Stand anywhere in the Napa Valley, face to the northeast and in the distance is a line of low hills, known as the Vaca Mountains. The hills are dotted with wineries and huge homes, while beyond is Lake County, the lesser known wine region in the quartet of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake.
Getting to Lake County is a bit of a driving chore, more so than it is driving to the Napa Valley. The narrow road out of Calistoga, is a series of twists, turns and switchbacks, for 35 miles, until it finally hits a straight stretch outside Middletown.
|Mt. Konocti reflecting off Clear Lake
At the center of wine growing in Lake County are two natural features: Mt. Konocti and Clear Lake. Mt. Konocti, still considered an "active" volcano that last erupted 11,000 years ago, has laid down rich volcanic soil, a proper medium for Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, among other varieties.
All successful and productive wine regions (Bordeaux, Douro Valley, Rhine) are near a body of water. Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake wholly in California, tempers Lake County's hot days, while helping to cool the nights in the vineyards around the lake.
According to the Lake County Winegrowers Association, there are more than 30 wineries and 160 growers in the nine sub-regions, or American Viticultural Appellations (AVA). The sub-regions encircle Clear Lake or are a short distance away.
As wine growing grew around Clear Lake, more AVAs were applied for, based on unique vine growing conditions. More than 40 years would pass between the first and the ninth approved appellation.
|Vines, lake and volcano
Lake County's first AVA was granted in 1981, for Guenoc Valley, the smallest of the nine appellations. Clear Lake, the largest AVA, was approved three years later. Then, seven years passed until Benmore Valley got its AVA, and another 13 years before Red Hills AVA was approved. High Valley's AVA was granted a year later, then another long wait until Kelsey Bench and Big Valley got their AVAs in 2013. Then nine years more before Upper Lake Valley was approved for an AVA. Finally, the Long Valley AVA was approved in 2023.
Here, then, are brief summaries of the nine sub-appellations, from oldest to newest. Shown are AVA approval dates in parenthesis, planted acreage, and major grapes grown in each sub region.
Guenoc Valley (1981):
Guenoc Valley, with 4,396 acres of vineyards, is one of the Lake County
sub appellations that is not along Clear Lake. A popular
spot for growing red grapes, such as Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet
Sauvignon, Guenoc Valley was the site of California's first partially
(1984): Half of the 168,960 acres of vineyard acreage for this encompassing sub region
is the lake, with the remainder on dry land. Clear Lake has a
mix of grapes, including Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Zinfandel, Cabernet
Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
(1991): Despite having its own AVA for more than 30 years, Benmore
Valley does not have a winery, but the cool climate vineyards are
popular as a source for varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc.
Red Hills Lake County (2004): At
the opposite end of Clear Lake is the Red Hills AVA, with 3,250 acres
planted mainly in red grapes, such as Cabernet Franc and Cabernet
High Valley (2005): High Valley comes by its name naturally, with vineyards on 14,000 acres, up to 3,000 feet above the lake. Mostly red varieties are planted on the northeast side of the lake.
Big Valley District (2013): A combined total of 11,000 acres are planted in Big Valley and Kelsey Bench, neighboring vineyards on the lake's southwest shore. Vineyards in Big Valley are planted up to 1,400 feet.
Kelsey Bench (2013): Adjacent to Big Valley, but higher, the bench sits at 1,600 feet above the lake. With just over 9,000 acres of vines, the popular white grapes include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Riesling.
Upper Lake Valley (2022): Large by most measurements, Upper Lake Valley, on the north side of the lake, has just over 17,000 acres of vineyards, at altitudes up to 1,480 feet. Sauvignon Blanc is the most planted variety.
Long Valley Lake County (2023): This sub region is a narrow valley planted in Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Petite Sirah, in 7,600 acres. Long Valley is a popular site for wineries.
Although Lake County is inland with a continental climate, most of the vineyards around Clear Lake are cooler, benefiting from a large body of water. These conditions are good for white wines like Sauvignon Blanc, attracting winemakers such as John Parducci and later the winemaking team at Geyser Peak Winery.
And, select spots along the lake, are warm enough for red wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, some at altitude, others closer to Clear Lake. One of the warmer exceptions is Guenoc Valley.
Next time you are wine shopping, look to the wines of Lake County.
Next blog: New Zealand Pinot Noir
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