CLEARLAKE OAKS, LAKE COUNTY — At the fourth Lake County Wine Competition, held at the impressive Brassfield Winery located above Clearlake Oaks in Lake County, I was one of the 10 wine judges who included John Buechsenstein, Mike and Martha Dunn, Catherine Fallis, Dan Kaiser, Don Neel, Lee Reinsimar, Joel Riddell and Deborah Parker Wong.
Broken into two teams of five, the competition was curated by Ray Johnson, director of the Sonoma State Wine Business Institute. This was a relatively small competition with only 142 wines, sampled blind and judged.
One curious aspect of the judging was the upstairs conference room at the Brassfield Estates with a white wall, painted with a special paint that allows for a marker to draw on it, and then the marks whisked away with eraser. Very handy. Our proctor Sheila enjoyed writing scores on the wall itself to record all the data, and then erasing it for the next round. The writing was literally on the wall.
Overall, the judges were pleased to find that the quality of wines presented was at a high level across the board. An oddity occurred as our panel tasted the higher priced (more than $17) sauvignon blanc category and found the wines somewhat lacking in vitality. Some winemakers were trying too hard to push these wines where they didn’t want to go.
Conversely, the top lower priced sauvignon blanc represented (2012 Chacewater Organic sauvignon blanc) hit the mark, offering consumers that bullseye of crisp, clean and citrusy. This wine turned out to be the overall white wine champion of the competition. I enjoyed it. (Winning results from the competition are below)
According to the latest data from the just-released Lake County Agricultural Report published by the Lake County Department of Agriculture, in 2012 the total winegrape acreage was 8,392, an increase of 54 acres. The top planted varietal in Lake County (by far) is cabernet sauvignon followed by sauvignon blanc. Zinfandel, petite Sirah and Chardonnay round out the top five grape varietals grown in Lake County. The report also states that there are now 19 farms and 682 acres devoted to organic farming of grapes in the county.
By comparison, as of 2012 according to a state Department of Food and Agriculture report, there are 45,830 planted acres in Napa County and 870 bonded wineries in Napa County.
With only 40-plus wineries, Lake County vintners and growers have been exporting more of their wine grapes out of county than is made into wine within the county.
“The Red Hills AVA has really changed the perception of Lake County, but I also think that the soon to be named Kelseyville Bench is one to keep a close eye on,” said Mark Burch, winemaker at Kelseyville’s Chacewater Winery. “I make a couple of wines from the Bench. But for now, I lean heavy on the Red Hills to create wines of distinction and austerity that I believe will stand the test of time. The soil and elevation effects we see from these vineyards are very profound. I see vines that are very healthy and vivacious, yet show inherent restraint on their yields, which in my opinion is creating intense and condensed varietal expression.”
High quality and relatively low prices draw consumers toward Lake County’s wines. Clay Shannon, owner of Shannon Ridge Family of Wine said, “As these vineyards get older and the fruit quality is increased yearly, just by the age of the vines, I believe that we will be the greatest 20 to 30 dollar bottle of wine that you could get made out of California.”
Lake County history
Lake County was formed by combining portions of Napa, Mendocino and Colusa counties in 1861. In the middle of the 19th century, various types of winegrapes were planted in Lake County and harvested grapes were usually transported over land by wagon to be vinified in Napa County. However, Lake County wineries sprang up and by the late 1890s, it is estimated that there were about 35 wineries operating in the county, a few highly regarded. At the 1893 Chicago Exposition, Lake County vintner Colonel Charles Hammond won the award for best dry white and red wines. (Hammond’s wine sold for a whopping 25 cents per gallon!)
What was once known as the “Switzerland of California,” with its mountains and volcanos surrounding a clean, clear lake, was expected to become an affluent, grape growing paradise. Alas, due to lack of infrastructure, inadequate transportation, the 1906 earthquake and then Prohibition, the Lake County wine industry fell by the wayside. Farmers eventually pulled out the remaining vines to plant pear orchards, walnut groves and other fruit crops. Only an estimated 100 acres of winegrapes were dedicated to vineyards by 1960.
Happily, Lake County is seriously back in the wine business. Many compare Lake County to Napa Valley 50 or so years ago, with its rugged spirit along with volcanic soils and tremendous potential.
“In Lake County, I saw high elevation, volcanic soil, wonderful slopes, clear blue skies and a diurnal swing of temperatures that is perfect for grape growing,” said Kaj Ahlemann, owner of the 4,300-acre Six Sigma Ranch and Winery. “I am convinced that the conditions in Lake County are perfect, not only for traditional California varieties such as sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and petite sirah, but also for less tried varieties like tempranillo.”
The 2013 Lake County Wine Competition overall red wine winner was a petite sirah, also from Chacewater.
“In these higher elevations of Lake County in the Red Hills, I think the intensity is evident in the wines,” said Chacewater’s Burch. “Significant plantings of the right varietals in the right location, on the proper rootstock and clones - has changed the face of Lake County forever."