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California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys may be America’s most famous wine-growing regions, but their success has led to crowded tasting rooms, traffic jams and a distinctly corporate vibe at many of the vineyards. For a more colourful and easygoing California wine experience, drive a little farther north.

Highway 128 winds a gorgeous path through wooded hills for the hour-long trip between Napa and the heart of Anderson Valley. The valley and surrounding hills are blanketed with grape vines, primarily sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, Alsatian varietals, and, most notably, pinot noir -- all of which thrive in the temperate climate brought on by the nearby Pacific coast. The region may not be as prolific or prestigious as the warmer wine country to its south, but it is more picturesque and decidedly more laid back.

Fifty years ago Anderson Valley, an isolated region about 45 minutes south of the town of Mendocino and a winding drive in from the coastal highway, was dominated by apple orchards and sheep farms. Then a handful of pioneering winemakers began converting the land to vineyards, and their initial success launched a trend that continues today. While larger wine producers have appeared on the scene, mom-and-pop operations still play the leading role in the valley, which has the kind of small-town atmosphere where everyone knows everyone else, and personal quirks and eccentricities flourish. Stay here for a couple of days and you will learn the local gossip; stick around for a week and you will probably be a subject of gossip yourself.

Where to tour and taste
Navarro Vineyards has been under the ownership of a single family longer than any other winemaker in the region. In many ways, it is the quintessential Anderson Valley winery, mixing entrepreneurial daring with a dose of California counterculture sensibility.

When owners Deborah Cahn and Ted Bennett bought their property in the early 1970s it was a sheep farm, and they were a couple of Berkeley grads with no experience in the wine business. There were only two wineries in the valley at the time, while Napa was booming. “When we were looking at land, we could have had 40 acres in Napa or 910 in Anderson Valley,” Cahn recalled. “I think I’ll take the 910.”

They also were not afraid to be adventurous in their varietal choices. “We wanted to specialize in Gewürztraminer,” Cahn said, referring to the  aromatic white varietal from Germany. “No one was making a good dry Gewürz in California at the time. We decided we’d rather be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big pond.” They also planted pinot noir and chardonnay, and over the years have added pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, Muscat and Riesling. All told they produce more than 40,000 cases annually, two-thirds from estate-grown grapes and the remainder from neighbouring vineyards.

A visit to Navarro reveals a place that manages to be serious about its wine without having a hint of pretentiousness. The tasting room is open throughout the day, but tours, given twice daily by reservation are worth planning ahead for. In about an hour you are taken through the entire production process, from the vines in the field to the wine in the bottle, guided by members of the vineyard’s full-time staff – people who have gotten their hands dirty doing the work.

While Navarro is no longer a sheep farm, you can hardly tell by looking at it. “We use sheep instead of tractors,” Cahn explained, since flocks graze between the rows of vines to keep down the surrounding vegetation. Adding to the barnyard feel, there are dogs to herd the sheep, chickens to pick bugs off the vines in lieu of pesticide and llamas to protect the working animals against wolves and other wild predators.

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