It's one of those blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments. The highway sign as you enter the town says it all. Philo, elevation 331, population 349. You know you're almost off the grid when the elevation is nearly as relevant as the number of people, but in the gorgeous Anderson Valley, hidden away west of the famous wine region of Napa, you also know the population is sure to grow when the valley is discovered. Thanks to the opening of the Madrones, that moment may have finally come.
Highway 128, running between Cloverdale on the Interstate and the California coast about two hours' drive north of San Francisco, sees a few million tourists whiz by each year on their way to coastal attractions. Few stop.
I drove through the Anderson Valley 10 years ago and found few reasons to poke around, except to enjoy a quick coffee in the quaint village of Boonville. There are still few visible signs of change in the valley, but those who take a moment to peek behind the scenes will be well-rewarded, especially if you like fine wine, great food, no Napa-style crowds and beautiful scenery.
Jim Roberts, proprietor at the Madrones, opened his property along the highway, outside of Philo, just in time to get side-swiped by the financial crash of 2008. He's taken his time to reorganize, and reopened this summer with an entirely new business model. His lovely Mediterranean-style adobe villa now boasts several tasting rooms, an art and gift shop, a picnic garden and beautiful guest suites that provide the valley with its first high-end accommodations.
The tasting rooms feature the wines of Bink, Drew, Knez and Signal Ridge, all local producers largely unknown outside the valley. Some Anderson Valley wines, however, have, in the last decade, become household names in California, such as Navarro Vineyards, Handley Cellars, Husch Vineyards and Roederer Estate.
Anderson Valley differs greatly from its sun-scorched sister Napa Valley to the east. It's cooled by the fog that rolls in from the ocean and sneaks up the Navarro River, where stands of giant redwood trees attest to fertility.
The climate used to be great for apple orchards and still is, but it's also proved ideal for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and sparking cool-weather whites such as Gewxrztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Gris.
Completely different from swank Napa, there aren't any Versailles-style villas, fancy resorts, bumper-to-bumper traffic, expensive tasting fees, five-star restaurants or endless lineups. The valley feels authentic, natural -- the way Napa was about 50 years ago. That authenticity stems in part from its original back-to-the-land culture where people raised cows, sheep, and chickens and still do.
Napa today is like Disneyland or a honeymoon vacation; people don't bring their kids. Those who have discovered the Anderson Valley come for the apples, the art community, the river and the natural beauty.
Most importantly, they now come for the wine.
In his garden next to the Madrones villa, Roberts serves up a picnic lunch and discusses upcoming events that may help promote the entire valley. Chef Patrick Meany, with an impressive culinary resum© including stints at both Bouchon and Gary Danko in Napa, will be opening Stone and Embers this summer at the Madrones, featuring a wood-burning oven at the heart of his cuisine.
Scattered up and down the valley are "over 40" wineries, I am told, although many are hidden in the woods and hills. There are "about 30" tasting rooms, which are easier to find since many are located along Highway 128. They range from family operations to corporates such as the Goldeneye Winery, where vintner Michael Fay describes the unique climate of the valley -- morning fog, afternoon heat and overnight cooling -- that is apparently excellent for Pinot Noirs.
I drive down to Boonville, population 700, where the Parisian-style bakery Paysanne is closed today but the Mosswood Market is filled with locals enjoying breakfast. There is a pub-style restaurant in the little town, an art gallery, and a brewery down the road. Across the street, the Boonville Hotel's Table 128 has developed a reputation for exquisite and farm-to-table cuisine, and its upstairs rooms get good marks on TripAdvisor.
The one key amenity the Anderson Valley lacks is sufficient accommodations, but development of that sort is sure to happen when word of this piece of paradise gets out. Meanwhile, tiny inns will have to do. I'm advised to try the Philo Apple Farm, founded by the same Schmitt family who started the world-famous French Laundry in Napa, now considered one of America's best restaurants.
The Apple Farm offers a $700-per-person weekend rate that includes a two-night stay, all meals, fine wines and cooking classes by master chefs.
It's hard to believe in a state with a population of 37 million people there still exists a dreamscape like the Anderson Valley with its rolling hills, lush vineyards, small ranches and apple orchards. Perhaps 50 years from now, the valley will look like Napa. For now, it looks a little bit like heaven.
-- Postmedia News