Grower Spotlight: Peter Molnar

Excavating a Dream

Peter Molnar and dogWhen volcanoes last erupted in Lake County, people had just migrated to this region. That was 11,000 years ago. Still, in geological time, that’s recent. The area around Mount Konocti bears evidence of this volcanic activity, including its famous red soil and ubiquitous obsidian rock.

Today, those rocks gleam in the sun, their shiny silica surfaces reflecting their origin – and lend their name to the business Peter Molnar helped build alongside partner Michael Terrien, brother Arpad, and their family: Obsidian Ridge Vineyards.

His own origins reach southward to Napa Valley, where, in the early 1970s, his parents planted one of the first vineyards in southern Carneros. But the roots of Peter’s Lake County story are firmly planted in the Red Hills AVA. It was a cold February day in 1995 when he arrived there in the dead of winter, but a sense of excitement was kindled at the prospect of growing grapes in a place still evolving.

“There was snow on the mountains,” Peter remembers, “My father and I came up to take a look at a walnut orchard called Amber Knolls. A partner of ours from Napa had an interest in it and wanted to develop it together. The first thing that struck me was how obviously different Lake County was, how much colder it was in February, and how unique the soils were in the Red Hills.”

The Discovery of a Lifetime

While the family passed on that project, the hook was set. Taken by “this really incredibly intact, new volcanic soil,” Peter called Paul Skinner, the venerated viticulturalist who helped develop many of the early southern Mayacamas vineyards in the Mount Veeder and Spring Mountain districts.

“I said, ‘Paul, why couldn’t we grow great winegrapes up here?’” Peter recalls, “He came, looked around. He said, ‘You absolutely could.’ And that cemented for us the vision that if we were going to come up here, we wanted it to be the next evolution of really great mountain fruit in the North Coast.”

“The excitement of finding a site in these super young volcanic soils, with this rock, this crazy obsidian on a north-facing ridgeline 2,000 to almost 3,000 feet of elevation – in retrospect, it seems like the most logical thing you could ever do,” Peter says. “But at the time, it reminded me of the saying, ‘Even the blind pig gets the truffle every once in a while.’ It was serendipitous to find it.”

Beyond the rich allure of the place, crossed by the Mayacamas Mountains and marked by its sweeping vistas with the volcano’s presence, farming the Red Hills was formidable, particularly at a time when the idea of it, regardless of Lake’s history in winemaking, seemed new. The soil is stubbornly rocky, requiring massive excavation, and the climate is widely varied. But the payoffs are immense.

Touting itself as “half a mile in the sky at the farthest reaches of the Mayacamas Mountain Range,” Obsidian Ridge has forged a reputation that ascends as high. The vineyard’s 2016 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon was number 42 on the “Wine Enthusiast” Cellar Selection Top 100 list in 2019 and made the Top 50 Wines in 2020 for Wine & Spirits’ highly regarded Restaurant Poll. Wine critic Esther Mobley describes the Obsidian Ridge Cabernet as “a rich, structured, deeply delicious wine [that] strongly contends for California’s best-value Cab.”

The Future Gleams Like Obsidian Rocks

Twenty-five years after arriving in Lake County, Molnar is more bullish on the place than ever.

“I’ve had the chance to bring some very, very experienced winemakers to Obsidian Ridge from all over, Australia, Bordeaux, Mendoza, and other places,” he says. “I can tell you, almost unequivocally, nine out of 10 times, it’s just this surprise, like, ‘Wait a minute, this is a whole different thing than I imagined.’ The power of this place, the soils, the obsidian, the elevation – that’s why we’re still in Lake County. That’s why we’re going to stay in Lake County.”

For those who follow, Peter contends, the future gleams like those obsidian rocks in the California sun. “The thrill for me is to not build on hundreds of years of tradition, but for us to be able to create this new tradition and bring the most out of this land, understand our sites deeply, and really put world-class wines on the table.”


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