When we booked a week on Clear Lake in northern California, we expected to enjoy nature and the lake. What we didn’t expect to find was an up-and-coming wine scene.
As we gradually found out, winemaking is relatively new to Lake County. Most of the wineries we encountered were established about a decade ago, maybe only slightly earlier. Even one of the largest, Steele, only dates to 1991. As a result, as with new bands, you’re taking a chance, but when you find something good, the fact that it’s undiscovered usually also means you’re finding a real bargain. The vintners also aren’t afraid to take some risks, for better or worse. A few of the wines we tasted still needed to have their flavors worked out, but in at least one case of not-so-good wine, it was that winery’s first offering, ever. Some wines — particularly whites — came with a screw top, which can be off-putting to wine purists, but not out of line with Lake County’s laid back vibe. And I did have to agree that the screw top is more convenient, especially when you only want a glass, and not an entire bottle.
There were also many wines from grapes you don’t associate with California. At three of the area wineries (St. Olof, Steele, and Rosa d’Oro) had Barbera. St. Olof bragged about its Nebbiolo wine, and Rosa d’Oro about its Aglicanico and Primitivo. Many of the wineries also had a Rosé which has been out of style. As a provincial Californian, I don’t know the European counterparts in order to compare them to the Lake County counterparts, but I wouldn’t be disappointed with any if a friend served them up with a nice meal. I can say that the Barbera was would be a good companion for pizza, as St. Olof pointed out. And the Rosés were drier than I expected — no soda-pop wine was this.
We first discovered this scene during our first day in Lakeport, at the annual Wine & Art Festival. We bid on a few bottles, and Peter bought us glasses for unlimited wine tasting, though one round was plenty. Professional tasters still haven’t been able to characterize the county’s character, probably because many of the vintners are themselves still trying to figure out which grapes and methods work best for their land. But from the festival and our later excursions (admittedly, only a fraction of what’s there), both Peter and I thought the Zinfandels were the most interesting varietal of all, at least how they’re grown and made in Lake County. And the wine tasting experience was fun — the people in the tasting rooms were playful, proud of their wines, and curious about our impressions.
The Kelseyville Krawl
At the art festival, our favorite wines came from Wildhurst, which is one of the only vineyards in Lake County older than me. So when Tuesday turned out to be rainy, we decided to try the “Kelseyville Krawl” they’d told us about. Even though we arrived after 10, most of the shops were still closed. But we did run across a friendly shop where we were invited in to see how they were imprinting pub glasses with a two-color logo. After we’d admired it long enough, a dog came out from the back to check us out and try to get a pat from the kids.
Back at Wildhurst’s tasting room, the wines were as good as we’d remembered, and there were some we hadn’t had which were even better. Peter and I switched off between the wines, and our host concluded it with a game of “can you guess the vintage?” in a blind taste-off. We were delightfully surprised when we both liked the (yet-unjudged) 2010 Petite Syrah more than the award-winning 2009 edition. The 2010 tasted smoother, both of us thought. In the end, we joined their wine club, and left with a case of their 2010 Home Ranch Vineyard Zinfandel, and 2 bottles of the 2010 Petite Syrah.
I normally drink white wine, and though I thought Lake County’s reds had more personality. Sauvignon Blanc was fairly common, and at the wine festival, I liked Thorn Hill‘s version. I also liked Lavender Blue‘s viogner and chardonnay. Our friendly Wildhurst host advised us to visit Chacewater (also along the Krawl) for a good chardonnay.
We had to be buzzed in to the Chacewater tasting room, and it was so new, I could smell it. The wine tasting was extensive. Just as at Wildhurst, Peter and I traded tastes with each other, and skipped some of the sweeter wines. I liked their original blend, the “O-Eight Headache” but Peter liked their malbec. They had the additional pleasure of an olive oil tasting, which the kids could partake it. The oils were significantly different in taste and flavor, and all high-quality. So besides a bottle of the chardonnay we’d originally come for, we also bought a bottle of a mainstream flavor (Mission), and the Tuscan variety for a friend who is always seeking the perfect, yet elusive, Italian olive oil.
After all that wine tasting, we needed a lunch break. Ryan, our Chacewater host, told us the Brickhouse BBQ had a great smoker, so we went there and had some amazing sandwiches, which came with friendly and attentive service.
Then we continued Kelsey Creek Brewing, a microbrew pub with a dive bar atmosphere. We were getting the impression that Lake County is happy making great-tasting food and drink, but avoiding being pretentious and expensive. Our hostess at Steele, where we ended our Krawl, echoed that. We were surprised when she told us sommeliers train themselves to smell the difference between vintages and areas. In response to our surprise she told us when she trained at a culinary institute, she and her fellow students would make fun of the sommeliers, pretending to sniff wines and making incredible exclamations like “this was picked by Miguel at 4 o’clock in the afternoon…clearly Jose had the day off, since it was rainy.” We’d already won a magnum of their chardonnay, but we still got some cool glasses and a wine bag as a souvenir.
Back at the festival, Peter noticed some of the Lake County wineries had unusual names, and one in particular stood out for its business-geek name, Six Sigma. Our Wildhurst hostess told us the winery was way way out back, along a dirt road, but well worth the drive. So after doing some boating on Wednesday, we left the kids at the house we’d rented and drove 40 minutes away to Six Sigma in Lower Lake. All the way down the local freeway, 29 (yes, the same 29 that runs through Napa), we kept passing other wineries, all beckoning us to try their flavors. But we were on a mission. To say it was out of the way was not exaggerating. From Lower Lake, we had to go down a rural road, and several miles in from there, we connected to a narrow dirt road, from which it would have been almost impossible to take a U-turn. We were relieved when we found the tasting room (or in this case, a small building among some oaks.)
But what a spectacular tasting experience it was. Jacqueline, our hostess, invited us to sit outside on the porch, while she would bring out each wine in turn. We could take our time to savor each one, while birds sang and a gentle breeze rustled through the trees. All the wines we tasted were good. Six Sigma is proud of its pinot noir (which is farmed on only a few acres) and its Tempranillo, a Spanish grape which is well suited for the region. But I was especially charmed by their 2007 cabernet sauvignon — it had been gently aged to have character without bite. We were tempted to join their club as well, but we’d just joined Wildhurst’s and were members of several Santa Cruz Mountain winery clubs already, so we could be awash in wine too easily. So we settled for 6 wines: two sauvignon blancs, one of the cabernet, and 3 of their Diamond Mine Cuvée, which is a great red wine blend. It only costs $18 retail, and on top of that, it was half off this month, making it a great value.
To be fair to most of California’s wineries, only the Napa and Sonoma ones have gotten a reputation of pretentiousness. The reputation for good wine is well deserved; they’re not posing.
But I don’t like the New York City snob attitude which comes with the acclaim. Sonoma’s pretension is embodied for us in the form of one night in Healdsburg. I suppose it’s one of the only towns in Sonoma with restaurants, but nonetheless, we were completely surprised when we went from half-empty restaurant to half-empty restaurant being turned away because they were “booked.” By what or which ghosts, I don’t know. I can say in San Francisco (which has a better reputation for good food) a booked-up restaurant will happily stick you at the bar and feed you pretzels until there’s a no-show. Given how little Kelseyville was, an explosion of interest in Lake County could bode poorly for us non-snobs. (BTW, if you like Santa Cruz Mountain wine, you will always be able to get a delicious meal in Los Gatos or Saratoga.)
And on that note, I was also put off by wineries which bragged about their biodynamic farming. Listen, if you say you have Gregory the Monk yodel to your grapes every night and your wine is awesome, I’m all for the yodeling monk method. But Fetzer-style wine farmed biodynamically still tasted like Fetzer wine. It just made me think biodynamic farming is mostly a marketing ploy to get rich hippies to lord the correctness of their wine choices over others.
A Hidden Treasure
However, I think the tour buses will be sticking to Napa for the time being, giving adventurers a chance to check out Lake County. The wineries may be new, but they’re highly promising. I liked the fact that they were willing to experiment with different grapes, and I especially liked being able to take my time through a tasting. Being unknown, most of the wines retail for less than $20, but taste as good as much more expensive ones. So I’m a fan, and I’m curious to see how the region develops, especially as the newer vineyards find their groove. Try them out and form your own opinion.