Anderson Valley Travel Guide
Last week found me taking some time off to unplug, traveling to one of my favorite corners of America, California’s North Coast, and more specifically, the Anderson Valley. The North Coast is kind of like California’s Rivendell. Not a lot of people know about it, and even fewer actually visit, while it has dramatic landscapes, lush forests, and some of the biggest trees you’ll ever see (i.e. modern-day Treebeard).
And hell, the Anderson Valley even has its own dialect, Boontling. So with this area being one of my favorite corners of America, it seemed high time to publish an Anderson Valley travel guide. Northern California's Anderson Valley, however, is most known for its wine appellation, featuring more than 32 wineries, of which Pinot Noir and sparkling wines are the breadwinners. In fact, odds are you’ve probably had wine that originated here, even if you didn’t know it. For example, Roederer Estate is owned by a champagne producer you’ve probably heard of, Louis Roederer (as in the producer of Cristal). Furthermore, of the 17 summer white wines that are recommended in the June issue of Sunset, 7 of them come from the Anderson Valley area.
Yet the Anderson Valley is unlike any wine region I’ve visited. As one local put it, the Anderson Valley invented “low-key.” Time, in many ways, seems to stand still. And that was quickly made evident on this trip. While it had been several years since my last visit, few things had changed, save for a couple new restaurants and wineries.
And that’s what I love about the Anderson Valley. Pomp has no place here. But you also won't find experiences that are often indicative of wine destinations, such as hot air balloon rides, luxury hotels, tour buses (or limos), and fancy meals. If you want those things, they are conveniently available in Sonoma and Napa Valley. Yet for a little longer (and curvier) drive, adventurous travelers can be rewarded with an equally charming and beautiful, but more unique and unassuming corner of California.
As such, today I’m coming to you with my Anderson Valley travel guide.
Anderson Valley Travel Guide
Ask Anderson Valley locals where you should eat, and 9 out of 10 are likely to send you to Lauren’s, a long-time staple located on the main drag of Boonville. Lauren’s description of itself as a “gathering place in Anderson Valley,” couldn’t be more apt, with regular events that include trivia nights, live music, open mic nights, and happy hour every Friday. The food is damn good, too, with highlights like the mushu chicken burrito, chile flautas, spicy sesame noodles, and chicken pot pie.
Anderson Valley’s most unique dining experience, however, is just down the street at the Boonville Hotel’s Table 128. Weekend nights (usually Thursday through Monday) feature family style, prix fixe meals that change nightly. You can get a sneak peek at each evening’s menu on the hotel’s website.
A couple of Anderson Valley’s newest restaurants are further up the valley in Philo, Stone and Embers and The Bewildered Pig. Located at The Madrones (which I discuss more below), Stone and Embers features courtyard, al fresco dining that feels straight out of Under the Tuscan Sun. The menu features daily specials that change frequently, while the potato beignets and mushroom chicharróns I could just eat all day. The headliner, however, is the pizza, like the fumée blanc with smoked prosciutto, charred onion, and smoked parmesan. Wash it all down with a glass of local wine or cider.
Like many of the restaurants here, The Bewildered Pig offers a different, unique experience every time you go. Culinary duo Daniel Townsend and Chef Janelle Weaver do the Anderson Valley right, with fresh, exquisite dishes that are cultivated and curated locally. Take a quick glance at the sample dinner menu, and I dare you to not start getting hungry.
This corner of California is one of my favorite corners of America to play in because it's the perfect juxtaposition of some of my favorite things, unique culinary and drink experiences to the backdrop of a beautiful landscape and wilderness, and further afield, pristine coastline. And just west of Anderson Valley is what I consider of the West Coast’s most beautiful coastline. Though a curvy drive from the Anderson Valley, a drive to Mendocino and Elk greets visitors with a dramatic stretch of coastline that California is so known for. I mean just look at that view below.
Nonetheless, the Anderson Valley has its own natural playground. Just north of Boonville and Philo is Hendy Woods State Park, a small state park with a campground, known most for its two redwood groves, where some of the redwood trees are believed to be more than 1,000 years old. Several miles of trails weave through the park, though they are relatively flat. Continuing north is another state park, Navarro River Redwoods State Park, which is one of my favorite drives, weaving beneath towering redwoods before the highway opens up to the Pacific Ocean near Mendocino. The drive has a number of places to pull off, where you can park to explore some of the trails, and even walk down to some off-the-beaten-path beaches on the Navarro River.
As I mentioned at the top, the Anderson Valley is most known for its wine, and especially Pinot Noir. But being a microclimate as the region is, varietals run the gamut. Roederer Estate is often one of my first stops, both for the experience and views, but also because it’s as good, and reasonably priced as any sparkling wine you’ll find anywhere. Tours are available by appointment, while the tasting room is open daily.
For an introduction to Anderson Valley’s renowned Pinot Noir, look no further than Goldeneye Winery. Here, tastings feature samples of a selection of their current Pinot Noir wines. I recommend grabbing a table on the back patio, overlooking the vineyard, and ordering a plate of local cheese to complement your tasting. For wine by the glass, I recommend the Vin Gris of Pinot Noir come summertime. Other wineries I’d suggest stopping at include Toulouse Vineyards, Balo Vineyards, Lula Cellars, and Handley Cellars.
For a proper introduction to Anderson Valley wine country, I recommend stopping first at The Madrones. The Madrones is a destination in and of itself, featuring the Stone and Embers restaurant, tasting rooms, guest quarters, and a boutique shop, all in one place. Among the tasting rooms are Bink Wines, Drew Family Cellars, and Smith Story Wine Cellars. What I love about these tasting rooms is that they are truly craft, with many of their wines only available here, and available in small quantities. For a break from wine, don’t miss Drew’s Sur La Mer brut cider, which is especially a treat come the summer months.
However, my two favorite tasting experiences in the Anderson Valley don’t involve wine, but rather beer and cheese. Best combo ever? Anderson Valley Brewing Company is a longtime local brewery in Boonville, dating back 30 years. If you’re a beer drinker from California, then you’ve probably seen, if not had AVBC’s Boont amber ale. Beyond their flagship amber ale, they have a long list of beers, many of which are only available in their taproom. Enjoy a pint or flight in the beer garden before picking up a couple discs in the taproom for a round of disc golf on their 18-hole course just beyond the brewery’s doors (yes, really).
Finally, there’s Pennyroyal Farm, located near Anderson Valley Brewing Company, which offers tours and tastings at their farmstead and tasting room. Taste their selection of goat and sheep cheese, of which their soft, chèvre-like Laychee is crack-cheese as far as I'm concerned. Additionally, they have wine available from their sister farm, Navarro Vineyards and Winery.
Lastly, the two places I recommend staying in Anderson Valley, I mention above, the Boonville Hotel and The Madrones. Both are a destination in and of themselves, and some of the most unique properties I’ve stayed at in wine country. At the Boonville Hotel, guests have 15 rooms to choose from, including several different guest rooms, a studio, casita, pump house, and 3 suites with their own outdoor areas. Bonus points that one of the best meals you can have in Mendocino County is just steps from your room.
The Madrones, which is just north of Boonville in Philo, has several accommodation options, dubbed “guest quarters.” I was smitten the first time I saw The Madrones years ago, as it felt like such a rare place to find in wine country with a restaurant, accommodations, and tasting rooms all in one place. Influenced by Italy’s agriturismo concept, The Madrones felt like a wine country experience that you can’t just find anywhere in the U.S. Plus, the guest quarters had panache. This wasn’t your grandma’s B&B filled to the brim with doilies and high-back Victorian furniture.
What’s more, I was thrilled on this last visit to be hosted by The Madrones owner, Jim, as one of the first guests of his newest suites, The Brambles, one property over from The Madrones. In a word? Magical. Upon turning into the property, guests immediately find themselves below the cover of a redwood grove, before pulling up to an old logging homestead retrofitted into two spacious, steampunk-designed suites with outdoor porches within earshot of Indian Creek and a stone’s throw to redwood trees. Additionally, on the hill, at the entrance are two cabins, which were formerly the property’s logger cabins, also with their own porches overlooking the redwood grove. It’s Northern California’s own Rivendell.