Philo Ridge Vineyards

Anderson Valley in the Spotlight

Philo Ridge Vineyards

Warm, gregarious, energetic, and smart, Fred Buonanno was the kind of guy that Mendocino County needed when he and wife Heather McKelvey bought their property in 1999. He describes the County as “huge, the size of Switzerland” but with only 90 thousand residents spread over a glorious expression of nature with densely forested hills and mountains, small valleys, meandering rivers, and along the coast, a jagged shoreline that outlines Mendocino County’s share of the Pacific Ocean. “You walk out three feet into the water, and you fall off the continental shelf,” he comments. About a hundred miles north of San Francisco, vineyards spread east and west for long stretches on either side of the Highway 101. There are about 100 wineries and 395 growers in the county, Fred reports, and he knows them all.

A self-described “refugee from Silicon Valley,” Fred has served as President of the Anderson Valley Wine Growers Association and the Co-Chairman of the Mendocino County Wine and Grape Commission. “I’m done with politics,” he says. “I put in my time to help these organizations. It was very gratifying, but my focus is working to grow Phylo Ridge Vineyards. That’s my labor of love.” I can easily imagine that he had some good ideas while serving in these positions. I didn’t ask him, but I am certain that eliciting the cooperation of 100 wineries and 395 grape growers in Mendocino County, some of them there for generations, would not have been an easy task. Mendocino is not Napa with its more cohesive culture and geography.

Fred Buonanno’s particular corner of Mendocino County is the Anderson Valley, 27 miles over a winding road to the coast from Highway 101. Remote and isolated, Anderson Valley has lately enjoyed the spot-light in the mercurial world of wine because its specialty is Pinot Noir, the current favorite in the market place. One of the two coolest appellations in California, the valley is home to over 40 wineries. Except for Roederer Estate, Fred says that most are family owned and small although some of the neighbors like Cakebread, Sattui, Duckhorn, Williams Selyem, and Ferrari-Carano, are big names in the business that have migrated there to pursue Pinot Noir. The sparkling wine producers, Roederer and Scharffenberger, are growing not only Pinot Noir but also Chardonnay, the principal grapes in Champagne.

Everything that Anderson Valley wineries produce, including the Alsace varieties, Gewurztaminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Riesling, is getting press and bringing visitors into the area, but only those who are hardy enough to make the trek. One hundred and thirty miles from San Francisco, the Anderson Valley is a destination, not a day trip. And when visitors arrive, they won’t find spas, five-star restaurants, and glitz, although Fred points out that shops, restaurants, and hotels are increasing to accommodate guests in the area. As the local Chamber of Commerce puts it, “Some people come to Anderson Valley to taste our award-winning wines. Others come for family friendly events, like the Wildflower Show, County Fair, and Sierra Nevada Music Festival. Some want to enjoy the outdoors, hiking among the towering redwoods in Hendy Woods, or swimming in the Navarro River. Others just want to put up their feet and stare at the hills.” On another website, a resident put it this way, “Back in the day, this was a logging community with plenty of timber cutting and saw mills, but times change, and there is only one small sawmill left. There are plenty of wild pig, turkeys and deer to hunt, which are all good eating. The modern industry here is art, apples, beer, wine and, of course, we grow our own smoke.”

Fred Buonanno may be gregarious, but it’s also true that the winery is five miles up a dirt road, two miles off the electrical grid, and entirely wind and solar powered. Only his wine club members, who made appointments, were invited.. “We didn’t really want a lot of folks up here,” he says, because on top of the ridge where the winery and 10 acres of terraced Pinot Noir vineyards are located, there isn’t a lot of room for congregating. But since he established the tasting room in Boonville two years ago, Philo Ridge has grown 30 percent to a yearly case production of 2,500, a remarkable increase, considering the economy.

“Our philosophy is not better wine through science,” Fred says. “We don’t have all the latest gadgets and gismos. We take time with our growers to get the best fruit that we can. Once we’ve got the wine made, we don’t rush through the process. We tend to barrel-age it longer and bottle-age it longer before releasing it to the market. We let wine develop the way it’s always developed.”

Encouraged by the growth of their business, he and Heather have made plans for expansion and will be selling their wines in markets other than California. Born in New Jersey, Fred has always wanted to sell his wines there, but mostly he is opening markets in smaller areas where the competition is not so fierce. “We don’t have a 10 million dollar marketing campaign or advertising budget, so I pick and choose smaller markets where I don’t have to compete with big distributors and big brands.” He now has brokers in Wyoming, Montana, Iowa and Colorado, who are placing his wines in up-scale restaurants and fine wine shops.

To fuel this growth and increase his production, Fred has negotiated new contracts with growers in Anderson Valley. He has also leased other vineyards, which he farms himself, for instance the 30 year-old Pinot Noir Marguerite Vineyard on the Holmes Ranch at a 1500-foot elevation. He has leased another vineyard outside of Anderson Valley in Mendocino’s Redwood Valley, an organic, 100 percent dry-farmed Zinfandel vineyard with old, head-trained vines. Fred says that he is very fond of Zinfandel, but his main thrust will always be Pinot Noir. “I’ve got the joy of working with all the different clones, Pomard, 667, 777, 115, 2A,” all with different characteristics. This year, Fred has harvested his first Pinot Noir crop on the terraced vineyards below his house. “That’s all 2A and the Vadensville clone.” He also makes the whites that prosper in cool-climate Anderson Valley, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Riesling.

But expanding production in Anderson Valley is not easy. Twenty-three miles long and three miles at its widest, good, plantable areas on the valley floor are exhausted, and in the hills a grower would have to rip out trees to start a new vineyard or expand an existing one. “Not a lot of folks are willing to do that,” Fred says. “Also here in Anderson Valley, we’re hitting critical mass with regard to the number of wineries. We have about 30 tasting rooms, and not that many more people are coming through the valley. You start hitting diminishing returns.” But if wineries can’t easily focus on continuing growth, they can always focus on increasing quality. Fred and Heather are doing that as well.

Since Fred knows all of the Mendocino producers, he knows where excess grape or wine capacity is and in 2010 opened a brokerage for grapes, juice, and bulk wine and ships in five to 20-ton lots outside of California to other wine producers throughout the U.S. He ships mostly to wineries but also to produce brokers around the country, who sell to home winemakers.

People understand that Californians export their bottled wines all over the U.S. and throughout the world, but few are aware of the market for California grapes, juice, and bulk wine that wineries outside of California are using to augment their own production. “There are actually more wineries outside of California now than in the state,” Fred explains. “But California produces 93 percent of grapes in the U.S. No state is ever going to overtake that production,” he says. He has customers in Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. “We ship in refrigerated trucks, which take four and a half to five days to arrive on the East Coast. Typically the fruit is picked early in the morning or late at night when it’s cold. It then goes into a refrigerated truck that’s kept at about 34 degrees, and the fruit is just fine when it arrives.”

Although Philo Ridge is his labor of love, the brokerage is “fun,” he says, “and it keeps me just that much more involved in the daily life of the wine business.”

California Wines of the Month

Artisan Series

Philo Ridge Vineyards – 2009 Gewurztraminer, Ferrington Vineyard, Anderson Valley

Winemaker Heather McKelvey’s Notes

The grapes for this wine were harvested from the Ferrington Vineyard. The owners allow natural vegetation between vine rows, which provides a home for native and beneficial species and abate erosion in winter months. Other naturally mined minerals and amendments are added to the soil, a method of farming that replaces the dependence on chemical fertilizers and toxic fungicides and insecticides used in conventional cultural practices. The 2009 Gewurztraminer is tank fermented without malolactic fermentation, which produces a crisp wine without oak flavors. The taster will detect flavors of chai tea, white peaches, and passion fruit with a floral bouquet. We kept the acidity up so that the wine can be paired with many different foods but is also an outstanding wine to sit and sip (Alcohol 14.1%, pH 3.36, Total acidity 0.68 g/100ml).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Gewurztraminer is often called a “picnic” wine, which makes me want to turn and run the other way. This Gewurztraminer is bone dry and remarkably beautiful. Anderson Valley is one of the few growing areas in California that is capable of producing a Gewurztraminer of this caliber, and this one is a dream, probably the best you’ve ever tasted. Serve only slightly chilled so that you can taste its full range of delicious flavors. Heather made just 185 cases of this wine, so the likelihood of finding it on a shelf would be little short of a miracle.

Philo Ridge Vineyards – 2005 Syrah, Ladi’s Vineyard, Sonoma County

Winemaker Heather McKelvey’s Notes

Ladi’s Vineyard in Sonoma County’s Rincon Valley produces exceptional Syrah, which was planted in 1990 and continues to produce fantastic flavors today. We pride ourselves on making this very approachable Syrah, which is not an over-the-top tannic style but an easy drinking wine with flavor intensity that shows white pepper, dark stone fruit, and earthy tones. Its higher acidity makes it a versatile food wine (Alcohol 14.3%, pH 3.55, Total acidity 0.62 g/100ml).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Fred Buonanno says that he and Heather love this vineyard but prefer to make the wines of Mendocino County, so this is their last vintage of this Syrah. Its style is more subdued and more like a Rhone-style Syrah than it its Californian. You’ll appreciate its lighter weight and spicy berry flavors. It’s definitely a food wine but is versatile. You can pair it with roasted red meats or flavorful vegetable dishes. Serve at room temperature.

Winemaker Series

Philo Ridge Vineyards – 2006 Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley

Winemaker Heather McKelvey’s Notes

The microclimate of warm days and cool nights in the Anderson Valley appellation is conducive to growing some of the most exceptional Pinot Noir grapes in California. Cooled by breezes that come up the Navarrow River in the afternoon, daytime temperatures reach the mid nineties, and nights can drop into the fifties. For our 2006 Pinot Noir, we harvested grapes from the renowned Ferrington Vineyard on the valley floor and our Philo Ridge vineyard at 1100 to 1200 feet. The combination creates a traditional style Pinot Noir with light color but with very intense flavors of cherry, a little strawberry, and a nice hint of vanilla. The wine will age nicely over the years (Alcohol 14.1%, pH 3.56, Total acidity 0.67 g/100ml).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Wine Enthusiast Magazine gave this Philo Ridge Pinot Noir 90 points, an achievement of excellence made all the more remarkable by difficult weather conditions. The wine displays the subtlety and elegance that is typical of cool-climate Anderson Valley wines. Heather McKelvey made 350 cases.

Philo Ridge Vineyards – 2007 Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley

Winemaker Heather McKelvey’s Notes

The renowned Ferrington Vineyard is located on the valley floor and produces some extremely intense and well balanced flavors. The vines on our Philo Ridge blocks are at 1100 to 1200 feet and produce fruit with pronounced flavors of cherry and strawberry. The combination renders a traditional style Pinot Noir. Light in color but with very intense flavors of cherry, a little strawberry, and a nice hint of vanilla, this Anderson Valley Pinot Noir will age nicely over the years as it rounds more and softens. Excellent with salmon dishes, fowl, and lighter meats (Alcohol 13.8%, pH 3.57, Total acidity 0.69 g/100ml).

Anna Maria’s Notes

California Pinot Noir runs the gamut these days from big and jammy to wines like this one at the other end of the spectrum. The Philo Ridge 2007 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir distills the essence of Pinot Noir into this graceful wine that is subtle, distinctive, and delicious. Heather McKelvey made 425 cases.

Philo Ridge Vineyards – 2010 Pinot Gris, Marguerite Vineyard, Anderson Valley

Winemaker Heather McKelvey’s Notes

This is our first release from the 25 year-old Marguerite Vineyard in Anderson Valley, located at an elevation of 1500 feet. The vineyard is dry farming and the age of the vines transfers the terroir to the wine. With a very crisp style, this Pinot Gris is made without oak barrel influence and zero malolactic fermentation to give the taster flavors of earth tones, yellow peaches, and apricot. Very balanced with a nice lingering finish, we kept the acidity up so that the wine can be paired with many different foods but is also an outstanding wine to sit and sip. Because it was clarified without egg whites, the wine is 100% vegan. (Alcohol 13.1%, pH 3.37, Total acidity 0.64 g/100ml).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Heather made just 100 cases of this beautiful wine with a very smooth mouth-feel, perfect balance between fruit flavors and acid, and wonderful lingering flavors of fruits and flowers. If you’re used to white wines with pronounced oak influence, this Pinot Gris from an older, dry-farmed vineyard at a high altitude will be an altogether new experience. This one is about subtlety and finesse. Enjoy!

Menu of the Month


Holiday Supper for Many or Few

First Course

A platter of orange rounds with thinly sliced red onion & Castelvetrano olives,
drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, and garnished with chopped Italian parsley,
and another platter of prosciutto di Parma, both served with fresh artisanal breads or bread sticks

Main Course

A large platter of meat ravioli, spinach & ricotta ravioli, & pumpkin & ricotta ravioli,
drizzled with warm olive oil and whole braised sage leaves, served with grated parmigian cheese


Arugula salad with thinly sliced fennel and sliced pears,
drizzled with sherry vinegar-olive oil dressing


Assorted biscotti, served with Vin Santo

Recipe of the Month

Platter of Ravioli

Winter holiday dinner parties tend to be larger than normal. My go-to menu for a big group is usually assorted ravioli for a main course because guests love them, and ravioli require little preparation. The key is that they be especially well-made and delicious. I purchase mine from a wholesale ravioli maker, who provides them for many upscale restaurants in the area. Another possibility would be to ask your favorite Italian restaurateurs if you could buy ravioli from them. If they don’t make them, they could tell you who their provider is. And of course, you could make them yourself the day before. My favorite sauce for the dish is to braise a handful of whole sage leaves in the amount of olive oil that I expect to drizzle over the ravioli. The deep green sage leaves scattered over platters of ravioli are as beautiful as they are delicious. Together with a sprinkling of grated parmigian cheese that guests can pass to one another, the meal is memorable. I wish you all Happy Holidays together with a Happy and Healthy New Hear.