Lake County wine industry is ready for takeoff
Earlier this year, famed grape grower Andy Beckstoffer had an offer for 10 winemakers looking to make their mark in the wine world. He would provide grapes for the next three harvests from his vineyards in the Red Hills wine region of Lake County - for free.
Beckstoffer, whose stature comes from farming such renowned Napa properties as To Kalon and Las Piedras, made the deal to draw attention to the region at the foot of Mount Konocti. He contends Red Hills is the most promising cabernet sauvignon site outside of Europe.
But for many within the industry, Beckstoffer's gimmick just affirmed what they already knew: Lake County wine has arrived. Now, the hard part is for local vintners to ensure the rest of the world finally takes notice.
“Lake County has been making really good wines, but they have been overshadowed by their more favorite cousins,” said Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank's wine division, referring to wines from Napa and Sonoma counties.
The county is more Levi's than Gucci, known more for offering family friendly vacations of Jet Skiing and inner tubing on Clear Lake as opposed to the fine dining and resort spas that serve the high-end clientele of Napa Valley. But the region is attracting much more buzz in the wine world, and economic trends bear this out.
“What we have seen over the last couple of years is that pricing has increased and been very strong for Lake County,” said Mike Needham, a grape broker at Turrentine Brokerage in Novato.
In 2014, Lake County surpassed Mendocino County in price paid per ton of grapes in the North Coast premium market. Last year, wineries paid $4,336 per ton for Napa grapes, followed by Sonoma at $2,443. Lake County came in at $1,601, an increase of 5 percent. Mendocino grapes fetched $1,520 per ton.
Demand for land on which to plant grapes has also grown. Lake County's vineyard acreage grew by 8 percent over the past year. Meanwhile Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties all had slight declines, mostly because of replanting to replace old vines. Lake County added 672 acres that brought its overall total to 9,454 acres, which is still the smallest on the North Coast.
But the trends can be seen in ways that extend beyond economic reports and Excel spreadsheets, such as on drives around the region's winding roads. Kelseyville, a town of a little more than 3,300 people, now boasts five tasting rooms.
“That to me says people are recognizing there is that potential,” said Debra Sommerfield, president of the Lake County Winegrape Commission. “We are getting there.”
Keeping it local
The challenge vintners face is to take the accolades given to their grapes and channel it over to wines that showcase the region, instead of having the fruit outsourced for use by major wine companies in blends for various North Coast appellations. That, traditionally, has been a problem for the county, as winemakers exploit rules that stipulate a “Napa County wine” must have 75 percent of grapes come from the county. That means a quarter of the grapes can be sourced from lower-cost markets such as Lake County to boost profit margins.
Major vintners own land in the county, including Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa and E&J Gallo Winery of Modesto, which in 2012 bought the 800-acre Snows Lake Vineyard in Red Hills for a reported $42 million. Jess Jackson first put Lake County on the modern wine map when he bought a pear and walnut orchard in Lakeport in the 1970s and converted it to grapes. His winery at the former orchard site served as a launching pad for Jackson's 1982 Vintner's Reserve chardonnay that helped usher in the premium American wine business.
But the big companies don't go out of their way to market their wines as coming from Lake County.
Bill Foley, owner of Foley Family Wines in Healdsburg, told The Press Democrat last month his purchase of the historic Langtry Estate & Vineyards in southern Lake County in 2012 made sense because acreage costs a third of what it would in Sonoma County, where a planted acre can easily be more than $100,000. His company did 1.1 million cases last year.
Foley Family Wines markets some of its Langtry wines as coming from its Guenoc Valley location, which is 1,000 feet above sea level and planted with petite sirah, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. But it also uses its Lake County reds to blend into wines produced by Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery of Sonoma.
That has forced smaller, homegrown vintners to primarily chart the course on how to market Lake County wines, a debate that has lingered for decades.
“The larger issue for Lake County is trying to gain its own identity,” McMillan said.