An hour north of Napa and Sonoma is a picturesque and easygoing wine experience where they turned sheep farms into chardonnays.

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.

Things are even more casual up the long driveway of Toulouse Vineyards, where and you are likely to be greeted by Tess, the family dog of owners Vern and Maxine Boltz, or by Vern himself, an affable former firefighter from Oakland. Most of the operation is run from a glorified garage that functions as cellar, bottling line and tasting room. While the setting is simple, the handcrafted wines, particularly the pinot noirs, are complex and delicious. You can while away a pleasant hour comparing vintages and discussing the ins and outs of winemaking with Vern and his crew.

Other vineyards along Highway 128 maintain their own homey atmosphere while producing character-rich, high-quality wine. Among them, Greenwood Ridge wins awards for its merlot and Riesling, and has a handsome octagonal tasting room built from a single redwood. Husch is another of the valley’s pioneers, dating back even further than Navarro. And tiny Standish makes exceptional pinot noir, sold from its own distinctive tasting room, housed in a former apple dryer.

Not every vineyard in the valley has such a rustic feel. For something completely different, visit Goldeneye, a high-end pinot noir specialist owned by Duckhorn, the esteemed Napa winemaker. You can sit on the winery’s pristine back patio and sample a flight of five pinots while gazing out over rows of meticulously maintained vines. From the wine in your glass to the view before you, it is an elegant experience. While Goldeneye has no connection to the James Bond movie of the same name, a tuxedoed 007 would not feel out of place here.

For another dose of sophistication, visit Roederer Estate, owned by the famed champagne house Louis Roederer. Though it lacks the typical homespun Anderson Valley charm, it earned the respect of its neighbours by producing consistently exceptional sparkling wines for three decades. In the tasting room, you can compare distinctly different blends and vintages.

Where to dine and sleep
Anderson valley has two blink-and-you-will-miss-them towns: Boonville and Philo, only six miles apart. They do not offer abundant dining and lodging options, but there are gems among the limited choices. A top spot for both room and board is the Boonville Hotel, run by Johnny Schmitt, one of the area’s most engaged and charismatic figures. Guest rooms are informal but stylish, and the same can be said for its restaurant, Table 128, where home-style cooking is elevated to an art.

Schmitt’s parents, Don and Sally, were the original proprietors of Napa’s world-renowned French Laundry restaurant, and now they are Anderson Valley transplants themselves, operating the Philo Apple Farm. They have four guest cottages and conduct weekend-long cooking classes. Next door to the Goldeneye winery, Jim Roberts, another of the valley’s engaging personalities, operates the Madrones, a little complex of good taste that includes two well-appointed guest quarters, a shop selling house wares and miscellany, and four tasting rooms of smaller valley winemakers.

Along with Table 128, the best dinner options are Lauren’s in Boonville, which is essentially a bar and grill with an inspired chef, and Libby’s (8651 Highway 128; 707-895-2646), a Mexican restaurant in Philo. Like so many places in Anderson Valley, these two restaurants are friendly and unpretentious, but they are devoted to maintaining a high standard of quality. The same goes for the Mosswood Market (1411 Highway 128, Boonville; 707-895-3635) and the Boonville General Store (14077A Highway 128; 707-895-9477), two community gathering places that serve delicious breakfasts and lunches.

For more options you can drive to Mendocino, 45 minutes north of Boonville and Philo.

Take the long way home
If you are heading back south after a visit to Anderson Valley and you are not in a rush, take another memorable drive, starting northwest on 128, which runs through redwood forest for about 25 miles before emerging at the Pacific coastline. From there go south on Highway 1, one of the world’s most spectacular coastal drives.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Jim Roberts' last name. This has been corrected.