Wendy Lamer is the most unpretentious wine genius you’ll ever meet. Don’t let her casual nature fool you: She knows all the stories about each wine on her shelves — what soil it grew in, who made it, and what you should cook to eat with it. Her roadside shop on Highway 128 in Booneville, Disco Ranch, is the heartbeat of this tiny community of artisans, craftspeople, and creatives of all types, who are equal parts native and urban self-exiles. There is more seriously good food in the five miles between Booneville and Philo (to the north) — The Booneville Hotel, The Bewildered Pig, Wickson, and Redwood Drive-In — than most towns 10 times the size can brag about. The area feels like a glam hippie spot (Philo used to house a famous lesbian commune) or maybe Sonoma before it got so fancy. Let’s just say it’s the anti-corporate balm we all need right now, whether we know it or not. There’s even a groovy cannabis dispensary, The Bohemian Chemist, that seems more like a spa-apothecary.
This coming weekend is the Anderson Valley White Wine Festival, and so I’ve got Boonville on the brain.
Lamer, who is from Georgia, had long been an expert in French, Italian and Spanish wines, and when she landed in the Boonville in 2019, she found herself sitting on a goldmine of under-the-radar local wines. The Anderson Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) is just north of Sonoma County’s famous Russian River Valley, known for its cool-climate Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. But now that entry-level prices for those wines hover near $100 a bottle, the Anderson Valley is becoming even more attractive. But really, it always has been the quieter, intentionally more austere AVA.
In addition to a curated selection of European wines, Lamer has a whole section in her small shop devoted to local wines, and I recently asked her to list her top 10 wineries from the Anderson Valley (and Mendocino County’s other nearby AVAs) that are so small they don’t have tasting rooms. These are the hardworking artisans of wine whose bottles you won’t see on restaurant menus or city shelves. They’re all as minimal-intervention as possible, from full-on biodynamic to made with native yeasts. Collectively, they have the character of terroir-driven wines that speak of this peaceful place. In no particular order, with Lamer’s notes, they are:
“The wonderful threesome that met in college went on to see their dream realized, which inspired me to do the same. It was my business model to focus on small wineries that did not have a tasting room. The quality and price point were exactly what I was looking for. I am now on their third vintage of Pinot Noir, and it’s still my top seller. Look for Minus Tide’s Carignan rosé from Feliz Creek Vineyard’s 114-year-old vines.”
“Ashely Holland is known for sleeping in the vineyards to insure that she gets the best sites picked at the correct time. I love the fact she answered a small add in the paper selling old-vine Riesling from Willey Vineyard — her third vintage in tank is truly liquid sunshine. Ashley is also the winemaker for several other wineries, including the new Brashley Vineyards in Philo, whose tasting room is now open.”
“Another excellent trio, Jennifer Waits and Brian Mast, along with winemaker Shalini Sekar, produce small lots of single-vineyard Pinot Noir. I tasted these wines just before I opened Disco Ranch in 2019, and they were immediately in my top three to source. With a growing cult-like following for their Pinots, don’t delay in buying up any whites they make. Shalini had her first release under her own label, Ottavino Wines, last year with a stunning Gruner Veltliner from Santa Cruz, and I look forward to her new release this year.”
“One of the best values from the area, Yamakiri also makes Sin Eater ciders and excellent pet-nats. I’m sorry to report that the 2019 vintage will be the last produced.”
“I met winemaker Sarah Wuethrich more than two years ago, and she has quickly gained the respect of the Valley, such that she’s now the president of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association. Sarah has a passion for Pinot Noir — she listens to the vines and walks the vineyards weekly. It is amazing to taste her four Pinot Noirs side by side and see how different they are all coming from the same 58 acres. Happy to have Maggy Hawk as new neighbors filling the old Balo tasting room space, which just opened to the public.”
“Nice to see Wells Guthrie making small lots again without intervention from others. His Pinots have a restrained, old-world style.”
“One of the most elegant, seamless wines I have had in quite some time seamless — I wish they [brother Patrick and Jack Quigley, along with father, Jim] had made more! I bought 25 of the 42 cases produced, and I’m looking forward to the 2021 vintage. Also try Quigley’s beautiful red blend from the Lunatic Fringe block of Alder Springs Vineyard.”
“It is a shame people can’t see my facial expressions when describing G.W. Lussier’s Roma Vineyard Pinot Noir. This old-school style wine is 100% basket-pressed and will stand up to Pinots twice the cost. I’m looking forward to buying more of these wines.”
“I tasted with Patrick Callagy and quickly asked where he worked prior to launching this fantastic label, just to make sure his wines were not a one-hit wonder. Patrick spent 11 years as assistant winemaker at Radio-Coteau, so he’s the real deal. Both his Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc are from Filigreen Farm and are organically grown and biodynamically farmed.”
“I am keeping an eye on this couple, Erin Mitchell and Randy Czech, who recently purchased a few acres in Comptche. I tasted their 2020 Chardonnay over four days, and it reminded me of the first time I tasted Stony Hill Chardonnay. Anyone with a cellar and patience should secure a few bottles to see how it develops.”
In case you’re wondering about the Disco Ranch name, it comes from Lamer’s Atlanta days when, after hosting a neighborhood party, she went to bed and the guests stayed and had a disco party (sounds like a true 80s tale). In homage, the guests hung a disco ball in her living room that inspired the current store’s name (and still spins here).
Next time you’re in range, stop in at Disco Ranch. Come for a lovely tapas-style lunch on the patio, and stay for a laid-back wine education. And of course, take home a few bottles to compare and contrast. Soon, you’ll be talking like a local, well-versed in the sensory nuances of the wines of the Deep End and Mendo Ridge.
Tickets for this weekend’s Anderson Valley White Wine Festival can be purchased here.