Mendocino Country is a lot like my sister – the middle child who never gets any attention. Napa and Sonoma command the lion’s share of wine in Northern California and though Mendocino (just Mendo as it is known) is only slightly north of Sonoma, few wine lovers ever seem to make it that far. But they should and there’s more than just wine. 

bonterra's biodynamic vineyard


Mendo is best known for the highest percentage of organic and biodynamic vineyards anywhere in California. There are only 84 wineries here and grapes were originally planted in the late 1800s but Prohibition effectively killed them off, so the area turned to apples, walnuts and peach orchards, some of which still produce fruit. The same time that the Mondavi brothers planted vineyards in Napa in the mid-1940s, Charlie Barra, the patriarch of Mendocino wine, was busy planting grapes in Ukiah, the most populous city in Mendocino located along Highway 101. “Bob and Peter Mondavi, the Wente’s and Louis Martini came up and they helped me pick out grapes and parcels,” Charlie told me over dinner.

Today, solar panels are present in vineyards, on winery buildings, and by the side of the road. To facilitate biodynamic farming (essentially a closed loop farming system whereby natural farming methods are used and nothing manufactured is allowed) sheep graze the weeds between grapevine rows and chemical and pesticides are not allowed. Even the plastic green ties that most of us use in our gardens to tie tomato plants to stakes are not allowed. In its place is a natural tying method, used by both Bonterra and Chiarito wineries – pliable willow tree stalks – as they will eventually return to the earth from whence they came. This doesn’t mean every winery has gone “green;” many still farm with traditional chemicals, but you won’t find a greater concentration of farmers who trust the land to work as it has for thousands of years.

John Chiarito makes amazing wines like Negro Amaro and Nero D'Avolo


And every type of winery is represented in Mendo: from the massive Bonterra Vineyards who churn out 300,000 cases of inexpensive though effective organic wine, to the majority of small family-run operations with less than 2,000 cases. Some of the best include Philo Ridge, Rivino, and Chiarito. Just because wine is organic doesn’t mean it’s worth buying. But Mendo is doing organic correctly, whereby the farming is sustainable and what’s in the glass is good. Wineries like Philo Ridge makes small amounts of terrific Pinot Gris. Rivino produces the less-than-appreciated Cabernet Franc and excels with it. And Chiarito, whose small vineyard near the minuscule town of Talmadge, is producing exceptional Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and an obscure, though terrific grape, Nero D’Avola.

Graham Tatomer from Santa Barbara pours his Reislings grown near Vendenberg at the Alsace Festival


The other wine region, the Anderson Valley, located over a twisted mountain road about 40 minutes to the west, is home to traditional Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, from respected producers like Londer, as well as producers such as Greenwood Ridge who make terrific Semillon and Merlot. But the Anderson Valley is also known for cooler climate varieties like the aromatic white wines found at the Alsace Festival held each February in Boonville. Producers from California, Oregon, Michigan, New Zealand, even France and Germany show up to show off their whites including Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris.


Beers and Spirits

The spirits of Germain-Robin


There’s also beer. Back in the day along the Russian River from Redwood Valley to Healdsburg in Sonoma, a span of 50 miles, hops were the dominate crop. Mendo now claims breweries like the Ukiah Brewing Company, the first organic brew pub in the nation. The food includes grass fed burgers and to go with that consider the $5 pints like the Palace Porter, or the Emancipator, a Bavarian doppelbock. There is also the Anderson Valley Brewing Company just outside of Booneville where they have an 18 hole disc golf course and horseshoes. Pints range from $4-$6 and their barley beers aged in bourbon barrels are excellent. And for those who seek spirits, the Germain-Robin Distillery, open only by appointment, will fulfill your need for small-batch distilled spirits ranging from a diversity of brandies to grappa to un-aged clear whiskies. You’ll be like a kid in candy shop and you will probably tear up when you leave, but if apple brandy, cognac, rose liqueur, and Absinthe are beverages you pine for, make time for Germain-Robin. You will drop some serious cash, but you will be happy.

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Article and Photos courtesy of Michael Cervin


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