California is a big state, which means that even when you spend a lot of your time covering it, there are places you’re going to miss.
That’s true of me and the Anderson Valley. I’d long appreciated the quality of its cool-climate wines, particularly the Alsatian whites, and I’ve enjoyed its silky pinot noirs and fine sparkling wine, but I’d never visited the place, even though it’s a scant 100 miles north of San Francisco and small enough to easily explore in a day or two.
A recent tasting brought me up to speed without having to leave O.C. I shared a meal and some very impressive wine at Antonello Ristorante near South Coast Plaza with Joe Webb, a winemaker who also serves as president of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association.
Joe was born in Fresno and grew up in the mountains nearby. He didn’t discover the Anderson Valley until his love of wine led him to Sonoma State University and he started exploring the area. During college he worked at Sebastiani and Landmark Vineyards. After graduating he was hired at Joseph Swan vineyards near Forestville before moving to the Anderson Valley in 2007. He makes wine at Foursight Winery, which he founded and owns with his wife Kristy and her parents. Their tasting room is just south of Boonville on the main road, Highway 128.
Joe filled me in on the essential facts about his tiny but fascinating region during our tasting.
Orange County Register: How many wineries are there in your AVA?
Joe Webb: It’s hard to put a precise figure on it. We have 26 tasting rooms. This year’s Pinot Festival has 53 or 54 wineries. Roughly half of them are in the valley.
Register: What are the climate and the geography like up there?
Webb: We’re the coldest grape growing place in California. It’s a valley near the coast that’s 15 miles long and one mile wide. The valley floor is colder than the hillsides. As you go up the ridge it gets quite a bit warmer; the cold air settles to the valley floor. We get snow on the rooftops a bit. I see snowflakes in Boonville every year. The temperature of Boonville and Navarro (the valley’s two main towns) are similar. The main difference is that Boonville sees a 50-55 degree diurnal swing and Navarro about 25 degrees. Our cool air comes down from the coast through the Navarro River.
Register: How cold does it get?
Webb: We get, on average, eight frosts a year in Boonville. We’re the only region in California that isn’t classified as subtropical. Anderson Valley is classified as a Region 1 growing area, meaning it’s the coolest climate in which grapes may be grown commercially. We’re colder than everywhere else. But that diurnal swing is wide. I like the grapes going through this wide a range of temperature. It develops the fruit; you get more flavor and structure.
Register: The Anderson Valley has traditionally been known as a good place for German varietals, but recently your pinot noirs have been getting attention. How did that come about?
Webb: Quality pinot is a relatively recent phenomenon there. Originally people didn’t think it was warm enough to grow Pinot Even our neighbors, V. Sattui, thought my father was crazy to plant pinot. But it does quite well here if you know how to grow it.
Register: What are your biggest challenges?
Webb: There is so much frost in Boonville. The whites are tough to harvest economically because of the (limited) quantity. I make great wines for those who are passionate about it, but it’s tough because we are not able to get the tons per acre. The season isn’t warm enough or long enough to ripen everything.
Register: It’s a small AVA, but does it have sub-regions?
Webb: “The deep end” is the loose definition of the area that’s closer to the ocean, but it’s tough to get a consensus on where that starts. Every (grape grower) says, “Oh, it starts right at my fence line.” The temperature generally drops one degree per mile as you drive through the valley.
Register: What is rainfall like in the valley?
Webb: Boonville gets 39 inches a year. Navarro is 44. The whole valley averages about 40 inches. Even during this drought we are getting half our average. That’s still 20 inches, enough to fill the ponds.
Register: How many acres are in vine?
Webb: About 2,250. We’ve seen a 10 percent increase in the last five years. But there’s still room for a lot of growth. And as these cool-climate varietals become more popular, I think the growth will only increase.
Here are some of Anderson Valley’s best wineries:
Jim Ball Vineyards, Breggo Cellars, Cakebread Cellars, Castello di Amorosa Winery, Goldeneye, Graziano, Handley Cellars, Harmonique, Husch Vineyards, Lazy Creek Vineyards, Londer Vineyards, Navarro Vineyards, Parducci Wine Cellars, Philo Ridge Vineyards, Roederer Estate, Scharffenberger Cellars, Toulouse Vineyards and Winery.
Most popular Anderson Valley varietals: chardonnay, gewurztraminer, merlot, muscat canelli, petite sirah, pinot blanc, pinot gris, pinot noir, riesling, sauvignon blanc, semillon, syrah, zinfandel.