The first week of December Aubrey and I road tripped to Lake County. To be frank, my expectations were not high but I kept an open mind. Before this trip, I had a few Lake County wines I wasn’t fond of, a few that were great, and none that I really remembered. A week prior to our trip we reached out to the Lake County Wines official website and asked for recommendations. We put together an itinerary and off we went. We started our trip at 7am the day after my birthday. Ouch… At first, it was a nice relaxing drive through Napa and Sonoma. As we got closer to Lake County, the roads began to wind back and forth and the altitude increased. The previous night’s birthday Champagne extravaganza left me nauseous, so I closed my eyes and slept as the roads wound further and further through the mountains. I woke to find the landscape had changed. We were surrounded by lush green rolling hills; it was reminiscent of a road trip I took earlier in the year through Campania, Italy.
Brassfield and high Valley Ava
Our first stop was Brassfield Winery. The wines were not what I expected but they were excellent. The winemaker works in tandem with David Ramey and has a clear love of Alsatian wines. All the main Alsatian grape varieties were represented and most of the wines received careful sur-lie aging (aging on the dead yeast cells) which imparted a rich texture. The stainless steel fermented Chardonnay was particularly lovely and the Riesling and Gewurtztraminer also showed well. Our tasting room manager was very informed about the Lake County, and gave us helpful pointers about other wineries to visit on our trip.
At Brassfield we learned there are two dormant volcanos on each side of Clear Lake; Mount Konocti and Ram Mountain. I understood why I was reminded of my travels in Campania. The coastal province of Campania is strewn with dormant volcanoes. The minerals provided by the volcanic soil (in both Campania and Lake County) create a spicy, smoked undertone and contribute greatly to the complexity of the regional wines. Brassfield Winery was situated next to Ram Mountain in High Valley AVA; a sub-region, or “nested” AVA within Clear Lake AVA. High Valley AVA is one of the few AVA (American Viticultural Area) defined by elevation. This means the vines must grow between 1600 and 3000ft elevation. Greater elevation allows for greater UV exposure and thus, allows greater phenolic ripeness in the grape skins. Due to increased phenolic ripeness, wines from higher elevation vineyards show more pronounced tannin, and/or aromatic complexity (Aubrey touches on this topic in her Casablanca article as well). I believe we will continue to see high quality wines from the High Valley region.
Langtry Vineyards and GUenoc Valley AVA
The next relevant winery we visited was Langtry Vineyards. Langtry Vineyards is the only winery in Guenoc Valley AVA. They have a great selection of classic Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc) and a Petite Sirah that was a stand out. The wines at Langtry were ripe and robust with bright acid. As I looked through the windows of the Langtry tasting room, the sun was just setting and I could barely make out the flat top of Mt. Konocti in the distance. I was curious as to what the geological and geographical differences were between vineyards at Langtry and Brassfield. The wines tasted completely different. We inquired about the differences in temperature, soil and altitude between Guenoc Valley and the other AVA’s of Clear Lake/Lake County. The tasting room manager at Langtry informed us that Guenoc was a little bit warmer, with a bigger diurnal shift, a little lower in altitude and with a different soil substrate (alluvial and loam) than the other AVA’s. To put it simply; this area was completely different than the other areas of Lake County. We finished our wines, thanked the tasting room manager and headed to our hotel.
As we left the tasting room, we realized it was freezing. We pulled on our jackets, and Aubrey and I joked about how “real” the diurnal shift was. We were hot and wearing jeans and t-shirts at Brassfield earlier the same day. Diurnal Shift (as mentioned at Langtry) is the shift in temperature that occurs between day and night. Although the Diurnal Shift is accentuated and most noticeable in Guenoc Valley, it is a key factor in all of Lake County viticulture. Acidity is crucial in making well-balanced wines, and cool night time temperature is the way to preserve a grapes natural acidity.
Rosa d’oro’s Italian Flavor
We started our next day at Rosa d’Oro’s tasting room in downtown Kelseyville. This winery was a recommendation from Brassfield. Rosa d’Oro is a small, family owned winery with a penchant for Italian grape varieties. The tasting room was intimate and cozy. The Negro Amaro and Primitivo were delicious but the Barbera was my favorite. Many times, California wineries work with Italian grapes and the result is less than exciting; this was not the case at Rosa d’Oro. You could tell every wine had a bit of that family’s heart and soul. This is the reason I fell in love with Italy; the best food and wine was often from a small family farm or winery. We discussed the similarity between Lake County and the Italian Coast with the tasting room manager Pietro and then said our goodbyes.
The final stop of our trip was Steele Winery. Steele is the largest producer of all the wineries we visited in Lake County. However, in comparison with large production wineries in Napa and Sonoma, Steele’s production volume is still miniscule. The Zinfandel was delicious (and I don’t prefer Zinfandel), the Sauvignon Blanc was pretty and the Pinot Noir was balanced and refreshing. All of Steele’s wines are single vineyard or specific vineyard blends that show power, finesse and are clearly meant to cellar. The owner/winemaker Jed Steele, learned how to make wine at Stony Hill in the sixties, and this shows in his wines. If you haven’t had a chance to try an old bottle of Stony Hill Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, I highly recommend it because they age beautifully. Steele Winery also produces Shooting Star, a lighter, fresher style of wines made for early drinking and Writer’s Block, a project focused on Bordeaux Grapes. The Writer’s Block Malbec was drinking well and the Shooting Star Albarino was easily quaffable. We ended our Lake County wine trip here and headed back towards San Francisco.
Despite my doubts, I was pleasantly surprised with my Lake County wine experience. Aubrey and I stopped at a few wineries I didn’t mention, but (in my opinion) only one of them was dissatisfying. Why was this winery dissatisfying? They are trying WAY to hard to be “just another Napa Cab”; they use too much new oak and over-ripe fruit. It’s like trying to be the football jock in high school but you are the smart, short, artistic kid. Sure, you can do it, anything is possible, but why not work with your strengths? The wines of Lake County will never be (or need to be) as flashy and decadent as Napa wine, but they are equal in quality. I think quirky, odd varietal wines, at a reasonable price point are EXACTLY what we need more of. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a sommelier who lives and breathes for odd wines. I don’t hungrily search for bottles of oxidized wines from Jura or skin contact wines from Slovenia but I appreciate variety and I am so tired of lack-luster overly oaked Chardonnay and Cab. You will definitely see a few Lake County wines featured in one of our first Palate Club shipments. In addition to visiting Lake County to drink wine (kidding), we were there to build our online wine selection. If you hate the Lake County wines we send you, send it back. I doubt you will. I hope it will open your eyes to a new region and new possibilities. -JE