Centuries ago, Pinot Noir earned a reputation among the winemaking monks of Burgundy for expressing terroir better than any other variety in the region. Today, wines from California’s remote Anderson Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) show that the grape does the same in their neighborhood.
The 15-mile-long valley sits just 10 miles from the cool, blustery Pacific Coast, and the appellation is dotted with great sites to grow Pinot Noir. They are split between high-performance winery estate operations like Lazy Creek Vineyards, Goldeneye Winery and Black Kite Cellars, and independent vineyards that supply wineries for their site-designated bottlings.
What follows are the five most outstanding vineyards in Anderson Valley, proven to yield high-quality, memorable bottlings for a variety of winemakers. They provide a great sense of the varied “taste of place” in one of California’s best cool-climate regions.
Ferrington is the oldest and biggest of Anderson Valley’s top independent vineyards. Located in the southeast section of the valley near Boonville, it rises from 360 to 440 feet above sea level.
“I really like its location,” says Phillip T.G. Baxter, who makes Pinot Noir from the vineyard for his own Baxter label as well as for Fathers and Daughters Cellars, a relatively new creation from the family of Kurt Schoeneman, who owns Ferrington. “It reminds me of the sweet spot in Burgundy, where the flatlands meet the hills. I appreciate the aspect of the nutrients and the drainage coming off the hill and sticking there.
“It has older vines with a better root system, so I really like how they stretch down deep and bring up nutrients that are really expressive in the wine,” says Baxter.
Elevation: 397 feet, Acreage Planted: 74
Wine Characteristics: Bright red fruit and floral notes.
Principle Clients: Arista, Daniel, Davies Vineyards, FEL, Fisher Vineyards, Kosta Browne, Williams Selyem
Numerous other wineries make highly rated Pinot Noir from here, including Arista, Daniel, Davies Vineyards, FEL, Fisher Vineyards, Kosta Browne and Williams Selyem. Ferrington’s grapes bring a distinctive flavor signature that Baxter calls bright fruit (raspberry, red cherry) and floral.
“I think of Anderson Valley Pinot, in general, as having a plum character, but Ferrington bucks that trend,” says Baxter.
The vineyard’s first vines—Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay—were planted in 1969, when few understood the valley’s potential for Pinot, says Norman Kobler. He grew up nearby at Lazy Creek Vineyards and now manages Ferrington and several other top properties for Ardzrooni Vineyard Management Company.
The main Pinot Noir block was planted in 1997 and now includes clones 115, 667, 777, 828, DRC, Pommard and 2A.
“It has decent soils of sandy loam and clay, and we farm it well,” says Kobler, when asked why this spot makes such appealing and well-balanced wines. “We set up the canopy to give dappled sun over the bunches to prevent sunburn and farm according to what each vine needs.”
His crew customizes vine care to meet the requirements of different winemakers, and they generally keep yields to less than three tons per acre.
Planted on former pastureland of William and Nancy Charles, just southeast of the village of Boonville, Charles Vineyard lies about as far inland in Anderson Valley as you can get. The vines here bask in the relative warmth of the region, with subtle ocean breezes and summer morning fog.
That warmth shows up in the wines made by Papapietro Perry, The Withers Winery and the Charles family’s Foursight Wines. Bottlings vary, of course, based on harvest dates and winemaking methods, but there’s a generous character to the fruit flavors, with relatively full bodies and rounded textures, as well as a firm, acidic core.
The vineyard is on the valley floor near the southeast corner of the appellation, where drivers descend on Highway 128 from the Yorkville Highlands into the valley proper and enter its biggest town, Boonville, which boasts a population around 1,000.
While the land has little visible slope, the soil is generally rocky, not very fertile and, in some spots, full of cobblestones.
Established: 2001, Elevation: 380 feet
Wine Characteristics: Generous fruit and a round texture
Principal Clients: Foursight Wines, Papapietro Perry, The Withers Winery
“We’re higher in iron, higher in magnesium, we’re higher in some of the other elements, so the soil is a bit different,” says Bill Charles. “And we are a lot colder than even our weather station says, and that makes a difference.” Charles says that day-night temperatures can swing up to 50˚F.
The Pinot Noir vines are mostly from the Pommard clone and Dijon clones 777, 115 and 114, all trained on a vertical trellis. These various clones produce grape bunches that look and taste different, says Nancy Charles.
Bill contends that the Pommard clone, one of the heritage selections grown for decades in California, provides the deepest flavors—a component that may be the keystone for the generous, full-flavored wines from Charles Vineyard.
Dave Low, assistant winemaker at Papapietro Perry, uses Charles Vineyard as its only Pinot Noir source outside of Sonoma County. The winery has worked with this site for 11 years.
“They do a really meticulous job of farming the vineyard,” says Low. “Bill is constantly in the vineyard, walking the rows, looking for anything that might need attention.” Low finds more tannic and acidic structure in these wines than in some of the Russian River Pinots he makes. That’s in spite of yields that, at around four tons per acre, are larger than those from some of the hillier sites.
Morning Dew Ranch
This small, beautifully situated vineyard hugs a steep hillside in what’s known as the “deep end” of Anderson Valley. There, it’s all rugged hills, twisting creeks and towering redwoods to the town of Mendocino, a short drive away to the northwest.
The co-founder of Williams Selyem, Burt Williams, created this jewel of a vineyard after he and partner Ed Selyem sold their winery to its current owner, John Dyson, in 1998.
Williams then began to sell the grapes to his former winery, and Morning Dew Ranch joined the pantheon of small-lot, vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs that Russian River Valley-based Williams Selyem offers its members for direct purchase on an allocation basis.
It wasn’t long before other wineries, like Whitcraft Winery, Brogan Cellars and Drew Wines in certain vintages, began purchasing grapes as well. Williams also made his own wine in 2008 and 2009 in the small house/winery at the top of the property’s central hill.
Morning Dew Ranch
Established: 1999, Elevation: 600, Acreage Planted: 13
Wine Characteristics: Red cherry and nervy acidity
Principal Clients: Castello di Amorosa, Drew Wines, Williams Selyem
Then, in 2015, Napa Valley’s Castello di Amorosa, the winery that occupies a spectacular Renaissance-style castle, bought the property. In 2016, Brooks Painter, the estate’s director of winemaking, made the brand’s first vineyard-designated Morning Dew Pinot, slated for release in March.
The vineyard is divided into 10 blocks, with different clones, rootstocks, slopes and sun exposure. Painter has nearly 40 years of experience, but he was excited to get his hands on the manicured vineyard planted with several Dijon clones, a Rochioli selection, Clone 23 Mariafeld and the DRC “suitcase selection,” purported to have come from vines at Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
His team is retrofitting the vines from cordon pruning to cane pruning, and he wants to increase the yield from less than one ton per acre to about three tons.
“It’s fun to have the opportunity to work with the fruit up there,” says Painter. “It makes a wonderful wine that’s chocolaty and has intense red fruit. It’s just an ideal situation for Pinot Noir.”
In recent vintages, the Williams Selyem wines have had extremely concentrated cherry and cranberry flavors, backed by nervy acidity and substantial tannins. They’re ideal to age for five to 12 years.
Williams Selyem made a 2015 Pinot Noir and harvested grapes from the vineyard in 2016, but it did not take any last year, says Painter. Jason Drew returned to purchasing a portion of Morning Dew’s grapes in 2017, so there will be at least two brands keeping Burt Williams’ dream alive.
One vineyard in the Anderson Valley appellation that may have a more distinctive signature than even Savoy or Ferrington is Valenti. This tiny site clings precariously to a steep mountain slope at 1,200 feet elevation, overlooking the valley on the northwest wide. Two official American Viticultural Area boundaries overlap here as a result of creative gerrymandering, so Valenti is technically in both the Anderson Valley and Mendocino Ridge appellations. As a result, wineries can label bottles made with these grapes as either AVA name.
Baxter calls the product of this unique vineyard, “the brooding umami wine of Valenti.”
The vineyard sits near the windswept ridgetop in the path of raw weather that comes from the Pacific Ocean just six miles to the west. It was planted in 1998 for the Berry family, who own the property today.
Jason Drew, of Drew Wines, has leased and managed the property since 2013, and he makes one of several remarkable Pinot Noirs from this low-yield site.
Drew divides the property into three levels that range up to 1,400 feet. He says the characteristics of the wine vary in 100-foot increments, which puts a pretty fine point on terroir.
“What Valenti tastes like depends on the elevation,” he says. “The wine, in general, has great minerality. Up at the top, there’s a darker expression, so [it’s a] richer wine with more tannin. The acids are usually pretty solid, but we’ll have higher acids down at the lower elevations, with closer proximity to the fog.” The fogs form at 600 to 800 feet, but can move higher.
Established: 1998, Elevation: 1,258 feet
Acreage Planted: 14.4
Wine Characteristics: Savory and herbaceous, dried mushrooms
Principal Clients: Baxter, Drew Wines, Phillips Hill Winery
Other winemakers who love the site include Toby Hill, of Phillips Hill Winery, and Phillip T.G. Baxter, of Baxter Winery.
Baxter calls the product of this unique vineyard, “the brooding umami wine of Valenti.”
“Valenti is more subtle at first, but more complex in the long run,” he says. “It has a very unique, savory, herbaceousness. Our Europhile customers gravitate to this one. People say it’s more Burgundian.”
While the wine’s complexity evokes the sometimes-earthy nuances of Pinot Noir from the Côte d’Or, this untamed vineyard site surrounded by redwoods could never be mistaken for the serene pastoral landscape of Burgundy.
Richard Savoy chose to plant his vineyard on sloping terrain near Philo, in the cooler northwest end of Anderson Valley. In the process, he pioneered vineyard practices that are now standard procedure, like close spacing of the vines and the use of diverse clones from Dijon and California that increase the quality and complexity of Pinot Noir wines produced from here.
The site’s reputation matured along with the vines, and today, if Savoy Vineyard appears on a label, it’s almost a guarantee of quality. The all-star cast of wineries that use its grapes include Failla, Littorai, Peay, Radio Coteau and WALT, as well as FEL, the winery that has owned the property since 2011.
Megan Gunderson Paredes, winemaker at WALT, has used Savoy grapes since 2010. She likes to blend fruit from different parts of the vineyard, drawing from the Dijon 115 clone as well as the Martini and Pommard heritage clones.
Established: 1991, Elevation: 200–320 feet
Acreage Planted: 44
Wine Characteristics: Raspberries, mushrooms and herbs
Principal Clients: Failla, FEL, Littorai, Peay, Radio Coteau, WALT
Paredes says that Savoy’s Pinots are earthy, intense, full of blue fruits and have a hint of the minty, floral aroma of pennyroyal, an herb that grows among the vines.
“For me, what’s really special about Savoy is that even though it’s in the deep end of the valley, it’s a little more protected than some sites,” she says. “It has slightly warmer days that bring out everything from crushed raspberries to porcini mushrooms, tea leaf and pennyroyal, which brings a wonderful uniqueness to the vineyard.”
To prove what’s special about the site and highlight the vineyard’s terroir expression, FEL’s Winemaker, Ryan Hodgins, poured a four-vintage vertical of Savoy Pinot Noir. Herb and forest floor aromas are consistent throughout the wines, though the concentration of fruit flavors shifts slightly, more prominent in the 2012 and 2015 vintages, while the 2013 emphasized a firm texture and the 2014 felt silky smooth.
The concentration and character are enhanced by low yields of approximately three tons per acre, as well as the choice to harvest the grapes at sugar levels so low they would shock most California Cabernet producers.
Norman Kobler, who manages the vineyard, says that most of Savoy’s customers harvest at 23 or 23.5 degrees Brix, and they have a keen focus to identify the ideal harvest day.
“Pinot Noir has a lot of finesse, but in a small window,” he says. “Ted Lemon [of Littorai] starts getting nervous at 22 Brix.”