The vineyards at Ceago Vinegarden look over Mount Konocti, a key geographical feature in Lake County.
—With shortages of grapes facing wineries all over California, grapegrowers in Lake County are once more getting a lot of inquiries from across the mountains in Napa and Sonoma counties. The growers are certainly ready for the potential customers, because the recession and grape glut hit Lake County hard.
Many growers planted substantial vineyards a decade ago in anticipation of demand, particularly Cabernet in the desired Red Hills AVA, only to see demand drop. Many ended up making bulk wine, which turned out to be a decent choice as stocks disappeared.
Most Lake County grapes go into blends labeled California or North Coast, selling for $15 to $30, but about 300 wines mention the origins on the front or back label. That’s down from 360 a few years ago, but is likely to rise once again as grape stocks tighten.
Lake County has just 8,500 acres of vineyards compared to Napa’s 45,000. The county has 30 wineries and about 150 growers. Though perhaps best known for its Sauvignon Blanc from Big Valley, the Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux blends growing in the Red Hills appellation are receiving increasing attention from wineries outside the area as a source of excellent fruit at reasonable prices.
That’s partly due to the low price for land. Growers have bought land for as little as $5,000 per acre less than a decade ago, and land prices are far lower than in Napa or Sonoma.
The Hess Collection
buys Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc for its Select line. “We buy from about nine different growers but have been working with Jake Stephens at Diamond Ridge Vineyards
since his first crop in 2001 or 2002,” notes director of winemaking Dave Guffy.
“The game changer for Lake County was when they stopped changing pear orchards over to vineyards and started finding areas with devigorating soil (like hillsides) to plant red grapes. This, combined with investment from industry leaders (like Beckstoffer Vineyards), has boosted the quality from Lake County grapes.”
Guffy continues, “The climate is obviously warm (OK, hot) in Lake County, so the grapes almost always reach full maturity with equally ripe flavors. My experience shows Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Sirah both do well in a variety of Lake County vineyards.”
Perhaps the biggest effort is by Napa grower Andy Beckstoffer. His family firm owns 1,300 acres in Red Hills in its Amber Knolls, Red Hills and Crimson Ridge Vineyards. That includes about 200 acres of the former Roumiguiere Vineyard acquired last year after that company’s bankruptcy. It’s now part of the Amber Knolls vineyard.
Beckstoffer has recently started developing 400 acres of red soil in the Crimson Ridge Vineyard on the slopes of Mount Konocti. It is all planted to Cabernet.
A high place
All of Lake County’s vineyards are planted at high altitude for California viticulture: All lie above 1,300 feet elevation—the altitude of giant Clear Lake, which gives the county its name. Only 3% of California’s vineyards are above 1,000 feet, according to grower Peter Molnar, a partner in Obsidian Ridge Vineyard in the Red Hills AVA of Lake County.
Many growers from Napa have had to adapt to the increased radiation of the high altitudes and the lean, rock and obsidian-filled volcanic soil. They’ve learned to favor northern exposures, leave extra canopy to shade grapes, often have to water more often, and accept smaller bunches and yields. In return, they aren’t bothered by fog, and have high diurnal temperatures that maintain acidity. Clear Lake also moderates temperatures.
One vineyard owned by Jerry Brassfield above High Valley lies at 3,300 feet. Identified by vineyard consultant Paul Skinner and winemaker Dave Ramey, it’s used to grow Syrah in an unusual Roman trellis only 2 feet off the ground. Ramey, a consultant to Brassfield, helps make the wine.
Also in High Valley, a hanging valley at 1,600 feet and above, vintner Clay Shannon has bought the adjoining High Valley Vineyard from Dustin Brassfield, Jerry’s nephew. This property abuts a small extinct volcano, Round Mountain, into which you can drive to the bottom of the caldera.
Though Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc are most popular, many growers are growing alternative Spanish, Rhone and other Mediterranean grape varieties with excellent results. Syrah and Tempranillo do especially well. Winemaker Mark Herold is making wines under his Acha brand from the Madder Lake vineyard in Lake County managed by Sam Spencer. Herold’s website says, “With weather patterns not unlike Ribera del Duero in Spain, this vineyard produces some of California’s most amazing Grenache, Syrah and Tempranillo.”
Interestingly, some vineyards in the Red Hills that Beringer bought and planted to Zinfandel for white Zin turned out to be superior fruit, which now is used for regular Zinfandel. The Louis M. Martini winery’s former Barbera plantings there were once legendary.
Of historical interest are 15 struggling Zinfandel and Muscat vines in High Valley planted by the Ogulin family, which brought them from Slovenia around 1875. Slovenia borders Croatia, where Zinfandel originated, and these could be some of California’s oldest Zinfandel as well as the most direct brought directly from the source.
Clay Shannon has propagated budwood from these vines for his Zinfandel plantings.
On that note, enormous Syrah vines planted before Lillie Langtry, perhaps in the 1850s, still grow on steep hillsides in the Langtry Estates vineyards in the Guenoc AVA.
One of the county’s most interesting developments is Shannon’s large Vigilance Vineyards on rolling acres above the south end of Clear Lake and Anderson Marsh Park.
Though plans for multiple wineries, a farm store, deli and B&Bs on the site have been stalled by the economy, Shannon’s vineyards are thriving and the wines selling well in many markets. He has opened a tasting room.
One of the most interesting winery developments is Jim Fetzer’s Ceago Vinegarden
on Clear Lake. The attractive complex lies on the lake and is one of the few wineries in America accessible by boat as well as seaplane—flights are offered from Sausalito.
Fetzer, who has sold his property in Mendocino County (though several siblings and their children have wineries there), has about 50 acres of Biodynamic vines, and he has permits to build vacation homes and a small hotel, though the economy has delayed those plans. He does have three casitas, however.
Fetzer’s son Barney makes wine at Rack and Riddle
custom winery in Hopland.
Guests flock to the Ceago tasting room on Highway 20, the route from Sacramento to Mendocino, although the winery stopped serving café meals because the crowds were too big to handle.
Some of the biggest buzz in Lake County is winemaking by two famed French winemakers. Denis Malbec from Chateau Latour in Bordeaux makes Alienor Wines from vineyards managed by David Weiss, and international wine consultant Stephane Derenoncourt has been making a Red Hills Cabernet since 2006.
A couple from Pennsylvania own Thorn Hill Vineyards
and have opened a tasting room in their home state.
Tulip Hill Winery across from Ceago closed after its owner, who also owned Cleavage Creek, died in an airplane accident. It’s reportedly in escrow with a new buyer, however.
Winemaker Dennis de la Montoya of Healdsburg, Calif., also bought 22 acres of the former Roumiguiere property and makes Sauvignon Blanc from that property.
Napa winemaker Nils Venge bought the former Cougar's Leap Vineyard in Red Hills and renamed it Black Rock Lake, though the old name would seem ideal for a certain demographic group.
’s Lake County winery was closed a few years ago but is ready to be used if needed this harvest. The company says that based on last year's lighter grape harvest, the Napa and Sonoma County Kendall-Jackson facilities have enough capacity to handle the white and red fruit fermentations for this coming vintage. The Lake County facility will be used if they have a spike in the harvest and need the space to carry over wine fermentations.
The Jackson family’s estate vineyard in Big Valley—its first wine holding—near Kelseyville continues to be a key vineyard source for the Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.
Among the other wineries that source grapes from Lake County are Honig for Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, and Huneeus for The Prisoner blend. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
sources Cabernet from the 800-acre Snow’s Lake Vineyard in Red Hills.
has leased 40 acres in Lakeport for vineyards, and knowledgeable insiders say some of the big five wineries are sniffing around for property.