The original “California Dream” was a Gold Rush psychological fantasy, a microcosm of Horatio Alger’s myth of picking oneself up by one’s bootstraps (unfortunately popularized by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s) and still weirdly entrenched in the cultural narrative of the U.S. But we all know that California, while still gorgeous beckoning, is the place you come to spend all your money, run from wildfires, and perpetually try to have enough time in between jobs to simply enjoy its bounty. However, if we flip the script, and the dream’s reward isn’t financial prosperity but rather spiritual gain, then the Golden State does, in fact, offer a home — most particularly in the Anderson Valley and along the Mendocino Coast.
These two contiguous areas epitomize what, in my very subjective, un-humble opinion, California was meant to be: a welcoming wonderland of free-thinking, consciously hedonistic stewards of the land — who also happen to have a way with hospitality.
When you go check it out for yourself, whether by driving up from the Bay Area or down from Oregon (or flying from further afield once it’s safe again), here’s what I recommend for a good time. (Forgive the narrative itinerary, but this place is too good to summarize to a list that’s less than the sum of its parts.
Make Your Home Base at The Madrones in Philo
The tiny town of Philo sets the stage for your pastoral tour of the dramatic landscape of the Anderson Valley and the Mendocino Coast. When you pull in at The Madrones, you’ll immediately get the sense that you don’t really need to leave, at least not anytime soon. Our two bedroom apartment had a kitchenette, a large living room with views onto the surrounding vineyards, and a big, generous bathroom.
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Just a few steps away is Wickson Restaurant, where Alexa Newman and Rodney Workman (both with Chez Panisse and Camino on their resumes) think up creative ways to cook in their wood-burning oven and pair dishes with hyper-local wines.
The Madrones feels like a little village where the most important parts of civilization are at your fingertips, including The Bohemian Chemist, California’s most aesthetically pleasing herbal apothecary and spa specializing in locally sourced, sun-grown cannabis. This is also where co-owner and designer Jim Roberts can often be found. His unparalleled taste is a throughline here, visible property-wide in the attention to the minutest detail.
And speaking of wine, one of California’s best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers, Long Meadow Ranch, gaining traction for its sustainable “full circle” farming values, has an outpost here. Tastings are hosted by the charming and knowledgeable Mark Mendenhall, and LMR’s sparkling wines are a splurge not to be missed. (Smith & Story and Drew Family Wines are also on property, and I look forward to tasting through their portfolios next time.)
When you’re ready to venture out a bit, there are several must-visit wineries within a very short drive. Whether or not you’re traveling with kids — but especially if you are — Pennyroyal Farm is a sweet immersive experience. A creamery, winery and farmstead all wrapped into one, Pennyroyal invites guests to reserve a table for a wine and cheese tasting all from products made on the farm. (Tours and up-close visits with the resident goals and sheep will resume after the pandemic passes.)
Right next door to The Madrones is Goldeneye Winery, the deservedly famous Pinot Noir producer with an unmistakably robust style. Outdoor tastings overlooking the garden and vineyards are an antidote to hurry, as well as a good vantage point for understanding variations in the local terroir.
Just up the road and near and dear to my heart is Handley Cellars, a classic Anderson Valley wine producer whose Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are delicate and elegant (the polar opposite of many over-extracted wines to the south). But an even bigger draw is Handley’s Alsatian varietals, Gewurztraminer and Riesling, which this climate is an ideal home for growing.
Founder Mila Handley, who tragically died of COVID-19 this summer, was a winemaking pioneer, one of the first women to graduates from U.C. Davis with a degree in fermentation science and an unabashed believer in the potential for the greatness of the Anderson Valley as a wine-growing region.
Before heading off to coastal adventures, stop and pick up provisions at The Bewildered Pig, the restaurant that launched the Anderson Valley’s reputation as a culinary destination. In 2016, I wrote that this restaurant was worth a drive up from San Francisco just for dinner, and I stand by that claim. (Because of the pandemic, “The Pig” is only open during daytime hours on the weekend, so adjust your plans accordingly.) The best place to track the constantly evolving menu is on the restaurant’s Facebook page. Janelle Weaver and Danielle Townsend are the consummate hosts and, frankly, just one more reason to want to move to the Anderson Valley.
The drive to the wild, mutable Mendocino Coast is through the redwoods along Highway 128. Take your time and roll the windows down, even if it’s chilly. Like so much in this region, you can tailor your meanderings to the form of adventure that best suits your fancy.
Our first stop? Mendocino Headlands State Park for a picnic with infinite views, then off to the Skunk Train, Fort Bragg’s most compelling activity (whether you’re an adult or a kid). The rail bike tour is the best way to do a deep dive into the history of this fascinating place. Strap into an electric-powered rail bike and peddle into the forest, where your guide will tell you all about the history of the railroad during the turn of the 20th century. There’s a stop in the middle for a hike through the redwood forest. And have no fear — the bikes don’t require steering, so you can gaze at leisure.
Even though you’re not peddling all that hard, you’re bound to get peckish again soon. A bonafide discovery (except to locals) is the restaurant at Little River Inn, where chef Jason Acevedo takes the coastal bounty and transforms it simply and masterfully into some of the best food you’ll eat in the region. Come for the local salmon and don’t leave without tasting the olallieberry cobbler. Mental note: Settle in to the inn for a few days next time.
When you return to your Anderson Valley base, The Madrones, you’ll be delighted to remember that check-out is inside Sun & Cricket, a shop with curated selection of memorabilia. In order to leave, you’ll need something that promises return — perhaps a DIY chewing gum kit for the kids and a CBD tincture from The Bohemian Chemist for you?
On your way home, stop in at Boonville’s Disco Ranch, the valley’s newest wine bar, to stock up on Anderson Valley wines selected by owner Wendy Lamer. Residents will tell you that this new spot is a keeper, and it’s where you’ll discover wines you missed along the way, as well as ideas for your next visit — which is obviously inevitable.