Lake County Envisions Five New Wineries

New development by Clay Shannon in California's North Coast could polish remote county's image

by Paul Franson
Clay Shannon Vigilance Anderson
The vineyard abuts Anderson State Park and Anderson Wildlife Preserve.
Lower Lake, Calif. -- Lake County continues to be the North Coast wine region’s Cinderella -- before the fairy godmother appeared. But a large new vineyard development there could wave the magic wand and attract more visitors to the geographically attractive county north of Napa.

Clay Shannon, a local grower and vineyard manager who started making wine a few years ago, is developing a 240-acre plot on rolling hills overlooking giant Clear Lake into five separate wineries plus amenities prohibited in Napa like inns, a deli and event facilities -- as well as a farmers market selling produce from his and others’ farms and multiple tasting rooms. In the works for more than two years, Shannon is already hosting weddings, barbecues and other functions at the vineyard. Its first tasting room opens at the end of July.

Shannon owns about 1,000 acres overall in the county, including vineyards in and on the slopes of 2,200-ft. High Valley used for his Shannon Ridge Wines. He also has a small tasting room in Clearlake Oaks, a hardscrabble town next to equally downscale Clearlake.

His new development is off Point Lakeview Road on the route to the more prosperous northwestern shores of Clear Lake.

Shannon also farms about 2,200 additional acres in the Sacramento Valley, and he formerly managed vineyards in Napa Valley.

At present, he sells about 60% of the fruit he produces, using the rest in a number of wine brands totaling 120,000 cases last year.

Part of his wine is the Vigilance brand sold through limited channels such as Beverages and More in California, ABC in Florida, Specs in Texas, and soon Pennsylvania state stores. Its official price is $17, but generally it retails for about $12.
Vigilance Clay Shannon
The popularity of Clay Shannon's Vigilance wine label prompted him to use the name for part of his Lake County vineyard.
The Vigilance brand has been so popular that he’s adopted that name for part of his new vineyard. The property was once called Rolling Knolls, and Shannon managed the vineyards there before buying it from the former owner. The new name comes from the large Maremma dogs that guard the sheep he raises on another ranch. He also raises cattle and sells both meats.

The property contains five knolls, and Shannon hopes to eventually develop a distinctive winery with separate facilities on each knoll. “We want it to have an atmosphere like the Italian countryside,” he says.

The first facility is a modest farmhouse overlooking the lake and vineyards, to which he’s added a large patio under tall trees used for functions.

The second facility is another old farmhouse that he’s converting into the first tasting room on the estate. It also contains a stone cellar that he intends to turn into a boutique winery, and eventually the structure will become a small, three-room B&B.
Clay Shannon Vigilance Anderson
This old farmhouse will become the first tasting room on Shannon's Lake County estate. Eventually he hopes to convert it into a small bed and breakfast.
The third structure is an old walnut dehydrating barn close to a busy road that he is making into a tasting room (to replace the first one when it becomes an inn), deli, farm stand and farmers market featuring his wines, olive oils, beef and lamb and other produce. It will also have tables on a patio with impressive views.

To build this visitor center, Shannon hired noted St. Helena, Calif., architect Carlo di Fede of the Triad Design Group. He is also working with environmental groups to ensure acceptance.

The vineyard also has hiking trails, and it abuts Anderson State Park and Anderson Wildlife Preserve, where visitors will be able to hike and kayak. “We want people to come and spend the day,” he says.

The vineyards mostly face north, generally an advantage in warm Lake County. He has planted about 120 acres of Cabernet and 30 of Sauvignon Blanc, the county’s two signature varieties, plus he also grows Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and other grapes that do well there. He recently budded some mature Merlot vines to Sauvignon Blanc because of the demand for reasonably priced wines.

He has ponds and two wells close to the lake, and has plenty of water but does little irrigation.

His company grew 116% last year, and Shannon says he is self-financing the development with earnings. “I put every dollar back into the company.”

For now, the wine is made at Francis Ford Coppola’s facility in Geyserville, Sonoma County. “We crush 2,000 tons. It’s too big for anyone here in Lake County,” he admits.

One big benefit of the development to him and his workers is that it allows him to keep more of his workforce busy during more of the year. The same people who work in the fields have been learning and helping with construction including stonework; the site was littered with large stones and boulders, and they’ve put them to good use.

Vintners in Napa and Sonoma counties might view the ambitious development with wonder, but Lake County is anxious for wine and tourism development.

Aside from supplying jobs, the facility should help bring badly needed tourism to the county -- and many will likely visit its other new and old wineries.

“There haven’t been many places to go in Lake County,” Shannon says. “This will give visitors something appealing to do.”
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