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Unspoiled Wine Country: Hopland, California

Are you put out by the carnival the Napa and Sonoma wine country has become? Come on over to Hopland, where you can still watch life passing you by in slow motion, writes our travel writer Al Auger.

(Above): Fetzer Vineyards’ five acre Bonterra organic garden behind the tasting room.

Once upon a time, devout beer drinkers would raise their glasses towards the Mecca of the foam-topped elixir, Hopland. Just like its fitting name, this was where beer’s most important ingredient was nurtured, the land of hops. Hopland, just off Highway 101 in Northern California, in the early 20th century was the Napa Valley of beer cultivation. The fields were filled with the strange looking wooden structures and string. However, as it happens in the case of any popular imperative ingredient — such as hops used in the making of beer — others wanted into the game.

Mexico, in particular, became a giant in the hop industry. Its soil and weather made it a perfect center for hops. In addition, cheaper, as well. Hopland revived its dwindling hop industry and turned its fields from hopyards to vineyards. Today, the quiet burg 100 miles north of San Francisco boasts over a dozen world-class wineries including the Brutcoa Cellars and Fetzer.

(Above): Barrel making at Fetzer Vineyards, Mendocino. Based in the Mendocino Cooperage in Hopland, the staff turns out 12,000 new handcrafted American and French oak barrels each year. In addition, the cooperage is the only in-house barrel restoration center in America

For the wine connoisseur who has grown tired of the burden of traffic and tour busses that clog Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, Hopland is like a quiet retreat where the only reminder of the outside world is the fine dining at the Hopland Inn. All this is complimented by the architectural and culinary wonder of the Brutacoa School Plaza business complex and wine center in town.

Traveling up Highway 101 through Mendocino County with its rolling hills on one side and vast plains that seem to stretch forever gives credence to that cliché “getting there is half the fun.” Once you pass Healdsburg, the hills to the west put you back in the French region of Switzerland. The green hills are carefully terraced and laced with grape vines that contribute to the well earned — and not that well known — prominence as a wine making center equal to any in the state.

The Hopland Inn Bed and Breakfast was built in 1890 by Thomas J. Ludwig for the founder of Hopland, William Wallace Thatcher. The inn is an icon of the tiny community of Hopland with a population of 817. It sits in a domineering central corner, overlooking the main street.

(Above): On Dry Creek Rd, Healdsburg at Timber Crest Farms, you will find the first and only cooperative tasting room in the Dry Creek Valley with six locally and family-owned wineries.

Designed in the architectural Second Empire style, it has a beauty augmented by grace and inviting warmth. Even though $2 million was spent in 1980 on restoration, within its walls remain the history of this building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Even with its handsome 19th century library and dining room and authentically furnished rooms, the guests will find the latest in modern comforts including a full breakfast every morning.

The beckoning venues of Hopland are unlike anything you could find in the “other” wine country. Hopland is one of the few remaining small villages where you can sit on the porch and watch the world slowly pass you by.

Visitors are also surprised by the number of first-class wineries directly surrounding Hopland and in the valleys nearby. The number of choices is mind-boggling. Not only are there a variety of first-class wineries close to Hopland, but even more in the surrounding countryside. One of the most intriguing is the world renowned Fetzer Vineyard just a few minutes outside Hopland.

Fetzer Vineyards is widely acclaimed as one of the most intense environmentally oriented winery in the country. This is validated by the 360 acres of organic grapes, but that is complimented by the five acre Bonterra organic garden behind the tasting room. At its height, the garden is ablaze with color with its own invitation to stroll slowly and enjoy the visible and aromatic loveliness or join one of the daily tours.

(Above): A Healdsburg winery

Another most interesting aspect of the Fetzer belief in environmental concerns is its on-site oak barrel factory. Based in the Mendocino Cooperage in Hopland, the staff turns out 12,000 new handcrafted American and French oak barrels each year. In addition, the cooperage is the only in-house barrel restoration center in America.

One of Hopland’s newest and most unique addition to their burgeoning wine culture is the Brutocao Schoolhouse Plaza that just completing its restoration this year. The centerpiece is a large tasting and retail room with all the vintage pride from Brutocao winery. In addition there are large spaces for a multitude of offices and convention events. The Crushed Grape Plaza is a modern dining area where gourmet lunches and dinners are prepared. Outside is awe-inspiring garden of 5,000 antique rose bushes creating a natural amphitheatre. Another nuanced touch is the wood-fired grills for al fresco dining.

All this looks down on six-championship bocce ball courts; the winery has included one for those who are wheel chair dependent. As one Brutocao wag described the game of bocce, “It’s the only sport that allows you to hold a glass of wine in one hand while you play.” In addition to the tasting room, restaurant and souvenir shop, the Schoolhouse Plaza also houses a number of business offices and convention rooms.

(Above): Mill Creek Park, Mendocino county

One of the newest recreational venues to become a part of Hopland is the Sho-ka-wah Casino. The Hopland Pomo Native Americans are one of the oldest Indian tribes in California. They occupied a vast the countryside of Mendocino, Sonoma and Lake Counties for hundreds of years. In 1998, they opened the Sho-Ka-wah Casino with 308 slot machines, a bingo hall, table games, 2 food venues and a full service sports bar.

In addition to the Crushed Grape restaurant, the Hopland Inn dining room and patio dining, Hopland also offers a variety of fine food establishments. Going back to the future is the Mendocino Brewing Company who brews and bottles the well-known Red Tail Ale. Located across the street from the Hopland Inn, the Brewing Company is not only keeping the history of Hopland alive, but is also proud of the fact that the Hopland Brewery was the first brew pub in California since prohibition.

(Above): The historic Hopland Inn provides all modern conveniences with old world charm.

Besides offering a bevy of handcrafted English-style ales, they also serve up a tasty menu to compliment their many beers. On warm days, you can relax and enjoy a cool brew and meal in the shade of their hop arbored beer garden.

On the other side of the Hopland Inn is the rustic Boneyard BBQ featuring hickory meats. The boast of the family-style Boneyard BBQ is blues, brews and BBQ served indoors or out, depending on the weather. For a lighter touch, you might want stop by the Bluebird Café and Catering Company. Truly, you cannot fail to find a restaurant in any small village where the locals gather to eat and gossip. The help is attentive and caring for your pleasures. The portions are large and prices small.

One of our favorite pastimes while soaking up the serenity of the slow side of life in such a tiny dot on the map is to sit in front of Munchies with a slurpy ice cream cone and watch the world go by in slow motion. Environmentalists will find a second heaven at the Real Goods’ Solar Living Center. The grounds are chock-a-block with every conceivable environmental device one can conceive of in this hurly-burly world. There are gardens everywhere, waterfalls, native wetlands and on and on with distinctive examples of respect for nature.

Visitors are free to wander the grounds or take one of many daily tours. The Central Oasis and Solar Calendar is the central point of the center and best illustrates its point of view: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

Whatever may be your view of the world and especially if you are particularly put out by the carnival the Napa and Sonoma wine country has become, Hopland can add a dash of joy to your jaded mood and bring back the joy of tasting fine wines.

Al Auger is a freelance writer. He lives in Redding, Calif.


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