When folks think of California's best wine regions, Napa Valley and Sonoma are usually the first places that leap to mind. Hey, why shouldn't they be? Wineries are making some kick-ass grape juice among those picturesque vineyards. But I've got news for you: There's a lot more to California wine than Napa Valley.
Take Mendocino, for instance. Just north of Sonoma lies a virtual wine paradise. Pining for some great Pinot Noir? Have a hankerin' for some stellar sparkling wine? Mendo's the place.
Though the region's only starting to get the recognition it deserves, people have been making wine in Mendo since the 1850s, when immigrant farmers gave up prospecting for gold and turned to agriculture. Due to the region's isolation, it wasn't until the 1970s and '80s that Mendocino finally came into its own. Meanwhile, areas with better access to San Francisco took all the glory.
Today it's a different story. Though Mendocino is still firmly planted in the middle of nowhere, its wines enjoy the respect and adoration of wine lovers around the world — even in Napa Valley.
Mendocino is part of California's North Coast wine region, which also includes Napa and Sonoma. Within this area, Mendocino County is divided into eight official growing regions (or appellations), the most famous of which are Anderson Valley, Redwood Valley, Mendocino and McDowell Valley.
Bordered by the Coastal Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean, Mendocino is home to unique microclimates that influence the character of the region's wines. The coastal areas have lots of rain, ocean breezes and cooler temperatures, while inland it's warmer and drier. Summer weather generally features hot, sunny days and cool nights, which results in very ripe grapes with good acidity.
There are more than 15,000 acres of vineyards in Mendocino, with 39 wineries, many of them practicing organic grape growing.
For traveling types who prefer to sample wine at its source, Mendocino is well worth the winding three-hour drive from San Francisco. Unlike California's more famous (and more developed) wine regions, Mendocino remains a remote, rural place enhanced by a rugged coastline, majestic redwood forests, charming small towns and nice folks.
If you don't have a plane ticket in hand, don't despair. Pour yourself a glass of wine and experience Mendocino from the inside out.
Roederer Estate 1996 L'ErmitageThis fabulous California sparkler rivals the pricier French stuff. Toasty aroma, great bubbles and green apple flavors ($38).
McDowell 2000 Viognier Like an aunt I once had, this wine is rich but not sweet. Luscious, with an intoxicating, perfumey aroma. Yum ($17).
Navarro 2000 White Riesling Aromatic and fairly dry with refreshing citrus tones. This would be great with spicy food ($14).
Lolonis 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon This full-bodied organic Cab has berry aromas, ripe fruit flavors and firm tannins (it's fairly dry). This might taste even better in a couple years ($20).
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