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Awaiting Rediscovery

Author: Jean Saylor Doppenberg
March, 2013 Issue


Mendocino County is rolling out the welcome mat to the North Bay and beyond.

 
We’ve all heard the comparisons of Mendocino County to Sonoma and Napa counties:
 
• Mendocino is to Sonoma what Sonoma is to Napa.
• Mendocino today is what Sonoma was like 30 years ago.
• Mendocino is unspoiled and uncrowded, without fleets of limousines and traffic from tour buses.
 
That last point is definitely true. At 3,900 square miles, the county’s large size (roughly as big as the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined) and limited number of major roadways make it more popular as a getaway destination than as a day-tripper’s attraction. To do it justice, it takes time to explore Mendocino County—but it’s closer than we think.
 
“Our biggest challenge is one of communicating that we aren’t that far away,” says Scott Schneider, president and CEO of Visit Mendocino County, a four-year-old organization tasked with drawing vacationers to the region. This year, the organization is flush with a record amount of marketing money to get the word out. “It’s the most we’ve ever had to work with––$1 million,” he adds.
 
Visit Mendocino County (VMC) is placing a lot of advertising (including placements with print, online, outdoor and radio outlets) and it also hopes to pull more international visitors by partnering closely with the North Coast Tourism Council. It seems to be working––Schneider claims tourism increased by about 9 percent last year. About 80 percent of visitors to Mendocino County come from Sacramento and the Bay Area, he says, followed by tourists from Southern California.
 
“Visitors tell us they want a little bit of everything––wine, redwoods and coast––and they come here to do it all,” adds Schneider. “But for many people, part of the point of getting away [from home] is to try not to do too much.”
 

First stop: Hopland

For visitors who enter the county from the south via Highway 101, the tiny town of Hopland is an irresistible stop. Only 15 miles north of Cloverdale, it seems ready-made for North Bay residents who want to dip their toes into Mendocino County for a few hours without traveling too far afield. Hopland rolls out the welcome mat with several friendly wine tasting rooms, a couple of eateries for simple and delicious fare (Bluebird Cafe and Piazza de Campovida), and local brews and sandwiches at the newly opened Hopland Ale House.
 
Chicago native Jennifer Sullivan, who moved to Oakland in 1998, is now proprietor of Hopland Ale House. She brings with her more than a decade of front-of-the-house restaurant experience, including a stint at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. She serves an all-day menu in the historic, inviting space with stamped tin walls and exposed brick. “It reminds me of the older architecture I grew up with in Chicago,” she says. Sullivan is also planning an outdoor beer garden and plans to have a patio opened by March, just in time for the influx of spring visitors. “The stunning bar was made by a local contractor named Tom Carter, and the picnic tables will be custom made by another talented woodworker named Ben Kaisi,” she says. The full menu will be available both indoors and on the patio, accompanied by occasional live music.
 
At least twice a year, the town attracts visitors by the droves for its spring and fall “Destination Hopland” passport-style wine-tasting weekends. Many of the wine-and-food pairings take place within a two-block area, making it easy to walk between tasting rooms. The festivities draw wine lovers from as far away as the Central Valley and Southern California.
 
Though it has many pleasant diversions, Hopland is still a work in progress. Adjacent to the Ale House is the long-closed, 21-room Hopland Inn, a grand roadhouse built in 1890 that’s awaiting repairs to structural damage. Late last year, the 7-acre Brutocao Cellars Schoolhouse Plaza complex at the south end of town went on the market. Brutocao is seeking a hospitality partner to reopen the shuttered restaurant space, perhaps add some lodging, and then lease back the tasting room to the winery.
 

Culinary scene on the upswing

Farther north on Highway 101, recently opened restaurants in Ukiah are garnering good reviews. The newest, called Saucy, opened last fall, offering wood-fired pizza and casual Italian fare, along with a wine list heavy with Mendocino County labels, wines on tap and a large selection of craft beers. Also in downtown Ukiah, Patrona features local, organic products on its menu, including vegetables grown nearby exclusively for the restaurant. Some standout dishes include the Alsatian chicken, pan-roasted wild steelhead and pan-roasted elk.
 
Schneider believes his county’s culinary offerings are better than ever, pointing out additional new fine dining spots inland and on the coast. Adam’s Restaurant, led by owner/chef Adam Celaya, opened in Willits in late 2012 with fresh fish from Fort Bragg and grass-fed beef. Aquarelle Cafe & Wine Bar is the latest eatery in Boonville, serving small plates and California fusion cuisine with chef/owner Christina Jones behind the stove. Wild Fish Restaurant opened in Little River in late 2011 with ocean views and a decidedly British bent––owners and Brits Kelvin and Liz Jacobs serve fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding, along with specialties such as organic lamb rump and salty cod.
 
Also on the coast is Shoreline Restaurant, named for its location in Gualala at the Breakers Inn, with views of the Gualala River and the ocean. Billed as an American bistro, expect fusion dishes such as red miso with clams and seared Cajun tuna. In Fort Bragg, a new barbecue joint called The Q is owned and operated by David LaMonica, the same chef who oversees the kitchen at the venerable Cafe Beaujolais in the village of Mendocino.
 

‘Doing just fine’ with wine awards

Although Mendocino County isn’t the first wine region to be described as creating “wines with character, made by characters,” the wine producers within its 10 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs)––and at least one more pending, called Eagle Peak––have had a reputation for avoiding trends and being stubbornly independent, even between neighboring AVAs. “We’ve always been the Rodney Dangerfield of wine areas,” quipped a Mendocino winery owner once to the media, implying the county gets no respect.
 
Mendocino County’s (about 100) wineries account for approximately 3 percent of California’s 3,500, explains Zac Robinson of Husch Vineyards in Anderson Valley. “But we’re winning more than 3 percent of awards. We may have the smallest number of entries in competitions, but we’re disproportionately represented in winning categories. Mendocino County is doing just fine with regards to awards.”
 
Pinot Noir, in particular, is the grape getting the most attention, with Anderson Valley at the center of its production. In the San Francisco Chronicle’s annual “Top 100 Best of the West Wines” for 2012, several of the county’s labels were praised, including two made with Anderson Valley Pinot Noir grapes: Drew Family Cellars and Londer Vineyards.
 
A double-gold medal went to Husch at the 2012 California State Fair wine competition for its 2011 Gewürztraminer. Gold medals were also awarded to Husch for its 2009 Chardonnay and to Navarro Vineyards for its 2011 Muscat. In addition, Mendocino County wine producers won approximately 45 double-gold, gold, silver and bronze medals––along with the Best of Show and Sweepstakes categories––in the North of the Gate wine competition at the 2012 Sonoma-Marin Fair.
 
Robinson notes that the county’s newer wineries, as well as established wineries now being run by third- and fourth-generation owners, are “stepping up with new ideas and creating a winery style that’s different. I’m impressed by what they’re doing, because they’re more sophisticated with social marketing and networking. They’re the future of the Mendocino County wine scene. That’s cliché, but they’ve been exciting and welcome additions.”
 
To illustrate his point, Robinson points to such wineries as Phillips Hill Estate Winery and Drew in Anderson Valley, Ukiah Valley’s Rivino (a blend of “river” and “vino” because of its location along the Russian River) and Testa Vineyards in Redwood Valley.
 

New wine alliance takes charge

Robinson likes to be identified as the farmer––not an owner––of Husch, a 42-year-old, family-run winery. He’s also the volunteer organizer of Mendocino Winegrowers, Inc., an alliance of growers and vintners that formed recently after the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission voted to cease operations last year.
 
Roughly half of the county’s wineries are located in Anderson Valley, and about one-third of the alliance’s membership is Anderson Valley growers and wineries. “So Anderson Valley is participating at about double the rate of everyone else,” adds Robinson. The new alliance is dues-based and open to both wineries and growers.
 
“Personally, I find it hard to envision separate winery and grower groups,” he states. “I grow grapes and also make wine, so which one am I? Some winegrowing regions have had a difficult time with separate groups because they can become cliquish. But the 37 participants at the meeting to create [Mendocino Winegrowers] voted 35 to 2 in favor of making another combined group.”
 
Redwood Valley, which Robinson says is more vineyard-centric, had low participation in the now defunct MWWC. “So that’s where we have to be knocking on doors and shaking hands. The new alliance will do better outreach. We have less overhead and can be more nimble and efficient, but our activities will be similar.”
 

Targeting wine’s gatekeepers

Ultimately, Robinson states, the new wine alliance’s job is simple: “We have to be out there sharing our name, our stories and our wines. But it’s a challenge, because the best market for us is the Bay Area, and those visitors have to get past [the attractions of] Marin and Sonoma counties without getting distracted,” he adds with a laugh. “The new alliance has to use modern techniques, such as social networking, to draw people here—and we’re certainly going to double-down on our efforts.”
 
Wine has many gatekeepers, says Robinson, more so than almost any other commodity or product. “They’re the people who tell us what’s good and what’s not––the bloggers, the sommeliers, the wine media and even the guy working at your neighborhood wine shop,” he says. “The general public thinks they have to rely on wine experts, so we have to target [our outreach to] those experts.” The alliance will need to grow its membership, he adds, “so we can try to do more to bring those gatekeepers here.”
 
Like the former commission, the new alliance will continue to throw its support behind marketing events such as the annual sommeliers’ wine tasting tour of the county, known as the “Terroir Experience.” It’s an intensive, three-day showcase in summer for influential sommeliers to sample Italian varieties such as Aglianico and Negroamaro in the Potter Valley AVA, Syrah in the Yorkville Highlands, Zinfandel from Mendocino Ridge and Anderson Valley’s Pinot Noir and Alsace varieties.
 
Together with Visit Mendocino County, the new alliance also hosts the annual, day-long Taste of Mendocino gathering, which takes place in San Francisco in mid June. Targeted to wine buyers, meeting planners, media and interested consumers, it’s designed to spotlight not only the region’s wine but also its cuisine, lodging and recreational activities.
 

Festivals and cooking classes

Food features prominently in many of Mendocino County’s annual festivals. Earth IS First, a nine-day festival this spring (April 19 to 28), returns for its second year to celebrate eco-friendly, earth-conscious and sustainable living. The county has long been considered one of the greenest in California, with approximately 25 percent of its 16,700 acres of vineyards certified organic, as well as being home to the first certified organic winery in the nation, Frey Vineyards. It was also the first county in the United States, in 2004, to ban genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
 
The 43rd annual World’s Largest Salmon BBQ is scheduled for July 6 in Fort Bragg’s Noyo Harbor. Attracting as many as 4,000 fans of salmon, proceeds from the event support the Salmon Restoration Association’s efforts to save king and silver salmon populations. Noyo Harbor will also be the setting for the World Championship Abalone Cookoff on October 5. Capping off the year in early November is the annual Beer, Wine & Mushroom Festival, a 10-day, countywide celebration named by Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine as one of its top six food festivals.
 
City folk seeking a back-to-the-farm adventure should check into the Apple Farm near Philo, where several tastefully furnished cottages provide overnight accommodations. Sally and Don Schmitt, the original owners of the French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, began rejuvenating the rural orchard property nearly 30 years ago. Guests at the Apple Farm are welcome to help gather fresh eggs, pick organically grown produce, stroll through acres of heirloom apple orchards and relax along the banks of the Navarro River. It also includes a farm stand where private-label “Bates & Schmitt” juices, jams and chutneys are sold.
 
A major draw at the Apple Farm is its cooking classes, which begin to ramp up this month with both weekend and mid-week offerings. The menus feature as many fresh ingredients as possible that are grown on the farm, and can include rosemary chicken with olives over polenta, lamb curry, artichoke soup, omelettes with green tomato chutney and a salad of seared duck breast with Chinese eggplant. 
 
Three generations of the Schmitt family oversee operations at the Apple Farm, at the Boonville Hotel in nearby downtown Boonville (with a restaurant called Table 128, open Thursdays through Mondays in season) and at the Farmhouse Mercantile, across the highway from the hotel.
 

Abundant edible seaweed

In addition to scores of edible mushrooms, seaweed proliferates in Mendocino County, with more than 10 types that can be used in cooking. Terry d’Selkie is one of the few intrepid commercial seaweed harvesters along the Mendocino County coastline, running Ocean Harvest Sea Vegetable Company. She gathers such delicacies as nori, kombu, sea palm, ocean ribbons, sea lettuce and bullwhip kelp during low tides beginning in spring, primarily in the chilly waters just south of the Mendocino Headlands to north of Fort Bragg. She sells the dried seaweed online and also offers private, one-day seaweed “safaris” for visitors staying along the Mendocino coastline during the summer months.
 
“The epicenter of abundant, edible seaweed along the California coastline might be here in Mendocino County,” says d’Selkie, who’s also a director of garden-enhanced nutrition education for the county’s school system. “People are becoming more aware of the health benefits of eating seaweed, and they’re interested in seeing where it grows and harvesting their own.” Safari participants are shown how to properly cut and gather the seaweed, and how to lay it out to be dried (“drying is a really important piece of the cycle”). She rounds out the experience by fixing them a meal using seaweed.
 
Mendocino County may always be identified as that quirky destination to the north, where even a museum devoted to marijuana, its largest cash crop, operated for a spell before closing last year. But sometimes we need to be reminded that the county’s many attractions are nearer than we perceive them to be, easily within our reach and waiting to be rediscovered.
 
 
Jean Saylor Doppenberg is the author of three books: Food Lovers’ Guide to Napa Valley, Food Lovers’ Guide to Sonoma, and Insiders’ Guide to California’s Wine Country.


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