Friday, September 16, 2011

Lake County Wines: Overlooked, Underpriced, Pretty Tasty!

Lake County Wines: Overlooked, Underpriced, Pretty Tasty!

By Mac McCarthy,

Top Line

Lake County, California, is a winegrowing area in Northern California surrounding Clear Lake, east of the famed winegrowing areas of Napa and Sonoma. The lake is the largest in California, and the area includes The Geysers, the largest geothermal field complex  in the world.

For the purposes of wine drinking, however, the two most important facts about Lake County are, first, its well-drained volcanic hillside soils and rich alluvial soils in the valleys; and its five AVAs producing good wine that, because the area is relatively overlooked compared to other California wine areas, prices are very reasonable for the quality of the wine.

To fix the problem of being overlooked, a dozen wineries founded a winery association to promote to the world the virtues of the wines produced by the nearly 40 wineries of Lake County. This campaign resulted in the 'Wines of Lake County' winetasting event held on Treasure Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay, at The Winery -- another novelty, as several small winemakers have recently set up shop on the island too.

The Best and Most Interesting of the Lake County Wines

Rather than running down the selection of nearly 100 wines shown by the 22 attending winemakers, we'll jump to the bottom line and highlight the wines that most impressed or interested me.

Cheryl Lucido, winemaker, Laujor Estate
You will notice that all these wines are priced in the teens or twenties, nothing higher. These are popularly priced wines, and almost all are the kinds of wines that can be enjoyed and appreciated even by beginner wine drinkers. There weren't any "hold for ten years before you open this," nor wines that you needed to learn to appreciate. All, even the most sophisticated, were approachable and most were quaffable. The only down note is that many of these are very small wineries making very small quantities of some wines and selling most of them to restaurants, or to their wine clubs. If you get a chance to try them -- maybe heading up to Lake Country for a weekend (it's about three hours northeast of San Francisco) -- you might find yourself joining a wine club or two.

Best of show in my opinion has to go to Laujor Estate Winery, with a tip of the hat to winemaker Cheryl Lucido, who clearly has the magic palate: Her 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, done in stainless and neutral oak, was the best SB I tasted that day, and is available online for $18. Her 2009 Barbera, $23, was every juicy tasty thing a Barbera can be; and I also liked her 2009 Zinfandel ($24). What a winemaker!

Ceago Vineyards  had a very nice 2009 Del Lago Syrah Rose, $16; only 200 cases made.

Chacewater Wine Cooffered a noteworthy $16 2010 Chardonnay, Burgundian style; if you're tired of standard-style Chards, try this one. They also had a Cab-like '09 Malbec with a little more fruit than I usually find in Malbecs, thanks presumably to an always-welcome splash of Petit Verdot; $18, but they only made 81 cases of it. Their '09 Petite Syrah ($18) is rich but a bit tannic.

Lavender Blue
Lavender Blue offered a novelty: "Sweet Suave"  Sauvignon Blanc (2010, $18), made slightly sweet by stopping fermentation before the sugar is completely converted (rather than late harvest). This wine could be a hit among the White Zin crowd; and actually, I found it friendly, tasty, and easy-going, and wouldn't turn down a glass myself.

Six Sigma Ranch 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Michael's Vineyard, $22, aged in oak rather than steel -- that worked: Nice! They also poured the '08 of their Cuvee Pique-Nique, a Cab-Merlot blend with some Petite Verdot and Cab Franc splashed in there -- the cute name would be annoying if the wine weren't so tasty, and with a wonderful nose.

Steele Wines has a yummy (that's a technical term) 2010 Shooting Star Reisling at an equally yummy $12 price tag; that was their best wine being shown.

Sol Rouge
Sol Rouge had quite a few interesting wines, starting with a delicious Viognier and an interesting Sauv Blanc and a nice Rose, and segueing into an "elegant"-style Zin with a nice middle, and winding up with a tasty "Gypsy Rose" whose components I neglected to write down. Only problem: Almost everything they make is sold to restaurants (with a few bottles left over going to their wine club). So if you happen to see the name Sol Rouge on the wine menu, consider it.

Rosa d'Oro's Peitro Buttitta

Rosa d'Oro was doing some very interesting things with Italian varietals: a $20 Nebbiolo and a $20 Sangiovese had the most wonderful noses, and interesting tastes, and their also-$20 Barbera was a big yes. I didn't care for the Primitivo, alas.

The 2010 Sauvignon Blanc from Wildhurst Vineyards has the most wonderful aroma, and was nicely balanced in flavor; oh, and it's only $12.

Bottom Line

If you see "Lake County" as the wine origin on the menu, go ahead. You're likely to be happy with it.

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