IF YOU EVER want to see a sommelier get antsy, ask them to label a map. For those of us in the wine industry, especially those of us still memorizing flashcards for our next certification exam, maps, especially those of California’s vineyards, can be a two-dimensional torture device.
Part of this is because by the time a map has been printed, someone has opened a new winery or planted a new vineyard, and it’s already out of date. At least in Europe, where vineyards have been in place for hundreds of years, you can count on things not to change.
Knowing which furrow in the mountains contains which valley has been a challenge for me since day one, but it’s those mountain valleys that are crucial to California’s wine industry. These valleys make ideal natural buffers between distinct growing regions, allowing grapes that flounder in one area to shine in another.
Of course, we’re all familiar with the state’s major valleys of Napa and Sonoma, but there’s also Knights Valley, Suisun Valley, Russian River Valley, Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, High Valley, Big Valley, and, well, I think you get the point. And that’s just in the North Coast.
While they all may seem to run together, knowing the very basics of where to look can mean not only finding a delicious bottle of wine, but in saving a few dollars at the checkout line (for that second bottle of delicious wine, of course). An acre of prime vineyard land in Napa Valley can easily sell for almost $300 million, while an acre in lesser-known Mendocino County just a few hours north tops out at around $75,000 for the best sites. With the cost of land alone, not to mention production costs, it’s easy to see why more popular areas produce more expensive wines.
One of my favorite places to look for good-value wines is Anderson Valley in northern California’s Mendocino County. A relatively small valley, its almost perpendicular position relative to the coast allows it to funnel cool Pacific breezes deep inland while protecting the delicate grapes from the full force of the ocean’s winds. This proximity to the ocean makes it the coldest grape-growing part of California, creating an ideal place for grapes that thrive in cooler weather like chardonnay and pinot noir. These cooler temperatures preserve the grapes’ natural acidity.
While chardonnay and pinot get most of the Anderson Valley’s limelight, there are other wines also making a name for themselves. Gewürztraminer, a deeply aromatic white wine from France, has gained notoriety as well as petite sirah, a full-bodied red with telltale notes of chocolate and earth.
Fulcrum Gewürztraminer, $18
Gewürztraminer is the RuPaul of the wine world, somehow managing to be completely over the top and as stately as a beauty queen at the same time. Though almost exclusively grown in the Alsace region of France, it’s found a promising second home in Anderson Valley. I love this wine because it just has so much to say for itself, with notes of lychee, honeysuckle, rose and ginger. Its ability to pair with Indian and Thai food have made it a near constant presence at my dinner table.
Roederer Estate Brut, $25
When French Champagne house Louis Roederer (you know, those guys who make Cristal) began looking for a site for a California winery, they instantly recognized Anderson Valley’s unique ability to produce world-class sparkling wines. Their brut is a spunky wine made of both pinot noir and chardonnay, with aromas of lemon curd, fresh cream and pie crust. This has long been one of my favorite sparkling wines, not just in taste but in value. I’d gladly reach for this over several Champagnes that are more than twice its price. Roederer Estate also produces a sparkling rosé and vintage sparkling wines, both of which could be considered among the best in the country.
FEL Pinot Noir, $44
A cherry pie fever dream, this wine achieves the lightness that pinot noir is famous for while still maintaining a heft that will mature for a decade as the wine ages. Notes of gentle spice and raspberry linger on the finish, along with a distinct earthiness. If you consider pinot noir to be a spectrum, with the soft, delicate wines of Burgundy and Sonoma’s powerful pinots on opposing ends, you might find this wine splitting the exact middle. FEL also produces an outstanding chardonnay full of racy acidity and bright citrus notes.