Ranging from 1200 to 3,500 feet, the vineyards in Lake County naturally defy gravity. So when the producers use terms like “high elevation farming” or “wines with altitude,” they are not kidding.
Located north-east of Napa County, the centerpiece of the Lake County appellation is Clear Lake, the largest natural body of water in California. Estimated to be 2-1/2 million years old, it is one of the oldest geological lakes in North America. For these reasons, it acts like an oversized air conditioner that quickly cools the hot daytime temperature down by 50 to 60 degrees in the late afternoon. This dramatic drop in climate helps preserve the flavor and intensity of the grapes, as well as provides the county with the purest air quality in the state.
In the early 20th century there were 26 wineries in the region and over 3,600 acres of vineyards. Eventually, the growth was restricted when the railroad service failed to come into the county, and the production of wine came to an abrupt end when Prohibition hit. As a result, the vines were replaced with pear, prune, and walnut orchards as their main cash crops.
The changing point started in the 1960s when a small number of growers followed the farm advisory recommendation to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and White Riesling grapes. By 1973, vineyards returned, covering more than 2,000 acres in Lake County.
Among the early pioneers were Myron Holdenreid, a fifth-generation pear farmer who planted his first 30 acres of Zinfandel vines in 1966 and started Wildhurst Winery with his wife Marilyn in 1991; the Magoon family who planted grapes in the pristine Guenoc Valley south of Middletown in 1963 and established Guenoc Winery in 1981; lawyer Jess Jackson and then wife, Jane Kendall Jackson, who purchased a pear orchard in 1974 and began developing vineyards that would eventually lead to the establishment the original Kendall-Jackson Winery in Lakeport in 1983.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, much of the fruit was sold to high-end producers in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. But with the help of new innovations and better farming techniques, the focus in the county started to shift toward finding the appropriate varietals to plant in specific soils and climate conditions.
Today, Lake County features 8,700 acres of vineyards planted by more than 170 winegrowers and 35-plus operating wineries. Much of this has also been helped along by the establishment of five specialized appellations or sub-regions within the borders of the county: Guenoc Valley (1981), Clear Lake (1984), Benmore Valley (1991), Red Hills Lake County (2004) and High Valley (2005).
Fun annual events in the county include Wine Adventures Weekend; A Taste of Lakeport; Lake County Wine Auction; People’s Choice Wine Awards; Wines with Altitude; Wine & Chocolate. www.lakecountywinegrape.org.
Whites: The main white grape in the appellation is Sauvignon Blanc, with smaller portions of Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne, Riesling, and Muscat.
Reds: The original red grape planted in the region was Zinfandel. But over the past two decades, passion for Cabernet Sauvignon is what brought most new growers to the area. High concentrations of these plantings are in the Red Hills district on the southwestern corner of the lake, which features deep red volcanic soils mixed with gravel and black obsidian. Other top red varieties include Syrah, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Barbera, Tempranillo, and a small portion of high-elevation Pinot Noir.
White Wines: Thanks to the balance of hot days and cool nights, the flavors of Sauvignon Blanc are very distinctive and delicious. Many of the wines from the region have bright fruity flavors, layered with notes of fresh apple, fig, melon, citrus, wild herbs, subtle spices, and bracing acidity. Viognier is more fragrant, with full-bodied flavors of ripe peach, apricot, mango, and a delicate finish. The other whites often feature lovely aromas and ripe flavors of melon, apple, tropical and stone fruits, and mineral.
Red Wines: The unique growing conditions create Cabernet Sauvignons with mountain fruit flavors of wild berries, cherries, dark chocolate, spice, and earthy or flinty notes associated with the rich volcanic soils. The Zinfandels are balanced with bright red fruit flavors of raspberry, cherry, chocolate and black pepper. Other Mediterranean varieties like Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, and Barbera are full-bodied with deep flavors, vibrant acidity, and layers of spice.
The lively flavors of Sauvignon Blanc from the region lend themselves to fine pairings with a wide range of cuisine: raw oysters, spring rolls, goat cheese, Heirloom tomato gazpacho, mixed green salad with tarragon vinaigrette, roasted fennel, sushi, fish tacos, grilled chicken and pork with fruit salsa. Other white wines pair nicely with Nicoise salad, butternut squash soup, crab cakes, fancy sandwiches, grilled sea bass and halibut, risotto, roasted white meats, Italian, Thai and Vietnamese cuisines.
For red wines, try the Cabernet Sauvignons with smoked shiitake mushrooms, short ribs, grilled filet mignon, rack of lamb, and blue cheeses. Lake County Zinfandels work wonders with an arugula salad with raspberry vinaigrette dressing and shaved chocolate, spicy soups, curry, pizza, juicy burgers, Buffalo wings, and barbecued meats. With Rhone, Spanish and Italian varieties and blends, try dishes featuring wild mushrooms, grilled eggplant, wild rice salad, BLTs, pasta with red sauce, gourmet sausage, roasted squab, duck breast, and roasted meats.