Out of the shadows
Lake County winemakers, growers say they're ready for the region to be recognized
Published: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 21, 2011 at 5:24 p.m.
Lake County has had to fight hard for its share of the spotlight over the years. Its reputation as a mecca for fine wines has been overshadowed by the glow of its more famous neighbors — Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa — each a more recognized destination with both wine consumers and travelers.
But winemakers know how great Lake's grapes can be and how much more affordable in many cases, sometimes half the price per ton compared to Napa or Sonoma. The winemakers and growers who have risked putting down stakes in the county are now ready for a little more attention.
Easton Manson is among those who want the world to know all that Lake County has to offer. The owner of historic, 21,349-acre Langtry Estate and Vineyards (449 acres planted) in Guenoc Valley, a tiny single-owner sub-appellation in the southeastern corner of Lake County, wants people to be aware of Lake County's history and where it's headed.
“Wine lovers should know that Lake County is the most rewarding wine country adventure in California,” he said.
“It's gotan exciting, diverse and dramatic landscape that is home to a new breed of authentic and approachable winemakers and grape growers.”
Langtry is named for original founder Lillie Langtry, a British theater star who bought the property for $82,000 sight unseen in 1888. She arrived by private rail car in St. Helena, then traveled the rest of the way by stagecoach — up and around Howell Mountain and through Pope Valley, which is still the prettiest way to get there.
Originally a Spanish land grant settled for cattle grazing by Salvador Vallejo, the county itself had only been formed some 20 years before Langtry's arrival, drawing settlers by wagon trains, many of whom started planting grapes.
By 1996, the Guenoc Valley was well known across the U.S., but it wasn't until 10 years later, in 2006, that a handful of like-minded grape growers and winemakers focused their attention on developing brands rooted exclusively in the Lake County appellation rather than just selling their grapes outside the AVA.
They also began cooperating with one another, pooling resources to follow through on a significant region-building initiative.
There are now 32 wineries in the county and 8,400 acres of wine grapes grown by 148 growers. (For the sake of comparison, Sonoma has about 60,000 acres, Napa 45,000 and Mendocino 16,000 or so.)
“Five years have past and there are a number of very diverse and unique growing regions in Lake County that are well on their way to building their own reputations and piquing the curiosity of enthusiasts,” Manson said.
The most dramatic of them is the Red Hills Lake County viticultural area, on the south rim of Clear Lake along Highway 175, where cabernet sauvignon in particular has been making waves.
Napa winegrower Andy Beckstoffer was among the first to make a serious investment here, starting in 1997, spending upwards of $25 million to develop vineyards on volcanic soils at elevations between 2,000 and 2,400 feet.
Beringer and Kendall-Jackson also ahve laid claim to good Lake County land, but the excitement in Red Hills centers on the smaller producers who have started putting out exciting new wines to great acclaim.
Peter Franus is among them, producing a Rhone-style red blend from the Fore Family Vineyard atop Cobb Mountain.
“Soils are thin in the Red Hills and drain instantly,” Franus said.
“There is paradoxically greater solar intensity that has some magical and perhaps inexplicable effect on the grapes. This is unquestionably one of the most beautiful and peaceful vineyard sites I have ever worked with, and that's 30 years of experience talking.”
Along with Franus, small producer names to look for include Hawk & Horse, Obsidian Ridge, Enkidu, Gregory Graham, McDermaid Family Vineyards, Project 3000, Schrader, Stepping Stone and Fortress Vineyards.
Fortress is at the extreme northern end of Red Hills, 2,000 to 4,000 feet up with expansive views of Clear Lake to its north. Owners Barbara and Gary Snider chose the site based on prior experience developing vineyards in Knights Valley. Most important to them was to be on the ridge of Mount Konocti, a volcano with complex soils.
They also wanted to be directly above the lake on a ridge that rose quickly to 1,000 feet, where they found there was a “lake effect,” with constant cooling wind, allowing their vines to mature more slowly, with more acidity, yet above the fog line, so it gets plenty of sun.
There they've planted cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo and petite sirah, as well as albarino, sauvignon blanc and semillon.
Noted Napa winemaker Nils Venge makes the wines. With the 2010 harvest, the Sniders have also made a dry semillon, to be released later this year.
The family of Tracey Hawkins of Hawk & Horse bought the historic El Roble Grande Ranch in Lower Lake (now the southwest corner of the Red Hills AVA) more than 20 years ago as a family retreat and hillside vineyard site.
“We looked at properties in the four North Coast counties, Sonoma, Napa, Mendo and Lake,” she said.
“When we saw El Roble Grande, we knew we had found a truly magical property that had all the elements of a world-class winegrowing region.
“Seems we were right. ... This site is proving to be all we had expected and more.”
Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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