Until very recently, wine lovers could safely ignore Mendocino. The hippie enclave produced some passable juice, but nothing remotely in the not-to-be-missed category.

Quoth the wine maven, "Nevermore."

Mendo's Anderson Valley is riding the pinot noir wave with superb offerings, and there and at other cooler, high-elevation locales, some beautiful chardonnays, gewürztraminers and other whites are emerging. Meanwhile, mainstay wineries helmed by Italian immigrant families are releasing distinctive wines at wallet-friendly prices.

And the offspring of Luverne, Minn., native Kathleen Fetzer are making some wonderful stuff, although only John Fetzer's Saracina wines (see Wine of the Week) make it back to Mom's home state.

"There are a lot of Mendocino wines I would like to see here," said La Belle Vie manager/sommelier Bill Summerville, who spent several days there last July. "The wine enthusiast can go out and find all kinds of cool new wines."

The wine enthusiast who can't journey to Sonoma County's northern neighbor can do well, too. I love Enotria's renditions of the Italian varietals barbera, dolcetto and arneis and Monte Volpe's vibrant pinot grigio and rustic sangiovese, all priced from $15 to $20. Another Italian-American family, Parducci, struggled with its wines for several years, but seems to be turning things around, especially with the Small Lot Blend Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (both $11).

Three of my favorite zinfandel producers -- Edmeades, Graziano and Claudia Springs -- work out of Mendocino, and McNab Ridge makes some super wine from a pair of lesser known (and oft ridiculed) grapes, French colombard and pinotage. Mendo-based Roederer Estate is responsible for some of America's best sparkling wines. The delicious chardonnay and gewürztraminer from Navarro, long absent from the Minnesota market, are now back on local shelves. And Paul Dolan, like John Fetzer a longtime organic pioneer, makes an ambrosial sauvignon blanc ($15).

But it is pinot noir, mostly from the Anderson Valley, that has elevated Mendocino to wine's Big Boys League. Goldeneye ($55) is widely available, and many non-Mendo wineries (Barnett, Arista) make dandy pinots from the esteemed Ferrington and Savoy Vineyards.

Perhaps best exemplifying the range of swell varietals emanating from Mendocino is another winery with a Minnesota connection. Ryan Hodgins, who spent much of the 1990s living in Uptown Minneapolis, now is winemaker at Breggo, bottling about as good a pinot gris as California can offer ($25), a soaring gewürz ($25) and a stellar pinot noir ($38).

Not bad for a guy who a decade ago headed west in a Volvo station wagon "with the bumper about 2 inches off the ground," he said. "A lot of folks in Minneapolis thought I was crazy."

He landed near Boonville, which he calls "the most appropriately named town in the world."

Not for long, if Hodgins and others keep on crafting such tasty and profound fermented grape juice in that neck of the woods.

Bill Ward • bill.ward@startribune.com