Water and Wine: Clear Lake, Lake County

Lake County VineyardsLake County, California, has some mighty impressive wine country neighbors.   The region shares its borders with Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino; collectively the four regions make up the North Coast Regional AVA, a relatively neat  if somewhat irregular “rectangle” north of San Francisco.

Located at the intersection of the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains, Lake County is only 10 miles from Calistoga, yet the drive along the winding roads takes an hour. The namesake lake of the region, Clear Lake, is the largest freshwater body of water in the state of California. The presence of this lake buffers the temperature and provides great diurnal temperature swings, which promotes good acid retention in the grapes grown in the area.  Surrounded by rollings hills and (hopefully) inactive volcanoes, the diverse volcanic soils provide excellent drainage througout the region.

Before Prohibition, Lake County accounted for more grapes than Napa, but with no rail service, it wasn’t able to recover after repeal the way other areas of California did. Cheap land values sparked resurgence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and now the area is producing award-winning wines and has nearly 8,500 acres planted with vines, with continued growth anticipated.

The average elevation of Lake County’s vineyards is 1,500 feet, with some reaching up to 3,000 feet above sea level. The high elevation coupled with good air quality (the purest in California, according to the Environmental Protection Agency) maximizes the solar potential, resulting in higher levels of ultraviolet light. Consequently, the grapes develop thick skins, with high levels of anthocyanins, polyphenols, and tannins and low levels of pyrazines. This low-pyrazine producing  attribute made Clear Lake a popular region for growing Sauvignon Blanc, which until the region’s recent resurgence was the most widely grown grape in the region.

Lake County Wineries

Lake County has five designated AVAs:

  • Benmore Valley AVA was named for Benjamin Moore, a 19th century cattle rustler.  This area is cooler than the surrounding areas.  As there are currently no wineries located in the Benmore Valley AVA; grapes grown here are sourced by several local wineries.
  • Half of the area in the Clear Lake AVA is taken up by the lake itself.  The lake moderates the temperature of the vineyards in the area, minimizing the diurnal temperature swings as compared to the surrounding regions.
  • The High Valley AVA is located in the eastern part of the county at elevations ranging from 1,600 feet to 3,000 feet above sea level.
  • The rolling hills of the Red Hills Lake Country AVA lie along the southwestern shores of Clear Lake, at the foot of Mount Konocti, an extinct volcano.
  • Established in 1981, the Guenoc Valley AVA was the first AVA granted to an area with just a single winery. Geologically, Guenoc Valley is a small inland valley extending from upper Napa County.

Cabernet Sauvignon is currently the most widely planted grape in Lake County, followed by Merlot at a distant second, as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay. Petite Sirah, while not being one of the most widely planted grapes in the area, does exceedingly well here…fans of P.S. should keep their eyes open for award-winning wines from Lake County!

To learn more about Lake County Wines:  http://www.lakecountywineries.org/

Lake County Winegrape Growers’ Association:  http://www.lakecountywinegrape.org/lcwc/

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