It didn’t take us long to spend the money we saved passing up pricey Napa Valley wine tastings. While we left Napa without purchasing even a single bottle, we didn’t come away empty-handed in another of California’s great wine regions.
The Anderson Valley is more off the beaten path than Napa and Sonoma, further north and harder to reach but well worth the effort. In fact, the effort is part of the fun. Driving from the coastal town of Mendocino we followed a beautifully winding, redwood-lined road that was as much a joy to drive as it was breathtaking to observe.
Along with being blessedly less crowded than its better-known counterparts, the Anderson Valley has the enticement of offering low- and no-cost wine tastings. It was such a shock after Napa’s seemingly standard $20 tasting fee that we felt almost indebted to the wineries for allowing us to sample their great wines gratis. Feeling well ahead of the game we eagerly repaid our debt by picking up some consumable keepsakes from the trio of vineyards we visited.
First Stop: Handley Cellars
Vintner Maya Handley’s tasting room is adorned with folk art acquired from Mexico, Bali, Africa, and other locales—reason enough for avid travelers to choose this vineyard out of the many in the Anderson Valley. After admiring the art and the wine during a free tasting, we settled on a 2011 Viognier, traditionally grown in France’s Rhône Valley ($22). This not-too-sweet white, with aromas of orange, guava, peach, and cinnamon and a creamy finish, is best drunk young. And so we obliged.
Next Up: Husch Vineyards
A sheep-filled pasture caught our eye and, on impulse, we pulled into the tasting room next to it, a cottage-like building that dates to the late 1800s and was once a pony barn. The oldest winery in the Anderson Valley, Husch Vineyards produces twenty-two different wines, most of which are only available on site. A complimentary six-wine tasting motivated us to put the money we didn’t pay for sampling towards a bottle instead. Our purchase: 2012 Muscat Canelli, a dessert wine with shades of apricot, peach, orange zest, and fresh flowers ($16).
Lunch Break: Libby’s
One word: Carnitas. Two words: Holy Cow.
If we seem a bit inarticulate it’s because Libby’s left us a little speechless. It’s the kind of place that has every reason to suck but is awesome instead. With so few other lunch options available in remote Philo, CA, they really could do a fine business serving boilerplate burritos to tourists and even some captive locals. They have no reason to work hard for our repeat business and yet they still cook up some of the crispiest, most succulent caramelized pork we’ve ever tasted.
There’s one downside, though. Libby’s has ruined us for lesser carnitas. Consider yourself warned.
Grand Finale: Goldeneye
When the owners of a Napa winery known for merlot decided to try their hand at another grape, pinot noir, they headed to the Anderson Valley to find the perfect patch of terrain. The only tasting of the day we paid for was at Goldeneye, where for a comparatively modest $10 fee we had an elegant, restaurant-style experience. No bellying up to a bar here, we were ushered onto a patio with umbrella-covered tables and a gorgeous view of vineyards and offered almonds and dried cranberries as palate cleansers. We sampled eight different wines, including five pinot noirs—the region’s best-known varietal—and found a surprisingly wide spectrum ranging from lighter-bodied to bold.
Alas, we left Goldeney empty-handed. Not because their wines weren’t delicious, they were exceedingly so, but because our far-and-away favorite also happened to be a bit out of our price range. That their Gowan Creek Pinot and other bottles carrying $80 price tags were part of our $10 tasting shows just how far from Napa we had gone. And yet not so far as to prevent a lovely and affordable day trip from that other California wine country.