A century and a half ago, the huge, attractive northern portion of Napa County was separated from the main body of land and renamed Lake County.
Because it is less well-known than neighbors Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino, its wines tend to be slightly better values. Part of the problem is that few winery names ring bells with the nation's vinous gatekeepers, the retailers and restaurateurs. Among those in Lake County that have made an impact is Brassfield Estate.
Wine regions that have public recognition usually have a strong personality trumpeting the message. And in the last decade, one man has stood out as the most prideful voice of Lake County's agricultural bounty.
Clay Shannon, a tall Napa expatriate, founded Shannon Ridge wines a bit over a decade ago and planted grapes. Soon he was producing award-winning wines. Five years ago he bought an old, declining farm in the Red Hills, an official federal viticultural appellation. He upgraded the vineyards, began to farm it sustainably, and renamed it Vigilance Vineyards and Winery.
And indeed, it's easy to see why this area was named Red Hills: as you approach this region, the iron-rich soil turns increasingly reddish.
Part of the secret to Shannon's success at Vigilance is that he uses hundreds of sheep to keep essential grasses down, which, he says, provides "also a natural source of fertilizer."
As a result of this, he now is in the business of selling grass-fed lamb to restaurants across the country, a growing trend.
"Sheep and cows were never meant to be raised on corn," he said, noting that many restaurants now pride themselves on grass-fed meat products.
It has also worked out for Shannon. He said that when he wants an appointment to sell wines to a major restaurant, "Most of them don't have the time for someone from Lake County, but the doors open when I tell them I'm also selling grass-fed lamb."
Along with neighbor Gregory Graham Vineyards, Shannon and his wife, Margarita, hosted a wine and food event this past weekend called Cattails & Tules to benefit the Anderson Marsh State Historic Park, which has a nearby waterfowl wetlands area.
Most of the wines at both wineries were remarkably good for the values they offer.
Shannon is an eloquent spokesman for all of Lake County, including his other ranch in the High Valley area north of here. All the wines are excellent values, including a striking sauvignon blanc, the grape that seems to be Lake County's top wine.
Wine of the Week: 2009 Vigilance Cimarron, Lake County ($18) — This blend of 45 percent zinfandel, 38 percent syrah and other varieties has a rich, juicy aroma of berries and spice, and there is a lush mid-palate and a succulent finish that works nicely with rustic beef and lamb dishes, including pizza and red-sauced pastas. It is sold primarily at Beverages and More stores.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes "Vintage Experiences," a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at email@example.com.
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