Lake County Wineries Offer Unexpected Gems

Lake County, Lake Count wineries

The first week of December Aubrey and I took a road trip to explore Lake County wineries. To be frank, my expectations were not high but I kept an open mind. Before this trip, I tasted 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.  

Our trip to exciting California wines started 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.

Where is Lake County, California? 

Lake County is one of California’s fastest growing wine regions, encompassing just over 9,000 acres of vineyards. The region is home to at least thirty wineries and Lake County grapes are sold to over 200 other California wine labels outside of the area.

Located in the heart of Northern California, the Lake County wine region lies north of San Francisco Bay, about a two hours drive from the San Francisco bridge. The region is bordered by Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties on the west. Lake County’s higher elevation, volcanic soils, and unique climate make this region ideal for successfully cultivating a diverse number of varieties. 

Brassfield and High Valley Ava

Brassfield Winery was our first stop on our Lake County wineries adventure. Though the wines were not what I expected, they were excellent. The winemaker works in tandem with David Ramey and has a clear love of Alsatian wines. Brassfield works with all of the main Alsatian grape varieties and most of the wines receive careful sur-lie aging (aging on the dead yeast cells), which imparts a rich texture. The stainless steel fermented Chardonnay was particularly lovely and the Riesling and Gewürtztraminer also showed well. Brassfield’s tasting room manager was very informed about the region and recommended other Lake County wineries to visit on our trip.

At Brassfield, we learned there are two dormant volcanoes on each side of Clear Lake; Mount Konocti and Ram Mountain. Now I understood why the region reminded me of my travels in Campania. The coastal province of Campania is strewn with dormant volcanoes. The minerals provided by the volcanic soils in both Campania and Lake County create a spicy, smoked undertone. Volcanic soils contribute greatly to the complexity of the reach region’s wines. 

Lake County’s High Valley AVA

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’s (American Viticultural Area) defined by elevation. This means the vines must grow between 1600 and 3000ft elevation. Higher elevation allows for greater UV exposure and thus, allows the grape skins to achieve greater phenolic ripeness. Due to increased phenolic ripeness, wines from higher elevation vineyards show more pronounced tannin and/or aromatic complexity. So, keep an eye out high quality wines from the High Valley AVA.

Langtry Vineyards and Guenoc Valley AVA

Next, we stopped at Langtry Vineyards, the only winery in Guenoc Valley AVA.  Langtry has a great selection of classic Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc) and a Petite Sirah that was a stand out.  Langtry offered ripe and robust California wines with bright acidity. As I looked through the windows of their 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 and 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 from the other AVA’s of Lake County wine country. We finished our wines, thanked the tasting room manager and headed to our hotel.

The Diurnal Shift in Lake County

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 that same day. Diurnal Shift 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 temperatures are essential to preserving natural acidity in the grapes. 

Rosa d’Oro’s Italian Flavor

The next day of our Lake County wineries tour began 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. 

Rosa d’Oro’s 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 the family’s heart and soul.  This is the reason I fell in love with Italy; the best food and wine are 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.

Impressive Wines at Steele

The final stop of our trip was Steele Winery.  Steele is the largest producer of all the Lake County wineries we visited.  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 typically prefer Zinfandel. Steele’s Sauvignon Blanc was pretty, while 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.  

Winemaker and owner, Jed Steele, learned how to make wine at Stony Hill in the sixties. This definitely 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 these California wines 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 Albariño was easily quaffable. We ended our Lake County wine trip here and headed back towards San Francisco.

Lake County Wineries Deliver

Despite my doubts, the Lake County wine experience pleasantly surprised me. Aubrey and I stopped at a few wineries I didn’t mention, but (in my opinion) only one of them was dissatisfying. Why? Because they are trying WAY too 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, nor 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. Honestly, 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 exploring Lake County wineries 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


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