SONOMA, May 1, 2013 – Delicious wines and unique wine experiences are plentiful in the heart of Northern California wine country. But contrary to what one might think, this article isn’t referencing Napa or Sonoma County, but rather Lake County, a beautifully scenic two-hour drive from San Francisco.
Often referred to as “the undiscovered wine country” of Northern California, Lake County has a grape-growing history that dates back to the 1870s. And for years Lake County grapes have been used by winemakers at dozens of well-known wineries in areas such as Napa Valley and Sonoma County.
Lake County features more than 35 wineries, five distinct AVAs (American Viticulture Areas), possibly the cleanest air in the state, and wineries that not only adhere to principles of sustainable agriculture, but many whose output is organic and biodynamic. The people are warm and gracious and unpretentious in their hospitality or about their wines.
Here are ten wineries that are a must while visiting Lake County:
Sol Rouge: Sol Rouge is a family estate vineyard and winery deep in the Red Hills AVA, nestled between Mt. Konocti and Benson Ridge in the Mayacamas Mountain range. Owner and winemaker Bryan Kane is a master at his trade. He focuses primarily on crafting well-rounded Rhone and Bordeaux-style wines. Set up a private tasting appointment to taste wines with Kane at his fabulous Red Hills estate. It’s a bit tricky to get there, so pay close attention to the directions provided. It really doesn’t get much more exclusive than this. Tasting suggestions: Gypsy Rouge, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Langtry Estate and Vineyards: Located in Guenoc Valley, this breathtaking property has a history as rich as its vast acreage. The estate itself occupies 35 square miles of gorgeous terrain. The vineyard is the namesake of flamboyant English theater star Lillie Langtry, who purchased the property in 1888 sight unseen. Fast-forward a century, and the wine and the property have maintained their high quality. Tasting suggestions: 2011 Langtry Sauvignon Blanc, 2010 Guenoc Chardonnay, 2007 Langtry Petite Sirah, and the 2007 Langtry Tephra Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon. Also check out their recipe section of their website for optimal food pairings with their wines.
Hawk and Horse Vineyards: Hawk and Horse is a small, family-owned ranch and vineyard estate located in the Red Hills AVA. Mitch and Tracey Hawkins are the proprietors, and they practice organic and biodynamic farming methods. Their wines are handcrafted from very small lots. The Hawkins family is warm and inviting, and guests feel at home while visiting their ranch. The ranch and vineyard tours present picturesque mountain vineyards and encounters with cattle and horses. Tasting suggestions: Hawk and Horse focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon and they craft a beautiful Cabernet. Try them all.
Their vineyards hug the mountain rims of High Valley AVA and the Red Hills AVA. These dramatic landscapes, high elevation, and rich soils are ideal for the wines Shannon’s produce. Both wineries are sustainably-farmed, “green” wine treasures that also happen to offer jaw-dropping beautiful views. A pre-reserved vineyard tour takes in the top of the ridge. Tasting suggestions, Vigilance: Cimarron (red blend), Cabernet Sauvignon, and Dalliance (red blend). Tasting suggestions, Shannon Ridge: High Elevation Sauvignon Blanc, High Elevation Chardonnay, High Elevation Wrangler Red.
Brassfield Estate Winery: In 1973, Jerry Brassfield purchased the property that today spans 2,500 acres across the High Valley AVA. The estate is stunning. It is elegant and refined, and it shows through beautifully in their wines. Points of interest include wine caves, Saint Francis sculpture, art gallery, pavilion, Clark Gable’s fountain, gardens with 80-year old olive trees, intriguing Italian chandeliers and architecture. Tasting suggestions: Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Volcano Ridge Zinfandel and Eruption (red blend). If traveling with kids or non-wine drinkers, they also make a delicious Pinot Noir Grape Juice.
Six Sigma Ranch: It is hard to call Six Sigma a hidden gem in Lake County when they have 4,300 acres that were first settled back in the mid-1800s. But of those 4,300 acres, only 50 are planted with grapes. Six Sigma is dedicated to conserving the rural lifestyle and landscape. This naturally farmed ranch shows off the best of Lake County. The estate tour is an absolute must! Don’t wear anything too fancy and be prepared to get a little dusty and be bounced around in the back of a 1972 Austrian military vehicle while touring the territory. Tasting suggestions: Diamond Cuvee and Tempranillo. Also give their Pinot Noir a try; there aren’t many of these made in Lake County due to the hot weather.
Gregory Graham Wines: Gregory Graham, former winemaker at Rombauer Vineyard in Napa Valley, established himself in Lake County about 10 years ago. Graham believes that wine should be made in the vineyard and harvest should take place at the exact right moment. This hands-on approach, along with the clean air, ideal climate and rich soils, are reasons for his success in Lake County. Here you can also take a vineyard tour in addition to tasting the Gregory Graham line-up. Graham is also a dog-lover, and four-legged friends are welcomed. Tasting suggestions: Sauvignon Blanc, Estate Grenache and Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
Shed Horn Cellars: This petite tasting room is nestled in the heart of Middletown. This boutique winery crafts small-lot, award-winning wines. Proprietors Mike and Adawn Wood launched Shed Horn in 2004 with just one three-barrel lot. Mike Wood has been working in the wine business since 1982, and his day job keeps him busy making over 100,000 cases of wine. But his passion for the craft of winemaking is seen in his hand crafted Shed Horn wines. Shed Horn truly is a hidden gem of Lake County. Blink and miss their cozy tasting room.Tasting suggestions: Non Typical Red Wine (blend), Vintage Zinfandel, and their Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon.
Chacewater Winery and Olive Mill: Chacewater has an interesting history and back-story. Chacewater is the name of the village in Southern England that the family came from, and the symbol they use on all of their bottles is the mark of a Chacewater church craftsman – a fitting detail as the property was once the St. Gregory Monastery. Today at Chacewater visitors can both wine and olive taste, and can get a wine and olive oil education at the same time. For instance, did you know there are many different types of olive tree varietals, just like grapes? These small lot wines are not to be missed. Tasting suggestions: Malbec and their O-Eight Headache Blend. Olive oil suggestions: Tuscan Blend and Blood Orange Infused.
Ceago Vinegarden: Ceago is the product of a lifelong dream by Jim Fetzer. He wanted to create a beautiful, biodynamic farm and winery surrounded by natural beauty, and he has accomplished this. At Ceago, they make lovely, craft, small-lot wines from their estate-grown grapes. Ceago’s long-term vision is to be a real wine destination location. The 132-acre estate has big plans for creating a high-end wine experience, complete with hotel, casitas, villas, restaurant and spa. For now, it’s possible to rent one of their lovely casitas right on the shores of Clear Lake. Tasting suggestions: Syrah Rosé, Muscat Canelli, and Syrah.
Honorable Mention: Diamond Ridge Vineyards – this is an honorable mention only due to the fact that Diamond Ridge has no tasting room or wine tourism program of any kind. They are primarily a vineyard that sells their grapes. In 2007, however, they began to produce a little bit of wine. Delicious wine in fact. Winemaker Clark Smith and owner Jake Stephens really know their stuff. Their wines are fruit forward and food-friendly. It is worth the call to set up a private appointment and pick up some wine to take home. Tasting suggestions: Rose (Merlot), Two Jakes of Diamonds (Bordeaux blend), Aspects (Meritage + Petite Sirah), Cabernet Franc and their 100% Petite Sirah.
Blue Wing Saloon, Upper Lake
Saw Shop Gallery Bistro, Kelseyville
Boar’s Breath Restaurant & Bar, Middletown
Studebakers Coffee House, Kelseyville
Cactus Grill, Clearlake
Tallman Hotel, Upper Lake
Twin Pine Casino & Hotel, Middletown
Ceago Vinegarden Lakeside Casitas, Nice (Upper Lake)
Bed & Breakfasts (various, see list)