The next time you are visiting Napa Valley and planning to make Calistoga, at the far northern end of the valley, your last stop, keep driving. If you continue north, in less than 20 miles you’ll be in Lake County, California, an up-and-coming wine-growing area few people have heard of.
As its official tourism Web site puts it, Lake County (named for Clear Lake, California’s largest) is nestled among three much better-known wine areas — Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino — and shares some of their advantageous climactic qualities: warm days, cool nights, and high elevations. Not to mention great soils.
The area first started to gain attention back in the 1980s when cult vintner Jed Steele, who started in Napa in 1968 and has made wine all over, started to produce wines locally, and has picked up steam ever since, while land prices in the surrounding counties have skyrocketed. Lake County wines still tend to be less expensive than those from the better-known areas, but the best of them don’t taste it.
I recently got to try a dozen Lake wines, and I would say generally the Sauvignon Blancs and Cabernet Sauvignons were the best, though I’ve also heard good things about the local Syrahs.
White-wise, I liked the very tart Langtry Sauvignon Blanc Lake County 2006 ($25), though I’m partial to high-acid wines, so it might not be everybody’s cup of tea. The Guenoc Sauvignon Blanc Lake County 2006 ($16) has a bit more minerality and more fruit, in the form of pleasant peach flavors, to soften the grape’s naturally crisp aspects.
When it comes to Cabs, you’ll find quite a few good values. The Shannon Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Lake County 2006 has a very pure cherry quality and a pretty color — for $19 you’ll have no complaints. The Guenoc Cabernet Sauvignon Lake County 2005 ($18) has the bell pepper nose that I happen to love in a Cab (to me it signals a certain complexity and charm as long as it’s not too green) and a nice trajectory in the mouth — it goes from sweet black fruit in the middle to a nice dusting of tannins at the end. It’s not flashy, and the sweetness tastes natural, not sugary.
Then there’s the towering Obsidian Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Obsidian Ridge Vineyard 2005 ($30), from the Red Hills sub-appellation of Lake County. This is an enormous, black-colored wine that has pretensions, but is not pretentious. It’s still somewhat awkward and needs cellar time to mellow out, but the roasted plum flavors and thick tannins let you know that it has big things in store — just like Lake County.
Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.