A big thanks to Anderson Valley Wines for hosting us at the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival.
It all started on a one-hour plane ride from Burbank to Santa Rosa, when the girl next to me from the Northern California Coast started talking about new-age chakras and how her friend fell and split her head open causing her third eye to awaken and turning her into a healer. “Welcome to NorCal,” was my first thought as she prescribed a black seed oil regimen for my father-in-law’s brain cancer.
After a two-hour drive from the Snoopy-inspired Charles Schultz International Airport, we pulled into Brashley Winery in Philo as we concluded our journey to the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival (which occurs every May). Along this bucolic stretch of rolling hills about 100 miles north of San Francisco, vineyards and wineries dot the one-mile valley floor where hot days and cold nights are the norm. We arrived for the opening party, prepared to sip this one grape from over 50 wineries over the course of the weekend.
As we freshened up in the winery’s parking lot, we watched a gentleman near the Brashley sign talking while being recorded by a young woman. Then we were happily greeted at the entrance with “Pinot Horner” hats, a local slang term used for someone who drinks Pinot. We learned the Anderson Valley region has its own language and even a “Bible” documenting the area’s funky wine terms and what they represent.
A few sips into the vineyard party and we learned that the guy by the sign was Rex Pickett who had been holding up his book – as the original writer and author behind the hit movie Sideways. Of course, we couldn’t resist picking up a signed copy and talking to the writer behind this cult classic film – as he is the reason Buellton and Santa Ynez evolved into booming wine destinations. The film not only greatly affected the sale of Merlot but also skyrocketed the success of many restaurant owners and wineries. We learned from the author that the character Miles was loosely based on his life and he wishes to participate in the film’s legend. He continues to write new Sideways wine-centric books set in New Zealand and Chile. Over some jovial wine sharing, Pickett divulged that a new Sideways play will run soon outside of London along with a new musical that he helped write the lyrics to in Riga, Latvia.
In the heart of the peaceful Anderson Valley, hundreds of Pinot Noir bottles were opened on a large table at Brashley, ready for guests to sample and with the winemakers on site to share their stories over glasses of this vibrant red and black fruit with aromas and flavors of raspberry, black cherry, cranberry and plum. Many bottles with herbal earthy savory and floral notes tantalized our taste buds as we met the wine community and listened to their stories. Pinots from Lichen, Littorai, Lula, and Lussier had us returning for more sips. Was it some weird coincidence that they all start with L?
Lussier’s young founder and winemaker was once an army ranger captain who served in two wars. He shared how he is not formally trained in winemaking but was an intern at a winery in Napa Valley. Now he makes his own wine and buys grapes from several local vineyards. He lives sustainably off the land with his own gardens and even butchers his own meat.
Roma’s Vineyard rocked our socks off (or should I say, excited our senses?) with their intense and supple 2016 Pinot Noir but also their satiny sleek 2018 Pinot Noir Rose. Winemaker Dean Carrell is no stranger to high places as he was once a fighter pilot and charter pilot out of Alaska and now lives on top of a sun-graced hill where he grows his grapes at high elevation on a ridgetop. Carrell started the vineyard 40 years ago and has been making small-batch wines for over 20 years alongside his wife.
A bottle of Pangloss Cellars lured us in for more sips alongside a stunning white Pinot from Brashley’s estate when we began to learn the story of the area. Like much of California, winemaking came to Anderson Valley from European immigrants following the 1849 Gold Rush and then became land for sheep and apples, which can still be found gracing the landscape. Vineyards and wineries of all sizes are nestled together on this strip of valley land surrounded by redwood and oak trees. There’s history here. And a sense of soul they hope to maintain.
While the historic heirloom Pinot Noir varieties are best known in the Anderson Valley, the region also has delicious whites. In 1982, Pinot Noir’s 47 acres were mostly in one vineyard and when the Anderson Valley requested official recognition as an American Viticultural Area (AVA or appellation), Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling were most of the acreage back then.
The next day, it was back to the heart of the calm Anderson Valley for the Pinot Noir Festival’s Casual Barbecue and Sunset in the Vineyard at Lula Cellars where we mingled over renowned Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, and wines along with special bottles shared by the valley’s winemakers.
Outside on the grassy lawn, live music flowed over more pours of vino, much less than the day before due to feeling a little ‘sideways’. We met the founder of Passion4Pinot in Palm Springs who says people fly in from all over the world (even 22 different states) for this weekend festival in the desert. He reiterated that a Pinot Noir festival is “better than a regular wine festival because there are serious wine drinkers and not frat boys getting drunk.”
Over barbecue and more Pinot, we met wine connoisseur and wine writer Donald Sonderling with his wife while we watched writer Rex Pickett (with his promoter partner) sell more of his famous words. We appreciated the hustle for a guy who probably deserves much more recognition than he received for the original idea. We bought one of his corkscrews that he signed that read, “No more Fxxxing Merlot,” while a few feet away an old winemaker told us Pickett was a master storyteller.
On Saturday, the wine floweth over again in this sun-soaked valley where we began the festivities at the VIP Bubble Lounge at Scharffenberger Cellars, known for pioneering super premium Mendocino sparkling wine since 1981. Sparkling wine arrived in force to the Anderson Valley after massive red wine plantings in the 1990s. American Pinot Noir attracted French Burgundy lovers who poured into the Anderson Valley to celebrate a similar type of wine that is just named differently due to geography. Grape buyers from other regions, as well as new wine entrepreneurs and international expert winemakers, flocked to the area to sample some of the best sparkling wines from family-owned estates … and this continues today.
At the Bubble Lounge, we joined a bevy of guests to sample wines from Roederer Estate, Scharffenberger Cellars, and France’s Champagne Louis Roederer paired with Tsar Nicolai Caviar. Afterward, we moseyed over a few steps away to the Grand Tasting for local artisanal bites and sips from more than 50 wineries set against the golden hillsides. Guests could also discover many producers crafting artisan bubbles from Pinot Noir.
Maggy Hawk excited us with a white that almost tasted like the essence of an oyster while we also really enjoyed Pinots from Bravium, Navarro, and Bee Hunter accompanied by spoonfuls of uber-fresh ceviche from Left Coast Seafood Marketplace, smoked salmon dip on toasted bread from Roundman Smokehouse, and miso deviled eggs decked with flowers from The Bewildered Pig. The whole vibe felt like a neighborhood party, one you might find in Topanga Canyon or a Sunday soirée in Malibu. People are really in tune with the land, which is evident in the conversations. One winemaker couple shared they don’t have a TV or even internet.
On Sunday, various wineries have Open Houses during the Pinot Noir Festival where visitors can meander Highway 128 and stop at participating wineries for a little extra wine tasting, bites, music, and special winery promotions. Some are complimentary but most require reservations in advance. We found ourselves on the lovely flower-filled grounds of Golden Eye, hugged by a forest in the distance listening to Gabriel Yanez and friends with a flight of Pinots in hand paired with some decadent bites. This intoxicating jazzy band was part of their summer music series during select weekends.
Across the street Domaine Anderson was our second stop for more single vineyard Pinot Noirs paired with duck – like duck rillettes, duck salami, and smoked duck breast. This certified biodynamic vineyard is another beautiful spot to savor a Sunday. We popped into Maggy Hawk to purchase some bottles and tried a cheese sampler at Pennyroyal Farm where you can also pet their goats. Our final stop took us to the backbone of French Champagne, the Roederer Estate (or rather the California outpost of Champagne Louis Roederer) to sip sparkling wine on a perched terrace overlooking the bounty of the land. The Brut Rose was the perfect way to end the day by toasting our exceptional wine weekend– as we soon learned the casual sophisticated Anderson Valley comes with way fewer people and less pretension.
Cheers to the good life in Northern California!
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