Big Valley and Kelsey Bench AVAs
For many, the trip up Highway 29 ends at Calistoga. Yet if you continue about another 20 minutes up and over the grade, traversing Mt. St. Helena, you’ll end up in Middletown, at the base of Clear Lake. Due East of Middletown is one of Lake County’s far reaching AVA’s, Guenoc Valley, with only one winery, Langtry Estate, and a long track record of outstanding Petite Sirah amongst other things. There is another far reaching AVA at the opposite end of Clear Lake, Benmore Valley, which is basically defunct. The heart of wine country in Lake County is the Clear Lake AVA and its nested AVAs, the high elevation vineyards on the volcanic ridges at Red Hills and across the lake at High Valley, both of which enjoy cooling breezes and iron rich soil. These regions are joined by the newly proclaimed AVA’s of Kelsey Bench, once a lava flow from Mount Konocti, and the flatter, lower Big Valley, a basin adjacent to the lake. Kelsey Bench and Big Valley AVA’s are excellent sources of Sauvignon Blanc. The imminent approval of these areas was announced September 22 in SWE’s Wine, Wit & Wisdom and then officially approved by the TTB on October 2.
Large players in Lake County like Shannon Ridge and Brassfield, are getting their wines out into state and national distribution. There are other wines to watch for as well. Petite Sirah is juicy, bright, peppery, and not nearly as oaky as the standard bearers from Napa. Zinfandels across the region are in general lighter, elegant, with a concentration of pretty red fruits, and have excellent balancing acidity. Italian varietals are carefully crafted at Rosa d’Oro, and Six Sigma Ranch, Tempranillo is one of the best Spanish varietals in the area and Gregory Graham’s Viogniers are some of the best in California!
A new category is popping up as well, red blends made with Bordeaux, Rhone, Italian and Spanish varietals. With memorable, easy going names like Eruption by Brassfield, Dalliance by Vigilance, and Wrangler Red by Shannon Ridge, these lively, richly fruity, only slightly oaked wines deliver a lot of pleasure for the money. I enjoyed tasting these wines as both a judge at the Lake County Wine Awards and on a 6-AVA self-guided tasting tour shortly thereafter.
With fires lit on so many fronts, it is inevitable that Lake County is going to become an important part of the current chapter of California wine history.
Have you been to Lake County recently? Do you feel an area so close to Napa Valley can succeed with Cabernet Sauvignon? Do you think the new AVA’s have the potential of bringing a lot of new attention to the appellation?