Behind the Redwoods, a California Dream

Behind the Redwoods, a California Dream
Posted by CN Staff on January 07, 2003 at 23:22:47 PT
By R. W. Apple Jr.
Source: New York Times 
When you turn off busy Route 101 at Cloverdale and head up into the hills, you leave one world behind and enter another. The lumberyard, gas stations and fast-food joints quickly disappear as Route 128 twists its way northwest through scrawny, moss-covered trees. Only a scattering of houses can be seen.Forests of evergreens begin to appear as you drop down the western slope of the coastal ridge into the Anderson Valley, California's own Shangri-La. After passing through downtown Boonville, all seven blocks and 974 souls of it, you start to see grapevines growing in orderly ranks. But this is a vineyard region with a difference, still largely untouched by developers and weekenders. 
In Napa and Sonoma, the landed gentry drive Range Rovers and wear loafers; here they drive pickups and wear muddy boots. It is, as Bruce C. Cass observes mildly in "The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America," "an isolated and somewhat eccentric district."Early in the last century, the locals developed a lingo that they call "boontling," in which Boonville is called "Boont" and Philo, the only other town of significance, is called "Poleeko." A few people still speak it.The main purpose appears to have been to confuse outsiders, including the police. The valley and the slopes above it have long sheltered a motley crew of tax-evaders, back-to-the-earthers and other unconventional citizens, including, at various times, Charles Manson and Jim Jones. Marijuana is a major cash crop; last summer the police uprooted 24,500 plants in two days, but the district attorney, a man of sturdy libertarian principles, refused to prosecute.No one asks at local dinner parties whether it's O.K. to light up a joint. It's standard practice."A lot of people still come here to get lost," said Don Schmitt, himself a refugee from the Napa Valley, where he and his wife, Sally, operated the French Laundry before selling it to the superchef Thomas Keller. They now run a 32-acre organic spread called the Apple Farm with their daughter, Karen, and her husband, Tim Bates, where they grow 85 varieties of apples, including heirloom beauties like Gravensteins, Spitzenbergs and Arkansas blacks.But the wines are the big noise in the valley, and the big money-spinner. Roederer Estate, owned by the French Champagne house of the same name, produces what many experts (and many enthusiasts, like me) consider the best American sparkling wine, and Navarro bottles a range of outstanding still wines, including a luscious late-harvest gewürztraminer with hints of litchi.It is geography that makes the vineyards here special. Unlike the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, the Anderson Valley opens onto the Pacific Ocean at its far end, and its floor slopes from 1,300 feet above sea level in the southeast to 800 feet in the northwest. Fog slides up the valley in the mornings, slowing the ripening process, to the benefit of cool-weather northern European grape varieties like riesling, pinot noir and chardonnay.Driving along the ridge above the valley one day early last November, my wife, Betsey, and I felt as if we were on an island surrounded by vast, fleecy seas of cloud. But that same afternoon, as we tasted wine at a vineyard below, we luxuriated in bright sunshine that had burned through the fog.Inevitably, the valley is attracting more and larger growers, such as Kendall-Jackson and Duckhorn Vineyards, which now produces an intense, weighty pinot noir on its Goldeneye property here. Mr. Schmitt told me he frets about absentee ownership, about limited water resources and especially about the possibility that the valley will become monocultural, with orchards and sheep pastures being converted to vastly more profitable use as vineyards.The cultural impact has been substantial. In 1971, there were virtually no Spanish-speakers in the region. Now, following the importation of skilled Hispanic vineyard workers, more than half of the elementary and high school students speak Spanish. The valley is becoming a bit less insular."We feel a little like Oregonians," said Milla Handley of Handley Cellars, one of the pioneering Anderson Valley operations, which she and her husband, Rex McClellan, started 21 years ago in their basement. "We love where we live. There is something comforting about the isolation of the Anderson Valley. It's small and finite, defined by the mountains. We can live by ourselves."There's a strong community spirit — the true hippies, the old loggers, the winos like us, the commune people, we all play softball together, we all take part in the variety show every year. We don't hate visitors, not at all, but we don't want to see the valley overrun by tourists or grapes."I don't want to wait to make a left turn. That worries me."But it seems unlikely that the valley will be Napa-ized anytime soon, for all its attractions and all the Silicon Valley millions waiting to be invested. "We're too far from the Bay Area," said a young woman pouring zinfandel at the octagonal Greenwood Ridge tasting room. There's nothing to get people here — no freeways — and nothing to anchor them here — no shopping, and not very many hotels or restaurants."THIRTY years ago, Louis Roederer of Reims, which produces the luxurious Cristal Champagne, went looking for a place to make sparkling wine in the New World. Its chairman, Jean-Claude Rouzaud, sought growing conditions as close as possible to those in France. After scouring New Zealand and Tasmania, he chose California, but not the Napa Valley, as most of his competitors did."Here in the backwoods he found a good balance between heat in the daytime and cool temperatures at night and in the early morning," said Arnaud Weyrich, the 33-year-old Alsatian who is scheduled later this year to take over as winemaker from Michel Salgues, who is retiring.Another advantage was the temperature gradient in the valley, which is cooler at the ocean end, hotter at the inland end. Planting began in 1982, and the first wine was released in 1988. Roederer now has 125 acres of pinot noir and chardonnay vines near the ocean, 160 in the center, around Philo, and 117 at the warmer end, which gives it a variety of lots from which to blend.The whole Roederer operation was conceived in lavish but understated terms, with handsome stone walls and iron gates surrounding the main property, and the winery tucked carefully behind the brow of a hill to avoid overwhelming the landscape. The public tasting room is furnished with tapestries, antiques and Oriental rugs.Although the soil here differs from that in Champagne, and lime must be added to lower its acidity every two or three years, Roederer's basic California fizz, known as Roederer Estate brut, can be hard to distinguish from the old-country product. Pale, complex and truly dry, it contains a generous proportion of reserve wines, aged up to five years, as well as wines of the current harvest. The brut bottled in magnum is markedly richer and creamier.Roederer also makes a rosé here, which has more body than most, and a magnificent vintage brut called L'Ermitage, which is comparable to Cristal in its finesse. Made only in the best years, it has tiny bubbles and deliciously yeasty and nutlike flavors.Navarro is an entirely different bunch of grapes, planted in 1975 by Ted Bennett, who had made a fortune in the retail stereo business. Experts like Darryl Corti, the Sacramento wine and food maven, told him he'd never sell his gewürztraminer (and other aromatic varieties in which he wanted to specialize) through conventional channels. So he developed innovative techniques.The Mendocino coast, north of here, was just becoming a destination resort at the time, and Mr. Bennett persuaded people headed there from San Francisco to stop and buy at his tasting room. His wife, Deborah Cahn, an advertising copywriter, began turning out a stylish, witty quarterly newsletter. The Internet beckoned. And restaurants like Ducasse in New York and Peristyle in New Orleans came shopping.Jim Klein, the winemaker, who was wearing blue wraparound sunglasses when we spoke at an outdoor table next to the Navarro tasting room, told me that Mr. Bennett had bought land cheap and had therefore been able to keep prices low. He sold his 2001 chardonnay for $9.75."He's very cost-oriented," said Mr. Klein, who was named winemaker of the year in 2002 by The San Francisco Chronicle. "That obviously helps. When most people were hit by the post-Sept. 11 slump, we didn't see a beep, and 95 percent of our sales are direct. Only 5 percent goes to distributors."In addition to bargain-basement chardonnays, crisp pinot gris, ethereal gewürztraminers and zingy rieslings, Navarro makes excellent pinot noirs, light-bodied but subtle and age worthy, from grapes grown high on the slopes above the winery, where they are exposed to the cool maritime breezes.Milla Handley, a great-granddaughter of the founder of Blitz-Weinhard, a regionally renowned brewery in Portland, Ore., graduated from the nation's premier oenological school, at the University of California at Davis. Politically aware and socially active, she operates according to firm principles. She said she is absolutely determined, for example, "never to buy grapes for $3,500 a ton from some yuppie grower, which would put my wines beyond reach of the average consumer."The Handley Cellars press kit says: "Milla encourages balance between work and family by promoting a family-friendly atmosphere that leads to the gathering of employees' children after school, and flexible scheduling to accommodate family priorities." Now there's the authentic Anderson Valley ethos speaking.My own favorites among Ms. Handley's wines are the lean, slightly mineral Anderson Valley chardonnay, which tastes more European than Californian, with none of the overripe butterscotch flavor produced in hot climates, and a pinot noir with overtones of ripe cherries, which she terms "the challenging child."Others have other specialties. Husch, whose gewürz was the first Anderson Valley wine I ever tasted, 25 years ago, still does a fine job with that grape. Greenwood Ridge excels at merlot and zinfandel. Lazy Creek's young owners make highly concentrated pinot noir from the fruit of old vines.THE local weekly, The Anderson Valley Advertiser, is as unconventional as the valley itself. Its editorial philosophy may be deduced from its front-page mottos, "Peace to the cottages! War on the palaces!" and "All happy, none rich, none poor." Not surprisingly, the local establishment, such as it is, doesn't agree very often with the paper's feisty self-description: "The country weekly that tells it like it is!"Its editor is Bruce Anderson, 63, a tall, bearded, surprisingly courtly man who sports a beat-up fedora much like the one Averell Harriman used to wear. He prints 4,000 copies of each issue, some of which go to subscribers who live as far away as New England. In addition to printing the kinds of local tidbits that once filled many American newspapers, plus two or three pages full of readers' letters, he runs a column for the marijuana crowd called "CannibiNotes" and a weekly essay by Alexander Cockburn, the left-wing British journalist, who lives up the coast in Humboldt County.But the paper's staple is long articles excoriating officialdom, local, national and international, contributed by freelancers who relish seeing their stuff run uncut. (Mr. Anderson pays $25 a piece). One week in early November, targets included American imperialism, the California Fish and Game Commission and President Bush's decision to withhold all federal funds from the United Nations Agency charged with population control and maternal care.Mr. Anderson is a relentless campaigner. He has hammered away on the case of a friend named Judi Bari, an environmental activist who was killed by a bomb. The bomber, he told me, "is still unpunished, and no serious effort has ever been made to find the truth, 12 years down the road." He suspects her former husband.Sometimes The Advertiser goes off the deep end, but always entertainingly. For months, Mr. Anderson promoted the idea that a certain Wanda Tinasky, who wrote regular letters to the paper, was in reality the reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon, and that Mr. Pynchon was living in hiding somewhere in the region."In fact," the editor said, "Tinasky was nothing but an erudite old hippie who later murdered his wife and killed himself. I was wrong — at book length."The general air of zaniness in the valley is enhanced by boontling. Despite the efforts of Heidi Haughy Cusick of the Mendocino County Alliance, we never managed to find a boontling speaker. But the lingo is all around you. A cafe in Boonville is called "Horn of Zeese" (cup of coffee), a booth on the main drag is labeled "Buckey Walter" (pay phone) and fanciers of the grape refer to good wine as "bahl seep." Handley makes a gewürz-riesling blend called Brightlighter, which means city folk in boontling. There is plenty of "bahl gorms" (good food) in the valley. On the more casual side, Boonville's Redwood Drive In produces a knockout Ortega burger, made with an Ortega chili and pepper Jack cheese, and Libby's Restaurant in Philo, a funky Tex-Mex place with a hand-lettered "Mendocino County Mobilization for Peace" sign in the window, makes everything from scratch — mole sauce, guacamole and vibrant salsa fresca. It also stocks 25 local wines.Johnny Schmitt, son of the French Laundry's old proprietors, runs the 10-bedroom Boonville Hotel, which from the outside looks like something on the Paramount back lot, with a broad, two-tiered cowtown veranda. Inside, it's Sante Fe — all autumnal colors, sisal rugs and updated Shaker-style furniture — plus a good dining room.Mr. Schmitt doesn't mess around at the range. He coaxes real flavors from real ingredients: a rich tomato and white bean soup with spicy sausage, a Caesar salad with superlative romaine (after all, this is California, folks), a thin-crust pizza with cherry tomatoes and killer applewood-smoked bacon, and a rare rib-eye steak and mushrooms on a bed of spinach with proper horseradish cream.After that feed, there was nothing to do but drive back to the coast, where we were staying, along the glassy Navarro River and through a canyon of second-growth redwoods. Stumps the size of Volkswagens stood among the trees that towered above our heads. The ground was carpeted in fallen red needles, and the air smelled spicy.The Pacific was foaming and churning when we approached the Elk Cove Inn, our local headquarters, in the waterside hamlet of Elk. As the sky spun through its kaleidoscopic changes, from gold to pink to lavender, fearsome waves crashed into offshore rocks that looked to us like Monet haystacks that had drifted out to sea."Perfection," said Mrs. A, who can never resist a good sunset.Complete Title: The Anderson Valley: Behind the Redwoods, a California DreamSource: New York Times (NY)Author:  R. W. Apple Jr.Published: January 8, 2003Copyright: 2003 The New York Times Company Contact: letters Website: 
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