Is that a hint of Clear Lake I’m detecting in my wine?
Could be. If you’re drinking some of Napa and Sonoma’s most popular wines you may be getting more than just a whiff of Lake County grapes. With its hot summer days, accelerated growing season and cheap land (by northern California standards, at least), the vineyards around Clear Lake have, for years, been a bountiful source of grapes for Beringer, Kendall-Jackson, Fetzer, Mondavi and others.
Surprised? Join the crowd. Historically, Lake County grapes have been quietly blended with their swankier cousins in Napa and Sonoma, getting little label love. But that’s starting to change.
In the last five years, the number of wineries producing Lake County Wines has doubled–from just a handful to nearly 20. In total, approximately 10,000 acres of vineyards are now planted north of Sonoma and Napa counties and newcomers like Six Sigma Ranch, Zoom, Moore Family are names to watch, along with more established wineries Noggle and Brassfield.
One of the coolest places to check out local wines is the recently opened LC Wine Studio in Upper Lake. Featuring a stellar lineup of artisanal producers, the funky, concrete-floored studio (complete with an eager wine pup) caters to the urban-Euro guests of the nearby Tallman Hotel. The lineup includes a mind-boggling 13 wines from Six Sigma Ranch, Spencer-Roloson, Dusniberre Cellars, Noggle and Zoom (new owner and winemaker Matt Hughes helps man the tasting room).
So, is Clear Lake the next Napa? Yes and, uh, definitely no. Jim Fetzer’s Spanish villa/winery/organic gardens/resort community, Ceago, puts pretty much anything on Route 29 to shame. The boutique Tallman Hotel, lovingly resorted by a San Francisco couple, is an off-the-beaten path gem that’s single-handedly reinvigorating the town of Upper Lake. Tasting rooms in Kelseyville have a Calistoga-like vibe and, if you can find it, the Moore Family Winery has unbelievable hillside views.
Conversely, you’ll have a tough time finding top-notch restaurants, cult cabs and shopping that doesn’t include a Wal-Mart greeter.
Call Lake County a promising work-in-progress; a wine region just beginning to discover itself. It’s a place where winemaker-owners like Steve Moore greet you with a glad-to-meetcha handshake at the door. It’s where drinking Steele Winery’s Black Bubbles (think Syrah-flavored soda pop. Brilliant!) by the pool is perfectly okay. It’s a place where you can still get $5 corkage (Blue Wing Saloon & Café), discover a killer syrah (Spencer-Roloson, Moore), get a plate of eggs and hash browns with the locals (Judy’s Junction) and, at the end of the day, dip your toes in the lake. Even if it is a little green.
Ready to road trip? Upper Lake is about 2 hours from Santa Rosa and about three hours from San Francisco.
WHAT TO DRINK
In this rugged resort country, a longtime haven for boat-hauling families and the casino crowd, it’s somehow fitting that sauvignon blanc–the savage grape–is most identified with the region. But as the region matures, increasingly well-produced zinfandels, syrahs and cabernet sauvignons are taking center stage.
WHERE TO SIP
Lake County Wine Studio: Top-notch artisanal wines at this funky, friendly Upper Lake tasting room. 707.327.6680.
Moore Family Winery: Newly-opened family winery with spectacular views. High-elevation syrah and cabernet sauvignon. Bottle Rock Road, Kelsyville, 707.279.9279.
Steele Winery: Approachable, friendly wines from the man who invented (really) the buttery chardonnay. Former KJ winemaker Jed Steele offers up some tasty drink-em-now wines like the fragrant Steele Viognier and whimsically weird Black Bubbles Syrah. 4350 Thomas Dr. at Hwy 29, Kelseyville.
Ceago: Where else can you pull your jet-ski up to a winery? Jim Fetzer’s Spanish villa is a fantasy spot for sipping under the palm trees. Stroll through the gardens, then head to the tasting room for some biodynamic wines. The winery also has a café and picnic goodies. 5115 East Highway 20, Nice, 707.274.1462.
Wildhurst Vineyards: Downtown Kelseyville tasting room in the former Odd Fellow’s Hall. Don’t miss their sauvignon blanc. 3855 Main Street, Kelseyville, (800) 595-WINE (9463).
Also check out
Brassfield Estate Winery & Vineyards: Top-notch wines from the High Valley appellation. Call ahead, as the winery is sometimes closed. Sauvignon blanc, syrah and zinfandel are best bets. 10915 High Valley Road, Clearlake Oaks, 707.998-1895
Langtry Estate & Vineyards: It’s worth a side trip to the former Guenoc winery, which is part of the Lillie Langtry Estate. Stunning views and leafy arbors await you. Petite sirah and sauvignon blancs are hallmarks. 21000 Butts Canyon Rd, Middletown, 707-987-2385
WHERE TO EAT
Soda Bay*BEST BET* Watercolor Restaurant: It wasn’t until our second trip to Lake County that anyone mentioned this amazing little sleeper. Tucked into a small bayside resort, the spot is quiet and intimate, with just a handful of tables. The decor isn’t much, but the food is top-notch for the region and flavors are well-executed in the hands of the young, eager kitchen. There’s a focus on local, fresh ingredients and the restaurant offers local wines almost exclusively–most in the $25-$35 range. Even better, they’ve got most by the glass, so you can afford to adventurous. The menu changes up frequently, but on a recent visit we were impressed by everything we ordered: ahi tartare, rock shrimp and calamari fritto, St. Louis babyback ribs and a beautiful plate of seared scallops. With four glasses of wine and coffee, the bill was just over $100–high for Lake County, but more than reasonable for the quality of food, service and the romantic bay view. Weekend nights can be crowded, so its recommended that you make reservations. The restaurant also serves a hearty breakfast on weekends. Watercolor Restaurant, Ferdale Resort & Marina, 6190 Soda Bay Road, Soda Bay, 707.279.4866.
Boar’s Breath Restaurant & Oven: Only open for dinner, this popular downtown Middletown restaurant has become an institution. And really, who can resist something calls Boar’s Breath onion soup? 21148 Calistoga Street, Middletown, 707-987-9491
Blue Wing Saloon Café: Attached to the historic Tallman Hotel, this adorable outdoor café and bar has so much potential it hurts. Sit and sip local wines, listen to live music on the patio and stick to the basics–burgers and salads. BiteClub prays for the day some insightful chef decides to put this spot on the map. 9520 Main Street, Upper Lake, 707.275.2233
Judy’s Junction: Don’t miss breakfast at this down home diner. 375 E Highway 20 Spc 5, Upper Lake, 707.275.0905
Main Street Bar and Grill: Though most folks will tell you to steer clear of the down-and-out town of Clearlake, this sprawling grill serves up great burgers, milkshakes and fries with a smile. 14084 Lakeshore Dr., Clearlake, (707) 994-6450
Saw Shop Gallery Bistro: Sushi meets lamb chops meets spinach ravioli. Wildly eclectic dining at one of the few upscale eateries in Clearlake. 3825 Main Street, Kelseyville, (707) 278.0129
Studebakers Coffee House: A charming sandwich, muffin and coffee spot bustling in the morning. 3990 Main St., Kelseyville, 707-279-8871
Lakeport English Inn: Bed and breakfast serving high tea. 675 N. Main St., Lakeport, 70
Molly Brennans: Burgers, sandwiches and Irish pub food. Pour me a Guinness and what more could I possibly want? 175 N. Main St., Lakeport, 707.262.1600.
Park Place: Nice salads and sandwiches by the lake. 50 3RD St., Lakeport, (707) 263-0444
Tallman Hotel: Recently renovated boutique hotel with all the modern amenities. Some rooms have outdoor showers and Japanese soaking tubs; super-comfy beds; charming gardens, pool. Serious country chic. 9550 Main Street, Upper Lake, 707.275.2244
Featherbed Railroad Company: May I show you to your caboose? Movie-themed railroad cars (Casa Blanca, Orient Express, even the Easy Rider) are outfitted with beds, bathtubs and all the modern comforts for your private luxury. No children under 12. 2870 Lakeshore Blvd. Nice, 1-800-966-6322