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Anderson Valley: In Boontling It's Bahl


BOONVILLE, Calif. — If one were to define Anderson Valley of Mendocino County in a few words, it might be best to say "cold, isolated, little known and once best known for great apples, pears and berries."

It still grows those crops, but in the last decade the narrow valley that stretches northwest nearly to the Pacific Ocean has also produced a wide array of wines, some of the best being made anywhere in America and for which it is gaining a following.

The cold climate here, which once seemed more suited to fruit trees, was thought to be the bane of fine wine, but as growers learned more about growing the vines here, the wines slowly gained a measure of recognition among a tiny coterie of collectors.

Even though the wines improved, small production and the remoteness of the area combined with a reticence on the part of the winemakers to hamper Anderson Valley's fame.

Also, it didn't help that many consumers confused this place with the better-known and much warmer Alexander Valley of northern Sonoma County, which has had success with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay and few other varieties.

Anderson Valley, however, has recently shown it can grow a wide range of grape varieties to greatness. Here there are dry Gewurztraminers as successful as those from the Alsace, Pinot Noirs rivaling Burgundy, Sauvignon Blancs to make a Sancerrean proud, sparkling wine not far removed from real Champagne and often better, Chardonnays that emulate Chablis, and incredible, luscious late-harvest Rieslings.

Yet for all its local successes of the last few years, this small, cool valley in southwestern Mendocino County, protected from coastal winds by a range of hills, remains to most people a mystery--and it is destined to remain that way because getting here ain't easy and the people are so laid back and soft-spoken you'll not likely confuse them with the voluble Robert Mondavi and his promotional rhetoric.

The drive to Anderson Valley from Highway 101, west toward the Pacific, careens, rises and dips past gnarled oaks, verdant swales, stands of redwoods and ancient farmhouses. The first real civilization is here in Boonville, where the local lingo "Boontling" is as much an attraction as anything.

Here you can get a horn of zeese (a cup of coffee), you can call home on the walter levi (telephone), and have a shattaquaw (long chat) with the locals, who'll tell you Boontling is dying out. The kids don't want to learn it any more. Then you can mosey on down the road to join with other seep horners (wine lovers) at some of the tasting rooms at Philo and discover how truly bahl (top quality) the wines are.

Boontling sprang up about 1880 in Bell Valley, a small community just east of here. Residents were very private and wanted to have a lingo all their own that outsiders couldn't understand.

"It was symptomatic of how isolated the area was," said Deborah Cahn of Navarro Vineyards, adding that even residents of the coast, just a few miles west, were called abalonites , and considered foreigners.

Many words stem from people's names. A man named Frattey was a winemaker, so frattey became wine. Today some wineries use Boontling terms in their titles. Handley Cellars, for instance, makes an attractive blended wine called Brightlighter White. A brightlighter in Boontling is a person from the city--where there are bright lights.

Driving through Anderson Valley, you'd never realize such sublime wine is made here. There are no billboards proclaiming this is wine country, no neon-lighted chamber of commerce offices. The most visible attraction is Gowan's Fruits, a stand where great apples, pears and other fruits are offered.

The only way to learn about the wine people is to visit the properties. Many are escapees from big-city life.

Ted Bennett and his wife, Deborah Cahn, of Navarro moved here in 1974 to escape metropolitan pressures. Ted, a founder of the Pacific Stereo chain of hi-fi stores, sold them and moved here, planting vineyards on a hillside. Ted, the official winery tractor driver, and Deborah, who runs the tasting room, live in an old farmhouse that, because of their two children, is now wall-to-wall with computers.

Hanns Kobler was a waiter and maitre d' at the venerable San Francisco restaurant Jack's before he and his wife, Theresia, "retired" and planted vines here in 1973. Today Lazy Creek Vineyards is, as its name implies, a no-promotion operation that simply makes great wines and sells them reasonably.

Allan Green had been a graphic artist when his family planted vines in the 1970s. In 1980, Green decided to build a modern winery on adjacent land, calling it Greenwood Ridge Vineyard. Good wine was made until 1989, when Van Williamson was hired to be the winemaker, and quality then soared.

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