Mendocino County: Days of Wine and Rhodies, part 1

Zina Hyde Cunningham General Manager Zach Truter demonstrates his method for decanting in the glass. Photo by JM Shubin

If the recession has you planning a “staycation” this year, Mendocino County may be just the ticket. Best known for its rugged coastline, award-winning wineries, and native rhododendron groves, Mendocino offers active fun like kayaking, horseback riding, golf, hiking, and biking. You can also enjoy a wide variety of rejuvenating activities such as theater, music and arts festivals, whale watching, spa-going, viewing historical sites, and tasting inventive cuisine, all with easy access from the Bay Area.

My favorite activities in the area involve Mendocino’s wine and rhododendron cultures, both world-class. Here’s how to get started enjoying “days of wine and rhodies.”

Drive north from San Francisco on 101 to Cloverdale, where you can enjoy the small-town charm of restored Victorians and outdoor murals. You might want to grab lunch at Pick’s Drive In (on North Cloverdale Blvd at 1st Street), which has been serving the community since 1923. While I enjoyed a burger, fries and a drink at Picks for about $5, I watched as Susan—a friendly server who has been there for 14 years—expertly guided a young customer away from a caffeinated beverage towards a healthier choice.

At Cloverdale, turn west onto highway 128 for a leisurely drive through mixed deciduous forests of moss-covered oaks, madrone, buckeyes, bigleaf maples, pines and redwoods on your way to the coast. About 20 miles down the road, at mile marker 34.20, Meyer Family Cellars is a good place to stop and stretch your legs: you’ll find a kids’ play structure, bocce ball court, and trellised picnic area with great views of rolling, tree-covered hills and a big sky. Other thoughtful touches are landscaping with native plants, available locally produced olive oil and mustard, a bilingual recipe book featuring the best salsas from more than 20 of the Anderson Valley’s Mexican inhabitants, and—framed and hanging in the very clean restroom—a recipe for authentic Italian crostini.

Owners Karen and Matt Meyer, who offer a small selection of good wines, know their business. Karen is a native of Perth, Australia, and has made wine in Australia, New Zealand, France, and Sonoma County. Ken grew up in the Napa Valley; his father was a winemaker for Sliver Oak. Be sure to try the Meyer Family Port ($35/bottle), a fruity, silky selection that pairs perfectly with chocolate dessert. And if you’re in the mood for a splurge, try the Bonny’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($135), which was once available through Silver Oak but has been out of production for about ten years. The 2003 bottling was released in the fall of 2008, and is hard to find elsewhere, since only about 225 cases were released.

If Karen and Matt aren’t around when you visit Meyer, Jo Ann Aronson can fill you in knowledgably on the wines as well as local activities; she told us about the annual Yorkville Highlands Wine Festival coming up on Saturday, August 29, 2009, at which 30 to 40 wines—all made from locally grown grapes—will be poured amidst live music, a boar and lamb BBQ, Highland Games with prizes, a grape stomp, and a silent auction in a fun, well-organized atmosphere. The festival sells out early; reserve your space before the end of July for a $10 discount.

In the town of Boonville, don’t miss the historically appointed Zina Hyde Cunningham Tasting Room. It’s on the main street, on your right, and well worth a visit. General Manager Zach Truter is a remarkable resource, whether recounting the winery’s four-generation history (the founder came to California from Maine during the gold rush), explaining Zina Hyde Cunningham’s philosophy of producing well-balanced, drinkable wines, or demonstrating his technique for decanting in the glass. I’m not normally a pinot fan, but enjoyed a taste of the 2005 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir while Zach explained that Anderson Valley pinots tend to be fruitier and less acidic than others. Try the 2005 Mendocino County Carignane, too, with its wonderful cherry custard aroma. (It’s Zach’s standby “doghouse” bottle, which he combines with flowers and chocolates as a gift when he’s … you know … in the doghouse.) Zina Hyde Cunningham produces fewer than 2,000 cases per year, and they are non-distributed (available only through the winery), so you might want to leave room in the trunk to bring some home with you.

Next, check out Goldeneye Winery, a small-lot artisanal winemaker with beautiful grounds and a “farmhouse living room” tasting room about five miles past Boonville in Philo. Goldeneye provided the pinot noir served at President Obama’s inauguration; they also produce a sophisticated, dry, oaky rosé that I enjoyed very much. If Operations Manager Bob Nye is around, ask him for information about Goldeneye’s participation in developing a certification program for sustainable wineries.

If you’re traveling with children, you might want to stop at the Navarro General Store and Grocery to admire the sculpture, gas up and get provisions; or have a picnic at the Hinde Woods Apple Farm. Next, it’s on to the coast for a hike in the redwoods, a walk back through time to the pygmy forest, and a visit with some of Mendocino’s friendliest horticulturists.

© 2009 Laurie McAndish King. This article was originally published in Examiner.com on May 1, 2009.