Wine Regions: May 2006 Archives

At Anderson Valley’s recent Pinot Noir Festival, residents were joking about how little recognition this Mendocino valley has relative to other top Pinot Noir regions in California.

The day before the festival, in fact, the Napa Register published a long piece in which writer Charles Neeve put the entire county of Mendocino into the “Lost Coast,” jumbled Anderson Valley up with Yorkville Highlands, and stated authoritatively that “much of this land is part of the Alexander Valley region.”

For the record, Alexander Valley is a completely different appellation in Sonoma County; the Lost Coast is a section of California coastline that’s mostly in Humboldt County; and Anderson Valley and Yorkville Highlands are about as different as two adjoining appellations can be. (Valley. Highlands. Get it?)

“When the universe revolves around you, you don’t need geography,” laughed one lady, referring of course to Napa’s position in the U.S. wine world.

“That’s good,” rejoined her companion. “We don’t want more people coming in here than we have already!”

The laughter didn’t last long, however, because the reality is that people are coming into Anderson Valley at a fairly brisk rate. Some are coming to live in a beautiful, pastoral, pristine place. The others are coming to make Pinot Noir.

At the festival’s Grand Tasting on Saturday, May 20th, I encountered Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs from half a dozen new labels, including Baxter, Black Kite, Breggo Cellars, Harrington, Standish, and Zina Hyde Cunningham. Existing labels including MacPhail and Saintsbury also unveiled new programs. These push the known number of valley Pinots past the mid-century mark, with more to come. If all the programs in barrel come to market as planned, there will be more than 60 different Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs a year from now.

To put this into perspective, most people consider Russian River Valley the benchmark region for California Pinot Noir. As Charlie Olken of The Connoisseurs Guide to California Wine taught me long ago, regional reputations are made when high-quality wines are made in sufficient quantity that many people can experience them, and Russian River certainly has passed that test. There are a lot of Russian River Pinot Noirs, and a fairly high percentage of them are outstanding.

But here’s an interesting thing. If you count up the Russian River Pinots from the last vintage that’s completely in the market (2003) you get into the mid-60s – not that much more than Anderson Valley. And if you count up the Pinots from the other important Pinot areas (Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Rita Hills) you find that Anderson Valley has more Pinots than any of them.

The recent surge in distinct bottlings is due largely to urban garagistes who are making small-batch, site-specific wines of exceptional quality from Anderson Valley vineyards – just as they do from good vineyards in Russian River, Sonoma Coast, and Santa Rita Hills. This trend is also evident among wineries that are based in Anderson Valley – they’re making more vineyard-designated wines alongside their appellation-based wines.

So at least the artisanal winemakers (and rich relocators) know where Anderson Valley is. Do you?

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

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