Monday, August 1, 2011

Lake County Wines: Lean, Lithe, Luminous

At first glance, the vineyards of Lake County don't look exceptional. Granted, some struggle up fairly steep slopes, but for the most part they sweep across valley floor, angle up draws and curve over ridges in the same lush and tidy order as vines in most other California appellations.

With a closer look, however, you begin to realize just how different this setting is for grape vines. There's that lake in the middle of them all, for one, the largest freshwater body of water in California. Then you notice how red the soil is, much of it deposited by the county's most monumental physical landmark besides Clear Lake, the volcano Mount Konocti. What catches your eye next is the glint of sunshine off bits of obsidian in the soil, something you aren't likely to run across in many other California vineyards. Then someone will mention that Lake County's more than 8,000 acres of vineyards are among the highest in the state, starting at around 1,500 feet and stretching up to 2,400 feet. And then someone else will point out how clear the air is, and how intense the sunlight. That's when you realize that you haven't seen a shadow all day, the light being so blinding.

Lake County's 140 wine-grape growers and nearly 40 vintners are trying to get a handle on how this richly textured environment shapes their wines. They are convinced their wines stand apart from others in the state, but they're unclear on just what makes them distinctive and how to deliver that message to consumers. Thus, the 13 judges at the third-annual Lake County Wine Awards Competition late last week were urged to look not only for gold-, silver- and bronze-medal wines but for seams of familiarity that ran from wine to wine, regardless of varietal, blend, vintage and the like.

The exercise was complicated in that judges didn't generally know the appellation where a wine's grapes had been grown, other than it had to be in Lake County. In addition to the broad appellation "Lake County," the area has five sub-appellations - Clear Lake, Red Hills, High Valley, Benmore Valley and Guenoc Valley. They are widely scattered and widely variable in geology and climate.

So, broadly speaking, what distinguishes the wines of Lake County, regardless of specific source? If someone were scanning a shelf of wines from Napa Valley, Alexander Valley, Shenandoah Valley and various other California appellations, what could they count on in a wine from Lake County? After tasting half the 180 wines in the competition the first day of the judging, then all the gold-medal wines and the sweeptstakes nominees the second day, I felt that Lake County wines by and large stand apart for their lean structures, their firm but not unforgiving spines, and their dryness. With very few exceptions, there was no fat on these wines. They were lithe more than muscular, and with a stark clarity in their fruitiness. They were frisky wines; I can't recall one I would call tired. Among the whites, a hint of peach was often evident regardless of varietal. Among the reds, the fruit flavors were bright, pointed and red more than black or blue. The spiciness that emerged in several reds was reminiscent of pie spices.

When the results were unveilved, something else became clear: Lake County offers terrific value. This is largely because historically and to this day much of its fruit is sent to wineries outside the county, wineries in places like neighboring Napa Valley and Sonoma County, where it gets lost and unrecognized in blends. Lake County is a young California wine region, still scrambling to establish an identity for itself, and as it does the prices that consumers pay for its wines will rise. For now, you get a lot of wine for $10, $15 or $20 the bottle.

Lots of different grape varieties are grown in Lake County, but it is most closely identified with sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon, though its zinfandel and petite sirah also attact avid followings. Sauvignon blanc is firmly established as the county's leading variety, yielding wines of uncommon assertiveness, complexity and length. The varietal's authority was reaffirmed at this year's competition when the white sweepstakes went to Jed Steele's Shooting Star 2010 Lake County Sauvignon Blanc ($11), a delightfully zesty take on the varietal.

The red sweepstakes round produced a surprise winner, the hefty and warm Chacewater Winery 2009 Lake County Red Hills Syrah ($18). It was a surprise in that Chacewater, based at Kelseyville, is a brand new winery, and in that syrah hasn't yet developed any more traction in Lake County than it has in most other California wine regions.

But maybe syrah is finding a happy home in Lake County. The rose sweepstakes went to the Ceago Vinegarden 2010 Clear Lake Del Lago Syrah Rose ($16), an extraordinarily juicy, spicy, balanced and long representative of the genre. It was nominated by the panel on which I sat, where it clearly generated the most unanimity of the day.

As to cabernet sauvignon, I'm mystified as to why it is so extensively planted in Lake County, and why growers and vintners talk it up so much. Maybe they have to, given that the varietal seems to have so little to say on its own. I confess, however, that I speak with something of a handicap. The panel on which I sat didn't judge cabernet sauvignons. The panel that did, however, sent only one to the sweepstakes round. While I rather liked its bright Bing fruit and its gracefulness, it finished far out of the running in the sweepstakes voting, behind wines made with petite sirah, barbera and Rhone Valley varieties like syrah and grenache, all of which may have more potential in the area than cabernet sauvignon, at least to judge by this year's competition results. Things don't seem to have changed much since I judged wine at the Lake County Fair in 1985, when not a single cabernet sauvignon won a gold medal. Neither did a sauvignon blanc, however, and look how far it's come over the past three decades, so maybe there's still hope for cabernet sauvignon in Lake County.


  1. Hi Mike, it was a pleasure meeting you at the event, and I agree with you on the Cabernet comment. It is the most planted with Zinfandel a distant second, followed by Merlot, Syrah and Petite Sirah. Personally, I think the later (PS) and many of the Italian varietals steal the show in Lake County.

  2. Why Cab in Lake County? Two obvious answers: 1. It does very well here, particularly in the Red Hills AVA, where it yields fruit just as beautiful as in the mountain districts of the Napa Valley (it is, after all, a subset of the Mayacamas range with many similarities in soil and climate). 2. Money. You can grow great Cab here for much cheaper than you would down in Napa Valley. Which is why many Napa Valley and Sonoma County-based growers and wineries have large vineyards here - Beckstoffer, Beringer, Hess, etc.