It seemed to begin about two years ago, which means it really started about four or five years ago (funny how memory works); suddenly there were new winery tasting rooms popping up everywhere in Anderson Valley. I would see one — or sometimes two — I hadn’t seen before during each of my occasional trips to the valley. And not just tasting rooms. During a trip into the valley early in 2012, there was a quiet piece of ground just south of Indian Creek on Highway 128, but when I went by approximately four months later, a winery (Balo Vineyards) had sprung up and appeared ready to handle grapes.
Of all the changes in Anderson Valley in the past 50 years, perhaps the biggest change — in my view - has been the explosion of vineyards and wineries. The Anderson Valley I first saw in 1957 had an economy based on timber, apples, sheep, cattle and resorts. Over recent decades, many of those business sectors have declined and a few have disappeared. Beginning from a few blocks of venerable vines mostly tucked away in the hills, vineyards have grown to dominate local agriculture and wineries - non-existent when I arrived — now total more than 20, scattered along Highway 128 from Yorkville to Navarro and along various back roads.
Truth be told, vineyards have been in the valley nearly 150 years and rudimentary winemaking nearly as long. Anderson Valley might have become a significant wine region earlier, but isolation and bad decisions delayed the evolution until relatively recently.
The history of vineyards in Anderson Valley can be separated into three eras: pre-Prohibition, 1940s and modern. During the pre-Prohibition era, an estimated 400 acres of vineyards were established on Anderson Valley’s ridges — primarily along Fish Ranch Road and Greenwood Road - by Swiss and later Italian immigrants. The planting of these vineyards began in the 1870s and continued past the turn of the 20th century. Such hillside vineyards were rooted in tradition; vineyards on the ridges are much less susceptible to frost than vineyards on the valley floor.
Most of these vineyards were field blends; plantings of Zinfandel mixed with small amounts of other red varieties like Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Alicante Bouschet and even — occasionally - white varieties. With transportation difficult, the grapes from these vineyards were turned into wine — and occasionally brandy - on-site, which in turn were sold by the barrel to customers (mostly bars, stores and restaurants) in the valley and along the coast. There also were a scattering of vineyards in the valley, most notably one planted by the Pinoli family between Philo and Navarro just before World War I.
Local “dry” laws in Boonville and Navarro (Philo, Greenwood Ridge and Signal Hill stayed “wet” — one reason the latter was called “Vinegar Hill in Boont) was soon followed by the enactment of Prohibition in 1920. Subsequent federal raids put most local wine producers out of business. While some vineyards were simply abandoned, most were “repurposed.” Back then, before summer homes and tourism, land was livelihood and locals found other ways to make income from their land; apple orchards, sheep pastures and hay fields. The abandoned vineyards slowly returned to their natural state and as nearly a century has passed, few traces remain.
When my parents first took us to Anderson Valley in 1957, there were a couple of old, dead vines still standing on a slope above our house, remnants of a small pre-Prohibition vineyard. Ironically, the spot was perhaps the worst location for a vineyard on the entire property, with very cool southeastern exposure, poor-draining clay soil and a high water table that likely kept vine roots wet for months.
We also had a couple of ancient vines — which produced white grapes - behind our house. In the early 1980s, I borrowed an ampelography, a grape variety encyclopedia, to identify those old vines. I had no success; they remain a mystery to this day.
The early 1940s brought a second wave of vineyard development. Italian Swiss Colony kicked off this mini-planting boom in 1946 by planting a large vineyard (size estimates range from 80 to 100 acres) where Anderson Valley High School is now located. The grape varieties planted were Ugni Blanc and Colombard, fine choices for a big winery — Italian Swiss Colony by then was owned by National Distillers - making fortified wines (more than half of California’s wine production back then) and champagnes, but lousy choices for Anderson Valley. Across Manchester Road from Italian Swiss Colony’s vineyard, Bob and Barky Rawles farmed a 40-acre vineyard and sold the grapes to their neighbor. Just north of Boonville, Rankin Rickard (note to Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association — please correct the spelling of his name in your AV history) planted 10 acres of vines. None of these vineyards did particularly well and Rickard’s vineyard is the only one of the three I recall seeing when we arrived in the valley in the late 1950s.
The third wave of vineyards began in 1963. However, this article is already getting long, so that history and my experiences during those years will have to wait.
Author’s note — two sources of information helped flesh out this article: The Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association’s “History of Anderson Valley” and The Ridge Review, Vol. V, No. 1, published in 1985. I found both invaluable and recommend them to those interested in delving more deeply into the subject.