The reputation of California’s Lake County as a wine-growing region has long been overshadowed by its more famous neighbors, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma, though producers in those areas have often sourced from Lake County to make more affordable wines.
Due north of Napa County and best accessed via a circuitous road up and around Mount St. Helena, just outside of Calistoga, Lake County was originally a Spanish land grant settled for cattle-raising by Salvador Vallejo. By the early 1900s, grapes were growing and Lake County wines were being recognized internationally.
Off the Beaten Track Wines
An ongoing series on California's lesser-known wine regions.
Then things stalled as farmers planted other crops (walnuts and pears, mostly) and places such as Napa became world-famous.
A few brave producers, like Langtry Estate and Brassfield, eked it out, and plenty of grape growers sold their fruit outside of the region. It wasn’t until 2006 that a handful of like-minded growers and winemakers focused their attention on developing wines that were rooted exclusively in the Lake County appellation and began pooling their resources to spread the word nationally on what they had to offer. There are now 32 wineries in the county and 8,400 acres of wine grapes grown by 148 growers. (Sonoma has about 60,000 acres, Napa 45,000 and Mendocino 16,000.)
Much of the attention is rightfully given to the Red Hills Lake County viticultural area, on the south rim of Clear Lake, where the rich, red soils of Mount Konocti have been deposited for millennia and where cabernet sauvignon thrives. Napa winegrower Andy Beckstoffer was among the first to make a serious investment here, starting in 1997, spending upward of $25 million to develop vineyards on volcanic soils at elevations between 2,000 feet and 2,400 feet.
Beringer and Kendall-Jackson have also laid claim to good Lake County land but the real excitement in Red Hills hovers around the small producers who are putting out exciting new wines to great acclaim. In addition to the those listed below, producer names to look for include Peter Franus, Obsidian Ridge, Enkidu, Gregory Graham, McDermaid Family Vineyards, Project 3000, Schrader Cellars, Six Sigma Ranch and Stepping Stone.
Derenoncourt 2007 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills Vineyard
Wine lovers the world over took notice when famed Bordeaux winemaker Stephane Derenoncourt released his first wines from California. The 2006 vintage was his first ever from grapes-to-bottle in the United States. This Lake County Cabernet is sourced from Andy Beckstoffer’s Red Hills Vineyard, a vineyard Derenoncourt appreciated for its top quality soils and climactic intensity. The wine follows suit, with ripe blackberries and currants as well as cedar notes and soft, sweet tannins. $40, www.derenoncourtcalifornia.com
Fortress Vineyards 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Red Hills Lake County
Made from 100 percent Musque clone grapes grown 2,000 feet to 2,400 feet above Clear Lake, Fortress’ sauvignon blanc is stellar, stainless-steel fermented to achieve plenty of classically balanced texture and flavor, full of bright peach and citrus flavors and rich acidity. An incredible value for an exceptionally well-made wine. $15, www.fortressvineyards.com
Hawk and Horse 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Red Hills Lake County
A new addition to Lake County’s Red Hills and a Demeter biodynamic-certified as well as organic-certified vineyard with horses and cattle on a 900-acre working ranch, Hawk and Horse Vineyards is making a standout earthy cabernet sauvignon, aged 24 months in 40 percent new oak from grapes grown at 1,800 feet to 2,200 feet in elevation. $65, www.hawkandhorsevineyards.com
Zester Daily contributor Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor, and is a contributing reviewer of California wines for Wine Enthusiast.
Photos: Fortress Vineyard in California’s Lake County. Credit: Martin Sundberg, Berkeley, Calif.