main drag. Dotted with a single hotel and a handful of restaurants and shops, Boonville’s town center – if you could call it that – is easy to miss.

However, instead of heading west for Mendocino’s rugged coastline, more visitors these days are stopping to experience the bucolic beauty of Boonville and its environs. A few vestiges of the former industries – sheep, apple farming and lumber – still linger, but nowadays, it’s all about grapes, with more than 70 wineries in Anderson Valley alone.

But unlike its ever-popular cousins to the south, Sonoma and Napa, Anderson Valley doesn’t have tour buses chugging between wineries, swanky spas or the latest “it” restaurant buzzing with clamoring crowds. Instead, the person pouring could very well be the winemaker. Cell phone service and Internet can be spotty and things start winding down by 9 p.m. In fact, the area even has its own slang dialect, known as Boontling, a mix of English, Scottish and Irish Galic, Pomoan and Spanish commonly used until well into the late 20th century.

That sense of independence and pride in a slower pace of life still persists today, making this eclectic enclave seem much further than just a two-hour drive from San Francisco -and not your typical tourist destination.

“It’s not for everyone, and we know it’s not for everyone,” says Melinda Ellis, managing partner and dessert chef at the cheerful Boonville Hotel, the town’s sole hotel. “We joke around here that we need a bumper sticker that says, ‘The Boonville Hotel: Not for Everyone.’”

“Before we book a wedding, we ask the bride and groom to come and stay with us a night to see how we do things around here,” continues Ellis. “We have a special style, the way we do things. We’re not highly planned or super detail-oriented, but what’s here is way more personal.”

Who's right for a visit to this unique slice of California? Anybody looking to unplug and unwind with good food, great wine and the simple pleasures of the countryside. In other words, my husband and I on who wanted to go somewhere special to celebrate our second wedding anniversary.

Wine and Apples

Chris and I begin our Saturday of wine tasting at Navarro, one of Anderson Valley’s oldest post-Prohibition wineries. In a sunny tasting room overlooking rows of splendid vines and sheep-dotted meadows, we scan the menu, which features about a dozen selections of white, red and rosé.

I ask the woman who’s pouring how many tastes come with the $5 fee. She pauses before answering, “Oh, whatever!” with a bemused flourish, filling our glasses with a juicy red blend called Navarrouge, whose bright, nuanced flavor far exceeds its $15/bottle price tag.

Her relaxed attitude sets the tone for the weekend and also helps illustrate the draw for a new generation of residents. A few miles down the road, in the fragrant kitchen of the Apple Farm, a working farm and cooking school in the tiny town of Philo, Katie Norton explains her recent move from Washington D.C. as she slices dried apples. “There’s a different attitude here, a different pace of life, different priorities,” says Norton, who works as assistant to Apple Farm proprietor Karen Bates.

Foodies will likely recognize Bates’s maiden name – Schmitt – for its culinary pedigree:  Her parents are Don and Sally Schmitt, original founders of the world-renowned Napa Valley restaurant French Laundry. In 1994, the couple sold the iconic eatery to its current owner, Thomas Keller, and turned their attention to an aging apple farm the family had bought in the mid-1980s.

Bates and her husband, Tim, led the restoration of the now-biodynamic farm, adding three well-appointed guest cottages in 2000. A quarter-century later, day-to-day operations remain a family affair, and guests also are invited to join in the daily chores, from churning butter to picking apples, as part of “Farm Weekend” and “Relaxed Farm Weekend” packages. Monthly lunches, dinners and special cooking events are also offered. But, as is the prevailing vibe in these parts, there’s nary a whiff of culinary pretention.  A young cow on the farm is named Chops, after all.

A glass of potent cider in hand, we spend about an hour roaming the property, as all visitors are encouraged to do.

On our way out, we stop by the honor-system farm stand for a jar of Bates & Schmitt raspberry jam (which was served at breakfast at the Boonville Hotel that morning and so lip-smackingly good I had to resist licking the jar clean) and head out in search of more wineries.

Bubbles and Bargains

Since arriving in Anderson Valley, we’ve received several recommendations from locals for wineries, but a few names keep getting mentioned: Toulouse, Elke, Roederer, Goldeneye and Foursight. In two days, we hit six vineyards and pick up eight bottles of wine (including two magnums of sparkling), enticed by their excellent quality and price points far lower than what we’re accustomed to in Sonoma. Tasting rooms are crowd- and tchotchke-free, welcoming and, in the case of Elke, which is just outside Boonville, so cozy that I wonder how groups of more than four can fit at one time.

We’ve also heard quite a bit about Libby’s, a Mexican restaurant in Philo that some claim serves up the tastiest food in town. But when we stop for lunch, the closed sign is already on the door, despite the fact that it’s several minutes before 2 p.m. – the closing time listed – and several tables are still chowing down. An employee inside shakes her head when I give her a hopeful smile, so we make do with takeout deli sandwiches from the small grocery store next door.

A common phrase among vintners is that it takes a lot of beer to make a great wine, and indeed, after a day of sampling, our puckered palates are ready for a cold brew. For more than 20 years, the Anderson Valley Brewing Company has been serving up craft beers that have earned a devoted following across the country, from their crisp, creamy Summer Solstice to the signature Boont Amber Ale.

We sip our brews and crack our way through a basket of peanuts at the shady picnic tables outside, watching more energetic folks work their way around the brewery’s disc golf course. A special anniversary dinner, complete with farm-to-table dishes and more superb wine, awaits at Table 128, Boonville Hotel acclaimed prix fixe restaurant, later that evening. But for now, Chris and I toast to the moment – a content, relaxed afternoon in what feels like our secret country escape.

If you go...

From San Francisco, head up Highway 101 north to the Cloverdale exit. From there, take Highway 128 west toward Mendocino.

The Boonville Hotel (707-895-2210) offers 15 cheerful, upscale rooms and cottages, friendly staff and Table 128, regarded as Boonville’s best restaurant.

The Philo Apple Farm (707-895-2333) provides guests with a chance to have a hand in their dinner, with farm-stay weekends in three well-appointed cottages. (There’s also a privately accessed room above the kitchen area.)

Libby’s Restaurant (707-895-2646) in Philo serves up scrumptious Mexican food in a no-frills setting (just make sure to arrive well before their closing time: 2 p.m. at lunch and 9 p.m. for dinner).

Lauren’s Good Food (707-895-3869), a homey restaurant on Boonville’s main drag, offers a quirky international menu and, many nights, live music or trivia.

Paysanne (707-937-18310) is a pocket-sized sweet shop in Boonville that serves up gourmet organic ice cream, homemade caramels and cookies in flavors like gingersnap and chocolate sea salt.

Navarro Vineyards (707-895-3686, or 800-537-9463) 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily), one of the oldest post-Prohibition in Anderson valley, serves superb, well-priced wines in its cheerful tasting room, as well as daily tours.