It doesn't take long as you drive through the very winding* Highway 128 into Mendocino County to realize your tasting room experiences here are going to be a little different. Tall oak and pine trees line the two-lane road in a landscape that smells as fresh as it looks. A few deep breaths of the crisp air are as therapeutic as a trip to the spa, even for those of us who prefer the city to the country.
By the time you enter the driveway of Scharffenberger Cellars, chances are you'll be already relaxed, if a little stiff from the drive.
Walk into the house converted into a tasting room and start your tasting with an easy three dollars, possibly one of the best deals around for a sparkling wine flight. On a nice day, the patio in front of the house is set up with tables to lounge and enjoy your tasting. If you've called up ahead of time, you can set up to have picnic goodies waiting for you there. There's also another, more secluded table out front by the parking lot.
The tasting flight takes you through the four standard non-vintage sparkling wines, plus special vintage release, and a selection of their still wines. What makes their bubbly different is that they introduce malolactic fermentation to some of their sparkling, which makes for some softer, smoother wines.
Started in 1981 by John Scharffenberger (the same guy who also started Scharffenberger Chocolate with the late Robert Steinberg), the company is now owned by a French group that makes Louie Roerderer Champagne and also owns Roerderer Estate down the road from Scharffenberger Cellars. The 2006 Blanc de Blanc in particular was fantastically crisp, yet balanced. Aged for four years on the yeast, it's a total steal for $30.
They also make a less fizzy Crémant, that has more residual sugar that the brut, but also an Extra Dry. Despite the name, this sparkling wine is actually sweeter than the brut, with a higher dosage (sugar added after the initial bottle aging), the somewhat confusing name is part of the French sparkling wine nomenclature for defining levels of sweetness.
Production happens a short walk from the tasting room, where the grape press sits, and ages in the main winery building. If you're lucky, arrive there during the week, and polite, you might get a chance to chat with winemaker Tex Sawyer. But if not, a glass of sparkling wine outside in the patio on a sunny day is enough to trek out north. Don't forget to take a deep breath and relax -- thankfully the city is two hours away.
Location: 8501 Highway 128, Philo, open 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Tours: Not officially, though a mid-week visit will give you a peek at the production process
Tastings: $3 (yes only three dollars)
Approximate number of wines in the tasting: Eight
Price range for sparkling wines: Most in the $19-$30 range
Yearly production (in cases): 30,000
Picnic tables/food available: Yes, in a nice garden with the option to call ahead and reserve a picnic for two ($25, homemade olive tapenade and onion jam, an assortment of cheeses, bread, half a salami, Guittard bittersweet chocolate, raw almonds, and seasonal dried or fresh fruit). Call at least 48 hours in advance to order, (707) 895-2957
Best for: Those looking for more of an escape from the city for some time outdoors
Don't miss this on the way to visit: Anderson Valley Brewing in Boonville for a whole different kind of bubbly beverage
*Some portions are extremely winding, enough so that some of your more motion sick prone passengers might request that you make frequent use of the turnouts. Taking Highway 253, while adding about 10 minutes to your drive, is a good alternative to consider.