A long road that ends with bubbles

One hundred and twenty miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, deep in the southwestern corner of Mendocino County, exists a quaint and remote valley. Tucked between hillsides filled with oak and redwood trees, Anderson Valley is abundant with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The appellation benefits from the generous marine layer of the Pacific Ocean, which provides an ideal situation for growing Bourgogne varietals: a temperate climate, well-drained soils and a fluid consistency of warm days and cool nights. This allows the fruit to mature slowly, developing full varietal character on the vine.

Visiting this valley is an intentional act. One does not casually decide to just “pop” into the tasting rooms that dot the rural thoroughfare of Highway 128. The mere decision to depart Highway 101 in Cloverdale, only to wind precariously over the mountainside road and into the valley, is a stomach-churning act.

Blue skies, trees and vineyards.
Blue skies, Redwood trees and vineyards.

However, what waits on the other side is a postcard of bucolic simplicity: sheep pastures, apple orchards, a local brewery, an active rodeo, horse shows, and single-lane hamlets. In a world inundated with modernity and wireless devices, the sustained timelessness of the region is striking. It is almost as though the clock stopped a few decades ago and development proceeded at a much slower pace. Things are just a bit different here. And honestly, this difference is refreshing.

Given the opulence of many winemaking regions, the subtleties of Anderson Valley’s tasting rooms are deceptive given the caliber of the product. Where in other appellations, grander structures of stone and elegant villas might fill an estate, the opposite is true here. In place of event facilities, simple, weathered wood buildings dot the horizon. In some places, a tasting bar is replaced by an outdoor picnic table. And although tasting room staff are still the norm, it is not uncommon to sit across from the winemaker or proprietor while he or she shares the virtues and distinctions of their juice.

Bubbles await.
Bubbles await.

As devotees of all things sparkling wine and Champagne, it was no surprise that we would eventually find ourselves drawn to Roederer Estate. A brainchild of Champagne Louis Roederer, a six-generation winemaking family from France, the property was first acquired in 1982. Given the remoteness of the region, the family quietly worked the land and vineyards for a handful of years before ramping up production for their first release of the Brut in the fall of 1988, followed by the release of their first vintage cuvée, 1989 L’Hermitage, in the fall of 1993. For the past thirty-odd years, the Roederer family has expanded upon these early days. They have grown production, increased acreage and added additional local wineries to their portfolio (Scharffenberger Cellars and Domaine Anderson).

The two most celebrated components of the Estate are the meticulous farming and the influence of the Champagne winemaking methodology. Their fruit is all Estate grown. Biodynamic and organic practices are the norm. They only use the first pressings of grapes. And they adhere to a long-held, celebrated process for producing their wine. Their practices focus on the uniqueness that is provided by honoring the terroir and this inherent “sense of place.” It is French winemaking at its best, but on American soil.

“Our production methodology strictly adheres to the firm standards of the Champagne region, particularly in regard to ‘tirage’ and ‘sur bouchon,’ which guarantee a quality ‘complete’ sparkling wine,” said Jim Tuhtan of the Rodererer Estate hospitality team.

A strict adherence to Champagne production methodology.
A strict adherence to Champagne production methodology.

In addition to being meticulous farmers and producers of sparkling wine, the family has also identified a unique challenge that comes from running a facility in such a rural setting: quality workforce and housing. To help support their full-time staff, the family opened and continues to operate on-site housing. Heavily subsidized, this affords their employees to better support their families by not having to drive long distances, live in sub-par housing or spend an exorbitant percentage of their wages on housing. The uniqueness of this example is demonstrative of the holistic approach the family has to their business.

As for the wine, Roederer Estate is always a fun and easy excuse to pop some bubbles. During our visit on an early fall day, the tasting line-up included:

  • Roederer Estate Brut MV (60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir)
  • Roederer Estate Brut MV Magnum (60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir; but aging in the larger bottle produces a different level of oxidation)
  • Roederer Estate Rosé MV (45% Chardonnay, 55% Pinot Noir)
  • Roederer Estate 2009 L’Ermitage (50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir)
  • Roederer Estate Extra Dry MV
  • Roederer Estate 2014 Chardonnay
  • Roederer Estate 2014 Pinot Noir

Bruts are best consumed within five years of release; vintage cuvées can be enjoyed for significantly longer, with the optimal drinking age to be no more than 15 to 20 years past vintage.

The only label not available for tasting was the L’Ermitage Rosé. Given that the two vintage cuvées are only produced in exceptional vintages, expecting a sampling of either of them should be the exception and not the rule.

In addition to the well-known sparkling wines, the tasting contained a little surprise: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. On demand from the wine club, the Estate now produces small batches of these two still wines. While perfectly enjoyable, our allegiances lie with the sparkling wines.

In total, Roederer Estate produces roughly 100,000 cases per year for worldwide distribution. The vast majority (75,000 cases) is of the Brut. The Brut Rosé accounts for about 5,000 cases, with the rest of production split between the various other labels.

The hamlet of Mendocino, CA. Thirty miles due west of Anderson Valley.

Given the comfortable ambience of Anderson Valley, one should consider spending a day or two exploring this unique setting. The New York Times printed a profile in 2011 highlighting a weekend visit to the Mendocino Coast. If a curious traveler is already considering a trip to Anderson Valley, an additional thirty-minute drive to arrive on the Coast is absolutely worth it. Not only are the lodging and dining options much more plentiful along Highway 1, but the special je ne sais quoi of the region is only further heightened. The local artistry, remnants of the late 20th century counter-culture movement, and the focused reliance on local industries (agriculture, fishing, and more), make it truly other-worldly.

When visiting, it is suggested to call or email ahead. Although most (if not all) venues welcome walk-ins, advance notice is a bonus to ensure that someone is actually on-site to host you (remember, many of these spots are small “mom and pop” operations, so this means that hours of operations can easily change). The Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association provides this helpful map for scouting locations. Happy trails.

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