The two most Northern wine regions in California are Mendocino and Lake County. They are just north of Sonoma and Napa Valley, but the areas couldn’t be more different in terms of temperature and style.
California as it was over a century ago is still alive in these northern areas! The vast wilderness and beautiful, tranquil scenery is unmatched.
The Beauty of Northern California
Mendocino’s jagged coastline has been carved out over what could be described as an almost indefinitely long period of time by icy, dark-blue waters.
The beauty of Mendocino remains, for the most part, unspoiled today.
In the middle of Lake County, farther inland, the grand body of water known as Clear Lake is the largest natural lake in California.
It is not uncommon in these two regions to see a mountain lion, a rattlesnake or a whale! In other words, you probably won’t see many “suited up” business people.
When the 1960’s ended in San Francisco, some of the “flower children” decided to drop out of city life and opt for the backwoods of Mendocino.
The giant redwoods are surrounded by rolling mountains covered in golden grass and wild oats. These giant redwoods are a California state treasure! Many of Mendocino’s best vineyard areas are surrounded by these majestic trees, which can reach 367 feet (112 meters) in height and have a width of 22 feet (7 meters) at the base.
In Mendocino, more than one million acres (400,000+ hectares) of forest stands amid vine-covered, sun-draped hills. Ranches and orchards are dotted all long the landscape.
The town of Mendocino is a low-key artist’s hamlet!
Mendocino has the largest percentage of organic vineyards of any county in California – almost thirty percent are certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers – and many others are organic but not certified.
Mendocino’s Rich History
The word Mendocino is a diminutive of de Mendoza, the name of the earliest Spanish explorers to come ashore in Mendocino, in the late sixteenth century.
The old village in Mendocino was once a whaling port.
The first small wineries in Mendocino were established in the 1850’s by failed prospectors turned farmers, in the wake of the Gold Rush. However, by the end of prohibition, almost every winery had disappeared, and pear orchards or nut trees stood where the vineyards had once thrived.
The rugged and remote area of Mendocino was not quick to be reborn as a wine region. As of 1967, there was only one winery in Mendocino.
A winery called Parducci was that winery. It was the only winery in the area despite the fact that the wine business was beginning to take off in both Napa and Sonoma.
Fetzer Family Vineyard’s
The next year (1968) however, turned out to be the turning point. Mendocino’s Fetzer Vineyards was founded by lumber executive Barney Fetzer. Fetzer’s growth was fast-moving.
During the decade of the 1980’s, ten of Barney Fetzer’s eleven children built the family winery into one of the largest in California.
Although the winery is now owned by Chile’s large wine firm Concha Y Toro, the Fetzer family continues to hold prime vineyard land in Mendocino.
Concha Y Toro, in turn, made Mendocino home to one of the most technologically sophisticated large-scale wineries.
Surrounding it are 90+ smaller wineries, plus 345+ grape growers who range from modern large-scale operations, to tiny one-man/woman operations.
Today there are over 17,000 acres (6880 hectares) of vineyards in Mendocino. The leading grape varieties are chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Great Pinot Noir is also made in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley.
Mendocino is also where you will find one of the producer’s of California’s best and most complex sparkling wines, Roederer Estate. Also produced here is Germain-Robin brandy, considered to be the finest brandy made in the United States.
Founded in 1981, Roederer Estate (owned by the Champagne house Lois Roederer) is nestled in Mendocino’s fog-shrouded Anderson Valley.
Roederer Estate Brut from Alexander Valley is approximately 60% chardonnay and 49% pinot noir. The wine’s wonderful creamy yet spicy texture, apple Danish, limey flavors and the overall impeccable focus and clarity of the wine, all add up to a wonderfully satisfying experience!
The first California sparkling from Louis Roederer builds on a 200 year old tradition of fine winemaking that has made Roederer champagne among the most sought after in the world.
All the grapes for the Anderson Valley wines are grown on the Roederer Estate. Ownership of its own vineyards as well as adding oak-aged reserve wines to each year’s blend are the two stand-out elements of Roederer’s winemaking style.
The Roederer Estate Brut debuted in October 1988, and has since established its reputation as one of California’s premier sparklers, remaining true to the heritage of excellence and style of its French forebears.
Before it bought land in Anderson Valley in 1981, the house of Louis Roederer searched for several years for the perfect sparkling wine site in California. Roederer was so convinced that Anderson Valley was the place that it waited seven years (until its own vineyards matured) before making its first sparkler – instead of buying grapes from somewhere else.
In 1992, American Ansley Coale and Frenchman Hubert Germain-Robin founded the artisanal distillery Germain-Robin near the town of Ukiah, near Mendocino. Today, Germain-Robin’s brandies are considered the best brandies made in the United States.
They have actually, in multiple blind tastings, repeatedly won over a host of cognacs.
To make these brandies, Hubert Germain-Robin, a master Cognac distiller whose family has produced Cognac since 1782, still uses an antique alembic (a distilling apparatus now obsolete, consisting of a rounded neck flask and a cap with a long beak for condensing and conveying the products to a receiver).
Each year, he hand-distills eighty barrels of brandy from such premium grapes as pinot noir, and sauvignon blanc. In Cognac and elsewhere in Europe, brandies are usually distilled from lesser grape varieties.
Of the five brandies Germain-Robin makes, the most stunning is the XO reserve, a brandy too smooth, elegant, and lush for words!
Mendocino stretches from the Pacific coast inland to several warmer wine valleys tucked between the coastal mountain range and the Mayacamas.
The powerful Russian River waters are located here and flow down through Mendocino and much of Sonoma County. They then curve abruptly and spill into the Pacific Ocean. Within Mendocino are several smaller AVA’s, the most important of which is Anderson Valley.
Like Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, Mendocino’s cool Anderson Valley has some warm spots. High above the chilly and foggy valley are mountain ridges directly exposed to the warm sun.
The grapes for some of Mendocino’s top berry-and-spice Zinfandels come from vineyards here, especially Mendocino Ridge, composed of disparate mountain areas and the first noncontiguous AVA in California.
Anderson Valley, especially in its northwestern end, is one of the coldest grape-growing areas in California. The dramatic coolness means the region is also ideal for two grapes that other parts of California have largely given up on, Gewurztraminer and Riesling. The most exciting Gewurzts and Rieslings in California are made here by Navarro Vineyards.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are also leading grapes, with wineries such as Williams Selyem, Goldeneye, Husch, and Littorai and Baxter.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these leading wineries:
Goldeneye began making premium quality pinot noir from their estate winery in the Anderson Valley in 1997. Blending grapes from four estate vineyards, they are dedicated to crafting wines of refinement and elegance from a rich palette of terroir-inspired wines.
Years before the Pinot Noir boom that reshaped the landscape of California winemaking, Dan and Margaret Duckhornhad a simple vision for Goldeneye. They wanted to establish a winery that could make a terroir-inspired expression of California Pinot Noir of equal stature to the acclaimed Merlots they had pioneered at Duckhorn Vineyards in Napa Valley.
For Pinot Noir, the Duckhorns believed that true greatness would be found on the cool-climate edges of modern California viticulture. They found what they were looking for in the Alexander Valley.
Their first wine made, a 1990 Pinot Noir, used grapes from the Russian River appellation, one of the many growing regions they explored while searching for the ideal home for Goldeneye.
Littorai is a small, family owned and operated winery producing world class vineyard-designated Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the true north coast of California.
Littorai was founded in 1993 by Ted and Heidi Lemon. Ted was already a veteran winemaker having spent years in France where he was the first American winemaker in Burgundy at Domaine Guy Roumier and Bruno Clair.
Ted’s vision of California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is similar to the vision he had in France. He wanted to make wines with clarity, focus, and transparency and to allow the terroir to shine through.
With the exception of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, all Littorai wines are single-vineyard. Littorai comes from the Latin word “coasts”.
A quote from Ted Lemon on Natural winemaking is as follows: “There is no tradition outside of a specific place. Traditional practices means understanding the practices of a specific region”.
If you show up for a visit, they offer two experiences, the single-vineyard tasting or the Gold Ridge Estate tour.
William Selyem began as a dream of two friends, Ed Selyem and Burt Williams. They pursued winemaking as a hobby in 1979 in a garage in Forestville, California and made their first commercial vintage in 1981. In less than two decades, Burt and Ed created a cult-status winery of international acclaim.
Their first wine was a Zinfandel (1981) but very soon after they began their quest for spectacular pinot noir.
Together they set a new standard for Pinot Noir winemaking in the United States, aligning the Russian River Valley in the firmament of the best winegrowing regions in the world.
The winery was purchased in 1997 by the Dyson family who bought the winery with plans of planting a 20-acre Russian River Vineyard. Bob Cabral, formerly of Alderbrook and Hartford Court, took over as executive winemaker.
Quality is exceptionally high with the secret to Williams Selyem being that they are devoted to seeking low yield, fully ripened grapes with superb vineyard sources.
Founded in 1971, Husch is the oldest winery in the picturesque Anderson Valley. The vineyards are comprised of some of the earliest varietal plantings on the valley floor. In 1967, Tony and Gretchen Husch bought the 60-acre Nunn ranch between Philo and Navarro on highway 128. The land was well known for growing apples and grains.
They soon planted eight acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer grapes on the cool slopes of the property. The plantings sweep down towards the pristine Navarro River. The first official crush was in the fall of 1971.
In 1979, Hugo Oswald Jr. bought the 6,000 case Husch Winery from the Husch family. The Oswald family had been growing pears in the Santa Clara Valley, but as the area expanded, they sold the land and headed for the southern tip of Mendocino County.
Today Husch Vineyards remains owned and operated by the third generation of the Oswald family.
In 2002, two generations of one family came together to create Baxter, highlighting the very best in North Coast viticulture.
Father and son partners create handcrafted single vineyard wines, focusing on Anderson Valley and surrounding Mendocino appellations.
Known primarily for their Pinot Noir, the pair combines over fifty years of experience producing wines naturally, applying instinct, and old-world techniques. They craft wines that possess a notable “pureness” of fruit, reflecting the unique identity of each vineyard site.
Taking its name from Clear Lake (the largest natural lake in California), Lake County is smaller, drier, and less diverse than Mendicino. There are 8,400 acres (3,400 hectares) of vineyards in Lake County.
Most wineries here focus on less expensive cabernet sauvignons and sauvignon blancs that are often simple. However, this is where great bargains can be found – like Six Sigma’s Cuvee Diamond Mine – a delicious blend of cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo that taste expensive but isn’t.
Lake County is primarily a provider of grapes to many huge wineries such as Sutter Home, Beringer, and Kendall Jackson.
Lake County’s first important vineyards were cultivated by the English actress Lillie Langtry, who planted vineyards on her remote estate in the 1880’s. She hoped to make the “greatest Claret in California”. The vineyards ended up becoming a part of the winery called Guenoc, now known as Langtry Estate and Vineyard.
Another notable Lake County winery is owned by Jed Steele: Steele Wines. Jed Steele is a highly regarded and well-known winemaker who established Kendall Jackson.
In the 1980s and early 1990s Jed established the Kendall-Jackson style of soft, rounded, easy-drinking chardonnay.
Under four different labels, Steele made fifty+ different wines from very diverse varieties, including well-priced, old-vine Zinfandels.
Mendocino and Lake County Wines of Note
La Follette Chardonnay
From a coastal plateau 2,000 feet above the adjacent Mendocino shoreline is this elegant chardonnay with its custard and crème brulee notes. There is also a hint of spice. The wine is vivid with a backdrop of fresh acidity. The cold Pacific breeze that cool this vineyard everyday is probably the cause of this brilliant acidity.
Navarro Vineyards Gewurztraminer
As we mentioned before, Navarro makes the most exciting, complex, and delicious Gewurztraminer in all of California. Pears, stones, tangerines, and minerals are only a few of the characteristics that have made this wine a cult-favorite.
Phillips Hill Pinot Noir
The old-fashioned way of making pinot noir in that it’s earthy and graceful. Phillips Hill is owned by Toby Hill, a formerly trained artist who reinvented himself by making spectacular wine.
Langtry Petite Syrah
Petite Syrah, chocolate truffles, and dirt! Black in color, packed with fruit, and dense with flavor, this Petite Syrah is tannic and bold, and is classic Petite Syrah.