LAKE COUNTY — I’d been driving for an hour and a half from Napa on winding back roads before I reached the High Valley, Lake County’s remote and wildly scenic mountain American Viticultural Area (AVA).
From there, the road wound on farther through pastures, forests and vineyards to Brassfield Estate Winery, at the western reach of the valley. High it is, indeed: The valley floor is 1,800 feet above sea level, and some of the vineyards on the surrounding mountains — the highest resting on a 3,000-foot-high volcano ridge — provide lofty, eagle-eye views of Clear Lake far below.
In 1973, Jerry Brassfield purchased 1,600 acres of the High Valley as a cattle ranch and wildlife reserve. Since then, he’s increased the acreage of his High Serenity Ranch to 2,500 acres, which include the towering eastern Round Mountain volcano. Much is still left as wilderness, and the homestead of one of the pioneering rancher families of Lake County is preserved on the land, too.
Brassfield, a California entrepreneur now in his 70s, grew up on an almond and alfalfa ranch in the San Joaquin Valley. He made his fortune selling vitamins and food supplements through his company GNLD, and still travels the world for his company.
All the while, he’s been slowly growing his mountaintop winery. He began planting grapes in 1998; today about 160 acres are planted to grapes, and a grand, Italian-style winery has just opened, dwarfing the nearby farmhouse of the old ranch.
This new building is only one of the changes that’s taking place at the winery, and this was why the press had been invited on this two-day visit.
The winery and tasting room, however, are a good starting place for exploring Brassfield. Cielo Fox, director of hospitality, said that many of its most magnificent elements are recycled: The glittering chandelier came from a bank in San Francisco; the roof tiles from an old shopping center in San Jose; the garden fountain centerpiece from Clark Gable’s Southern California estate.
“Jerry had a huge area just filled with things he’d found, over there under the trees,” she said. “We’ve just about used them all up.”
The energetic and outgoing Fox has designed a long list of activities for visitors — from hikes and other adventures trekking up into the high vineyards to murder mystery dinners and harvest and holiday parties for wine club members.
“We are getting all kinds of visitors up here,” she said. “Weddings are popular, and so are picnics. It’s worth the drive.”
Fox also oversees the guesthouse, a converted hunting lodge, where we were to spend the night, so as to be able to fully experience the main reason for making this journey to the highlands — the wines of Brassfield.
When Brassfield began to consider planting grapes, in 1998, there followed an enthusiastic, if experimental endeavor that planted “an astonishing array of varieties,” explained Simon Whetzel, Brassfield general manager, that included gewürztraminer, Johannisberg riesling, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, grenache, malbec, merlot, mourvèdre, petit verdot, petite sirah, pinot noir, syrah and zinfandel.
Beginning in 2009, however, Brassfield began to refine its wine program , under the direction of David Ramey, who came on board as a consulting winemaker, and the associate winemaker, Jason Moulton.
The result is that some wines are garnering attention — and selling out.
The flagship wines are two estate-grown proprietary blends. Eruption ($24), the fiery red tribute to the Volcano Ridge Vineyard that provides the grapes, is primarily syrah, with a substantial addition of mourvèdre (27 percent in the 2011 blend) with dashes of malbec, petite sirah, tempranillo, grenache and zinfandel. In contrast to this intense powerhouse is Serenity ($15), an aromatic blend of pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and gewürztraminer.
Current releases from Brassfield also include the estate pinot grigio, zinfandel, pinot gris and a pinot noir. The latter, Whetzel noted, comes from a V-shaped vineyard, strategically planted beneath a distinct gap in the western ridge, where cooling winds blow in from the lake below them.
The geography of the region, he added, results in some of the consistently clearest air in California, if not the U.S.
We whiled away a night, sitting on the deck of the hunting lodge, moving inside when the winds grew chill, but still looking out over the views of meadows, oaks and grazing deer.
Even when the “serene valley” had disappeared into darkness, the wines still tasted pretty darned good.