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Uncorked: Anderson Valley is quietly building a reputation

While sheep were in short supply this winter, warm weather was not.

During a recent phone interview, Domaine Anderson winemaker Darrin Low described an exceptionally green and higher than usual cover crop in the vineyard. The winter in California started off wet, but with warmer temperatures than usual, it looks like bud break could be in two to three weeks. 

By then, the absence of sheep – and the fertilizer they leave behind after their winter meal of peas, vetch and oats – won’t be noticed. The cover crop will be tilled under and another growing season in the Anderson Valley will be underway.

Winemaker spotlight 

When Low made his atypical entrance into the wine industry, a different varietal was on the rise.

In a business where there’s a plethora of second- or third-generation farmers and winemakers, Low’s foray came at his parents wine shop in Healdsburg. Because they also sold beer and spirits, he had learned how wine can intimidate a consumer. Even his father, who ran the liquor side of the business, was intimidated by wine sales and hired someone to run the wine operation. 

A zinfandel craze had swept through Sonoma Valley and there was 15% growth year after year. While Low worked the harvest and in cellars for spending cash before he’d return to school, he’d also set his career trajectory. 

There was no desire to get into the “grind” that can be retail sales. Rather he’d find a career in making pinot noir, a popular varietal that has helped demystify the beverage for the masses. 

“The American consumer is a lot more adventurous,” Low said. “They are not just going for the tried and true brand. They’re discovering the world, as well.”

While it might seem a world away, Anderson Valley continued its strong trend of delivering distinct pinot noir with the Domaine Anderson Pinot Noir 2015 ($39). Described as a sleepy hamlet two hours northwest of Napa Valley, its spot in the backseat to more well-known regions such as Santa Barbara, Carneros, the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast should only be temporary. 

“For 20 years, pinot has been on the rise in California and Oregon,” Low said. “Anderson Valley is this little, isolated valley, and maybe that’s part of the reason why it’s under the radar. Russian River Valley and Carneros are accessible to the Bay area. We are a couple hours away on a long, windy road from San Francisco, but isolation is part of our charm. It’s tough to get to, but once you’re out here you realize it’s the perfect place to grow pinot noir and chardonnay.”

During the 1980s, French champagne houses started to plant their flags throughout California. Roederer settled on Anderson Valley and made what Low said are “outstanding sparkling wines.” With a few tweaks to the growing practice and in cellar equipment, the area’s foggy mornings, proximity to the Pacific Ocean’s cooling breezes and mild summer temperatures made it a haven for the still wine version of the Burgundian varietals of pinot noir and chardonnay.  

“We are in a small town and with that comes the good and bad,” Low said. “Everyone knows what you are up to, and gossip travels around. But part of that is the charm. And because we are so isolated, the people tend to like less of the showiness, and that’s an advantage for pinot noir. That’s its personality versus cabernet sauvignon. We aren’t big showy and rip and in your face. We are subtle, elegant and terroir-driven types of wines. There’s a comfort and ease producing wine up here.” 

Bud break will happen soon. And quietly, another growing season will arrive.

• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for the Daily Chronicle. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at​

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