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The Splendor of Mendocino

It's worth the drive to wine and dine in the north

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I've loved Mendocino since my first visit in 1985 when I drove three hours to get there just to dine in its renowned restaurant Cafe Beaujolais. The experience was everything I expected after reading the San Francisco Chronicle's restaurant critic Stan Sesser report: "If there's a better brunch to be found I've never come close" My copy of Cafe Beaujolais, the restaurant's cookbook, is autographed by chef/restaurateur/author Margaret Fox whom Sesser described as a genius. And everything about that extraordinary restaurant proved it true.

THE STANFORD GROUNDS :  The view from the Stanford Inn by the Sea looks out on gorgeous grounds, organic gardens, a pond, and a horse pasture. - PHOTO BY DAN HARDESTY
  • PHOTO BY DAN HARDESTY
  • THE STANFORD GROUNDS : The view from the Stanford Inn by the Sea looks out on gorgeous grounds, organic gardens, a pond, and a horse pasture.

# Reading through her history and philosophy on food, her writings are more frequently grumblings than they are expressions of the joy of cooking. Nevertheless her special cafe and delectable foods were among several epiphanies that inspired me to quit waiting tables and become a chef. Fox remains a Mendocino celebrity but she sold Cafe Beaujolais years ago. Check out her website at www.margaretfox.com. I revisited Mendocino twice but only briefly since then so I eagerly accepted an invitation from the Mendocino wineries to participate in their "lifestyle media tour." What a grand trip it was, touring along Mendocino's stunning coastline and through the towering timberlands where lush vineyards appeared in every breathtaking scene.

 

However, I was shocked to find what was a mere handful of wineries, albeit well known brands like Parducci (1933), Fetzer (1968), Navarro (1974), and Greenwood Ridge (1980), had blossomed to 63 wineries in Mendocino County. Not only that, I learned Mendocino leads the nation in organic winegrowing according to their statistical study. With over 16,000 total acres in 300 vineyards in Mendocino County, a whopping 18 percent are certified organic, quite impressive. In fact, they reported it would amount to 25 percent if all of the organically farmed vineyards were certified. Only Napa Valley comes close with 1,686 acres certified organic, barely five percent of their total vineyard acreage

Twenty-two journalists spent five days attending wine tastings with one entire day devoted to judging over 200 Mendocino County wines. We also joined their talented winemakers, chefs, hoteliers, and marketers for memorable meals in local restaurants. Despite hectic schedules where every waking moment was pre-planned, the tour provided all of us with a thorough examination of Mendocino County.

If you're looking for a wondrous place to really get away from it all this summer, Mendocino is that place. A six to seven hour drive from SLO will place you on a broad deck kicking back in an Adirondack chair with the gorgeous Pacific crashing on the beach below and the redwood-forest-covered mountains at your back. You won't have to worry about calls from the office because you won't likely have a mobile signal or a phone this is a huge plus for most vacationers. But it was a big worry for me at first because my show "Grapevine Radio" was expecting my call-in report live. Fortunately the lack of communication (Cingular service had no signal but Verizon did) was only at my hotel in Little River and other hamlets along the Mendocino coastline. Locals told me I'd get a strong signal just three miles north in Mendocino. Not surprisingly it appeared nothing had changed in that quaint town in 22 years.

If I hadn't managed to get a cell signal I wouldn't have complained. The Little River Inn is a destination for its panoramic vistas and well-appointed rooms and cabins, all offering the views described above. The oldest inn on the Mendocino coast, the original Silas Combs home became the Little River Inn in 1939. Decked out in white with 65 rooms and cabins, the resort appears pricey but it's comparable to its peers in rates. One could be quite content on their awesome private deck sipping wine with cheese and bread, but the Little River Restaurant is a huge draw even if you're not sleeping there. The fabulous menu by chef Marc Dym (married to the owner's daughter, he's there to stay) offers consistently good and reasonably priced breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Another place not to miss is the Stanford Inn by the Sea owned and operated by Jeff and Joan Stanford. If you're green, you'll find nirvana in the gorgeous grounds, organic gardens, and superbly appointed rooms with a deck overlooking the inn, the pond, the horse pasture, and the dramatic backdrop of the Pacific. When the Stanfords took over the old Big River Lodge in 1985 they began transforming the property into a certified organic farm. They handled most of the labor themselves while raising two children and caring for their guests, and they created something absolutely magical.

For the Mendocino Wine Competition the judges (media) were divided among three tables. My panel included: Sara Schneider of Sunset, talk show host Tom Simeoneau for KSRO in Santa Rosa, and sommelier Chris Sawyer who co-owns Vine & Barrel wine shop in Petaluma. At the end we high-fived when our choice for best red wine handily earned best of show red, a Londer 2005 Pinot Noir Anderson Valley (Double Gold $33). The best of show white wine, surprising everyone, was the McNab Ridge 2006 French Colombard Niemi Vineyards (Double Gold, $12.00). My favorite white was the Navarro 2006 Pinot Gris (Double Gold, $18), which is widely distributed.

McNab Ridge winemaker is Rich Parducci, great-grandson of Adolph Parducci who established Mendocino's first commercial winery under their family's name in 1933. Although the Parduccis no longer own the original winery (hard times in 1972 forced them to sell) their name remains highly respected. Rich's father John founded McNab in 1999 where they're making some impressive wines. They're also part of a cooperative venture named Coro Mendocino in which numerous wineries produce red blends under the Coro label. The goal is to create a distinctive blend with the largest percentage of varietals being Zinfandel, all of which must be Mendocino-grown.

McNab, a blend of 58 percent Zinfandel, 22 percent Petite Sirah, 15 percent Syrah, and 5 percent Pinotage, was my favorite of the release of 2004 Coro Mendocino blends. Rich and ripe, but not overly pruney, it offered a deeply layered wine of intense black fruit, earth, leather, and spice that impressed most of the writers I talked to. Among the other new wineries that impressed us during the many tastings: Barra, Baxter, Esterlina, McNab, and Philo Ridge. And longtime favorites like Greenwood Ridge, Handley, Husch, Roederer, and Scharffenberger continue to stand out with excellent wines. If you're going to Mendocino, stay a week to really discover its soul.

Following my first visit to Cafe Beaujolais I dined with my beloved mother and waxed poetic about the beauty of Mendocino. She remembered that the prettiest place she'd ever visited was San Luis Obispo. This trip made me recall a lovely moment I'd long since forgotten. Especially since I had no clue then that 20 years later I would realize all of my lifelong dreams right here.

You can reach New Time's Cuisine columnist at Kathy@GrapevineRadio.net.

 

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