© 1999 JDM Enterprises
LAKE COUNTY OVERVIEWby Jerry D. Mead
Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino are names well known to wine lovers nationwide, though I wouldn't count on any but the most serious wine hobbyists to be able to point out those counties with any accuracy on a map of the state.
Start asking folks to tell you where other serious growing regions are located and you might be amazed at the answers you get. Someone once actually asked, "Where in Napa Valley is Paso Robles?" If you don't recognize the humor in that, then you'd better brush up on your wine geography.
Lake County is a name that is appearing on more wine labels all the time, the location of which even fewer people know the whereabouts.
Here comes today's geography lesson! Lake County, like Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Marin and Solano counties, make up the recognized broad viticultural area known as "North Coast." Even with that hint, most folks couldn't place the pin in the right place on the map.
Lake County is due north of Napa, northeast of Sonoma and due east of Mendocino. It is home to California's largest lake, 68 square mile Clear Lake, which along with the high elevation contributes to the cool microclimates that make Lake County ideal for grape growing.
If you're wondering if Lake County is a new grape growing region, the answer is no. There were 33 bonded wineries in the county prior to Prohibition in 1919, including one owned by the famous entertainer, Miss Lilly Langtry. The Guenoc Winery (which also produces the Langtry brand) is on the site of Lilly's former estate.
Since Repeal of Prohibition, Lake County's fame has been slow to rebuild. There are actually more than three times as many acres of vines now than there was at the turn of the century (and more going in every year), but they have historically gone into wines made by producers in Napa and Mendocino counties, who have not always given the Lake County grape source its due on the label.
It's also interesting to note that the original home of famous Kendall-Jackson Winery was in Lake County, and that the original concept was for it to be a Lake County Estate winery called Chateau Du Lac, with all the grapes to be sourced in Lake County.
While waiting for the Lake County grapes and wines to reach maturity, then winemaker Jed Steele was commissioned by his boss Jess Jackson to make some "second label" wines out of the best he could buy from other regions, just for cash flow you understand. Kendall was Jackson's ex-wife's maiden name and the brand and wines were so successful that Chateau Du Lac was soon forgotten.
The newest winery in Lake County is called Ployez (pronounced ploy-yea), and it's French winemaker Gerald Ployez is a champagnemaster. He comes from the Champagne region and for many years was the winemaker at the now defunct California bubbly producer called Michel Tribaut.
When Tribaut was shut down. Ployez managed to acquire a small quantity of one of the best California sparklings he had made. In this year of Champagne shortages, he has 200 cases of standard size bottles and 100 cases of magnums...and absolutely no distribution because his enterprise is so small and so new. Contact the winery directly for details: Ployez, P.O. Box 1115, Lower Lake, CA 95457 (707) 994-2106.
Ployez NV "California" Brut ($20; $45 the magnum) There is no vintage date on the label, but this wine is actually entirely from the 1983 vintage! It is made 100 percent from Chardonnay grapes and by the handmade, "in this bottle," champagne method. Only recently disgorged (recorked after the dead yeast cells are removed) it combines the freshness of its sparkle and effervescence with the complexity of well-aged wine and the toasty-nutty complexity of yeast autolysis. The fruit is in the subtle, ripe apple vein. This is a wonderful example of California bubbly and at a true bargain price for what it is. Case purchases very highly recommended for your year 2000 celebration. Rating: 98/96
Deerfield Ranch 1997 "Roumiguiere Vineyard" Sangiovese ($18) This Lake County red wine is made by an award-winning Sonoma Valley Winery (call 707-833-5214) that won the trophy for Best New World Meritage Red at an international competition earlier this year. You can sense its Tuscan roots (it is not as hard as a Brunello, but is richer than most Chianti). Full bodied but not fat, with flavors of cherry and a little cassis and a hint of raw almond complexity. A solid "Best Buy." Rating: 94/90
Wildhurst 1998 "Clear Lake" Sauvignon Blanc ($9) Blended to 18 percent Semillon, this is a very traditional style. A grassy nose leads into melon, citrus and fresh fig flavors. Threshold sweetness. Good value. Rating: 88/88
Shooting Star 1998 "Lake County" Sauvignon Blanc ($15) Very herbaceous, leaning to gooseberry as do many New Zealand examples. Bone dry, nearly to the point of austerity, making it a dandy oyster companion. Rating: 88/82
Steele 1997 "Clear Lake" Syrah ($15) Big, ripe, but definitely not overripe, mostly plum flavors with a delightful spicy background. Just released. Rating: 90/90
Wildhurst 1996 "Plunkett Creek" Cabernet Franc ($26) Violets and berries, plus some earthy complexity, all in the aroma. Rich berry and plum fruit flavors. Very mouthfilling for a variety that can sometimes be a little wimpy. Delicious now; better yet in five years. Rating: 92/84
Wildhurst 1997 "Clear Lake" Cabernet Sauvignon ($14) A gold medal and "Best of Class" at the New World International, this is one very elegant Cabernet. Cassis and black cherry on a very lean, Bordeaux-style structure with very long and complex after-flavors. Rating: 92/94
For further information on Steele and Shooting Star wines (707) 279-9475; Wildhurst Winery (800) 595-9463; Lake County Winegrape Commission (707) 995-3421.