Grape growers and wineries in Lake County might wish their county hadn’t seceded from Napa County way back in 1855.
While Napa wines and grapes are world-known and command the highest prices in America, Lake County’s equivalents are little known.
Fortunately for Lake County grape growers, shortages of grapes statewide means more calls from wineries in Napa and Sonoma Counties.
The Lake County growers are certainly ready for the business, for the recession and grape glut hit them hard.
Many planted vineyards a decade ago anticipating high demand only to see demand drop. Many had to turn unsold grapes into bulk wines, although that’s actually worked out well for many as shortages developed.
Most Lake County grapes go into California or North Coast blends selling for $10 to $30, but about 300 wines mention the origins on the front or back label.
Ironically, Lake County had grapes planted by the 1850s and claims to have had more acres of vineyards than Napa in the late 1900s.
Now, Lake County has only 8,500 acres of vineyards compared to Napa’s 45,000. It has 30 wineries and about 150 growers compared to more than 400 wineries and more than 500 growers in Napa, according to the Lake County Wine Commission.
Lake County suffers from a few disadvantages. It is isolated behind mountain ranges — the same ones that form Napa Valley. It also has a distinct climate, though that’s not necessarily a disadvantage.
The relevant part of Lake County is a big high valley around California’s largest natural lake, Clear Lake.
At 1,200 foot and above, this area lies considerably higher than the floor of Napa Valley if not its surrounding mountains and receives more solar radiation as a result. Only 3 percent of California’s vineyards are above 1,000 feet According to Peter Molnar, a partner in Obsidian Ridge Vineyard.
Many of the vineyards are even higher, up to 3,400 foot.
Lake County has a mostly continental climate rather than the strongly marine-influenced weather in Napa as well as Sonoma and Mendocino counties. This means hot days and cool nights during the summer, ideal for grape growing.
The valley has been best known for its sauvignon blanc from Big Valley next to the lake, but its cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux blending varieties from the desirable Red Hills appellation are getting more attention from wineries outside the area as a source of excellent fruit at reasonable prices.
That’s partly due to the low price for land, as little as $5,000 per acre, far lower than in Napa’s $150,00 to $300,000.
The Hess Collection, for example, buys cabernet and sauvignon blanc for its Selection Collection. Director of winemaking Dave Guffy says, “The game changer for Lake County was when they stopped changing pear orchards over to vineyards and started finding areas with devigorating soil (like hill sides) to plant red grapes. This combined with investment from industry leaders (like Andy Beckstoffer) has boosted the quality from Lake County grapes.”
“My experience shows cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah both do well in a variety of Lake County vineyards.”
Napa winemaker Nils Venge bought the former Cougar’s Leap Vineyard in Red Hills and renamed it Black Rock Lake, and Beringer owns vineyards there, too. Originally intended for white zinfandel, they were so good that they now are used for the regular variety.
Perhaps the biggest booster of Lake County’s Red Hills is Napa grower Beckstoffer. His family, which owns 1,000 acres in Napa Valley, has expanded its plantings to 1,300 acres in Red Hills including recent development of 400 acres on the slopes of dormant volcano Mount Konocti and 200 acres he bought from bankrupt Roumiguiere last year.
Kendall-Jackson’s late Jess Jackson planted his first vineyards Big Valley, and they continue to be a key vineyard source for its Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. It shuttered its winery there a few years ago, but keeps it ready to reopen if needed. Ironically, many growers in Lake County would love for a custom winery to open there.
Among the other wineries that buy grapes from Lake County are Honig for sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon, and Huneeus/Orin Swift for The Prisoner blend.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars gets cabernet from the 800-acre Snow’s Lake Vineyard in Red Hills.
Lake County growers are also encouraged that two famed French winemakers, Denis Malbec from Chateau LaTour, and Stephane Derenoncourt, are making wine from its grapes as they could buy them anywhere
Although Bordeaux varieties are most popular there — as here — many growers planted Spanish, Rhone and other Mediterranean grapes with excellent results as they seek differentiation. Syrah and tempranillo do especially well.
“With weather patterns not unlike Ribera del Duero in Spain, this vineyard produces some of California’s most amazing grenache, syrah and tempranillo,” Napa winemaker Mark Herald says.
High Valley is an interesting hanging valley from 1,800 to 3,300 feet grow a few struggling zinfandel and muscat vines brought from Slovenia, near zinfandel’s homeland, around 1875. Clay Shannon has propagated budwood from these vines for this zinfandel plantings. Huge-trunked old syrah vines planted in the mid-1800s grow on steep hillsides at Langtry Estate in the Guenoc appellation, too.
Shannon’s large Vigilance Vineyards lies on rolling hills above the south end of Clear Lake. He has ambitious plans for the 600 acres, including bed and breakfasts, a farms store and deli, and numerous distinct wineries. Those plans have been tempered by the recession, but the brand is growing rapidly, local officials say.
Shannon also bought the High Valley Vineyard from Dustin Brassfield to add to his plantings there.
Jim Fetzer’s Ceago Winery on Clear Lake is one of the few wineries in America accessible by boat — and seaplane; flights are offered from Sausalito. He has 50 acres planted and a hospitality center, plus entitlements for a small hotel and cottages. Those also await better times, though the winery is booming and had to discontinue serving lunches cage style because of the volume.
Constellation has leased 40 acres in Lakeport for vineyards.
Perhaps Lake County’s star will soon rise again, but in the meantime, its growers welcome calls from Napa wineries.