Lake County’s Shannon a success

By Virginie Boone

Press Democrat

Clay Shannon, owner of Shannon Ridge and Vigilance wineries, at his Lower Lake tasting room (CRISTA JEREMIASON/PD)

Clay Shannon, owner of Shannon Ridge and Vigilance wineries, at his Lower Lake tasting room (CRISTA JEREMIASON/PD)

Typically attired in white cowboy hat, Wrangler jeans and boots, Clay

Shannon is the kind of guy who will look you in the eye and shake your hand, genuinely appreciative and excited about the success he’s had making affordable wines from Lake County.

Shannon started out as a grower, but eventually the temptation to make his own wines proved too much and he launched Shannon Ridge Vineyards & Winery, producing a wide range of wines, from sauvignon blanc to a popular proprietary blend called Wrangler Red.

“It’s a good product at a good price,” he said.

In 2008, he expanded his vision considerably by buying 300 acres in nearby Red Hills Lake County, doubling down on the family business with the encouragement of his wife, Margarita. He paid $25,000 an acre; it’s worth at least twice that much now.

The call their new 236-acre place Vigilance Winery & Vineyards in honor of the guard dogs who keep watch over the Shannons’ 1,000 sheep, who naturally help take care of the vineyards, eating leaves. Hearty mowers, their contributions decrease the need for Shannon to mow the rows with tractors. The vineyards are certified sustainable and the grass-fed lamb sold to restaurants far and wide.

Since its launch in 2009, Vigilance has been hugely successful, offered first in BevMo stores across California where consumers thirstily search for good wines under $20.

Beginning with just under 20,000 cases of sauvignon blanc, Shannon soon followed with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and other wines. He’s on track to produce in the neighborhood of 300,000 cases soon.

A hard worker who grew up in Healdsburg, then ran a 1,200-employee vineyard management company in the Central Valley, Shannon bought his first property, named Shannon Ridge, in 1996, a bare 80 acres of volcanic-based soils that went as high as 2,500-feet elevation in the High Valley appellation just north of Clear Lake. He planted 60 acres to grapes the following year and made the place home.

“We knew if we could find some water, the grapes might do well,” Shannon recalled.

He can relate to the need for everyday people looking for everyday wines at reasonable prices.

“We’re normal people,” Shannon said. “We shake hands, we say thank you, we say please.”

The friendliness extends to the Vigilance tasting room, an old farmhouse redone from virgin redwood with views of Clear Lake and Anderson Marsh State Historic Park. Happy to host kids, dogs and hikers, Shannon leaves the gate open for locals to walk around his vineyards if they choose.

“We’ve been blessed to get this place and we want to share it,” Shannon said. “You have to create memories.”

At Vigilance, Shannon grows 32 acres of sauvignon blanc and 70 acres of red grapes, from cabernet sauvignon and syrah to petite sirah and petit verdot. He also has some of the only chardonnay planted in Red Hills Lake County.

“We make good-value wines and as people have traded down, they’ve found a good little niche here in $15 to $20 wines that they like,” Shannon added. “They’ve sought after these wines.”

That’s certainly true locally. The wines are widely found at Oliver’s Markets, Big John’s, Cal Mart and some Safeways, as well as on the wine list at Healdsburg Shed, Restaurant Cuvee Napa and Kenwood Restaurant, among others.

Acquiring adjacent lots over time, Shannon now farms about 1,400 acres in High Valley, grape acreage that for years went to more than 40 wineries from outside of the area, including Kendall-Jackson and Beringer. But his goal is to use all of the fruit for Shannon Ridge and Vigilance, and he’s almost there.

His philosophy is that people want fresh, easy-to-drink, approachable wines, and he’s made it his goal to farm the grapes accordingly, letting the grapes hang long enough to ripen the tannins and pressing the juice off early. But it’s the marriage of quality with quantity that accounts most for his success.

“You’ve got to have a slightly higher yield for the model to work at the $12 to $20 price point,” he explains. “And most are in the 5- to 10-tons-an-acre range.”

Last year, Shannon expanded his holdings further by buying the 80-acre High Valley Vineyard near his home vineyard, which includes a tasting room on Highway 20 that he and his family have turned into a marketplace.

“We believe in Lake County and the quality we can deliver,” he added. “It’s a point of differentiation for us to put Lake County on the label.”

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at  and followed on Twitter @vboone.


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