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California Wine's Best-Kept Secrets
By Robert Whitley
Jul 26, 2007
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From San Francisco, you simply hop in the rental car, steer toward the Golden Gate Bridge and drive north on U.S. Highway 101 for 90 minutes. You're only halfway there, but Healdsburg is as good a place as any to take a driving break.

Refuel the coffee mug at the Flying Goat, just off the town square, and proceed north on the 101 another 30 minutes. You're in Cloverdale now, where you will make a hard left toward the Pacific Ocean, along twisting California Route 128.

As the crow flies, you're almost there. During your climb into the mountains, dodging speeding logging rigs while sloshing steaming latte into your lap, you may well question the sanity of driving through the Russian River Valley, past Chalk Hill, through the Alexander Valley, et al, to reach a remote California wine region where the finest place to dine might be the brewpub in Booneville, population 800.

No one ever said getting to the Anderson Valley was easy. No one ever will. But, worth the drive? Indeed.

For here, in this rural east-west facing valley that opens to the sea, the production of world class California wine has become the norm. The warm days and cool nights provide a climate that is hospitable to all manner of wine grapes, from the notoriously finicky Pinot Noir to the hearty Cabernet Sauvignon. The small, family run wineries that populate the valley provide the attention to detail and nurturing that is essential in the production of handcrafted wines.

The end result is a California treasure. If the wines of the Anderson Valley lack the cachet of those from the Napa Valley, it isn't for want of quality. They also aren't weighed down by the heft of Napa Valley prices, though there are the exceptions, such as Handley's Estate Pinot Noir, which retails for $50 or more.

But Handley's beginnings were humble. Milla Handley, who had been Richard Arrowood's assistant winemaker at the prestigious Sonoma County winery, Chateau St. Jean, made the first Handley wine, a Chardonnay, in the basement of her Anderson Valley home in 1982.

Most of the Handley wines - the exceptional Mendocino County Pinot Noir, a superb Chardonnay, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, just to name a few - retail for between $16 and $25. These wines are not mass produced, making them something of a challenge to find, perhaps. So there's always the Handley wine club, www.handleycellars.com, which will ship wines to reciprocal states.

Husch Vineyards is slightly larger on the production scale, and thus has less of the 'boutique' feel, but this family operation is no less committed to quality, and routinely spits out award-winning wines --- from fruity, aromatic whites such as Chenin Blanc and Gewurztraminer to well-balanced reds such as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon - at remarkably modest prices.

The reserve Cab and Chardonnay top out at about $25 retail, but only six of Husch's 18 wines are distributed nationally. To purchase Husch wines on the web, visit www.huschvineyards.com. Even with a shipping charge, these high quality wines will rank very high in value measured against comparable wines from the Napa Valley or some of Sonoma County's most prestigious appellations.

My Anderson Valley darling of the moment, however, is Navarro Vineyards. An extremely small family run business, Navarro has been delivering at a very high standard since the 1970s. Almost all of its wines are sold direct, so the easiest way to find them is online at www.navarrowine.com.

Navarro was recently named Winery of the Year for the Western United States for its performance at the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition (www.criticschallenge.com).  Navarro took 11 awards, including two Platinums (for its 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, $32, and its 2006 Cluster Select Late Harvest Gewurztraminer, $59) and three Golds.

Navarro has always had a measure of renown for its work with aromatic whites such as Gewurztraminer and Riesling, but more recently has gained recognition for its reds. The Cabernet displays exceptional concentration and persistence of flavor while maintaining impeccable balance, which is a somewhat unique feature in today's world of California Cabernet.

Of course, these three are merely the tip of the iceberg. Anderson Valley also is home to Roederer Estate, arguably the finest sparkling wine producer in the United States, a number of top-notch Pinot Noir and Zinfandel producers, and a growing influx of investment from more established California wine regions.

Now, I believe, is the time to pay them a visit. Anderson Valley will always be remote. But its wines are a secret no more.

Tasting Notes

Handley 2004 Estate Pinot Noir Reserve, Anderson Valley ($52): This is Handley's benchmark red wine, an earthy, complex Pinot that shows hints of chocolate and spice, layers of wild blackberry, cherry and currant fruit, exceptional weight and balance, and a depth that is one of the trademarks of top-class Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. There is real power here without sacrificing finesse or resorting to the sweet, cloying style of Pinot that is currently in vogue throughout California. 94

Husch 2005 'Vine One' Chardonnay, Anderson Valley ($18): This is an amazing price for a limited-production (400 cases) wine. Though it sees some wood during the winemaking process, a significant portion of the blend for this exceptional Chardonnay is fermented in stainless steel tanks to preserve its unique aromatics, which are intensely floral and trend toward the stone fruits often found in Viognier, though here those notes are more subtle. The fresh acidity makes this a Chardonnay that is equally adept as an aperitif or when matched with grilled white meats or fish. 90

Navarro 2005 White Riesling, Anderson Valley ($17): Though not made in a bone-dry style, this slightly off-dry Riesling is so beautifully balanced it will fool even some Riesling aficionados. Lovely aromas of stone fruit and spice, with a touch of minerality, this is both an exceptional food wine as well as a superb summer refresher. And there's nothing more pleasing about this wine than the price. 88