Lake County lives in the shadow of its famous neighbor to the south, Napa Valley, and always will.
But this rural appellation, which surrounds Clear Lake, is poised to make an impact. The land there has always been ideal for wine grapes and far more affordable than Napa. But it has never gotten its due and is still struggling to find a niche in the market. But the wines are getting much better.
For the past decade or so, more Napa winemakers have turned their attention to Lake County. It is more or less an extension of Napa Valley, and the Mayacamas mountains, but at a higher elevation. But because of its remote locale, it's a path less taken by winemakers and tourists. But two factors are setting the stage for an increased presence of Lake County wines.
The cost of land and grapes in Napa has escalated and winegrowers are paying greater attention to the vineyards. That's a recipe for lower-priced wines—what the market is currently craving—that Lake County is poised to take advantage of.
Last week I wrote about Stéphane Derenoncourt's new wines, noting the excellence of his richly layered 2006 Red Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($40), which could easily be compared with the best from Napa. And the new Cameron Hughes 2006 Cabernet Lot 168 at $12 is amazing. We've also given high marks of late to Lake County wines from 75 Wine Co.'s 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (88 points, $16), the 2007 Castle Rock Petite Sirah Reserve (88, $15) and the 2007 Obsidian Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Red Hills.
Michael Terrian, winemaker for Obsidian Ridge, offered a few thoughts on why Lake County can produce high-quality wines at lower prices.
Obsidian Ridge purchased land 10 years ago at the 2,640-foot elevation for $4,000 an acre (in Napa, land often runs in the $100,000 an acre range) and he wonders if this is not the highest appellation in California. Obsidian uses 50 percent new oak from Tokaji forest wood ($700 a barrel compared to more than $1,000 for French oak), and it doesn't own a winery, but instead leases space where it can.
Lake County has other hurdles to overcome. It lacks name recognition and has no clout with distributors. Even as appellations such as Red Hills gain notoriety, many Lake County grapes end up in North Coast appellation blends, either with Napa, or Sonoma or Mendocino. Even in our database, Mendocino and Lake counties are lumped together. It may be time to remedy that.