What a difference a few miles and a hill or two make.
Napa Valley is widely considered one of the world’s greatest wine-growing regions, producer of the most expensive and sought-after red wines in the United States. The valley is so visitor-impacted that tourism now is considered a questionable resource to be managed with care.
With approximately the same soils and climates, Lake County, just a few miles to the north of Napa, sits quietly unloved and largely unvisited.
And although its wines continue to gain friends around the globe, it is still considered too remote, a risky proposition for wine buyers and a place where the word “value” pops up far too frequently for the wineries that exist there.
Tourism is scant, a result of the extra half-hour it takes to get from the heart of Napa to the outskirts of Lake County.
That takes Lake from being a day trip from San Francisco to an overnight excursion.
Those who venture here usually find hospitality far warmer than many more popular regions. But despite gorgeous vistas, serene lakes that are a joy to behold and wines getting so good it’s hard to describe them, Lake remains just a name to most wine lovers.
Jed Steele has been making wine in these parts for three decades, and he knows of the quality of its fruit. He was born here and knows the growers as friends.
For some of his wines, under the Steele label, he continues to venture to other regions. (His Carneros chardonnay and Santa Barbara County pinot noirs are sublime and excellent values), but increasingly in the last decade, former basketball player Steele (Gonzaga University) has found excitement in the soils of his own region.
Quiet and reserved, Steele is known for making modest comments about his wines, but a tasting of them last week in San Francisco illustrated not only his skill but the quality of fruit he now relies on more and more.
“We’ve had great fruit here for a long time,” he said, but he noted that various factors have kept fame away from many Lake County producers.
Decades ago, Steele crafted the first chardonnays for Jess Jackson’s Kendall-Jackson, the Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay.
The brand eventually grew into the millions of cases, to a point where fruit had to come from literally dozens of vineyards statewide.
In the midst of KJ’s growth, (Steele was chief winemaker as the brand grew from 35,000 cases to 1 million cases a year), Steele left KJ, embroiled in a legal battle that gave him more publicity than he desired — but one that verified his skill as a winemaker.
In 1991, he founded the Lake County winery that bears his name and continued to make exceptional wines with a flair that gained local attention. But being located in Lake County didn’t help him market the wines, and his production grew slowly based on his development of several brands, some of which never gained wide distribution.
Among the brands: Writer’s Block, Stymie and Shooting Star. The latter is occasionally used for great values, such as his 2016 Lake County Sauvignon Blanc ($14), with its passion fruit, grapefruit and tropical fruit notes and crisp finish.
The wine that best illustrates Steele’s passion is actually a co-production with his son, Quincy, a startlingly superb 2015 Cabernet Franc ($17) under the Writer’s Block label.