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This frontier region knows good eating

Vineyards and a culinary aesthetic put sleepy Anderson Valley on the map

Email|Print| Text size + By Bonnie Tsui
Globe Correspondent / July 8, 2007

BOONVILLE, Calif. -- Attention, fog-eaters: There's bahl gormin' in Boont.

At the Boonville General Store , two hours north of San Francisco in Anderson Valley, I learn my first snippets of Boontling -- one of two authentic American folk languages, originating in the region's hop fields in the late 19th century -- from a laminated map for sale at the front register.

Translation: For all you coast-dwellers, there's real good eating in Boonville. And it's worth every bit of a slow-paced weekend to seek out this quirkily singular valley's culinary highlights.

For a small town, Boonville, about 800 people strong and anchor to Anderson Valley, is rich in lore and sophisticated in wine, beer, and food. Though it has a pedigree in apples, hops, and timber, the 16-mile-long valley is renowned today for growing pinot noir. And San Francisco's numerous transplants to the area have resulted in a hearty sprouting of excellent wineries, cafes, and restaurants.

On a recent Friday evening, I drive up from San Francisco and check into The Boonville Hotel , a self-described "modern roadhouse" with a saloon-style upstairs terrace, located in the main part of town. It's the perfect embodiment of Anderson Valley's city-meets-country aesthetic. Ten sunlit rooms are painted in cheerful moss greens, brick reds, and vivid blues, outfitted with high ceilings, four-poster beds, and hardwood floors. In the front sitting room, fresh flowers, board games, and couches are warmly welcoming; outside, lush gardens with fire pits and long stretches of grass beckon just as sweetly. The downstairs restaurant and bar serves dinner on Thursday through Monday nights (think tombo tuna with mashed garlic potatoes and affogato with vanilla bean ice cream and shortbread cookies).

In the morning, hot coffee and delicious, sugar-crusted scones are laid out at the bar with jams and jellies from the neighboring Philo Apple Farm . I take a steaming mug out into the garden and wander over to the Saturday morning farmers' market in the gravel lot next to the hotel.

It's a charming community scene in which vendors such as Nikki Ausschnitt and Steve Krieg , who sell an array of organic herbs and greens from the back of their bright blue 1951 Chevy pickup , greet customers by name. Three years ago, they moved here from San Francisco . "After a while, you just get to knowing everybody," says Krieg.

"We've taken what was a sheep ranch and turned it into a farm," says Ausschnitt as she hands over a bag of sugar snap peas. "We've found that farming can be a dangerous sport, though -- I have a bobcat in my freezer."

Other vendors sell everything from gleaming red cherries and goat cheese to organic hemp shopping bags, olive oil, and potted flowers. As I walk around, the crunchy, hippie-green vibe is augmented by a pair of folk musicians playing guitars and singing under a giant shade umbrella.

The progressive, lefty feel of the valley is not a recent occurrence. Its early history was governed by a frontier ethic; in the 1960s, hippie communes set up in the area hills. Residents vote Green Party more than any other, and Mendocino County , which includes the valley, was the first in the nation to ban the growing of genetically-modified organisms, in 2004.

All of this means that, in terms of food, Anderson Valley is right where it wants to be.

"We're ahead of the curve in terms of organics," says Ted Bennett , who, along with his wife , Deborah Cahn , owns and runs Navarro Vineyards , where I spend a sun-drenched afternoon getting to know the business. He says that a third of all vines in the county are grown organically.

One of the first of the new wave of wineries to set up here in the 1960s and '70s, Navarro is an award-winning establishment that produces excellent pinot noir, chardonnay, and late harvest gewürztraminer and riesling, among others. Bennett and Cahn were part of the Berkeley food movement's early days; Alice Waters features Navarro wine at her signature restaurant, Chez Panisse . The couple lives in a converted barn on the winery grounds.

Navarro's airy tasting room overlooks just a fraction of its 90 acres of hillside vineyards, which abut thick forests of fir, pine, laurel, oak, redwood, and madrone , some of it old-growth. From here, visitors can sample wines or get picnic fixings to take out and enjoy on the terrace.

"When we got here 35 years ago, there was only one place to eat, and it was the drive-in," says Cahn. "There are now 18 wineries in the valley, but there are probably about 50 making wine from our grapes."

Throughout the summer months in Anderson Valley, wine, beer, and music festivals fill up the calendar. In September, Boonville hosts the Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show , complete with a rodeo, sheep dog trials, a square dancing hoedown, and all-day wine tastings.

Apple aficionados will have to make a stop at the Philo Apple Farm , just off the road that leads to the towering redwoods of Elk-Hendy Woods State Park . Here, I run into owner Don Schmitt as he unloads some apple cider, and he encourages me to wander around his kitchen and sample some golden Blenheim apricots . Twenty-nine years ago in Yountville, he and his wife, Sally, founded the famed French Laundry , which chef Thomas Keller took over in 1994. These days, they run the farm in Philo and four on-site cottages, and offer "farm weekend" cooking classes in their kitchen. Everything here is certified organic and biodynamic.

On the main strip in town, I find casual places like Mosswood Market , a great spot for sweets -- lemon and ginger scones, cinnamon rolls -- and fresh lunch offerings like hot pressed sandwiches with salami, gruyere, tomato, and olive oil. There's also an ice cream store and a saloon that carries Anderson Valley Brewing Company 's choicest brews. This local brewpub has more ambience, but if you want to get a brewery tour at the source, the company's taproom, beer garden, and visitors center are a half-mile south of the center of town.

It's there that I meet Aaron Ballard, who made the drive up from Modesto , east of San Francisco, to sample beers in the taproom. "I like Anderson Valley's wines," says Ballard, who had spent the earlier part of the day touring the valley's vineyards with a friend. "Napa is overrated by comparison."

Bahl gormin', indeed.

Bonnie Tsui, a freelance writer in San Francisco, can be reached at bonnietsui.com.

If You Go

How to get there

Anderson Valley is a two-hour drive north from San Francisco.

Where to stay

The Boonville Hotel
14050 Highway 128
Boonville
707-895-2210
boonvillehotel.com
Ten rooms, doubles $125-$275. The downstairs restaurant serves a seasonal local menu Thursday to Monday, dinner only. Reservations recommended .

What to do

Navarro Vineyards
Tasting Room 5601
Highway 128, Philo
707-895-3686
navarrowine.com
11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Philo Apple Farm
Elk-Hendy Woods State Park Road
Philo
707-895-2333
philoapplefarm.com
Sells chutneys, chilled juice and cider, dried apples and pears ($4 a bag). Farm weekend cooking classes are $1,500 for two, including all meals, recipes, classes, and wine.

Boonville General Store
17810 B Farrer Ln.
Boonville
707-895-9477
Friday night is pizza night -- take advantage of fresh local ingredients and pies made to order while you watch. Try the medium thin crust with roasted tomato sauce, cheese, and herb pesto ($13.45).

Boonville Farmers' Market
The Boonville Hotel parking lot
707-895-2949
mcfarm.org
Saturday 9:45 a.m.-noon.

Anderson Valley Brewing Co.
17700 Highway 253
Boonville
800-207-2337, 707-895-2337
avbc.com
Daily 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Information

Anderson Valley Chamber of Commerce
andersonvalleychamber.com

Anderson Valley Winegrowers
avwines.com

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