Q & A: Peter Molnar of Obsidian Ridge Vineyard

Via Wine Review Online.com • Ÿ Tina Caputo

I’ve tasted and enjoyed many wines from Lake County over the years, but until recently, I’d never really toured the region’s vineyards. There’s really no excuse for that, since Lake County is less than a two-hour drive from my house. It’s just that it always seemed so… far.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it took the promise of aerial transportation to entice me to spend some quality time in Lake County. But boy, am I glad I made the trip.

As part of the North Coast appellation, Lake County is bordered on the west by the Mayacamas Mountains — which define the border between Napa and Sonoma counties to the south — and the Vaca Range to the east. Its vineyards surround Clear Lake, one of North America’s oldest geological lakes.

This combination of factors results not only in stunning scenery, but also in distinctive and delicious wines, with great structure and acidity levels. And the region’s under-the-radar status means there’s terrific value to be found in Lake County compared to other North Coast AVAs.

During my long-overdue visit, I was able to tour one of area’s most unusual and beautiful vineyards: Obsidian Ridge. Planted at an elevation of 2,640 feet in the Red Hills AVA, in southern Lake County, the 105-acre vineyard is absolutely filled with shiny black obsidian rocks — some of them the size of beach balls!

The Cabernet Sauvignon ($28) and Syrah ($28) wines that come from the vineyard’s red volcanic soils are equally impressive, showing concentrated black fruit, soft tannins and dried-herb notes.

The man in charge of overseeing this special vineyard is Peter Molnar, who along with partners Arpad Molnar (Peter’s brother) and winemaker Michael Terrien, founded the Tricycle Wine Co. In addition to the Obsidian Ridge Vineyard and wines, the company includes Poseidon’s Vineyard in Napa Carneros, the Molnar Family and Kazmer & Blaise wine brands, and a partnership in Kádár Hungary, a Central European Cooperage. (The cooperage comes in handy, as it supplies barrels for the Obsidian Ridge wines.)

Originally from Hungary, Peter’s family first ventured into Lake County in the late ‘90s, as grape growers. Today Obsidian Ridge is known as one of the region’s standout grape and wine producers.

Peter took time out from his duties managing the vineyards and cooperage to tell me more about the extraordinary Obsidian Ridge Vineyard.

Wine Review Online (WRO): How did you become involved in the wine business?

Peter Molnar (PM): After escaping from Hungary during the 1956 Revolution, my parents emigrated to California and started planting vineyards in the 1960s and `70s. We did not live In Napa, but my brother and I spent some of our summers working in the vineyard, tying, training and watering. Our parents wanted us to understand what manual work entailed and what was supporting us. It was not an extensive education, but I think it was when the hook was set.

Ironically, the Berlin Wall fell as I finished college and I bought a one-way ticket to Budapest. My first job was helping privatize the Hungarian wine industry – a bit of a jump into the deep end of the pool. I had the chance to build a winery, refurbish a cooperage and start a negociant company — that’s a lot in four years.

When I got back to California, I took a crush job at Acacia and started helping my father with Poseidon’s Vineyard in Napa Carneros, which he planted in 1974. In 1995 I started making wine with Michael Terrien. In 1996, my father and I were asked by a friend to check out Amber Knolls, now the Beckstoffer vineyard in Red Hills, when it was still a walnut orchard. That visit started our Mayacamas journey.

WRO: What attracted you to the Obsidian Ridge site?

PM: My father and I started looking around Lake County in 1998. One cold February afternoon a local real estate agent finished the day by saying, “I have one more spot. It’s not for sale, but I know the owner….” The light was fading and we were cold from being out all day, but the site was amazing: A 50-year-old abandoned walnut orchard. There were hundreds of dry farmed bonzai walnut trees, many not much more than 6-feet tall, and obsidian everywhere you looked. It was a 30-second buying decision.

Ranging from 2,350 to 2,640 feet in altitude, north facing with amazing volcanic soils, the property reminded me of some of my favorite Spring and Diamond Mountain sites. At $4,000 an acre I knew we could grow great fruit at a very compelling value.

WRO: So what did you plant there?

PM: The site has 90 acres planted to six clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, and the balance of the vineyard is planted to Petit Verdot, Petit Syrah, Malbec and Syrah.

WRO: What was it like preparing the rocky soil for planting?

PM: The soil is nuts. We pulled out over 200 tons of obsidian rock — some the size of the front end of a pickup truck — just to put in the irrigation system. We built tractor pads, erosion berms and some walls with the obsidian. As we are just on top of the North Coast Magma Pocket [a magma pocket is an underground chamber that fills with lava] we have obsidian flumes all over the property. When soil scientist Paul Skinner finished his analysis, his conclusion was simple: He said it was the rockiest site he had ever measured.

WRO: Does the obsidian provide any benefits for the vines?

PM: The main benefit of the obsidian is the drainage. The rocks and gravel go down at least 12 feet, probably more. Canopy and vigor are limited. Yields are limited, with small and intense berries.

WRO: What role does the vineyard’s high altitude play for the fruit?

PM: It moderates the sun and provides much greater UV and phenolic intensity than lowland vineyards. The UV breaks down pyrazines throughout the season, which results in lower levels of green bell pepper character. It also results in higher levels of tannin and structure, with lower levels of bitter tannins and higher levels of acidity.

WRO: What’s special about Lake County as a growing region?

PM: Our wines, like in any distinctive region, are dictated by our soils and climate. The Red Hills AVA is the in Alta Mayacamas Mountains, with elevations from 1,500 to 3,000 feet, and on some of the youngest soils in the North Coast. The reds are structured but also keep high-toned and bright characteristics. Late September and October can be very cool at night, we can even get frost, and the acidity really hangs on. I also detect lots of what the French call “garrigue” — the chaparral, dried herb, wild note — in ours and others’ wines.

WRO: Are there any myths about Lake County you’d like to bust?

PM: That Lake County is hot. Working with Southern Oregon University research climatologist Greg Jones, and looking at heat summation maps of the past 40 years of the North Coast, the reality is that there are many nooks and crannies in the four-county area that are great for the right varieties.

WRO: How much wine are you making?

PM: Tricycle Wine Company is a partnership, and currently we make about 10,000 cases a year at our facility in Sonoma. We are currently on the 2009 release and we feel it’s one of our best, but I have to say we are pretty excited about 2011. Last October was warm and dry up here and we picked some really balanced fruit.

WRO: How much of that production is for Obsidian Ridge, compared to the other brands?

PM: It’s about 7,000 for Obsidian Ridge.

WRO: With such a small production for a 100-plus-acre vineyard, where do the rest of the grapes go?

PM: We also grow for a number of great wine programs, including Honig, The Prisoner, Derenoncourt California, and Steele Wines, as well as a few bigger players.

WRO: Where are your wines available?

PM: Our wines are sold in much of the United States with New York, California, Hawaii and Chicago being some of our strongest markets. We can be found in most of the East and Texas as well.

WRO: When you’re not drinking Obsidian Ridge wines, what do you enjoy drinking at home?

PM: Frankly, I drink our wine often. I am always trying to understand the material we’re working with and how the wines evolve. We’re 10 vintages into this, but still learning. That said, I love the Sonoma Coast Pinots because I am an abalone diver, and washing down grilled abalone with fruit you can almost see from the water is a great pairing….


Stalking Cabernet Greatness in Lake County

Jul 24, 2012 • W. Blake Gray

I’m standing in a big pile of red dirt in 103 degree weather, and it’s windy. My eyes are burning but I’m trying to man up and do the job of grasping why Andy Beckstoffer is adding to his 1200-acre Lake County vineyard portolio. But man, it’s hot, and I’m miserable.

And then, one of the other writers on this little junket points to a man driving an earth mover, pushing more of the red dirt into the air, and says, “I wonder how hot it is in the cab of that truck.”

People think writing about wine is all fun and games, but my visit to Lake County was hard work. But I thought it was important work, because Lake County is trying to position itself as the next great Cabernet Sauvignon area in California.

The Mayacamas mountain range, where most of Napa Valley’s great Cabernets are grown, extends into Lake County, and Lake County grapes have been going into Napa wines for years.

While it is a fairly hot region, apparently 103 degree days are rare in the vineyards mainly because of the elevation. Clear Lake, an old-school family vacation spot where people fish and ride jet skis, is at 1,480 feet elevation, and most vineyards are on the hills above it.

Unlike in neighboring Napa, grapevines are still a minor part of Lake County agriculture, accounting for less than 1% of the landmass. But growers are converting from the previous specialties, pears and walnuts, because the profit potential is higher.

French flying winemaker Stéphane Derononcourt makes — and sells out — a Red Hills Cabernet from Lake County’s most recognized sub-appellation. And Beckstoffer’s large bet on the county is as good an endorsement as you could ask for. But he still hasn’t convinced the wineries that beg for his fruit from To Kalon in the heart of Napa Valley that they should pay the Red Hills premium Lake County growers covet.

Randy Krag, vineyard manager for Beckstoffer’s Red Hills vineyard, told of a deal Beckstoffer made with a prominent Napa winery: The winery could have some To Kalon Cab only if it bought 10 tons of the Red Hills. The next year, Beckstoffer asked the winemaker what he thought of the Red Hills fruit, and learned he had sold it on the bulk market without even trying to make wine from it.

“Cabernet from Lake County used to go into a lot of $15 California Cabs. It formed the backbone of those great value wines,” says Peter Molnar, chairman of the Lake County Winegrape Growers. “Now it costs more, but big buyers aren’t used to thinking of it that way. But look around — good Cab doesn’t come from that many places. People talk about how rare good Pinot sites are, but in California, with all the great areas along the coast for Pinot, good Cab sites are even more rare.”

It’s a shocking point to consider but a good one. Think about it: You can get great Pinot from Mendocino, Marin, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara. Great Cab? Not so much.

Molnar’s own vineyard, Obsidian Ridge, is responsible for one of the best red wines from Lake County. It has a great history.

Pappy Waldorf, who coached football at UC Berkeley in the 1950s, bought 650 acres to grow walnuts, but had no water on the property, a major issue in an area where the soils retain little water. His abandoned sheds are still there. He sold it to a Navajo named Eli Wilson who made a fortune with his savvy skills at buying and selling cattle at auction. Wilson liked Cal football and Waldorf tried to unload the property on him, but Wilson refused to pay more than $50,000 — for 650 acres. Imagine that in Napa County.

Wilson liked the land and thought about starting a horse farm there, but never did.

In the ’90s, Molnar graduated from Cornell and landed a job in Hungary privatizing the post-Communist wine industry. He caught the wine bug, and when he moved home he looked for land for a while before meeting Wilson, who hadn’t wanted to sell but decided Molnar would be a good steward of his property. And in fact, he’s now a leader of the grapegrowing community.

One of Lake County’s unusual aspects is the high level of UV light, which is really noticeable on a hot day; though I wore sunglasses, my eyes burned well into the evening.

Grapes need UV protection too for their seeds, so they grow thick skins. The plus side of this, similar to Mendoza, Argentina, is high levels of the antioxidant resveratrol, which is so good for you that some people take it in tablets (I prefer it in Bordeaux blends.) Also, Lake County Cab has very few pyrazines, which give wines an herbal flavor that is not loved by most California Cabernet drinkers.

The downside is that thick skins mean considerable tannins. Plus, the long summer days with lots of UV light mean that the acid burns out of the grapes, and consequently the wine made from them needs to be acidified. Krag, whose degree is in plant production and pest management, explained to me that it involves potassium and something about the soil, but this came rather late on that 103 degree day when only the phrase “Red Hills fruit needs to be acidified” woke me from my stupor.

Fortunately a dip in the pool revived me enough to enjoy dinner in the company of Denis and May-Britt Malbec, two more important advocates for Lake County fruit. Denis, former cellar master at Chateau Latour in Bordeaux, is making delicious Sauvignon Blanc in both a delicate dry version, with weekly lees stirring, and a sumptuous late harvest version that could be Sauternes. The Malbecs live in St. Helena and work with Napa fruit all the time, so why Lake County?

“I like the dirt,” he said. And I guess I do too, as long as it stays out of my eyes.


Winegrape Grower News – July 18, 2012

2011-12 Busy Year for Commission

KELSEYVILLE – Consumers, winegrape buyers and media representatives in and out of California learned about Lake County winegrapes and wines during the past fiscal year as

the Lake County Winegrape Commission hosted events, attended industry trade shows, poured wine at special activities and made dozens of presentations.

In a report outlining the highlights of the 2011-12 fiscal year, Winegrape Commission President Shannon Gunier recently shared with the Commission’s board of directors a lengthy list of marketing events, industry affairs, special projects and meetings accomplished over the past year.

Read Entire Article Click Here

New Commission Board Seated

Lake County winegrape growers recently elected two new boardmembers and re-seated two others to the board of the Lake County Winegrape Commission.

Broc Zoller of Zoller Vineyards and Jonathan Walters of Robinson Lake Vineyard are the newest directors, joining re-elected members Randy Krag, BeckstofferVineyards,and Jeff Lyon, Robin Hill Vineyard.

Read Entire Article Click Here

Grand Opening of Thorn Hill Soiree

Saturday, July 21, 2012
4:00 – 9:00 p.m.

“I’ve heard it said that ‘wine is bottled poetry,’ but I would say it’s bottled friendship.” – Amy Thorn, Winemaker, Thorn Hill Vineyards.Jack and Amy Thorn invite you to share in their “bottled friendship” as they celebrate the opening of their Lake County Thorn Hill Tasting Room with a Grand Opening of Thorn Hill Soiree on Saturday, July 21, 4:00-9:00 p.m., featuring Thorn Hill Vineyards artisan wines and gourmet hors d’oeuvres prepared by Lake County’s finest chefs.

“Be among the first to dine in our Tuscan-inspired tasting room, sip our hand-crafted wine, meander in our newly-created lavender garden and enjoy jazz by pianist A.J. Frank.”

Please RSVP by emailing lakeco6@gmail.com.

Thorn Hill Vineyards Red Hill Tasting Room
8170 South Highway 29, Lower Lake, CA 95457

Amy and Jack Thorn


Thank you

Thank you for taking the time to read about the Lake County Winegrape Commission’s recent happenings, events, and news. Please contact us if you have any questions or comments about this newsletter or about the Commission’s efforts and events.


By Susan Stout, Contributing writer

Lake County Winegrape Commission Seats New Board Members

Jonathan Walters

Lake County winegrape growers recently elected two new board members and reseated two others to the board of the Lake County Winegrape Commission. Broc Zoller of Zoller Vineyards and Jonathan Walters of Robinson Lake Vineyard are the newest directors, joining re-elected members Randy Krag, Beckstoffer Vineyards, and Jeff Lyon, Robin Hill Vineyard.

Commission President Shannon Gunier announced the results following completion of the election at the end of May.

Incumbent Peter Molnar, Obsidian Ridge Vineyards, will continue to serve as Commission chair, and he additionally serves as the marketing chair. Vice chair is David Weiss, Bella Vista Farming. Lyon is the Commission’s secretary-treasurer, and Buz Dereniuk, Catspaw Vineyard, is Finance chair. Krag serves as Education chair, while Industry Relations chair is Bill Brunetti. The two new members, Zoller and Walters, complete the board.

Broc Zoller

“We are excited to welcome Broc (Zoller) and Jonathan (Walters) to the Commission board and look forward to working with them, our re-elected directors, and the rest of the board on our goals for this year,” said Gunier. “Our board is doing some terrific work, and I know this group will continue important ongoing and new projects to assist the Lake County growers. I welcome comments from our member growers and invite them to meet and speak with the board members at workshops and meetings presented by the Commission.”

New board member Zoller said he expects to serve the Commission well. “I hope to support the successful efforts made by others in furthering recognition of our unique and beautiful growing region and the quality grapes and wine produced.”

Upon his election to the board, Walters echoed the desire to expand awareness of Lake County’s wine industry. “I am proud to be able to serve on the Winegrape Commission board,” he said. “The Commission does so much for Lake County and the winegrape growers, myself included. I firmly believe that the winegrapes grown in Lake County are of the highest quality, and we have gone too long unrecognized for our outstanding product and prices.”

Winegrape growers were urged to cast their ballots, which were mailed to all eligible Lake County voters in May, to fill four seats and help the Commission continue its work “to implement effective marketing, education, and research programs on behalf of Lake County winegrape growers.”

Information about the Lake County Winegrape Commission and upcoming events may be found on the Commission’s website, www.lakecountywinegrape.org, or may be obtained by calling the office, 707-995-3421.


Click here to see the entire newsletter 

2011-12 Busy Year for Commission

By Susan Stout
Contributing writer

Patty Brunetti answers questions at trade show.

KELSEYVILLE – Consumers, winegrape buyers and media representatives in and out of California learned about Lake County winegrapes and wines during the past fiscal year as the Lake County Winegrape Commission hosted events, attended industry trade shows, poured wine at special activities and made dozens of presentations.

In a report outlining the highlights of the 2011-12 fiscal year, Winegrape Commission President Shannon Gunier recently shared with the Commission’s board of directors a lengthy list of marketing, industry affairs, special projects and meetings accomplished over the past year.

“We made some important contacts with our marketing and outreach in the last 12 months,” said Gunier. “Because of events such as our ‘virtual tasting’ with members of the American Wine Society who were located in Long Island, New York, and our participation in trade shows in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Richmond, Virginia, Lake County wines are getting national attention.

“Working in conjunction with the Lake County Board of Supervisors, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local organizations such as the Lake County Winery Association, the Commission is able to ‘tell our story,’ as Commission Chair Peter Molnar likes to say.”

Recipient of a U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Grant, which the Commission board dubbed the “Lake County Rising” grant, the Commission participated in well-known industry trade shows in California and outside the state.

In addition, the Commission made several presentations. Among those entertained by the Lake County Winegrape Commission during the last year were winegrape buyers from Chicago, Rhodes scholar consumers, winemakers from Maine, Rotarians from France, and top industry representatives.

“One of the highlights,” said Gunier, “was serving dinner and Lake County wines to winegrape buyers, media, winegrape growers, VIPs and community stakeholders at a special affair on Mount Konocti. It gave us a chance to showcase our wines along with delicious foods and incredible views of our county.”

Introducing a new approach to wine tours in April, the Commission began hosting wine writers and guests via seaplane rides to Lake County. A second seaplane ride/wine tour took place in June with five guests commuting from the Bay Area for the two-day experience that included an overnight stay at the Tallman Hotel, Upper Lake.

Besides receiving and administering the Specialty Crop Grant, the Commission embarked on several projects during the fiscal year. The Commission developed, promoted and implemented the Master Vigneron Program, providing a series of classes to a select group of vineyard supervisors and foremen. Also, a new Commission website with an improved vineyard map was launched.

“We have stayed busy with a number of events and activities that have been aimed at promoting Lake County winegrapes on behalf of our 158 member growers,” said Gunier.

“Much of the credit goes to our hardworking board of directors, committee chairs and office manager. The many functions this past year – from pouring wine to the 12,000 consumers attending the largest trade show in the nation, the Unified Symposium in Sacramento, to hosting lunch for Assemblyman Wes Chesbro and his staff, and working with other local groups to sponsor special events such as the California Women for Agriculture’s AgVenture Grape Day – were important pieces in the Commission’s work to assist Lake County’s growers in their efforts to sell their grapes and spread the word about Lake County’s fine wines.”

The Lake County Winegrape Commission is a marketing order that growers voted into place in 1992. Since then, the Commission has marketed the premium Lake County  winegrape-growing region to new and existing grape buyers and wineries all over California. The Commission also assists growers in a variety of activities including educational and research programs that benefit growers’ vineyard development.

For additional information about the Lake County Winegrape Commission, visit the Commission’s website, www.lakecountywinegrape.org, or call the Commission office, 707-995-3421.


Lake County Winegrowers Sustainable eNews – July 2012

Welcome to the first edition the Lake County Winegrape Commission’s Sustainable Winegrowing Program eNewsletter.

 Moving forward we will feature numerous stories on sustainability in the vineyard ranging from the process and programs to the people who make it happen and discussions of their experiences with implementation. Got a story? Let us know…In this edition, we will feature an interview with Lisa Francioni, Program Manager for the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance…More User-Friendly Changes Coming to the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance Process

The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) is making some substantial changes to their certification program. The idea is to streamline the methods used by eliminating redundancy and making it simpler and clearer to use on an ongoing basis. “We are in the process of revising our self-assessment workbook and should have our 3rd edition out after this year’s harvest,” said Francioni.

The self-assessment workbook is a key tool in the process that facilitates growers’ ability to get an idea of where they are on the road to certified sustainable status, how to improve and how to be ready when they are ready to take the step of a third-party audit required for verification. “We are cleaning up some of the vagaries that were present, eliminating duplication and making it easier to plan moving forward by being more specific,” she continued.

“We want to encourage growers to use the self-assessment workbook to get a good idea of where they are in the process and how they can achieve certification before getting started with the third party audit phase,” she said.

CSWA is also working on improving the messaging connected to sustainability and building a better case for participation. Of course, ideas such as “being a good neighbor” and “social responsibility” are very important. But, they are working to show more of the business side of sustainability, utilizing case studies and other tools to demonstrate that it is good for the ecosystem as well as the bottom line.

“Sustainability allows growers to stay ahead of the game,” said Francioni. “It’s about access to market – more and more ‘small guys,’ not just the big retailers and wineries, are requiring this from their suppliers.”

This is relevant up and down the supply chain in the wine industry. It can also be about running a more efficient and cost-effective vineyard creating a serious upside from the business perspective. “It’s an ongoing process, where constant improvement is sought from year-to-year,” said Francioni.

The idea is that the sustainability process will continually find and realize efficiencies for the grower and vineyard. Part of the result of this, ideally, would be lowered expenses, a more efficient use of resources and a cost-effective operation.

A prime topic for CSWA is to make stronger connections between sustainability and quality in the vineyard. According to Francioni, it’s mostly based on anecdotal observations, to this point. But, these have a led to a firm belief that it is the case. Utilizing enhanced case studies and getting feedback from growers and wineries are part of the effort to learn more.

Get involved – are you interested in participating? The Lake County Winegrape Commission and the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance have resources of which you can take advantage. These include rebates and support or “coaching” through the process, these can greatly reduce the cost and time involved in becoming certified. If you are interested, please contact Paul Zellman, LCWC Education Coordinator, at paulz@lakecountywingrape.org, for more information. The plan is to begin after this year’s harvest.

Watch for our next issue coming soon…


Sustainable Winegrowing Program

To learn more about the Lake County Winegrape Commission’s Sustainable Winegrowing Program please visit our website’s program page here.

There is more information on the program, our goals for a sustainable future in our vineyards and how Lake County is a regional leader in sustainability. Check it our and get involved!


Get Involved…

Are you interested in participating in the program and becoming a certified sustainable vineyard? If so, the Lake County Winegrape Commission and the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance are offering terrific incentives, including rebates and support resources to lessen both the cost and time it takes to be a part of it. The LCWC can provide assistance and more information. Please contact Paul Zellman, Education Director, at PaulZ@lakecountywinegrape.org for more information…



Copyright © 2012 Lake County Winegrape Commission, All rights reserved.

Winegrape Grower News – July 8, 2012

Chacewater Wine Co.  Earns State Fair Honor  

It’s looking like a banner year for Chacewater Winery & Olive Mill and consulting Chacewater banner from websitewinemaker Mark Burch.

Chacewater was named Golden State Winery of the Year at the California State Fair, and its wines scored gold medals and Best of Class awards at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition.

Several other Lake County wineries also had good showings at the California State Fair, including a double gold medal and Best Tempranillo honor to Mount Konocti Winery for its 2009 Tempranillo. Read entire article: click here.

See list of winners: click here

Website Boasts New Vineyards Map

KELSEYVILLE – An updated, interactive vineyards map with several helpful features can now be found on the new Lake County Winegrape Commission website, www.lakecountywinegrape.org.

Winegrape Commission Chair Peter Molnar enlisted the talents of Daniel Opalacz, creator of vinosum.com, an online wine-mapping project. The mapmaker’s work enables the Commission to be the first to have high resolution, fast processing soil and geology maps integrated into its countywide vineyard map. Read entire article: click here.

 Spotlight on Affiliate Sponsor:  Western Weather Group Inc.

We are fortunate to have Western Weather Group, Inc., continue its support as an Affiliate Sponsor of the Lake County Winegrape Commission. Please take a moment to read about this important company that provides a significant service to Lake County’s winegrape growers.
Thank you,
President Shannon Gunier

Submitted by Don Schukraft, CEO, Certified Consulting Meteorologist

The team of meteorologists and physical scientists at Western Weather Group, Inc., inRed Hills 2 weather station Chico, has been providing weather information services to the agricultural industry in California for over 25 years.

In July 1995, the National Weather Service (NWS) announced plans to transfer its Fruit
Frost Forecasting Services to the private sector as part of proposed federal budget
reductions. As a result, the NWS ended its specialized agricultural weather forecasts.

Read entire article: click here.

Thank you

Thank you for taking the time to read about the Lake County Winegrape Commission’s recent happenings, events, and news. Please contact us if you have any questions or comments about this newsletter or about the Commission’s efforts and events.

By Susan Stout, Contributing writer


Chacewater Named Golden State Winery of Year

Chacewater Named Golden State Winery of Year

July 8, 2012 • Susan Stout, Contributing Writer

It’s looking like a banner year for Chacewater Winery & Olive Mill and consulting winemaker Mark Burch.

Chacewater was named Golden State Winery of the Year at this year’s California State Fair, and its wines scored gold medals and Best of Class awards at the 2012 Los Angeles International Wine Competition.

Several other Lake County wineries also had good showings at the California State Fair, including a double gold medal and Best Tempranillo honors to Mount Konocti Winery for its 2009 Tempranillo.

Chacewater owner Paul W. Manuel has reason to boast this summer with one of the top honors at this year’s California State Fair. Additionally, chacewater wines scored gold medals and Best of Class awards at the 2012 Los Angeles International Wine Competition.

Chacewater’s olive oil also proved to be among top winners in recent shows. Its Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive Oil won Best of Show and Best of Class honors at the 2012 Los Angeles International Olive Oil Competition, and Chacewater’s Mission Extra Virgin Olive Oil won a gold medal at the 2012 California Olive Oil Council Competition.

Expressing his enthusiasm over the wins for both the wine and olive oil, Manuel said the small producer of Kelseyville is “having a really good year.” The showings result in positive recognition for Lake County, he added.

Calling consulting winemaker Mark Burch “awesome,” Manuel said Chacewater is fortunate to benefit from the talents of Burch and mill master Emilio de la Cruz. The winery’s owner credits their knowledge and craftsmanship for Chacewater’s success this year.

Burch is “super laboratory sound,” said Manuel. “He is also an artist with what he does with the (wine) blends.” It is that combination of the lab work and artistry that allows Burch to produce the award-winning wines, according to Manuel.

The winemaker honed his skills over the past 30 years, having started with E & J Gallo in the 1980s. Burch, who attended Fresno State, said his stints included Sebastiani Vineyards for 5 years prior to working for the late Jess Jackson in Lake County between 1994 and 1997. He then joined Wildhurst Vineyards in Kelseyville, helping the wine producer grow over the course of the next 14 years from 5,000 cases to 72,000 cases annually. He left Wildhurst in August 2011. In the last few years he has consulted for several wineries, including Chacewater.

“We had a great show (at the State Fair),” said Burch. “It feels great to champion Lake County this way.”

Chacewater garnered the Golden State Winery of the Year award at the California State Fair by winning the highest number of awards with the greatest number of wines, according to the fair’s ag programs manager. In addition, a winery must enter a minimum of 10 wines to be eligible for the prestigious award.

“Ten wines; 10 medals,” said Burch. Chacewater’s 2010 Chardonnay (Lake County Appellation) received a double gold while also earning Best of California and Best of Class North Coast Appellation honors. The winery scored gold medals with its 2009 Petite Sirah and its 2008 Petite Sirah/Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon which also took Best of Class of North Coast Appellation honors. Silver medals were awarded to Chacewater’s 2010 Merlot, 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, 2009 Malbec, and 2011 Generic Rose. Its 2010 Zinfandel and 2010 Syrah received bronze medals.

Chacewater beat last year’s Golden State Winery of the Year award winner by less than one point, according to Manuel.

At this year’s State Fair, 2,890 wine entries from 688 participating wineries were judged. The 72 judges on 18 panels gave out more than 2,100 medals, including 74 double gold, 268 gold, 1,195 silver and 734 bronze.

The public may enjoy tasting winning wines from this year’s State Fair competition at California’s Grape & Gourmet, the state’s premier wine and food event, at Cal Expo, Sacramento, on Aug. 18. Ticket information is available on the State Fair website, www.bigfun.org.


Lake County’s Star Keeps Rising

Lake County’s Star Keeps Rising

July 05, 2012 6:11 pm • PAUL FRANSON

Napa Valley Register “Lake County’s Star Keeps Rising”

Grape growers and wineries in Lake County might wish their county hadn’t seceded from Napa County way back in 1855.

While Napa wines and grapes are world-known and command the highest prices in America, Lake County’s equivalents are little known.

Fortunately for Lake County grape growers, shortages of grapes statewide means more calls from wineries in Napa and Sonoma Counties.

The Lake County growers are certainly ready for the business, for the recession and grape glut hit them hard.

Many planted vineyards a decade ago anticipating high demand only to see demand drop. Many had to turn unsold grapes into bulk wines, although that’s actually worked out well for many as shortages developed.

Most Lake County grapes go into California or North Coast blends selling for $10 to $30, but about 300 wines mention the origins on the front or back label.

Ironically, Lake County had grapes planted by the 1850s and claims to have had more acres of vineyards than Napa in the late 1900s.

Now, Lake County has only 8,500 acres of vineyards compared to Napa’s 45,000. It has 30 wineries and about 150 growers compared to more than 400 wineries and more than 500 growers in Napa, according to the Lake County Wine Commission.

Lake County suffers from a few disadvantages. It is isolated behind mountain ranges — the same ones that form Napa Valley. It also has a distinct climate, though that’s not necessarily a disadvantage.

The relevant part of Lake County is a big high valley around California’s largest natural lake, Clear Lake.

At 1,200 foot and above, this area lies considerably higher than the floor of Napa Valley if not its surrounding mountains and receives more solar radiation as a result. Only 3 percent of California’s vineyards are above 1,000 feet According to Peter Molnar, a partner in Obsidian Ridge Vineyard.

Many of the vineyards are even higher, up to 3,400 foot.

Lake County has a mostly continental climate rather than the strongly marine-influenced weather in Napa as well as Sonoma and Mendocino counties. This means hot days and cool nights during the summer, ideal for grape growing.

The valley has been best known for its sauvignon blanc from Big Valley next to the lake, but its cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux blending varieties from the desirable Red Hills appellation are getting more attention from wineries outside the area as a source of excellent fruit at reasonable prices.

That’s partly due to the low price for land, as little as $5,000 per acre, far lower than in Napa’s $150,00 to $300,000.

The Hess Collection, for example, buys cabernet and sauvignon blanc for its Selection Collection. Director of winemaking Dave Guffy says, “The game changer for Lake County was when they stopped changing pear orchards over to vineyards and started finding areas with devigorating soil (like hill sides) to plant red grapes. This combined with investment from industry leaders (like Andy Beckstoffer) has boosted the quality from Lake County grapes.”

“My experience shows cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah both do well in a variety of Lake County vineyards.”

Napa winemaker Nils Venge bought the former Cougar’s Leap Vineyard in Red Hills and renamed it Black Rock Lake, and Beringer owns vineyards there, too. Originally intended for white zinfandel, they were so good that they now are used for the regular variety.

Perhaps the biggest booster of Lake County’s Red Hills is Napa grower Beckstoffer. His family, which owns 1,000 acres in Napa Valley, has expanded its plantings to 1,300 acres in Red Hills including recent development of 400 acres on the slopes of dormant volcano Mount Konocti and 200 acres he bought from bankrupt Roumiguiere last year.

Kendall-Jackson’s late Jess Jackson planted his first vineyards Big Valley, and they continue to be a key vineyard source for its Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. It shuttered its winery there a few years ago, but keeps it ready to reopen if needed. Ironically, many growers in Lake County would love for a custom winery to open there.

Among the other wineries that buy grapes from Lake County are Honig for sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon, and Huneeus/Orin Swift for The Prisoner blend.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars gets cabernet from the 800-acre Snow’s Lake Vineyard in Red Hills.

Lake County growers are also encouraged that two famed French winemakers, Denis Malbec from Chateau LaTour, and Stephane Derenoncourt, are making wine from its grapes as they could buy them anywhere

Although Bordeaux varieties are most popular there — as here — many growers planted Spanish, Rhone and other Mediterranean grapes with excellent results as they seek differentiation. Syrah and tempranillo do especially well.

“With weather patterns not unlike Ribera del Duero in Spain, this vineyard produces some of California’s most amazing grenache, syrah and tempranillo,” Napa winemaker Mark Herald says.

High Valley is an interesting hanging valley from 1,800 to 3,300 feet grow a few struggling zinfandel and muscat vines brought from Slovenia, near zinfandel’s homeland, around 1875. Clay Shannon has propagated budwood from these vines for this zinfandel plantings. Huge-trunked old syrah vines planted in the mid-1800s grow on steep hillsides at Langtry Estate in the Guenoc appellation, too.

Shannon’s large Vigilance Vineyards lies on rolling hills above the south end of Clear Lake. He has ambitious plans for the 600 acres, including bed and breakfasts, a farms store and deli, and numerous distinct wineries. Those plans have been tempered by the recession, but the brand is growing rapidly, local officials say.

Shannon also bought the High Valley Vineyard from Dustin Brassfield to add to his plantings there.

Jim Fetzer’s Ceago Winery on Clear Lake is one of the few wineries in America accessible by boat — and seaplane; flights are offered from Sausalito. He has 50 acres planted and a hospitality center, plus entitlements for a small hotel and cottages. Those also await better times, though the winery is booming and had to discontinue serving lunches cage style because of the volume.

Constellation has leased 40 acres in Lakeport for vineyards.

Perhaps Lake County’s star will soon rise again, but in the meantime, its growers welcome calls from Napa wineries.

Study of Contrasts for Lake County Reds

Study of Contrasts for Lake County Reds

July 05, 2012 12:00 am • David Stoneberg

St. Helena Star

It was a study of contrasts for the five red wines, all made from Lake County grapes, that were part of a recent tasting in Rutherford.

A room filled with five panelists, about 50 others in the wine industry and an amazing amount of glassware (each of those attending sampled the wines) made up the tasting of both white and red wines. It was held in Andy Beckstoffer’s ranch in Rutherford.

The audience was surprised and appreciative of the efforts of Dave Guffy, winemaker for the Hess Collection Winery. His 2009 North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon was made up of 45 percent Lake County grapes from six to 10 vineyards in the Red Hills district. As the name indicates, the wine (80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent syrah, 5 percent merlot and 5 percent petite sirah) is made up of grapes grown in the North Coast. After hearing production numbers and price — 147,000 cases at $18 a bottle — some in the audience gasped as they realized how much money Hess was able to make.

Dan Malbec is owner and winemaker of Alienor Wines. He told the Rutherford audience it is a “mistake” to compare Napa and Lake County wines. “We can make great wines in Lake County,” he said, and the grapegrowers’ efforts are continuing to make Lake County wines “better and better.” His 2008 Grand Vin is made up of merlot and cabernet franc from the Rooster Vineyards and Quercus Ranch in Big Valley, both at 1,350 feet. He sells it for $65 and produced 700 cases.

The other wines tasted included Greg Graham’s 2007 syrah (800 cases, $27); Nils Venge’s 2007 Black Rock blend (zinfandel and petite sirah, 475 cases, $27); and Michael Terrien’s 2009 Obsidian Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon (10,000 cases, $29).

Greg Graham, the former winemaker for Rombauer Vineyards, said he started looking for vineyard property in 2000 and found a north-facing hillside slope planted in zinfandel in the Red Hills appellation. He bought the 13 acres in September 2000, took out the zinfandel vines and replanted six acres to syrah and Grenache.

Some of the property is challenging, with an 18 percent slope. “It takes a lot of work to manage the vines, because they grow like a bush,” he said. In February 2004, he bought an adjoining 13-acre parcel and planted cabernet sauvignon vines.

His first release was in 2007, a year after the winery was built. “It took me three years to grow cabernet,” Graham said, “which was a rude awakening with all my experience. There’s very little leaf pulling on the canopy and the fruit is different than what I’m used to in Napa County.”

Nils Venge has his feet in both Napa and Lake County. In 2008, he bought the established Black Rock Ranch, with petite sirah vines planted in 1996. The zinfandel and petite sirah blend, 2007 Black Rock, sells for $27 and he produced 475 cases.

“What’s magical up there is at night the obsidian glitters,” he said. The petite sirah vines on St. George rootstock produced grapes that were harvested at 25.5 Brix, which went up a point when in the fermenter. The wines are aged in French and American oak barrels.

The Hess Collection’s Dave Guffy has been buying Lake County grapes for the past 13 years. He said the hillside red grapes and the wines made from them are “a real game changer in Lake County.”

The vines in the Diamond Ridge Vineyard are self-regulating, he added. He uses those grapes because, “the whole point is to make a better wine.” Guffy likes the grapes because they usually come in earlier than Napa County fruit — except in the past three vintages — and they show “real ripeness” flavors. “You’ve got to plant the right thing and farm it well,” he said. The wines are aged in used French oak barrels with oak inserts.

Michael Terrien is founding winemaker of Obsidian Ridge Vineyard, which comprises 105 acres in the Red Hills AVA. Terrien is in partnership with Peter Molnar, chairman of the Lake County Winegrape Commission.

Its elevation ranges from 2,350 to 2,640 feet and he said it’s well named: “There’s no limit to the obsidian in the vineyard.” Before it was planted in vines, it was a dry farmed walnut orchard and Terrien said the site has the right balance of exposure, heat and wind.

The first vintage of the cabernet sauvignon was 2002, which Terrien calls “very powerful.” By 2005, the winemaker was aging the wines for 18 months in oak barrels and that vintage had “quite robust tannins,” he said. The next two vintages were lush and beautiful and he said he remembers 2009 as a growing season with lovely ripening. But, in September, the weather turned. The “absurd heat and dryness with 5 percent humidity lasted three days and took away 40 percent of the weight of the winegrapes,” he added.

Terrien said he has heard the claims that Lake County is far too hot for growing winegrapes. But, he said he can drive from Napa to the Red Hills, outside of Lower Lake, and when he arrives in Lake County, the car thermometer never reaches the level it had been driving through St. Helena and Calistoga.