By Mary Charlebois
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge and head north. Ninety minutes later you’re in Mendocino County, America’s greenest wine region.
A tour of Mendocino County’s green and organic wineries is an unplug, unwind trip. The laid-back region operates on “Mendo Time,” a slower pace. The natural beauty is world renown. Climates range from Mediterranean coasts to hot interior valleys. Towns are small. People are welcoming. Businesses are locally owned. There are more pickup trucks than Porsches. Jeans, fleece and flannel never go out of style.
More than 14 appellations and sub-appellations are recognized in Mendocino County. Occupying valleys, hillsides and ridges, some are sheltered by redwoods, others overlook the Pacific Ocean. Mendocino County is the world-leader in organically-grown grapes. Close to 3,950 vineyard acres are categorized as CCOF (California Certified Organic Farms).
The county is home to Frey, the first U.S. organic and biodynamic vineyard and winery, as well as Bonterra, the largest U.S. organic wine producer, and Parducci, the first U.S. carbon neutral winery. The list of organic vineyards and wineries, large and small, is extensive and well-established in Mendocino County. However, there are a few wineries that are great introductions to the sustainable wine scene.
Take an agra-tour of Mendocino County’s green wineries
This agra-tour is a small sample of the vineyards and wineries of Mendocino County. There are 570 vineyards, most are family owned, some second, third, even fourth generation. The average vineyard is 14 acres. In the mid-1800s, European immigrants settled the area. They brought organic farming with them. These earth and human friendly practices have survived over the generations and are now flourishing in the county.
The county has more than wine to offer. Ranches and farms produce organic fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat. While not all Mendocino farms and ranches are certified organic or green, you can be assured that all care for the earth, water and air. That is the way of life in this special piece of Eden, Mendocino County California.
Visiting all the green vineyards and wineries in Mendocino County is a delightful, but lengthy quest. A long weekend of exploring will get you started.
Six accessible green winery stops
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge and travel north on Hwy 101. Mendocino County begins near Cloverdale. The first winery stop is 15 miles north of the county line.
Jeriko Winery Estate – photo by Mary Charlebois
1. Jeriko Estate
One mile north of Hopland, within sight of Hwy 101, pass through stone and iron gates to Jeriko Estate. You’ll soon imagine yourself in Italy. Jeriko’s first Mediterranean-style estate-house was built in 1898 by a San Francisco judge. Estate gardens are designed to emphasize vineyard and mountain vistas.
Today the estate house is ensconced by 200 acres of biodynamically farmed vineyards and woodlands. Jeriko Estate is certified biodynamic by Demeter and certified organic by Stellar Certification Services.
A survey of the vineyards includes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sangiovese. The show-stopping wine bar and tasting room are open daily from 11am until 4pm. Jeriko participates in regional wine and food events and hosts their own food and wine lover’s happenings.
Jeriko Winery Tasting Room – photo by Mary Charlebois
2. Nelson Family Vineyards
Six miles north of Jeriko Estate, turn west into strawberry fields. One third mile later you’ll be surrounded by vineyards and the Nelson Family Ranch.
The Nelsons’ have owned and worked the land for over 60 years. Today organic and Fish Friendly Farming practices are used for sustainable vineyards, Bartlett pear orchards, olive groves and live Christmas tree farming.
Nelson Family Vineyards grow and produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Orange Muscat, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Viognier and Zinfandel. A Summer Concert Series runs June through September on the 4th Friday. Enjoy live music, wine and a communal dinner of locally sourced food. Taste Nelson Family wines daily from 10am until 5pm. Call ahead to set-up a tour of the winery and vineyards.
Nelson pears – photo by Mary Charlebois
Frey organic veggies – photo by Mary Charlebois
3. Frey Winery
“Our first grapes were organic by neglect,” confesses Katrina Frey, Executive Director of Frey Winery. Twenty-two miles north of Nelson in Redwood Valley, Frey is a family-owned and operated farm, vineyard and winery.
Three generations of the Frey family have been and continue to be stewards of the land, using biodynamic principles that foster ecological self-sufficiency. Gardens and farm animals play a role in each glass of wine. Goats, sheep and chickens graze and forage in the vineyards providing insect removal, mowing service, fertilizer and soil aeration. Garden and kitchen scraps feed animals and the compost pile. Manure from barns is used as fertilizer. A bee garden attracts bees to pollinate plants and populate hives. Nothing toxic is ever used.
The kitchen garden at Stanford Inn and Raven’s Restaurant – photo by Mary Charlebois
Frey produces Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, White Zinfandel, Charbono, Syrah and Zinfandel. All Frey wines are CCOF certified organic, Demeter certified biodynamic, vegan and gluten free.
Frey’s special events overflow with food and wine from the farm, local entertainment and friendly people. The tasting room is open Monday through Friday, 11am until 4:30pm. Call ahead to arrange weekend tastings.
Luke Frey, owner of Frey Winery – photo by Mary Charlebois
Head to the coast
From Frey, continue north on Hwy 101 and turn west at Hwy 20 in Willits. The next 33-miles wind over California coastal mountains through redwood and conifer forests. State managed forest and parks along the way provide picnicking, hiking, equestrian trails and camping.
Hwy 20 ends at the Pacific on CA Hwy 1, in Fort Bragg. Drive south on CA Hwy 1 to Hwy 128. Just north of Philo in Anderson Valley is your next stop.
Handley Cellars – photo by Mary Charlebois
4. Handley Cellars
North of Philo, 59 acres of Anderson Valley are home to Handley Cellars’ vineyards, winery and tasting room. A restored ranch house, barn and water tower from the old Holmes Ranch are a historic backdrop to the vineyards.
Producing 12,000 cases each year, Handley was granted license to make wine in 1982. It grows Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer in one of California’s coolest grape growing regions.
CCOF certified in 2005, Handley works daily to minimize its impact on the environment. Providing a safe and healthy workplace for employees and community is a top priority. The winery and tasting room use 75 percent of needed electricity from solar.
A vine covered courtyard and sculpture garden are open for visitors to enjoy a picnic or glass of wine. A complimentary EV charging station is also available. The art-filled tasting room is open from 10am until 5pm. Winery tours can be arranged in advance.
5. Domaine Anderson
Organic and biodynamic Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes are accompanied by vegetable and bee gardens. Fifty acres are family-owned and managed. All grapes are picked and sorted by hand in small lots. Fermenting and aging takes place in the winery at the vineyards.
The winery and tasting room are beautifully designed to fit the landscape. Many reclaimed materials have been used to create a casual elegance and comfort that complements easy-going Anderson Valley.
Relax and picnic in the sun or under the shady pergola. The tasting room is open daily from 11am until 5pm.
Domaine Anderson Vineyards – photo by Mary Charlebois
6. Philo Ridge Vineyards
Philo Ridge winery and vineyards are located off the grid. A little more than five miles up a dirt road, Philo Ridge is powered 100 percent by wind and solar. But don’t worry, the tasting room is in Boonville on the main street.
Licensed in 2001, Philo’s first vintage was 2004. All Philo Ridge wines are 100 percent vegan. They produce only 2,500 cases each year. The vineyards include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.
Philo Ridge participates in local wine and food events throughout the year. The Boonville tasting room is open Friday to Monday, 11am until 5pm.
Close the loop
From Boonville continue southeast until you intersect Hwy 101 near Cloverdale. Your agra-tour is complete.
Mary Charlebois is a freelance travel writer living in northern California. Check out her other writing on her website here.