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Wines & Vines

Make way for Lake

Make way for Lake – Lake County, CA, as winemaking region

Larry Walker

Lillie Langtry is quite likely the best known Lake County winegrower, at least in some circles. Langtry, known in her heyday as “Jersey Lil,” as an English actress of some fame and a close (very close) personal friend of Edward VII. During one of her tours of the United States, she took a few days off from the stage in San Francisco and visited Napa and Lake counties. She put her money on Lake and could well be credited with being the first to realize the potential of Lake County as a winegrowing region. True, wine had been made there prior to Langtry’s arrival in 1888, but she believed the rugged mountainous region north of Napa could be more than a one-night stand. She brought in a winemaker from Bordeaux and produced wine on the Guenoc estate for several years. But Langtry, distracted perhaps by other concerns, sold the ranch in 1906.

It has taken a while for the rest of the world to catch up, but in the past few years a bunch of hard-nosed businessmen, operating without any royal support, have followed Jersey Lil’s lead and gone north to Lake County.

One of the first was Orville Magoon. He acquired the Guenoc ranch where Langtry’s country home still stood in 1963. Working with his wife, Karen Magoon, he replanted the vineyards and built Guenoc winery in 1981. I had a fascinating tour of the ranch some years ago with the Magoons. There were many traces of Langtry’s old vineyards. And Langtry’s picture graces the label of Guenoc’s best wines. Guenoc consistently offers outstanding wines from its own AVA in extreme southern Lake County, only a few miles north of Calistoga in Napa County.

For several years the Magoons and a handful of other producers stood alone, but that is no longer the case. Lake County, some now say, could well be the next Napa.

But first, the facts. Lake County is part of the North Coast American Viticultural Area, but it is not a coastal county. Mendocino County lies between Lake and the Pacific Ocean, so there is very little moderating coastal influence on the climate. That means daytime temperatures during the peak growing season can soar into the high 90s Fahrenheit, often topping 100 degrees. Doesn’t sound like the sort of climate where you would expect to find premium wine grapes growing. What saves it is Clear Lake, the largest natural lake within the state of California. (Lake Tahoe, which is larger, is shared by California and Nevada.) At night, the huge lake acts as a heat sump, sucking cold air from the mountains down into the valleys. Within a few hours of sunset, temperatures can drop by more than 50 degrees, often falling into the high 40s in mid-summer. This radical temperature swing, coupled with rocky volcanic soils, leads to balanced grapes with intense, concentrated flavors.

Such conditions have attracted a new wave of vineyard planting in Lake and a growing, if still small, number of wines carrying the Lake County designation of origin. Ten years ago, there were about 3,000 acres of vines in Lake County. Today, 12,500 acres are planted, with some 9,500 in production. Total plantings could reach as much as 20,000 acres.

Other new plantings include several hundred acres by Beringer Blass and Kendall-Jackson. Chalone is drawing up plans to build a winery in Lake County to capitalize on grape production there. Jim Fetzer is planting a biodynamic vineyard and building a lakeside winery that could have a major impact on the area.

Andy Beckstoffer has formed the Red Hills Vineyard Company in Lake and has planted or is in the process of planting about 1,000 acres in three vineyards, under the direction of vineyard manager Frank Anderson. (See separate story on why Beckstoffer came to Lake County.) Amber Knolls Vineyard and Beckstoffer Red Hills Vineyards are both planted on volcanic mountain slopes. The still-unplanted Crimson Ridge Vineyard will cover a variety of terrain, soils and microclimates. The vineyard will be split into a number of small blocks, planted around islands of native vegetation, which will offer wineries a wide palate of flavor characteristics to choose from, Anderson said.

New plantings are coming on so fast that the Lake County Wine-grape Commission has just hired Erica Lundquist to a newly created viticulturist position. Shannon Gunier, executive director of the Lake County Winegrape Commission, said Lundquist, who has a Ph.D. in soil science and an MS in agronomy from UC Davis, will help Lake County growers implement the new code of sustainable winegrowing practices, and will work with growers in a continuing effort to improve fruit quality.

“Lifestyle” Wineries Perhaps just as significant as the larger plantings, at least from the standpoint of gaining consumer credibility, “lifestyle” wineries are being built in Lake, similar to the boom that swept Napa 25 years ago. Jerry Brassfield, who made a fortune in the food business, has planted a 70-acre hillside estate with the goal of producing 25,000 cases of super-premium Bordeaux varietals and a little Pinot grigio, which could be Lake’s best white wine hope, after Sauvignon blanc. Brassfield says he will concentrate on restaurant sales with a suggested retail price of about $25 a bottle. His first wines are expected to be in the market in the spring of 2003.

His long-range plans include a gravity flow hillside winery with caves and a visitors’ center. The entire estate is about 1,700 acres. Plans are being developed to petition for an American Viticulture Area called High Valley, which would include the Brassfield Estate.

Tasting through barrel samples with winemaker Kevin Robinson, the potential of the site for premium wines came shining through. The 2001 Zinfandel was especially good as was a nonoaked Pinot grigio which had outstanding fruit. Brassfield said he was going with Pinot grigio rather than Pinot gris because he thought it had more cachet in the market.

Clay Shannon, owner of Shannon Ranches, farms about 1,200 acres of vines in Lake. He’s the kind of vineyard guy who does have all the latest technology at his fingertips, but in the end, he says, there’s nothing like getting out in the vineyards. “I like to talk to the guys who work out there every day, hear what they have to say,” he said.

As an example, he told a story about how he almost went to war against crows in the vineyard until he found out what they were up to. “I saw all those crows coming down and I thought, ‘Wow, they are after the grapes.’ But I talked to the vineyard workers and they set me straight. The crows were there eating tomato hookworms. The hookworms aren’t a major pest, but sometimes they will get on the vines, then the crows come and clean them out.”

He also learned from the vineyard workers how to squeeze the leaves on the vine to check for moisture. “You need the technology,” he said.

“But you also need to be out in the vineyard.”

Shannon, who manages the vineyards for Jerry Brassfield and for Jonathan and Jacqueline Dharmapalan’s new Monte Lago Winery, among others, worked at Sutter Home before moving to Lake, Why Lake? “Well, first, the soils here are incredible, You can grow super high quality fruit and you can grow it at a price-per-acre that makes sense. It just doesn’t pay to go to Napa. That’s a lifestyle thing,” Shannon estimates that typical annual farming costs in Lake for hillside vineyards run between $3,500 and $4,000 an acre,

He agrees with others that for Cabernet Sauvignon, hillside vineyards are the way to go. On the flats, Sauvignon blanc, Pinot gris and Merlot. Shannon said Sauvignon blanc might also be a good choice for hillside plantings. “You get an entirely different sort of wine from Sauvignon blanc grown on the hillside,” he said. He added that Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Tempranillo could also produce world-class wines in Lake, in his opinion.

For the first time, he’s making his own Shannon Ridge wine from the 2002 vintage. “We have about 500 cases each of Petite Sirab, Zinfandel and Cabernet,” he said, The wine is being made at Cardinale Vineyards in Napa County.

Serious Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon blanc was the first wine released from Monte Lago, owned by Jonathan and Jacqueline Dharmapalan. Tasting the 2000 and 2001 Sauvignon blanc from vines growing at an elevation of 2,000 feet, it became evident what Clay Shannon meant when he said higher elevation Sauvignon grapes in Lake yield a very different wine. There was the intense Sauvignon fruit, backed by a deeper complexity than in most lower elevation Sauvignon.

The Dharmapalans had always dreamed of owning a farm and vineyard. They looked in several areas but liked what they saw in Lake County because of the sheer beauty of the location and the reasonable prices compared to Napa, There are 110 acres planted on the 440-acre property. “It is planted to our favorite varietals,” Jacqueline Dharmapalan said. “Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Petite Verdot, Zinfandel, my favorite Sauvignon blanc and Jonathan’s favorite, Tempranillo, We even experimented with a couple of port varieties–Bastardo and Tinta Amarilla”

Jonathan Dharmapalan said it was his intention to make single-vine yard wines which would represent the terroir, that indefinable sense of place, of the site.

Owners Myron and Marilyn Hold enried and winemaker Mark Butch take Sauvignon blanc very seriously at Wildhurst Vineyards, The winery, which was established in 1991, is poised to become recognized as one of the most important Sauvignon blanc producers in the state, Burch believes. And after tasting with him at the winery in Kelseyville, I really can’t argue the point,

Burch, a graduate of the “University of Gallo” with post-grad work at Sebastiani and K-J, believes that the key to making great Sauvignon blanc is natural acidity. “I don’t want to adjust the acid. I think natural acidity gives crispness and balances the mountheel.” He believes he can get that fruit in Lake County because of long hangtime which enables him to pick at a lower Brix (22.2[degrees] to 22.5[degrees]) which enhances the grassy character. However, he does not want to see the fruit hanging so long that it loses the natural acidity.

Once harvested, he presses whole cluster fruit 2.5 tons at a time, often pressing up to eight batches a day, then holds the fruit at 40[degrees]F for one to two days. Burch believes this gives the wine more complexity and a bigger mouthfeel. “I’m looking for a Sauvignon blanc of great complexity and power, a wine that will age eight to 10 years,” Burch said.

Jed Steele And Syrah

Veteran California winemaker Jed Steele, who was Kendall-Jackson’s first winemaker and helped establish that brand, has based his Steele Wines in Lake County, specializing in Syrab, which he feels makes an outstanding wine in Lake, an opinion backed up by a recent vertical tasting of Steele Syrahs.

Steele encouraged a number of growers to plant Syrah and believes the human factor plays an important role. With some of Steele’s growers, we tasted the 1996 through 2000 vintages. The wines were superb, showing a growing complexity and depth with bottle age, as well as adaptability to different foods.

“We do have the right weather and the right soils here,” Steele said. “But also very important is the sense of dedication on the part of the growers to top-quality fruit.”

Kendall-Jackson has a long history in Lake. The winery was founded there in 1982 and still has a major commitment in Lake County. Ed Farver is the general manager of K-J in Lake. He sees the great strengths of the area as Sauvignon blanc, Semillon and Riesling on the valley floor. “There are promising signs for Cabernet and Syrah on some of the ridges, away from the valley floor, but only time will tell. I would certainly stay away from cool climate varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot noir,” he said.

K-J is following sustainable agriculture guidelines in Lake, Farver said, including:

* Winery wastewater is treated and then recycled into vineyard irrigation

* Likewise, organic pomace material is recycled back into vineyards

* Ground water is monitored to determine quality and changes

* Compost and organic material is used for soil amendments

* Cover crops coupled with reduced tillage build organic matter and limit soil erosion

* Pests are trapped rather than poisoned, or controlled through natural predators

* Native oaks are maintained, with vineyards planted in areas once covered by scrub vegetation or on land previously used for grazing or agriculture.

Farver said that because of the variety of microclimates and extreme temperature changes, it was necessary to do very careful site analysis before planting. As for other problems, Farver said, “The Lake County turkeys like grapes, and they are voracious.”

The Chalone Connection

Tom Selfridge, the president of Chalone Wine Group, was with Kendall-Jackson when it was a startup winery in Lake County in the early 1980s. “Lake County is of particular interest to me,” Selfridge said. Chalone has purchased a 45-acre walnut orchard near the Lake County airport and will have a winery finished there within three years for its Dynamite brand, a spinoff from Carmenet, which was recently sold to Beringer Blass.

“Our Dynamite Merlot will be mostly from Mendocino County grapes,” Selfridge said. “Over time, the Dynamite Cabernet Sauvignon will be over 90% Lake Cabernet. Right now it’s about 50%.” Selfridge said the new winery will probably have the capacity to produce at least 250,000 cases. “We are at 100,000 cases now,” he said.

“I believe it will be a very important area for Cabernet. For a time, there will be a lot of Cabernet relative to demand, but long term, that will sort itself out. Lake County Cabernet, especially from the Red Hills area, is very good quality. I think if we could produce Cabernet there that would average $20 a bottle retail price, we could produce outstanding quality wines.”

Among others, Dynamite is now sourced from Beckstoffer Vineyards and Snows Lake Vineyards, a fairly new operation owned by the Myers family in the Red Hills District of Lake County. The Snows Lake operation is somewhat unusual in that the vineyard is designed to deliver exactly what individual wineries want, according to John Adriance, the chief operating officer at Snows Lake. Adriance said most of the grapes are under contract even before the vines are planted. Adriance compared the operation to a kind of vine shopping mall, where a few 1arge clients, such as Chalone and Beringer, anchor the operation.

“Most of our contracts are for 10 years,” he said. “We are divided into blocks with an average size of about 9.3 acres. We can even break down smaller, and wineries can contract with us to purchase grapes by the block.” Adriance said they were now selling to 11 wineries. “If a winery wants a specific variety or site, we will plant to their specifications,” he added.

There are some 800 acres now planted, with another 925 acres plantable out of a total of 2,400 acres on the property. The elevation ranges from 1,900 to 2,400 feet. Soils are well-drained red volcanic soils on 5-to 25-degree slopes. All plantings are red varieties, 75% to Cabernet Sauvignon with the balance to Syrah, Zinfandel, Barbera, Cabernet franc, Merlot and Petite Sirah, Spacing is 5-by-8 feet on a bilateral cordon with vertical shoot positioning. A wide variety of clones are planted on low vigor rootstock, matched to the site.

Viticulturist Mike Vail pointed out that the cover crops are in mostly native grasses, and wildlife corridors have been established to Snows Lake, which is a small vernal lake on the property where the annual Audubon Society bird count is held every year.

A series of catch dams and basins is used to help control erosion and he depends heavily on Integrated Pest Management to control insects. Deficit irrigation is practiced on the vines and hay bale sound barriers are used to muffle the noise from irrigation pumps.

Vail said he believed the great strength of Snows Lake was the ability to deliver a wide variety of specific grape flavor profiles to wineries because of the large number of sites.

Jim Fetzer’s Ceago

Perhaps the operation that has drawn the most attention–and some controversy–to Lake is Jim Fetzer’s new Ceago Vinegarden on the north shore of Clear Lake. (Ceago is derived from a Pomo Indian word meaning, roughly, “grass valley” or “grass seed valley.”)

After selling Fetzer Vineyards to Brown-Forman, the family had to wait until the year 2000 before they could enter into competition, even though they supplied about half the grapes for the Bonterra brand. Jim Fetzer is now in the midst of building what will be a biodynamic community on the shores of Clear Lake, beginning with a planting of 15 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. Later this year, Fetzer will plant 28 acres of Syrah and Sauvignon blanc.

The Ceago Vinegarden is a 220-acre lakefront property between the villages of Nice and Lucerne. The aim is to develop an agricultural resort-style operation that promotes a holistic farming environment. The development will center around a hacienda-style compound of buildings with plantings of fruits, vegetables, herbs, grapes, kiwis, olives, walnuts, figs, wheat and a variety of flower crops. Domestic (and wild) animals will be incorporated into the project. There will be demonstration kitchens, dining areas and guest rooms.

The Ceago project has come in for some criticism, with the charge that Fetzer is more intent on creating a kind of biodynamic Disneyland than he is in serious winemaking. Anyone who has followed the operations of the Fetzer family since the 1960s will discount such charges. The Fetzer family has always been out front in environmental efforts, beginning in the mid-1980s with the demonstration organic garden at Hopland in Mendocino County and continuing through the development of McNab Ranch near Ukiah, also in Mendocino, by Jim Fetzer. The ranch was dedicated to biodynamic and sustainable farming. It is now owned by Brown-Forman, but Jim Fetzer has taken the philosophy of the McNab Ranch development and brought it to Lake County.

As one example, the buildings are constructed from blocks of recycled styrofoam material from Durango, Mexico. They are light enough to be easily lifted into place, are self-insulating and can be quickly ripped to adjust electrical wiring and plumbing. Much of the wood used in the project is recycled.

“What I want to do is not only make world-class wine, which I’m sure we can do in Lake County, but create an agriculture center for education. I want people to see where their food comes from, to have a connection with the land,” Fetzer said. And, as one longtime Lake County resident said, “This project will attract the kind of tourists we want in Lake County.”

Across the highway from Ceago, Fetzer will open a tasting room and visitors’ center for his new Tule Bay Vineyards wines in April. He is renovating the former Bartlett Springs Mineral Water plant to create the new winery, using grapes from the property. All Tule Bay wines will be made from organically grown grapes, with the first vintages made from Mendocino grapes grown by the Fetzer family as Jim waits for new Lake County vines to mature.

In a sense, the wine world is also waiting for Lake County grapes to “mature.” True, wine has been made in Lake County for more than a century. Leon Adams, in his book, The Wines of America, writes that there were 33 wineries in Lake County before Prohibition. Yet today, with fewer than a dozen wineries, Lake is poised to enter the world of premium wines and compete in the global market. There are now more than 50 wineries using Lake County and Lake County vineyard designations on their labels. Certainly, that number is going to grow over the next several years as the new vineyards develop.

Whether Lake will become the next Napa, as some have predicted, is really not the point. The fact is that Lake County is already producing wines that can compete with the best anywhere. The future looks bright indeed.

RELATED ARTICLE: Lake County’s First Sparkler

Gerald and Shirley Ployez established Ployez Winery in 1 997 on the site of the former Stuermer Winery in Lower Lake. The Ployez winery features a visitors’ center and tasting room. Qther wines include Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin blanc, Merlot, Sauvignon blanc and Gamay Beaujolais. All of the grapes are grown in Lake County.

Gerald Ployez grew up in the Champagne region of France, where his family has produced champagne for three generations. He has also worked in Burgundy.

The winery is at 11171 Highway 29, Lower Lake, CA 95457; the phone is (707) 994-21 06.

Lake County–A Quick Look

The Lake County Winegrape Commission has identified four important grape-growing regions in Lake County:

Big Valley Area, which stretches west from Kelseyville and Lakeport and from the edge of the southern benches north to the lakeshore. The soils are primarily clay loam and are very fertile. The area was once lake bottom. Best varietals are Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier. Grower Ron Bartolucci said, “The fruit from this area makes lively, crisp and fresh wines. Our Sauvignon blanc has just a little grass. There’s lots of fresh fruit flavors.”

* Red Hills covers some 49 square miles along the southern end of the lake. About 3,500 acres of new plantings have gone in there in the past few years. The soils are volcanic with good drainage, causing vines to work hard and leading to small, concentrated berries. Frank Anderson, viticulturist for Beckstoffer Vineyards said, “We get intense flavors here. Historically, many of the great wine regions of the Mediterranean are on high elevations with volcanic soil, very similar to the Red Hills.”

* Round Mountain is a high-elevation growing area about three miles from Clear Lake, including the High Valley area. The soils are uniform with volcanic pumice rock. The area is known for Cabernet Sauvignon and rich, jammy Zinfandel. Grower Clay Shannon said, “The area is like a big sponge. The water drainage is incredible. It leaves vines with little water to feed on, leaving concentrated fruit.”

* Upper Lake is a flat area with fertile soil. There are about 400 acres planted there, mostly to Sauvignon blanc. Wines from the area have more melon aroma, less of the traditional grassy character. Much of the Sauvignon blanc from the area goes to Kendall-Jackson and Guenoc wineries.

Lake County wineries include Abbott Winery, Brassfield Vineyards, Ceago Vineyards, Guenoc and Langtry Estate, Monte Lago, Steele Wines, Tule Bay Vineyards, Wildhurst Vineyards and Ployez Winery.

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