It’s Not All Napa: The Hidden Wine Gems of Northern California

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

When my parents were visiting us in August, we were camp hosting in the Bay Area, just a short drive from Napa. The one day they had in town was spent exploring the wineries, everything from an oil change and tasting center crossover, to my mom’s favorite, Sterling. I have a post about our Napa day here in case you missed it. In December they made their way up to our tiny town, Fort Bragg, where we had a surprise planned for them on Saturday. We had scoped out some of the wineries nearby on a spontaneous date that Nathaniel planned for us, which also has it’s own post here, and it was time to show them our favorite places.

We greeted them at their hotel with some muffins from the local bakery to make sure their stomachs were prepared for the day we had planned, and set out southbound on Highway One towards Anderson Valley. On the way there they threw out the same guesses I did when Nathaniel led me blindly down that road. Are we hiking? Having a freezing and rainy beach day? The forested road that leads to the vineyards gives no inclination of what is waiting in the clearing. Coming up the hill you get a glimpse of the neat rows of vines, with the signs out front modified for Covid safety. Instead of “Open Tastings” there are large banners correcting them to say “Appointments Required” Luckily we were prepared.

We had two tastings planned. We have found that that is our limit to enjoy what we’re tasting and be able to get home safely. Nathaniel is always our designated driver, since wine is still a new experience for him and he will only finish the pours that we truly loves. In case you missed his point of view on all these tastings, you can find his post here.

The first stop was one we hadn’t visited before, Lula. It was recommended to me by a regular at the Starbucks where I work part time, and I’m so happy that we took their advice! Before we had even fully emerged from the car we had a large yellow lab greeting us politely. A chill, older dog who wanders the winery and gets hits his daily love quota by rounding the tables. I’ve been to wineries with cats before, but a dog is a new and welcome change! We were seated under a tent outside and briefed on safety. Staff had their masks on the entire time, and we donned ours when anyone was nearby to pour. Obviously they had to come off to sip and taste, but interaction was very limited. There was plenty of open air space for them to stand at a distance and walk us through the experience. Lula was a beautiful experience. For one, the glasses hold an entire bottle of wine. It was even demonstrated to prove it! So when your doctor tells you to enjoy one glass of red, for the antioxidants of course, you’ll want to have one of these on hand!

We started with a Chardonnay, which was Nathaniel’s favorite, and my dad’s least favorite. I’ve noticed a trend of straying away from the buttery, oaky Chardonnays that get such a bad reputation in some wine circles, which bodes well for Nathaniel who loves the brighter taste of a stainless steel barrel. Any wine we didn’t want to finish could get tossed into the gravel around us, which is where my dad sloshed his Chardonnay to save space for the Pinots coming up. A Zinfandel was next, which was a beautiful red berry color, and had a nice taste. But the three Pinots were what really stood out. They were ranked at 93, 94, and 98 points, and the last one we tasted was a Double Gold Medal winner at a state wine competition. It was clear to see why.

The first two we tasted side by side, The Costa and the Peterson Valley. Kim, our wine expert on hand, told us that the Costa was grown in very earthy, forest soil and changes the taste from year to year as conditions change. Notes of soil and mushrooms flavor this wine. Fort Bragg is a wet climate known for the mushrooms that sprout every winter. Some local ice cream shops and chocolate companies have incorporated the candy cap mushroom into their desserts, and I’d love to try a mushroom truffle with the Costa to see how the two unique flavors compliment each other. The Peterson Valley is grown with dry irrigation, so the roots have to grow long and deep to permeate the water table. In a traditional irrigation setting the vines will develop a large ball of roots just a foot or so below the surface instead. The soil there is rocky, which grapes love. To me the Costa smelled sweeter, but tasted earthier. Upon first taste the Peterson was my favorite, but as we sipped and the wine had time to breathe and open up, the Costa quickly blossomed and developed, making it my favorite by far. Okay, so this is why we decant! A Cabernet Sauvignon finished us off, and I walked around to see the gorgeous grounds while my mom went inside and bought a few bottles to take home.

Our next stop was our favorite from our scope out day, and the only winery where Nathaniel will finish every glass thats poured: Twomey. We have three bottles of Twomey wines saved for Christmas, New Years, and Nathaniel’s birthday, but he doesn’t know about that last one I have stashed away yet. If you read our last post, which you read here, you know the last time we visited them we were at the mercy of our raincoats to stay dry. This time they had erected a massive overhead tent, that they were measuring for on our last visit, and had some gorgeous place settings below it. Twomey did things differently than Lula, they gave us each four glasses and had them all poured as we were arriving, so we could walk ourselves through and not have to have any close interaction with the staff. The backside of the tasting menu has on order sheet so you can select what you want, and the staff will prepare it to be picked up on your way out the door. Very efficient.

The Sauvignon Blanc stands out as my favorite from last time, and the only white on the menu. It was creamy, with grapefruit flavors. Just a great wine for a meal or for sipping outside on the porch. Three pinots followed, and Nathaniel, who hates reds, finished them all. Russian River, which is close by but stretches into Napa County so the soil is slightly different, Anderson valley, where we were, and Bien Nacido which is a specialty mix of their best grapes. I learned something about myself, after ten glasses of wine I tend to start talking about baby names and weddings in Yosemite. Much to the delight of my mom and the chagrin of my dad. I’m glad that Nathaniel wanted to finish his pours, because I had taken the remnants of his glasses at Lula, so I was basically on my third tasting that day and starting to see why two is my limit!

We checked out with four Twomey glasses, five bottles of mom’s favorites, and lighter wallets. We had one last surprise for them that day. We had to drive through the redwoods to get to the Valley, and on the way back we stopped at Hendy Woods State Park, which was on the way home. In the trunk we had stashed a homemade charcuterie board to make up for that missing aspect from the tasting, and went on a short hike through the tall trees. Our board had a theme: A Musical Journey of Cheeses Around the World! (It’s only musical because I’m lactose intolerant). A classic American cheddar, Moosebacher from Austria, a peppered Brie from France, Truffle Gouda from Sweden, and a Manchego Sheep Cheese from Spain. If you can’t travel, eat around the world and drink around the valley!

Share your favorite wineries with us so we can put them on our list when we begin traveling again! We’d love to create a map of places we’ve tasted around the country and around the world. Thanks for celebrating Wine Week with us! Next week as we celebrate the New Year and look forward to all that it brings, we’ll be reminiscing on stories from our time on cruise ships. Holidays at Sea will be coming out soon, so check back in. What our your New Years plans? What are you hoping to leave behind and what have you learned that is coming with you into 2021? Drop us a comment below!


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