When it comes to California wine, cool climate vineyards are the new “hot” sources for grapes and wine. In many ways, Lake County might be leading the charge in terms of new, interesting and unique names in California wine.
Part of the reason behind that is the skyrocketing prices for grapes from other more established growing regions like the Sonoma Coast. If you remove your preconceptions about the relative quality of wine from Lake County and Sonoma, you’ll walk away incredibly impressed with what ends up in your glass. For most people, these wines are going to be difficult to access. Lake County wineries are only now beginning to pierce the tightly held distribution network across the county, but improvement in quality and distribution are both likely to continue unabated in the next few years.
When I talk about a region that’s relatively new for me, I always find it helpful to start at the beginning, in California wine that means the years before Prohibition chose winners and losers among wine regions up and down the state. There’s a real and almost palatable history in Lake County, where Prohibition was perhaps more unkind anywhere outside of Livermore. Unlike it’s more famous neighbor to the south (Napa Valley) Lake County got a later start after Prohibition was overturned, it took until the 1960’s for Lake County to begin planting grapes and cultivating them into wine on a large scale. By means of comparison Napa was able to keep production up during Prohibition and then replanted many of its famous vineyards immediately after Repeal Day.
Really though, when you talk about Lake County and its wine, you aren’t looking to the past, but to the future. Lake County has two things going for it that have set the region up for a string of long term success. First, there’s the Mayacamas Mountain range which runs directly through the region and helps to create many of the same conditions as it does further south in helping to produce high quality Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape that seems to respond well to both growing at altitude, but also to growing on the valley floor. Put it in a huge flat plain though and you won’t be as excited about the results. Secondly and in my opinion, more importantly, Lake County benefits from the Lake which gives the region its name. Clear Lake is a defining feature of almost all the wineries in Lake County, the vast, vast majority of which are grouped around its borders. The Lake, like all large bodies of water offers a cooling influence on the grapes during warmer summer days, while also acting as a warming influence when cold nights strike.
Over the past few months, we’ve been finding an increasing number of Lake County wines to be both interesting as well as unique takes on the varietals in question. These wines and wineries deserve more notice and we’ll cover a handful of them in the coming days in this space.