davies wakefield—anderson valley, deking and eebling ball fratty shams—may 2020
A couple of years ago my wife and I drove out west to Washington to visit my college roommate and my son and his family, then down the Pacific coast to Grass Valley, California to visit our daughter and her family. The drive west took us through the northern Cascades of Washington which were rugged, wild and awe inspiring. State Route 20 through Diablo is only open from late May through September—the rest of the year, snow blocks the road. It was a trip I'll never forget, but one of the oddest and most fascinating places we traveled through was the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County in California.
We were driving along the northern California coast the year that the decades-long drought had finally broken and the “pineapple express" was depositing so much rain that landslides were occurring along our route closing roads we had planned on taking. By the time we got to Fort Bragg, we had seen some awesome redwoods, many mudslides and logging trucks; but the Anderson Valley proved to be one of the highlights of the trip. Anderson Valley is an alluvial basin containing the Navarro River which has a ten-mile-wide mouth as it spills into the Pacific Ocean. The region gets up to 80 inches of rain a year and remains foggy most of the day. But there are areas of elevation farther inland where hills up to 2,500 feet in the Dry Creek area receive enough sunlight above the fog and along with maritime temperatures make this one of the finest grape growing regions in California. Because of the topography it has been, until recently, an isolated farm community once known for its sheep and hops production, it might be the west coast version of Washington Irving's “Legend of Sleepy Hollow"—without the headless horseman.
But it is the “language" of Anderson valley that makes it one of the oddest grape growing regions in the world. Boontling is a language developed in the 1800s by residents of Boonville. There is an argument about who and how the Boontling was created. Some say that local women, working in the hop fields and sheep shearing sheds, developed it to keep conversations about sexual matters like an unintended pregnancy secret. Others say it was the men that developed it as an amusing way to gossip about local town figures in the local taverns. It is a ribald language that is chock full of sexual references (check out squirrel-ribby in the glossary published in the Paris Review July 16, 2015). There are some fairly amusing YouTube videos that illustrate the use of this bizarre language. The title of this essay; Deking and Eebling Ball Fratty Shams means “looking at and scrutinizing the best grapes." There are few people left to continue the tradition but the valley remains an out of the way, foggy, rainy, closed society where its inhabitants eschew greater California upper crust wine community of a Napa Valley town like Healdsburg.
When Milla Handley became the fifth bonded winery in Anderson Valley, she was still producing wine in her basement. Her daughter, Lulu, has pictures of her stirring the lees and racking a barrel in her slippers and housecoat. Since that moment in 1982, Handley has become a renowned winery specializing in cool climate varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Lulu has taken the leadership in Handley's wine making efforts and is now recognized as a superlative winery.
The Roederer Estate just a mile south of the Handley vineyard moved into the area in 1989 producing outstanding sparkling wine that can compete with the finest Champagnes. Roederer uses Pinot Noir to make a still wine that is used to add the salmon pink tint to their sparkling rosé.
Jason Drew first came to the Anderson Valley in 1996 and worked at the Navarro winery. He and his wife Molly returned to the area in 2004 where they bought a 26-acre apple orchard on the west ridge near the Valenti Ranch and started producing wine in 2011. The site is carved into an east facing slope at 1200-1400 feet just above the 1000-foot fog line. The soil is ancient oceanic, which means it is composed of prehistoric ocean shells rich in limestone like the best vineyards in Chablis region of France. Cool winds moving in from the coast six miles away halt the daily rise in temperatures as early as 10 a.m. Even though the sun shines on the vineyards they often aren't harvested until the first week in October. One of Drew's wines is appropriately named the Fog-eater, reflectively expressing the cool climate where the grapes are raised. Some of the most prestigious and sought-after Pinot Noir producers have recognized the unique micro-clime of Anderson Valley such as Kosta Browne, Goldeneye, Husch, La Crema, Copain, Handley and Drew. Far from the hustle and bustle of Napa and Sonoma these farmers are producing some of the best wine in California.
After arriving back in Wisconsin, I was fortunate enough to purchase a case of Drew's Valenti Ranch 2016 Mendocino Ridge Syrah directly from the winery. This wine was featured on the cover of Wine and Spirits Magazine and earned 95 points from the magazines tasting panel. I open a bottle every six months or so to taste the wine's development. The first bottle I opened took decanting and about five hours to reduce the effects of the tannins. As the wine ages, it is becoming softer and new flavors of smoked meat and blueberries are emerging. It is an amazing wine that has lots of life ahead of it.
The other two wines, La Crema and Copain are from vineyards that were purchased by the Jackson Family Wine Company. The company led by Barbara Banke has been identifying superlative small lot wineries in ideal places in California, Oregon, France, Italy, Australia and Chile. In many instances, these small wineries needed capital to improve the quality and efficiency of their operations. Banke and her team have not only helped with money but also a philosophy of preserving the environment and acting as stewards of the land. These wines, the La Crema and Copain Pinot Noirs are no exception. Copain also makes a great Chardonnay that I keep in my cellar for weeknight meals. Check out the Jackson family website, you might be surprised at what wineries they own. While they may own the winery, Barbara Banke leaves the operating management the freedom to be creative and continue the success that made them top producers. I was surprised to see that they own the Arrowood Winery. My wife and I visited that winery years ago and still have a magnum of their Cabernet signed by Dick Arrowood himself.
I would also like to add to this essay, in light of the current Corona virus pandemic, that these small wineries and other wineries right here in Wisconsin like Parallel 44 are suffering while their tasting rooms are shutdown. Many wineries are offering discounts and/or free shipping in order to keep producing the revenue they need to stay alive. This is an opportunity to support them. Many wineries have offered free shipping to help generate cash. A lot of you may not know this, but importers and distributors represent about 70 percent of the cost of a bottle of wine. By buying direct from wineries you will be giving the winery 100 percent of the value of their product. This is an easy and tasty way to support your favorite wineries while this health crisis continues to limit business activity.