Shining a Light on Lake County
Up Front with Lake County
by Diane Denham / photos by Nathan DeHart
Originally published in The Tasting Panel, June 2018
Lake County has a reputation as a Northern California wine region that’s a bit off the grid compared to Napa and Sonoma. But thanks to the recent launch of its new website, it’s time for this unique area to continue to step out of the shadows that have obscured its many contributions to the wine industry. Via the website, both members of the trade and consumers can now access a wealth of information on the diverse terroir and local growers and producers of this mountain-rimmed paradise. The home of California’s largest lake and a premier destination for avid bass ﬁshermen, Lake County has also proven it belongs on the world stage as a winegrowing region. Master Sommelier Bob Bath, an outspoken Lake County proponent, says the reason its wines largely ﬂy under the radar is “primarily because the grapes have traditionally ended up in non-Lake County appellation wines. As a result, Lake County has been busy making everybody else look good and hasn’t made as much of an impact in the marketplace with its own appellations.”
This lack of recognition might also be due to the region’s comparative remoteness, though it’s not that far as the crow ﬂies. Some of the county’s vineyards are just ten miles from the Napa County line, 60 miles from the Paciﬁc Ocean, and a mere 100 miles from San Francisco. Napa and Sonoma have the advantage of easy access via the Golden Gate or Bay bridges from the city, but it takes a little more time to reach Lake County due to the mountain ranges surrounding it. If you’re not a crow, these three ranges (the Mayacamas to the west; the Vaca Mountains to the southeast; and the Mendocino Range to the north) limit your routes; the main path traverses the length of Napa Valley, but it’s a scenic journey to an exceedingly-worthwhile destination. The relative isolation also offers several positive beneﬁts. When you arrive, you’ll be breathing the cleanest air in California. This isn’t just good for your lungs: It also happens to be beneﬁcial for grape vines. Lake County vineyards, especially at mountain elevations, enjoy excellent ultraviolet exposure, which produces thicker skins, better phenolic development, and, ultimately, more complex, ﬂavorful wines. But while Lake County might still be little known to outsiders, it’s long been an open secret to many savvy wine professionals. Jess Jackson purchased vineyard land there in the 1970s and made Lakeport the home of Kendall-Jackson Winery in 1984. Prominent Napa winegrower Andy Beckstoffer also has large vineyard investments, particularly in the up-and-coming Red Hills AVA. Currently, as land values in Napa and Sonoma continue to skyrocket, Lake County real estate is still a bargain.
Standout Sauvignon Blanc
Although many grape varieties perform well within Lake County’s diverse terroir, Sauvignon Blanc is one of the standouts. The fruit’s quality serves to attract vintners from other wine regions, most notably Napa Valley, where prohibi-tive farming costs have prompted growers to replace other varieties with plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon. This poses a dilemma for producers like Honig Vineyard and Winery, whose Sauvignon Blanc is popular with discerning consumers. While Honig’s limited-production reserve wine continues to be sourced from the winery’s Rutherford estate, Lake County provides high-quality fruit for its popular value bottling. The 2017 vintage was made with 19 percent Lake County grapes. “I like the extra dimensions we get from Lake County,” Winemaker Kristen Belair says. “We get more stone fruit and phenolic structure from those vineyards.” Thanks to Lake County’s wide variety of soil compositions and elevations, you can ﬁnd as many distinctive expressions of place and style in Lake County Sauvignon Blanc wines as you can in those from Sancerre, Bordeaux, or New Zealand. Stylistically, they range from lean minerality (Dancing Crow’s from the Red Hills AVA is a good example) to generous stone fruit (like Greg Graham from Big Valley). See full article (PDF)
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