Plan C: The Winding Roads of Anderson Valley

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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 17, 2002

In my childhood, winding roads were the enemy. They mounted a swerving conspiracy against my stomach, a plot by my parents to make family vacations as painful as possible as we toodled around the Appalachians, rural Maine and even, once, southern France.

As an adult, however, I have discovered that twists and turns offer a hidden payoff: access to more secluded spots. Such is the case with Anderson Valley, an idyllic spot in Northern California's wine country. More remote than Napa and Sonoma, but still just 2 1/2 hours from San Francisco, this region in Mendocino County offers a low-key introduction to the world of wine.

That environment was critical to my mission last summer, which consisted of convincing my boyfriend, Vic -- who had (mis)spent much of his youth in the Old World -- that California wine was worth drinking. When he recoiled at the idea of mingling with the "hordes" in Napa (his words), I knew that my only chance to lure him was with the promise of less busy roads and less famous vineyards.

This is not to imply that the wineries are inferior, by any means. As one of the coolest grape-growing regions in California, due to fog that rolls in off the Mendocino coast, Anderson Valley produces excellent pinot noirs and sparkling wines. While it features a couple of big names, such as Roederer Estate, its real charm lies in smaller outfits like Lazy Creek Vineyards and Handley Cellars.

"It's like the Napa Valley was 40 years ago, with a bit of an upgrade," explains Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who represents the area.

At Lazy Creek, for example, you literally drive down a dirt road until you approach what looks like someone's garage. As long as the gate's open, you can walk in and sample wine with one of the two owners, Josh and Mary Beth Chandler.

The Chandlers, like many Anderson Valley residents, are converts. They had been working in the wine business in Napa when they came up for the weekend and saw the vineyard. They closed on it without even walking into the house.

"It was a completely emotional purchase," says Mary Beth Chandler, and they never regretted the decision. "That initial impression is exactly what it's like to live here."

Nearly every winemaker has a similar story. Tex Sawyer, who produces sparkling wines at Pacific Echo, describes the valley as "Shangri-la." And the winding roads, he notes, protect the valley from being overrun.

"You've got to really want to be here to get here," he says.

This also offers visitors a unique opportunity to meet the men and women who make the wine. Most tasting rooms don't charge a fee, and frequently you can spend half an hour chatting with the vineyard's top winemaker.

But Anderson Valley is no longer a backwater. Milla Handley and her husband, Rex McClellan, started their own winery, Handley Cellars, 20 years ago in the basement of their home. Now they produce 15,000 cases a year, offering sauvignon blanc, Gewurztraminer, pinot gris and pinot noir as well as a signature brut and a brut rosé. Duckhorn Wine Co., which is based in Napa, has bought land in recent years to create its Goldeneye vineyard in the valley.


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© 2002 The Washington Post Company


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