Ninety miles north of San Francisco and just over the mountains from Napa Valley sits Lake County, California, arguably the state’s least-recognized wine producing region. Geographically isolated and rugged, the county is distinguished by the largest freshwater lake in California – “Clear Lake,” a sprawling body of water (reputedly revered by Bass fishermen) surrounded by looming, extinct volcanic peaks and over 8,000 acres of undulating vineyards. Lake County fashions itself as “the undiscovered wine country,” and that pretty well captures the essence of the place. Its wine riches are unfamiliar to many, but high-quality, plentiful, and affordable; and its wine roads are less trodden, pleasurable to travel, and often strikingly beautiful.
Wineries in California’s more familiar wine regions have long tapped Lake County vineyards as a source of high quality wine grapes used for blending under their own labels – sometimes without mentioning their origin. But Lake County is steadily emerging as a distinctive winemaking region and wine tourism destination of its own. Today there are over 30 Lake County wineries scattered over five distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), including Benmore Valley AVA, Clear Lake AVA, High Valley AVA, Red Hills Lake County AVA, and Guenoc Valley AVA.
The pictureque Guenoc Valley is home to only one winery – Langtry Estate and Vineyards. Langtry encompasses some 23,000 acres (35 square miles) of land, only 400 acres of which are planted to vine in rocky, alluvial soils at elevations ranging from 700 to 1,800 feet above sea level. The winery’s namesake, Lillie Langtry, was a popular British theater actress who purchased the property (sight unseen) in 1888, and soon thereafter moved there to live, plant vineyards, and make wine. Lillie’s wines achieved some international renown over the years, but she sold the property in 1906 and winemaking on the estate stopped. The winery and vineyards were left to ravages of time and neglect, remaining untouched until well after the end of Prohibition.
In 1963, Mululani Investments, a Honolulu, Hawaii-based real estate development firm, purchased the Langtry property, replanted the vineyards, and resurrected world-class winemaking on the estate. Today, Langtry is a sizable producer of 150,000 cases annually, most bottled under its Guenoc label, which is distrubuted nationwide and easily found at wine retailers. Guenoc is bottled in two teirs – a Lake County appellation and the broader California appellation. We prefer the Lake County wines, as they exemplify the fine characteristics of Lake County fruit at affordable prices. Here’s one of our favorites from the Guenoc – Lake County line of wines:
Petite Sirah is Langtry Estate’s signature red varietal, and this rendition speaks to why they take such pride in it. It’s replete with aromas and flavors of dark, ripe fruit, toasted coconut, and roasted almonds, with a touch of kalamata olive on the finish. It’s full-bodied and mouth-filling, with friendly tannins and acids and soft oak. Guenoc’s Lake County Petite Sirah is a terrific value year after year, and a perfect starting point for anyone wishing to explore the beauties of this variety. Pair this with sharp cheese, grilled meats, game, or just about anything over the fire pit. (8,100 cases produced)
Langtry also makes a line of premium single-vineyard, very small production estate wines under the Langtry label that can’t easily be found in stores, but may be purchased at the winery or through its website. They are all delightful, but here are two of our favorites:
Sauvignon Blanc is Langtry Estate’s signature white varietal, and the winery bottles it under both the Guenoc label and the Langtry label. The latter version, featured here, is from a five-acre vineyard named after Lillie herself, and the 2010 is a beauty, indeed. It’s expressive of ripe, tropical fruit on the nose and the palate (this isn’t a grassy or herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc), with sprightly acidity and a hint of oak (50% undergoes barrel fermentation) that bring all the lush flavors into perfect harmony. This is a refined and pure Sauvignon Blanc with wide appeal. Pair this with fruit-infused cheeses, seafood (especially shellfish), or salads. (432 cases produced)
Langtry Estate | Petit Verdot | Tephra Ridge Vineyard | Lake County | California | 2006 | $40 | 93 ptsAromas: Port-like; Bourbon-laced Oak Character: dry; full-bodied; rich and refined; medium tannins and acidity; mellowed oak Flavors: dark berries; spice; vanilla; licorice; piney cedar Food Pairing: sharp cheeses; balsamic-tossed salads; pasta and meat dishes; bittersweet chocolate
This is a Wine on the Barrelhead “Complete Meal Wine”
When Langtry’s vineyards were reestablished in the 1960s, all five Bordeaux varieties were planted. From those vines, Langtry produces wonderful Bordeaux-style blends, but on occassion also crafts a single varietal red made from what’s traditionally a blending grape – Petit Verdot. This wine comes from Langtry’s premier vineyard called “Tephra Ridge,” a 35-acre parcel sitting on a mountainside high above Guenoc Valley. This is a rich, full-bodied wine, exuding aromas that are complex and beautifully perfumed with hints of port and bourbon-like oakiness; and deep, vibrant flavors of blackberries, baking spices, and licorice, bound with an impression of piney cedar. Silky smooth and beautifully balanced, this is a wine of great power, finesse, and versatility. It pairs well with just about anything, from sharp cheeses to balamic viniagrette-tossed salads to pasta and meat dishes to dark chocolate deserts. This is a quentessential “complete meal wine.” (177 cases produced)
To learn more about Langtry Estate and Vineyards and its wines, visit them virtually at www.langtryestate.com. Ask for Assistant Tasting Room Manager Jose Vasquez, who has worked at Langtry for many years and knows the winery and vineyards like the back of his hand. Langtry’s small production estate wines, such as the Sauvignon Blanc and Petit Verdot above, are well worth seeking out but difficult to find, so visit Langtry’s website and shop for them and other Langtry wines from the comfort of home.
Lake County is, in our estimation, the New Frontier of California winemaking, and we encourage you to take the time to explore the region and its wines. If you can’t visit in person, then visit virtually at www.lakecountywineries.org.