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A pocket of California still shelters restrained and elegant pinots.
It sounds like an oenophile’s version of a fairy tale: a secret land — far from evil influences — that produces the most magical wines. Yet this enchanting place exists: from San Francisco, point your wheels north on the 101, and in a little over two hours, you’ll stumble onto the one winding road leading into the Anderson Valley.It’s not just the wine that’s different here: the valley is an idyllic escape from the hustle and bustle, in the way that Sonoma was 25 years ago and Napa was 15 before that. Here you’ll find old-timers, descendants of the original settlerswho created their own language (Boontling) at the turn of the last century, alongside the next pioneers, who moved in and began seriously planting grapes in the 1960s. And now there are newcomers who have started to erect small inns and locavore restaurants, all of which makes it a more attractive destination and simultaneously, some fear, foretells the end of the isolation that defines this special area.SLEEPUntil The Madrones opened, the quirky and still great Boonville Hotel was the only decent lodging in the valley. Cloistered buildings and courtyards house four tasting rooms featuring some of the best small-batch wines around, as well as a new owners’ cottage turned guest quarters. There’s no daily housekeeping, but if that’s what you’re looking for, fancy-pants, Napa’s an hour east.Tucked in the valley, it’s easy to forget that you’re only one mountain range away from the ocean, but the Elk Cove Inn’s Craftsman-style cabins frame the rugged Pacific smashing into the rocks in dramatic fashion. Bank on 35 minutes to drive the 30-kilometre winding road to main town Philo (pop. 349).EATWhen you have a hankering for a cabin operated by a couple from Normandy, there’s the rustic Coq au Vin (707-895-9255). Find Gallic staples (escargot, duck confit) prepared with no pretension in a room that’s permanently bustling. Very cheap; cash only.Table 128, at the Boonville Hotel, has the perfect wine-country vibe: chill servers, good food, great wine. Served family-style, a different prix fixe is inspired each week by, as they put it, “whim and season.”After stints at Bouchon and Gary Danko, chef Patrick Meany opened Stone & Embers in the Madrones, the most San Fran of the valley’s offerings. The intimate space churns out artisanal pizzas from a wood-burning oven and upscale seasonal fare like crispy cod cheeks — this place is definitely the it spot.SIPJason and Molly Drew’s modest operations at Drew Family Cellars produce what may be the area’s most elegant pinot — restrained with minerality — and arguably the state’s (and consequently the continent’s) finest albariño. Tasting room at The Madrones; winery by appointment.Backed by the massive Duckhorn Wine Company, Goldeneye is the most Napa-esque of the operations (at well over 10,000 cases for the basic pinot), but the setting is gorgeous (great for picnics) and the single-vineyard pinots (the Split Rail Vineyard is exceptional) are memorable, if a tad pricey at $80.Ledcor’s Cliff Lede bought the Breggo winery in 2009, then went ahead and bought the area’s famed Savoy Vineyard a couple years later. These are the most expressive pinots in the valley — or, according to Robert Parker Jr. a few years back, the “finest ever in the New World.”Along with Husch, Navarro Vineyards makes up the old-school arm of area vintners. For starters, it grows everything from muscat to zinfandel to late-harvest riesling. But without these generalists, there would be no high-price pinots from the current crop of specialists, so pay your respects (and score a bottle of the amazing non-alcoholic gewürztraminer or pinot noir grape juice for the kids).