Anderson Valley High
Published: May 2009
By Guy Trebay
Vintners till the golden pastures. Hippies hole up in the hills. Star chefs grow their own—vegetables. <b>Guy Trebay</b> heads deep into California's Anderson Valley, where turning on, tuning in, and dropping out is still a way of life
Could it possibly be that the mobile phone vibrating in one's pants pocket, the 40-minute download of alumni newsletters, with attached JPEG's, the nagging insistence of BlackBerrys and instant messaging were what E. M. Forster envisioned when he composed his most celebrated aphorism: "Only connect"?Or is the vaunted loop of connectedness we are all constantly assured is such a necessary and good thing really more like a psychic dog collar, tethering us to the capricious demands of those strangers yanking at the business end of an invisible leash?
These thoughts floated through my mind as I made my way to a sleepy valley a mere three hours by road from San Francisco and about a million light-years from the electronic detritus that defines 21st-century life. A New York Times story I had tucked in my backpack made mention of a place that the reporter R. W. Apple Jr. referred to as California's own Shangri-la. "When you turn off busy Route 101 at Cloverdale and head up into the hills," Mr. Apple had written, "you leave one world behind and enter another."
The world Mr. Apple evoked on the page had the quality of a pastoral dreamscape, a place where timbering and sheep farming had yielded to such industries as wine growing, but cautiously, and with such gentle anachronisms as strong community values. In Mr. Apple's account, the Anderson Valley was depicted as the anti-Napa, blessedly lacking that area's bogus Tuscan villas, its dot-com retirees, and its stretch limousines filled with bibulous yahoos too drunk from serial wine tastings to even notice the inevitable traffic jams along Highway 29.
As I made my way northwest on 128, a road that seems less engineered than scribbled on the landscape with a stick, I crossed into Mendocino County and the landscape itself announced the transition. The sere hills of Sonoma drew in. The vegetation changed; the western hills were now covered with dense groves of redwood, the grass-meadowed eastern slopes with moss-hung clumps of madrone. In about two hours I was in downtown Boonville, population 974.
Shreds of fog hung over the small town, funneled down from the northwest where the Anderson Valley opens to the Pacific Ocean. With an elevation of 250 feet above sea level at Navarro, the Anderson Valley, I was to learn, ramps upward gently to 950 feet at the southern end. Regular fog creeping up-valley works to temper the climate in a way that suits the ripening process of certain cool-weather northern European grape varieties like Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, and Chardonnay. Since at least the 1970's this meteorological fact has attracted adventurous winemakers to an area whose most lucrative agricultural product until then had been pot.
It seems worth pointing out that the Anderson Valley, unlike Napa or Sonoma, remains substantially a rural place, and a working-class one, its citizenry well distributed among loggers, farmers, upscale vintners, and their even more prosperous competition—the ex-hippies who secrete their cannabis plantations in the hills. As Mr. Apple reported in the Times, the police confiscated 24,500 pot plants over two days in the Anderson Valley during the summer of 2002, although the district attorney, a man "of sturdy libertarian principles," declined to prosecute.
Parking my Lincoln Navigator outside the Boonville General Store, a plain one-story building where you'd be hard-pressed to find a jar of Dijon mustard, I flipped open my cell phone to check messages. A woman pulled in ahead of me in a beat-up Ford Explorer whose cargo bay overflowed with straw and a motley assortment of dogs. As she hopped out, I took note of her luxuriant dreadlocks and the unusual fact that her legs were dyed blue. I smiled wanly through the windshield at this apparition and she—taking visual note of the picture I presented at the wheel of an obscene gas-guzzler with a StarTAC pressed to my ear—grinned and stuck out her tongue.
I decided to treat this as a sign of welcome. Given a choice between the usual rehearsed insincerities of the hospitality trade and a greeting with a distinct local tang, I'll take the latter. As one comes to understand in short order, the Anderson Valley has set about adapting itself to tourism, but in its own appealingly balky way, and at a pace that has yet to skew the place's fragile balance.
Logging trucks still barrel down Highway 128 past immaculately groomed vineyards that continue the practice of offering visitors free tastings. Retired timbermen still solve the world's problems over scrambled eggs each early morning at the Redwood Café. Ranches still operate along the main highway, sheep grazing the high hummocks that strict zoning protects from such visual blights as ridgetop vineyards. The dining room of the Boonville Hotel offers superb meals whose ingredients, in true California fashion, have pedigrees (lamb and pork, for example, are identified as coming from the celebrated Niman Ranch). But delectable tacos are sold at a trailer parked across from the fairgrounds, to be eaten standing in the sunshine with salsa dripping down one's chin.
I had booked myself a stay in the Boonville Hotel's studio, just behind the main structure in a small annex facing a creek. The hotel itself is a frame building with a broad porch that gives it a more-than-passing resemblance to a set from a Paramount western. I settled in and proceeded to do...well, essentially nothing, essentially nothing being what I had come for, as a respite from decidedly too much.
The studio had a sitting area, a fenced-in private patio, a capacious bathroom, no laptop jack, not even a phone. Mobile phone use was also unpredictable, as I discovered outside the Boonville General Store when the StarTAC display screen kept flashing its futile existential message: SEARCHING. It became clear to me why there was never any reception when a checkout clerk explained that in Mendocino County there are few mobile phone masts, and so the cell phone sat forlornly on the console of my car during my time in the valley, occasionally springing to life without warning, its electronic birdsong like the trill of a quail.
Inevitably, when I flicked the phone open, it was only to find a dead line. I had moved out of range and that, I concluded, was fine. I was stuck, but in the best possible way, in this valley that poses its own eccentric set of challenges for a visitor, although nothing quite like those that faced hardy early settlers who made their home in an abundantly beautiful place that was not particularly close to either a city or the coast.
The ornery independence that these people—Gschwend, Prather, Stubblefield, and Murray by name—hauled into the Anderson Valley along with their broods and their bedrolls is not only alive, it seemed to me, but also infectious. Not by accident didsuccessive waves of oddballs, iconoclasts, and dropouts, from Jim Jones to Charles Manson and lately even secretive Internet billionaires, fetch up in this out-of-the-way valley whose span can easily be traversed in an hour without once breaking the speed limit.
When we started out here, most of the vineyard workers were hippies," Ted Bennett, the owner since 1973 of Navarro Vineyards, explained to me one cool afternoon as we sat at a table amid the lush plantings that mark the approach to the tasting room. Navarro, one of the valley's pioneering and premier wineries, produces 35,000 cases of wine a year, and 80 percent of the production is sold to mailing-list or Web customers or else to high-end restaurants across the country, places like the Union Square Café and Café Boulud in New York. "The guys in the fields were dropouts," Bennett said, "but dropouts with advanced degrees."
The educated hippies of those early days moved off the grid of commercial capitalism and grafted themselves onto an ecology that was still strictly agricultural. In the days following World War II, there were 27 sawmills in the Anderson Valley, most of them, in those ecologically benighted times, set up to turn old-growth redwoods into suburban picnic sets. Other than logging, the economic base of the valley was apple farms and sheep ranches, as it had been almost since the first whites settled the valley after three men stumbled upon it while out elk hunting in the autumn of 1851.
It is the wineries that you notice, of course, strung along the valley's central artery at regular intervals from Boonville to Navarro. There is the 580-acre Roederer Estate, whose rustic reception area and tasting rooms, designed by Jacques Ullman, are discreetly tucked into a hillside.Its sparkling wines, produced here since 1981 by the family that manufactures the premium French champagne Cristal, are to my mind even better than Schramsberg, the American sparkling wine that used to be my favorite summertime aperitif. There is Handley Cellars, run by Milla Handley for two decades and producing clean Rieslings, heady Pinot Noirs, and the Gewürztraminers that have a favored-child status in this region, whose climate is so congenial to cold-country grapes. There is Husch Vineyards, whose one-room tasting parlor is entered by passing beneath an almost embarrassingly picturesque bower of climbing roses. There is Josh and Mary Beth Chandler's Lazy Creek, an operation that defines garage wine and which lies in a hollow reached down a dirt road that could be the portal to Middle Earth.
And there is, of course, Navarro Vineyards, to which Ted Bennett and his wife, Deborah Cahn, retired (from, respectively, a retail stereo business that made him rich and an advertising copywriter's job). The vineyard was founded on a lovingly converted 900-acre sheep ranch to produce wines that, Bennett says, "taste of their place."
And place is something people in the Anderson Valley treat with seriousness, in the actual, the psychic, and the political sense. Whereas Napa Valley vintners have just lately gotten around to dealing with urgent issues like offering health care and housing for the migrant workers so crucial to all California agriculture, Navarro Vineyards provides 95 percent of its labor force with such unheard-of benefits as full-time—rather than seasonal—employment, health insurance, profit sharing, and even vacations.
Though just a little more than 100 miles from San Francisco, the Anderson Valley has held on to its insularity far longer than is easy to explain. Along with this willed separation has come a preservation of the communitarian values that in much of America today seem about as vital as the dodo.
At some point, any conversation with an Anderson Valley local will turn to talk of potluck dinners for the rancher whose house burned down, of fund-raisers for a sick kid in need of chemotherapy. People speak with passion of pulling together to hold off the forces of monoculture and thus preserve the integrity of this extraordinarily unspoiled locale.
When, for example, the state took to clearing the shoulders of Highway 128 with defoliant spray, green activists came down from the hills and lay across the road. When developers turned up with dreams of turning the gorgeously blank hillsides into cookie-cutter subdivisions, the community organized and enacted large-plot zoning. The Anderson Valley is tree-hugger country. People here are strangers neither to the spotted owl's fugitive beauty nor to its political utility.
This is not to suggest a valley swarming with wild-eyed cranks, although it is true that the former Black Panther and onetime FBI poster girl Angela Davis, now a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, is said to own a place here. But, to my mind at least, Davis might stand as a salutary example of the valley's presiding spirit: resolute and often fierce politics tempered by the easy hedonism that comes from waking up daily in lotusland.
"The day-to-day lifestyle is what people are into," says Don Schmitt, who with his wife, Sally, once operated the French Laundry, the Napa Valley's fabled restaurant. In 1993 they sold it to chef Thomas Keller and moved here to rescue a derelict 30-acre apple orchard set alongside the Navarro River in Philo, just eight miles up the 16-mile-long valley from Boonville.
Back then, the Apple Farm was being used as a camp for migrant workers. Now it is a model organic farm where the Schmitts, along with their daughter, Karen, and her husband, Tim Bates, grow more than 80 varieties of mainly heirloom apples, and where Sally Schmitt conducts a cooking school whose classes are so sought after they are sometimes booked a year in advance. "We didn't ever assume we'd get rich when we moved here," said Sally when I visited her kitchen during a class she was holding for 15 women from Healdsburg.
"You are never going to get rich on apples," Karen said as she helped her mother shell fava beans.
"We just wanted to live here," said Sally. "Gracefully."
That they do so is confirmed by the fact that not long ago Martha Stewart chose the Apple Farm as the subject of a story in her magazine. Scouts for Stewart had undoubtedly told her about the Schmitts' immaculate vegetable garden, the shed where they sell their home-bottled vinegars and home-canned preserves, and the henhouse that resembles a Gypsy caravan. "She called up and said, 'We're coming to do a story on you,'" Sally told me. "And I said, 'Oh, really. I think not.'"
The Anderson Valley is not for everyone, said Don Schmitt, referring in part to the prospect, daunting to many, of dosing with Dramamine in order to navigate the Formula One hairpins on the highway in. "Nine times out of ten," he said, smiling, "people who don't like that road are not our kind of people anyway."
Anderson Valley-type people, you learn quickly, are those with a limited appetite for getting and spending, although the Anderson Valley Farm Supply in Philo does stock sheep chow and tins of Bag Balm, an unguent that is to ewe udders what Elizabeth Arden's Visible Difference is to crepey necks. They are people whoare more than happy to content themselves, as I did, with a day spent hiking in the haunting alleys of Hendy Woods State Park, where there are groves of colossal virgin redwood thought to have germinated at the time of Charlemagne.
Their idea of something to do is to go skinny-dipping in the Navarro River. Afterward they may pick up lunch at Lemons Market in Philo, where the owner, Tom Lemons, who butchers and cures his own meats and sells line-caught salmon that he fishes himself off the Mendocino coast, will, with any prompting, reminisce about times when people in the valley relied on nature's bounty—"rock cod, abalone, salmon, and venison"—to stay alive.
They can, as I did, hike up into the hills off Peachland Road, where some of the unpaved spurs lead to gated enclosures that prudence warns against exploring; or drive the 29 miles to Elk, a moody small town on the coast; or idle away a morning at the Apple Farm orchards amid gnarled heirloom specimens with names like Pomme d'Api (grafted in France in 1628), Ashmead's Kernel (England, 1700), or a 19th-century Black Twig of Arkansas, an apple with a vivid yellow flesh.
They can spend the afternoon on the porch of the Boonville Hotel working through the homespun tidbits, the "CannabiNotes," and the left-wing screeds in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a singular weekly run by 63-year-old publisher Bruce Anderson, who trumpets his paper's credo under the bannerpeace TO THE COTTAGES, WAR ON THE PALACES!
Among the regular correspondents to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, whose 4,000 copies are sold locally and shipped to subscribers nationwide, are the British journalist and former Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn, who was characteristically fulminating about the Middle East peace settlement in the issue I read, and a local octogenarian named Charmian Blattner, who was keeping readers current on the doings at the senior center, sharing recipes for frankfurters, and reporting on the status of her 18-year-old Ford LTD.
For years there existed a rumor that a correspondent to the paper, whose eccentric letters were signed Wanda Tinasky, was in fact the reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon. Anderson understandably did little to discourage the misperception until it was revealed that Tinasky was actually an old beatnik who one day mysteriously murdered his wife and then killed himself.
It would be forgivable to suggest that something in the landscape is conducive to a certain fabulist tendency, that there are elements that inspire people to see in the Anderson Valley an American Shangri-la. A nation gorged on stimuli and empty information can sometimes seem starved for authentic narratives. One of the most commonly cited facts about the Anderson Valley is the origination there of a lingo known as Boontling, developed by sheep ranchers and apple growers, and confounding to outsiders.
"Pike with me up the Navarro to the Briny Highway from Cloverdale to Boont and deek the Anderson Valley Gannow Beemsh," reads a phrase from a pamphlet I bought that unpacks this nearly defunct slang. "If you abe a little, you may recognize many kimmeys and appleheads, descendants of the original settlers who are now with Saul's grandmother," the pamphlet goes on to say. The translation?Come on down to the apple fair.
No more than a few dozen people are left who still speak Boontling. It's a dead tongue that, nevertheless, survives as an idea. The self-segregation that has kept the exceptional beauty of the Anderson Valley intact is coded into this old lingo, used to preserve such secrets as the existence of an annual apple fair and the best place to get a hot cup of coffee, or "horn of zeese." There is a specific magic naturally attached to any special language, and to the heady interior logic of slang used to elaborate the mundane doings of daily life. You need time to unravel the structure, track its grammar, and piece the puzzle out. It goes without saying that you have to set aside whatever else you were doing in order to try.
The Anderson Valley is in Mendocino County, 120 miles north of San Francisco. Boonville, Navarro, Philo, and Yorkville are the four main towns and can be reached by taking Interstate 101 from San Francisco and then going west on Highway 128.
WHERE TO STAY
Apple Farm More than 80 varieties of apples are grown on this 30-acre farm, which also offers cooking classes from February through November. (Reserve early, they fill up quickly.) The farm has four guest rooms and rents out a cottage in Elk, a 40-minute drive away, near the ocean. DOUBLES $200, COTTAGE $250. 18501 GREENWOOD RD., PHILO; 707/895-2461
Boonville Hotel Built in the mid 1800's, the hotel has eight rooms in the main building and two rooms in a former caretaker's cottage. DOUBLES FROM $95, COTTAGE $250; DINNER FOR TWO $70. 14050 HWY. 128, BOONVILLE; 707/895-2210; www.boonvillehotel.com
WHERE TO EAT
Lemons Market Locals come here for the hand-butchered USDA prime meat and the fresh fish and crabs, caught every morning (in season) by the owner. 8651 HWY. 128, PHILO; 707/895-3552
Redwood Café Go for the bacon cheeseburgers, the strawberry cheesecake, and the apple and peach pies, made with fruit from area orchards. LUNCH FOR TWO $20. 13980 HWY. 128, BOONVILLE; 707/895-3441
Handley Cellars More than 10 varietals for sale; known particularly for its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. 3151 HWY. 128, PHILO; 800/733-3151 OR 707/895-3876; www.handleycellars.com
Husch Vineyards Founded in 1971, this vineyard is the oldest in the valley. The Chardonnay is a best-seller. 4400 HWY. 128, PHILO; 800/554-8724 OR 707/895-3216; www.huschvineyards.com
Lazy Creek Vineyards An 89-acre estate admired for its Pinot Noir. In 2002 it introduced an affordable red table wine that is 100 percent Pinot. 4741 HWY. 128, PHILO; 707/895-3623; www.lazycreekvineyards.com
Navarro Vineyards Best known for its Gewürztraminer. 5601 HWY. 128, PHILO; 800/537-9463 OR 707/895-3686; www.navarrowine.com
Roederer Estate The 350-acre winery opened in 1981as the U.S. subsidiary of the House of Louis Roederer. The estate produces L'Ermitage, a top-rated California champagne, and Roederer Estate Brut, its most sought after cuvée. 4501 HWY. 128, PHILO; 707/895-2288; www.roedererestate.net
WHAT TO DO
Anderson Valley Farm Supply Everything a farmer could want—and Purple-Wave petunia seeds. 7050 HWY. 128, PHILO; 707/895-3655
Gowan's Oak Tree For apples (and hot cider), pears (up to eight varieties), seven types of corn (in season), and 15 kinds of squashes. 6350 HWY. 128, PHILO; 707/895-3353
Hendy Woods State Park The 845-acre park, with 100 acres of 1,000- to 2,000-year-old coast redwoods. Visitors can fish on the Navarro River and hike the two miles of trails. 18599 PHILO-GREENWOOD RD., PHILO;707/895-3141; www.parks.ca.gov
Mendocino County Fair The county fair is held in September, but there are festivals year-round. 14400 HWY. 128, BOONVILLE; 707/895-3011; www.mendocountyfair.com