It’s rural. It’s unpretentious. It’s fun. And that’s just the way Boonters would like it to stay.
If there’s one word that strikes terror in the heart of Anderson Valley residents, it’s Napa. Folks who live in the 16-mile-long valley shudder at the thought of fancy restaurants, high-priced homes, and hordes of tourists. They needn’t worry. The Anderson Valley, one of California’s newest grape-growing regions, is just remote enough that it’s unlikely to become the next Napa. And therein lies its charm.
Piking to Boont, as the local old-timers might say about driving to Boonville—the valley’s largest town—is no easy feat. Tucked into Mendocino County’s southwest corner, the town is 115 miles from San Francisco, 27 of them over a snaking two-lane highway past oak-studded hills, apple orchards, and grazing sheep. Boonville itself is so small there’s a chance of driving right through it. The town is about four blocks long and boasts a population of less than 1,000. Lined with turn-of-the-century wooden buildings and sheltered on both sides by low mountains, Boonville doesn’t have a stop sign, let alone a stoplight.
Not stopping, however, would be a mistake. Besides being the perfect place to step off the urban treadmill, Boonville and Philo (the town next door) are also rich in good food, good lodging, and people so interesting and innately quirky they’d make excellent fodder for a Steinbeck novel. Not only does the valley support its own NPR station, it also publishes its own rabble-rousing newspaper, The Anderson Valley Advertiser.
How many towns have their own language? Boonville does—or did. In the 1880s, Boonters, or Boonville residents, wary of outsiders (like people from nearby Ukiah) and wanting to speak discreetly of delicate matters, created a language called Boontling. Filled with words culled from valley life, it described everything from a cup of coffee to a roll in the hay. “Thirteen percent of the language,” says old-timer Bobby Glover, 77, “was taboo words.” “Burlappin’,” for example, refers to the time a shop clerk was caught in flagrante delicto atop a few burlap sacks.
With only five old-timers still fluent in Boontling, however, you’re unlikely to need a translator. The loss of the language is just one of the many changes to sweep over the valley in the past two decades. Apple orchards, sheep farms, and logging operations have slowly given way to vineyards. Roederer (the French sparkling wine maker), Navarro, Greenwood Ridge, Husch, and Lazy Creek have all set up shop in the valley—a “cool climate” growing region, in vintner’s lingo—and are producing some of the finest sparkling wines, gewürztraminers, and pinot noirs in California.
There’s plenty of bahl gorms, or good food, to accompany those wines, too. The best can be found at the Boonville Hotel, owned by John Schmitt, whose family previously owned the famed French Laundry restaurant in Yountville (yes, Napa). Schmitt creates meals that are more than worth the drive. His fare, such as spring vegetables with aioli and olives, or seared ahi tuna with mango chili lime salsa, has an unpretentious, fresh-from-the-garden taste, which is not surprising since he grows his own vegetables and herbs. That very lack of fussiness permeates his inn as well, with 10 rooms decorated in an almost austere mix of Shaker- and Mission-style furniture. “I think of this place as a big house,” Schmitt says, “where people can just eat and hang out.”
There is also a big old house in Philo worth a stay. The Pottery Inn is framed by gardens bursting with rhododendrons, tulip magnolias, and dogwoods. Built in 1888, the house is solid redwood inside and out, and rooms are decorated with antiques, quilts, wrought iron bed frames, and, in one room, a claw-foot bathtub. Owners Drew and Jill Crane whip up a hearty breakfast, too, with dishes like frittatas or stuffed French toast with apricots, strawberries, and cream cheese.
Down the road, you’ll find the Apple Farm, an organic apple orchard and cooking school run by John Schmitt’s family. After moving from Napa in 1994, his mother began hosting weekend-long cooking classes, which are a mini-primer in her philosophy of food preparation “to cook simply and well, using raw ingredients.” The classes, held in a Mediterranean-style kitchen that overlooks the orchards, are usually booked a year in advance.
To work up an appetite, head to Hendy Woods State Park. With 850 acres of pristine old- and second-growth redwood forest, it’s a great place to hike, mountain bike, or picnic. Take the short climb along the Hermit Hut Trail to the stump that was once home to the mysterious Hendy Hermit, who lived here for more than 20 years.
Then, head back to Boonville for more bahl gorms. The residents of Anderson Valley like Lauren’s, a family-friendly cafe. With a mix of home-style and Mexican food (the valley has a large Hispanic population), Lauren’s feels like an airy dance hall, perfect for the swing lessons occasionally held there.
For breakfast, locals head to the Horn of Zeese (cup of coffee in Boont-ling), where hearty egg dishes are served up with the Horn’s own organic coffee. For lunch, check out the Boont Berry Farm where you’ll find organic produce and a take-out deli featuring tofu dishes, tamales, and enchiladas, along with sundry ads for yoga and massage. Or head to the Buckhorn Saloon, where pub food can be washed down with some of the best beers in the country, those of the Anderson Valley Brewing Company.
Anderson Valley Brewing is strong proof that wine isn’t the only drink worth imbibing in these parts. It was twice named one of the Top Ten Breweries of the Year, by the World Beer Championships. The brewery is housed in a large brewhouse in the south end of town. If you stop by, one of the friendly employees will give you an unscheduled tour (heck, there’s no such thing as a scheduled one).
Besides offering your palate a good workout, the valley holds several annual events. July is noteworthy for one of the more popular, the Wool-grower’s Barbecue and Sheepdog Trials. With its barbecued lamb feast, sheepdog competitions, and sheep-weight-guessing contest, this 35-year-old event epitomizes everything that’s right about the Anderson Valley. It’s rural. It’s unpretentious. It’s fun. And that’s just the way Boon-ters would like it to stay.
Photography courtesy of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association
This article was first published in July 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.