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Anderson Valley High

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.

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