Lake County’s Luscious Reds
Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, aka grape goddess
Trying to compete with Napa Cab is a common problem for those producing wines in their shadow. Sonoma was the first to experience this, but over time it has successfully distilled a singular message about “coastal” and “cool” and established itself first and foremost as an ideal place for cool-climate loving Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. So what do producers of rich, ripe and well-structured Cabernet grown on the very same Mayacamas benches and foothills so prized just a few miles south, in the heart of Napa Valley do?
For many, the trip down Highway 29 dead ends at Calistoga. Yet if you continue about another 20 minutes up and over the grade, traversing Mt. St. Helena, you’ll end up in Middletown, at the base of Clear Lake, around which the best Cabernet vineyards of Lake County are planted. Due East of Middletown is one of Lake County’s far reaching AVA’s, Guenoc Valley, with only one winery, Langtry Estate, and a long track record of outstanding Petite Sirah amongst other things. There is another far reaching AVA at the opposite end of Clear Lake, Benmore Valley, which is basically defunct. The heart of wine country here are the high elevation vineyards on the volcanic ridges at Red Hills and across the lake at High Valley, both of which enjoy cooling breezes and iron rich soil, as well as the newly proclaimed AVA’s of Kelsey Bench, once a lava flow from Mount Konocti, and the flatter, lower Big Valley, a basin adjacent to the lake. Kelsey Bench and Big Valley AVA’s are excellent sources of Sauvignon Blanc.
Dark, sultry, plush, and well-structured High Valley and Red Hills Cabernets are enjoying a newfound success. Their pricing hovers around the $20 mark, and with large players like Shannon Ridge (who also owns Vigilance) and Brassfield, the wines are getting out into state and national distribution. There are other wines to watch for as well. Petite Sirah from these two and other appellations is juicy, bright, peppery, and not nearly as oaky as the standard bearers such as that of Stags Leap Winery. Zinfandels across the region are in general lighter, elegant, with a concentration of pretty red fruits, and have excellent balancing acidity.
Italian varietals are carefully crafted at Rosa d’Oro, and Six Sigma Ranch Tempranillo is one of the best Spanish varietals in the area. Gregory Graham’s Viognier’s are some of the best in California!
A new category is popping up as well, red blends made with Bordeaux, Rhone, Italian and Spanish varietals. With memorable, easy going names like Eruption by Brassfield, Dalliance by Vigilance, and Wrangler Red by Shannon Ridge, these lively, richly fruity, only slightly oaked wines deliver a lot of pleasure for the money.
These luscious reds are natural in more ways than one. From a wine tasting perspective, as both a judge at the Lake County Wine Awards, and on a 6-AVA tasting tour shortly thereafter, it was a pleasure tasting non-manipulated wines, the very commercial category that exists from top to bottom of the market – wine are evaluated in a lab and doctored up with softening agents, coloring agents, oak chips, artificial flavors and/or residual sugar to either hit literally the “sweet spot” or to please the old school power player critics.
Natural farming is also standard operating procedure here. In summer, daytime temperatures exceed those of St. Helena. However, evening breezes bring a nice, gentle cool-down. Natural acids are retained, fruit tannins are gentler, skins are thicker, and grapes contain more heart-healthy resveratrol. The air is pristine here, some of the cleanest in the state, and the sunshine bright. With the nearest city two hours away, there is no smog or light pollution. The Lake County Winegrape Commission states that over 75% of Lake County growers have completed the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices Self-Assessment Workbook. Shannon Ridge goes as far as having sheep “mow” their vineyards. Audrey Shannon explains, “The sheep serve as woolly compost machines in charge of canopy management and leaf removal on Shannon’s vineyards, and also eat the vineyard clean after harvest. We’ve made American Lamb history.”
With fires lit on so many fronts, it is inevitable that Lake County is going to become an important part of the current chapter of California wine history.