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.

 

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