Fall is the perfect time to pack your books and corkscrew for a walk on the wild side.  As the season turns and grape harvest unfolds, this vividly picturesque Northern California outpost has plenty to celebrate.  With 12 diverse AVAs and enough juice to keep the country of Bhutan buzzed, Mendocino County offers a romp with a socially-responsible spin, providing wine buffs with a front row seat in a variety of fun alfresco venues.

TAPESTRY OF TERROIR                 

Mendocino County is farm country.  From the mid 1800 settlers who first planted grapes to the back to the land movement driven by rugged individualists, working the soil remains a mainstay.  Estate honey and farmstead cheese, foraged fungi and piment d’ville — Mendocino’s crops and the craftspeople who hone them keep restaurants buzzing year round.  Add in 430 vineyards and nearly 200 winetasting venues and a trek during the annual harvest starts to sound tasty.

The majority of Mendocino County wineries are small family-run operations with the owner/vintner working the tasting room.  This translates into a comfortable, personal experience with home-grown hospitality that’s hard to match.  Distinct regions, such as Cole Ranch AVA (North America’s smallest appellation with 60 acres), Mendocino Ridge AVA (the only non-contiguous AVA in America with elevations of 12oo+ feet within 10 miles of the Pacific) and Anderson Valley AVA (ranked the top Pinot Noir region in North America), make an adventure easy.

INSIDER VINEYARD VISITS

If you prefer a more personal touch, step out of the tasting room and into the redwoods for a full immersion in all things Mendo.  A variety of vintners offer farm visits that are literally off the map.  Roma’s Vineyard is a good start, set on the eastern ridge above the fog line in Anderson Valley.  Fathers & Daughters Cellars offers tastings at the third generation family estate vineyard in Boonville, with views spanning the entire valley overlooking the famed Ferrington Vineyard.  At DuPuis Wines, step behind the curtain for Old World inspired wines at this estate vineyard and working facility backed with gorgeous backdrops.  Wentworth Vineyard & Ranch is another key stop, steeped with live oaks and redwoods overlooking Nash Mill Vineyard in the fog-drenched “deep end” of Anderson Valley.  Appointments required; www.avwines.com.

TOP 10 CRUSH PADS

RIVINO Estate Vineyards & Winery

 Perched on the edge of the Russian River just short of Ukiah, this boutique winery features an elevated perch overlooking a swath of 250 acres of vines.  Multiple tiered settings ensure visitors have plenty of space to dive into the winery’s signature Boujee bubbles and esoteric line-up of Sedulous and Tiger Juice blends.  Rivino’s Friday Happy Hour is legendary; as temps drop you can warm up in the new open-air heated Boujee tent.  Quirky events such as the Bacon Fest and Fishing on the Pond – a new tasting venue within walking distance through the vines – round out the popular Saturday live music gigs; www.rivino.com.

Pacific Star Winery

If your true call is a seaside swirl, Pacific Star Winery is the stop.  One of a handful of U.S. wine tasting venues set smack on the Pacific Ocean – and the Pacific Star Fault – this laid-back stop located 11 miles north of Fort Bragg offers an unparalleled alfresco setting with surface rocks dating back 130,000 thousand years, rugged cliffs and crashing seas paired with colorful umbrella-strewn tables offering a front row seat to Mother Nature at her naked best.  The imposing redwood and stone barn nestled into the cliffside is stocked with wines set in French, Hungarian and American oak barrels.  Make sure to tap into the signature It’s My Fault dry white and red blend, Dad’s Daily Red or a rich lineup of Italian varietals: Barbera, Charbono and Sangiovese.  Whale sighting optional; www.pacificstarwinery.com.

SEAWOLF Wines

                  New in 2020, this off-track winery with a panoramic perch set 2,000 feet above the clouds is located in the Yorkville Highlands AVA, along a verdant two-lane backroad leading to Anderson Valley.  The 165-acre organic estate offers an authentic adventure straight out of a film set.  Belly up for a crisp Fennel and Stone Sauvignon Banc or true-to-form Rose of Zinfandel.  Curated by husband and wife team Jesse and Emma Hall, these small-lot wines spotlight a vinicultural region yet to hit center stage.  You can book the Mountain Tasting Experience including a vineyard tour and tasting of four current releases ($25); www.seawolfwines.com.

Goldeneye Winery

                  If busting your budget is in order, enter through the “Pearly Gates of Pinot Noir” to Goldeneye.  Set smack in Anderson AVA in the tiny enclave of Philo, this top-shelf winery takes tasting to another level with a variety of   Elevated Tasting Experiences.  Tap into A Toast to Bubbles and Caviar ($150/2 people) set deep in the vines under a signature sprawling black oak.   The winery’s expansive deck, offering a unique vantage of vines, rolling hills and redwood forests, provides private table-side service for estate wine and cheese pairings ($45) as well.  If your pockets are even deeper, opt for the “Fly with Goldeneye”  helicopter drop off from Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport paired with an extensive tasting ($175/person, air not included).  www.goldeneyewinery.com.

Terra Savia Winery & Olive Mill

Off grid and into the garden is the best way to describe this experience with bats, owls, goats and sheep playing center stage.  Set just outside Hopland along Highway 101, Terra Savia is the stop for rustic wine tasting packed with plenty of personality.  On site you’ll enjoy the 100-year old Tea House tasting venue, with a vine-swept alfresco perch overlooking the vineyard.  The 35-acre organic winery and olive oil mill puts forth a spectacular line-up of sparkling wines as well as an estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Verdot, backed by a menagerie of rescue animals and owls working pest management.  You can also muse the hand-crafted olive oils — including a Meyer Lemon infused wonder — and linger among the art collection, vintage Porsche or Pinzgauer or kid-friendly locomotive.  www.terrasavia.com.

Pennyroyal Farm

                  Keeping with the farm theme, this vineyard and small-craft creamery share a strong ethos with the land and are fully committed to sustainability and modern farm practices.  Set in wine-centric Boonville, this is your stop for world-class Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir backed with a contemporary alfresco patio and expansive views of the vineyards and towering redwood groves.  Guided tours ($30) of the farmstead creamery, milking parlor and solar-powered barn – housing 130 – provide a slice of insider nirvana, with Boont Corners, Bollie’s Mollies and the lush Velvet Sister cheeses named in Boontling, a unique language originating in Boonville at the end of the 19th century.   For the ultimate cute-fest, you can grab a seat outback and catch a crew of Babydoll sheep weeding the 23-acre spread, glass of wine in hand; www.pennyroyalfarm.com.

Jaxon Keys Winery

If you are in for a switch to the dark side, power over to Hopland for a seat on the shaded veranda and dive into a selection of rare brandies traditionally crafted in an alembic pot still built in Cognac, France in the early 1900s.  Here, you can savor a slow flight including the best of show Jaxon Signature Reserve, gold medal Jaxon Old Stock and Jax on Rare Brandy ($25), backed with prime vineyard views.   The expansive grounds make for a great getaway and lovely stroll through the vines.  Wine tasters can tap into estate Chardonnays, Viognier and a rich Primitivo as well.  www.jaxonkeys.com.

Campovida

For gorgeous gardens and a swirl of world-class wines, Campovida is the stop.   Located in the heart of Hopland, this sprawling estate is all about elegantly manicured grounds, elevating your party to a nature and nurture experience one glass at a time.  Book the Taste of Place with a private picnic table and six curated current releases or a half bottle of rose backed with an afternoon bout of bocce with your friends ($25).   A variety of options abound from the simple Garden Tasting, paired with a selection of charcuterie and cheeses, to the cozy Fireplace Tasting ($65), staged in an historic 1890 barn surrounded by 500-year-old valley oak trees.  www.campovida.com.

Roederer Estate

                  Tucked away on scenic Highway 128 with a wrap-around alfresco perch, Roederer Estate’s rustic exterior is hardly what one expects from the house that created Cristal.  Bright orange umbrellas offset the worn wooded barn-style façade holding a cache of cuvee brut and other sparkling wines ready for bottle service.  Reserve your spot and pack in a lunch for an afternoon of leisure pursuit.   Magnum tastings are a daily diversion as is the Nosh Menu, bumping guests up with an estate tasting paired with a variety of sophisticated sparkling-friendly foods, from duck rillettes to smoked salmon and Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, prepared by an in-house chef ($6 – $95).  www.roedererestate.com.

 

Testa Vineyards

Just outside of Ukiah in the small township of Calpella, this sixth generation Italian family began farming the land in 1912 and today offers you an insider peek into winemaking from the ground up. Surrounded by ripe vines and a deep pocket lake, Testa is an outback experience with well-worn tables rooted around a classic barn.

Tap into the biodynamically-grown, naturally-crafted Simply White & Black Wines, award-winning Old Vine Zinfandel or a hearty Barbera.  Farm life never felt so good; www.testaranch.com.

 

Travel Alert:  Please check directly with wineries regarding tours and timeframes given the current COVID-19 conditions.