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Alsace in Wonderland

If Anderson Valley, the coastal region of Mendocino County about two hours north of San Francisco, hadn’t rightfully become famous for Pinot Noir, its aromatic white wines would likely receive more attention. The climate and geography are tailor-made for grape varietals traditionally associated with the Alsace region of France: Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Muscat.

Both areas share a cool climate, with an annual average temperature hovering at about 55 degrees. Edmeades Winery is largely credited as being the first to plant Gewurztraminer, among other varietals, in Anderson Valley in the mid 1960s, though the folks at Navarro Vineyards, Handley, Husch and Lazy Creek were not far behind.

Together they built the region’s reputation for successfully nurturing these types of wines, which appeal to a large number of people because of the absence of  new oak. Instead, stainless-steel tanks or used barrels are used to ferment the grapes long enough for the sugars to lower and the wines to get dry, with less than 1.5 percent residual sugar.

Whether from the homeland or Mendocino County’s own Anderson Valley appellation, these under-the-radar whites are fairly priced and spectacularly fine with a variety of food or as an aperitif. As an added bonus, a tasting visit to the valley makes a great day trip from San Francisco. The following list of producers, located mostly along Highway 128 in and around the town of Philo, represent a mix of old and new, but they all make great aromatic whites.

Breggo Cellars

A joint venture between husband and wife Douglas Ian Stewart and Ana Lucia Benitez, Breggo sold last year to Napa Cabernet specialist, Cliff Lede. Before that, “Food & Wine” magazine” named it best new winery at the 2008 American Wine Awards, and Robert Parker raved poetically about the winery’s Gewrrztraminer and Wiley Vineyard Pinot Gris, calling the latter the finest Pinot Gris he’d ever tasted in the New World.

11001 Highway 128, Boonville. (707) 895-9589,

Esterlina Vineyards

Up in the highlands above Philo, Esterlina’s nod to Alsace includes a dry Riesling and off-dry Riesling from its own 253-acre Cole Ranch (its own sub-appellation, among the world’s smallest). Both citrus-laden wines have plenty of wildflower, peach and vanilla flavors.

1200 Holmes Ranch Road, Philo. (707) 895-2920,

Handley Cellars

Milla Handley founded Handley Cellars in 1982, because she was impressed by Anderson Valley’s viticultural reputation for bright acidity, long hang-time and great flavors. Returning the favor, Handley’s Gewurztraminer has lusciously exotic fruit flavors, steely acidity and refreshing balance. In some years, Handley also sources Riesling from Esterlina’s Cole Ranch. The Pinot Gris is equally tropical in memorable ways. Adding to the mix, Handley makes a Pinot Blanc from the vaulted Hein Vineyard.

3151 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-3876,

Husch Vineyards

Tony Husch first planted Gewurztraminer along Highway 128 in 1969, only the second modern vintner in the area to do so. Husch’s first Gewurztraminer was produced in 1971; winemaker Brad Holstine makes it now, a wine with aromas of lychee, mandarin and a bite of spice. In addition, Husch makes a Muscat Canelli, a fresh, tropically fruited dessert wine with 6 percent residual sugar, and a late-harvest Gewurz at 12 percent.

4400 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-3216,

Lazy Creek Vineyards

Founded in 1973 by Johann and Theresia Kobler, Lazy Creek was over the years among the most sought-after names in Anderson Valley, not only for its exquisite, estate-grown, “old vine,” dry Gewurztraminer but also Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Josh and Mary Beth Chandler ran Lazy Creek for almost a decade, but two years ago the famed producer was bought by Don and Rhonda Carano of Healdsburg’s Ferrari-Carano.

4741 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-3623,

Londer Vineyards

Wine drinkers really love Londer Pinot Noir, but Shirlee and Larry Londer are as skilled and beloved for their dry Gewurztraminer, a minerally, lychee, honeysuckle and rose wonder they’ve been making from the one acre of the varietal they planted back in the 1990s. Longtime go-to Pinot consultant Greg LaFollette made the wines with Larry until a few years ago. Rick Davis, formerly of Flowers and Tandem, helps out now.

14051 Highway 128, Boonville. (707) 895-9001,

Navarro Vineyards

Inspired by Alsace since building their winery in 1974, Navarro founders Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn, along with winemaker Jim Klein and now daughter Sarah Cahn Bennett, have successfully been introducing Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat Blanc to curious wine lovers ever since. Their dry Gewurztraminer is a standard-bearer — Navarro figures it farms about 35,000 Gewurztraminer vines at this point — while the winery has won gold medals at the Riesling du Monde competition held annually in Alsace. Non-drinkers will appreciate the non-alcoholic grape juice Navarro also makes from Gewurztraminer grapes.

5601 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-3686,

Toulouse Vineyards

Toulouse has long been a source of pinot noir grapes to others (Baxter, MacPhail). Founder-winemaker  Vern Boltz, a retired Oakland Fire Department captain, has more recently started making an impressive estate Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. The Riesling has tremendous fruit flavor, particularly pineapple and pear, with notes of grapefruit, lemon and lime. The Gewurztraminer also screams citrus and tropical fruit, but shares varietally correct shades of rose, honeysuckle and more. The Pinot Gris tends more to the lemongrass side of things. Pair any one of them with curry, chili peppers or anything with bite.

8001 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-2828,

Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor.

Photo: Navarro Vineyards Gewurztraminer

Zester Daily contributor Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor, and is a contributing reviewer of California wines for Wine Enthusiast.