Once you’ve passed the heart of Middletown and are working your way towards the winding roads of St. Helena, you’ll pass by La Parrilla Grill. You might not notice it right away, but it’s there on the right side of the road. If you pass The Geysers Visitor Center, you’ve gone too far. La Parrilla’s part taco stand, part restaurant, and is filled with incredible Mexican food. And Lake County’s full of good Mexican joints. But here, you’ll find unique, homestyle dishes you won’t find anywhere else.
FOOD AND DRINK
It’s springtime; the birds are back and busy building nests, the wildflowers are blooming, and the weather’s getting warm. There’s no better time to take a road trip around Lake County. If you’ve got a free day, hop in the car and enjoy some of the county’s most beautiful, unique, and tasty places.
There’s nothing new about celebrating wine and art together. It’s been a uniquely human experience since the beginning of time. And today is no exception. A warm, gentle spring breeze and bright orange-yellow California poppies welcome us as we head towards Six Sigma Ranch and Winery’s wine cave. To the left, winery equipment rests for the time being, while the vines are just beginning the hard work of producing this season’s harvest. Ahead, friends gather in conversation on the broad concrete patio outside the cave’s large open doors. Inside, a table lines one wall, filled with various hors-d’oeuvres, wine, and chocolate. Rows of full barrels fill the back of the cave. Their contents perfume the air, a reminder that this is a working wine cave. And to the right, the recent artwork of Ben vanSteenburgh covers the wall, reaching far into the depths of the cave. It’s the reason for this celebration.
One of the best parts about Lake County is that there’s so much to explore. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s something new to discover. Around each corner of the road, there’s another hidden gem just waiting to be found. This is part two of our road trip. Today we get to enjoy some great views of Mt. Konocti and the Clearlake arm of North America’s oldest lake, then spend some time shopping in two unique towns.
It’s springtime; the birds are back and busy building nests, the wildflowers are blooming, and the weather’s getting warm. There’s no better time to take a road trip around Lake County. If you’ve got a free day, get in the car and enjoy some of the county’s most beautiful, unique, and tasty places. Part one wanders from Middletown, up and over Cobb, until it winds up in the Kelseyville Riviera, edged up against the side of Mt. Konocti. Come take a ride with us.
It’s a clear Lake County winter morning. The morning sun glints down off Susie Q’s Donuts and Espresso, reflecting off the building. It’s a hard place to miss; the bright pink paint draws the eyes immediately. Step inside, and, depending on the time of day, the smell of donuts, bacon, or coffee fills the building. The same pink that covers the outside continues indoors. Dark wood floors and tables contrast the bright walls, and country music comes through the speakers, creating an inviting atmosphere. It’s a place to come, grab a donut or sandwich, and sit down to enjoy them over a cup of coffee.
Just across the road and down the hill from our room at Laujor’s loft lies Boatique Winery. The sign on Red Hills Road’s hard to miss; it rests between two rock pillars and glimmers in the winter sun. Several strips of hardwood have been pressed together to create a laminated frame that holds the profile of a wooden boat. Below, a dark script reads, “Boatique Winery”. We turn off the road, wind our way down the ancient olive tree-lined driveway to the brick-lined parking lot, and enter the brightly-lit tasting room. A fire glows in the large fireplace, and Francesca, Director of Hospitality, finishes pouring the last taste for a couple, who excitedly pick up a few bottles of wine to take home.
The gray clouds clear, leaving Lake County’s iconic blue above the shores of Clear Lake. In the distance, Mt. Konocti reaches up against the crystal-clear sky. A boat takes its time launching at the nearest boat launch. It’s not a busy day on the lake. There’s no rush, and the boat owner knows that. A few people walk by, heading back to work somewhere on Main St, while others take their time over a meal and drink. It’s the lunch hour in Library Park. Outside, a couple of patrons soak in the view from Park Place Restaurant’s outdoor patio while sipping on a glass of wine. Inside, lively music greets us, and happy patrons chatter amongst themselves. The atmosphere is energetic, upbeat, and contagious. The view from the lake isn’t going anywhere, even inside, and the vibes are irresistible.
After a cozy lunch at Adams Springs we make the short drive to Laujor Estate Winery, resting in the Red Hills of Lake County. There’s a reason the Red Hills got their name. The soil is as red as I have ever seen, and it’s famous for its unique terroir. So it’s no surprise that these hills are covered in vineyards. The grey of the January winter storm settles between the rolling vineyards and Mt. Konocti. The rain isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and happily, neither are we.
A welcomed winter rain twists and turns around our feet as we make our way up the steps from the greens to the lodge. No, it’s not a lodge, but that’s what best describes the clubhouse. Its exposed wood and log beams give it a feel like a ski resort. Only a few days before, snow blanketed the golf course, welcoming families from all over the mountain to come and play in a winter wonderland. Inside, people warmed their cold fingers with hot cocoa or lunch in front of the club’s open fire pit. See, a lodge, right?
Today, the snowstorm has turned into a rainstorm outside the clubhouse. Inside, the same warm fire greets us, beckoning us to come closer, and we do. It’s near closing time, and most patrons have already come and gone except for a few locals sitting at tables. A television screen flashes pictures at the end of the bar. We find a spot near the fire and are soon greeted by our waitress. We order a beer and my usual, a Bloody Mary. I know when I find a good one—not too salty and the horseradish is just right. At the bar stands Eddie Mullins, owner and visionary of all that is Adams Springs. Before too long, he makes his way to our table like he always does to greet us.
Edgar Bonilla and Antonio Sanchez sit at one of the picnic tables stretched under a large tent. Edgar’s just lit a propane heater, and the warmth heats the chill from the morning air. Both bring their own energy to the table; Edgar’s bright, friendly, and warm. Antonio’s reserved, thoughtful, and competent. And they’re comfortable in each other’s company; they’ve worked together for over fifteen years in Napa restaurants. And they’ve come together to make some spectacular food at Los Compas.
Pauline chips in. “We knew we wanted a farm, and we drove all over. This was our last stop, and we knew this property was perfect. It’s on a busier road, and it’s flat.” She pauses for a second and watches Franklin chewing on something in the doorway. “I don’t know what my dog’s eating. Oh, it’s just a piece of wood.” She moves on. “So we ordered our blackberry and raspberry starts for the next season. When a semi showed up, I thought, ‘Wow, a lot of people in the area must be ordering.’ But it was all for us. How many plants was it?”
“7,500,” Mike replies.
Chalerm Thai Bistro’s a hidden treasure in Lakeport. Odds are, if you don’t live in town, you haven’t heard of it. It’s not downtown or next to the freeway. Instead, it resides off Lakeshore Boulevard north of the main business district, sitting next to a closed liquor market. For years, it’s also served as our family’s go-to for quality Thai food.
The waning sun’s orange glow casts long shadows against the barn wall at Peace and Plenty Farm. It’s fall in Lake County; autumn leaves are just turning, gardens readying themselves for rest. In the parking area, friends gather together, already savoring Lake County’s last farm to fork dinner of the season before making their way to the tables. Melinda Price, co-owner and farmer for Peace and Plenty Saffron Farm, greets the crowd with her kind voice. “Hello, everyone!” she smiles. “We have a big crowd tonight, the biggest we’ve ever had.” A splash of applause comes from the tables. “Now we have a hungry terrier wandering around. Please, don’t feed her any chicken bones.”
It’s an unusually cool summer afternoon in Big Valley. Outside the Finley Country Market, rose bushes and lavender pop out of planters, framing the red, farmhouse-looking store. Several picnic tables, shaded by umbrellas, stretch across the courtyard. Finley Country Market’s been around twenty-five years and serves as a hub for the small community. They’ve got a good barbecue, offering grilled chicken, burgers, or tri-tip sandwiches depending on the day of the week. And they’re popular; it’s not uncommon for the market to receive twenty-five or thirty pre-orders on Fridays for their tri-tip sandwiches.
And each Friday, another wonderful thing happens at the market. There, on the counter next to the register, sit Karen Shippley’s gluten-free muffins. Depending on Karen’s mood, you may find blueberry muffins, carrot cake or German chocolate cupcakes, all luscious and completely gluten-free.
“Where are you planning to go for dinner?” I was asked several times the day I visited Richmond Park Bar and Grill. “Oh, Richmond Park,” I’d reply. “I’m going to do a write-up on them.” And this is the part that amazed me. I got the same response three times. “Don’t order the Richmond Park Burger. You never be able to finish it.”
Fults Family Vineyards sits on Clayton Creek just a few miles south of Lower Lake on the corner of Spruce Grove Road and Highway 29. Enter the tree-lined driveway, and you wind up a rise, past the Fults’ home to their tasting room overlooking a large pond. Kendall, co-owner of Fults Family Vineyards (FFV), keeps it relaxed and welcoming. It’s the kind of place where no matter your wine knowledge or preference, you’ll have a good time. I’ve never been to a winery with a television on one wall always playing sports, or a par 3 hole where you can hit some golf balls while you sip on a glass. It all fits together perfectly at FFV. Come in on the weekend, and you’ll probably run into Kendall sitting behind the tasting room bar, waiting with some good wine and a good story.
The Subaru winds its way through the oak trees. It’s spring, and Hoodoo Creek weaves through the bright green grass. A vineyard suddenly appears in front of us, filled with thick, gnarled grapevines. We step out of the car to look at them. Each vine curls around itself like a twisted fist, shooting off new leaves. “This is our Hoodoo vineyard,” Dave Rosenthal tells us in his easygoing manner. He’s dressed in a casual sweater and baseball cap. “These Zinfandel vines were planted in 1937.” As he tells us the history of the vines, I snap a few pictures. “My mom, up ‘till two years ago, would come out and work this vineyard,” he continues. “She’d work for a bit, then nap for a bit, like this.” He puts his head on his chest and slumps. “She was enjoying herself, but we got a few calls from the neighbors telling us that Mom had collapsed in the vineyard.” He smiles.
The hum of boats on the lake fills the background as growing shadows dance further and further out into the rippling water. Live music swells from the gazebo in Library Park. Children play in the playground, and the sounds of their laughter mix with the rhythm of the band. This moment in time is one of my favorite reasons for living in Lake County. I take my first sip of Chardonnay. The sun finally rests behind the roofline of Juicy’s Pizza and the roar of unmuffled racecar engines drifts our way from Lakeport Speedway. We consider our choices for the rest of the evening. We could leave the concert in the Park, catch the races and still make it to the drive-in. We decide to box up our pizzas and put off our decision for a while.
Amy Thorn was drawn to Lake County years ago when she worked as a wine judge. At a competition, she tasted an unnamed Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon and was hooked. “I thought, this is the place where we need to start a winery,” Amy says. “The volcanic soil brings it such a unique flavor.” On her first visit, Amy went to Konocti Harbor, watched Credence Clearwater Revival play, then came to look at the property where Thorn Hill’s tasting room currently sits. The night was dark, and the stars shone brilliantly. “I felt like I was in the Sound of Music!” Amy continues. “We walked around and could see the stars like I could reach out and touch them. I’d never seen anything like it before. I knew this was the place.”
Perry’s Deli is currently owned by Derrick and Courtney Fiske. Derrick is a 3rd generation owner who took over from his parents in 2019. I had a chance to talk with him on the phone a few days earlier, and knew that I was in for good food. Derrick explains that his father’s motto is “quality, quality, quality.” Derrick’s grandfather, he says, is “an old-school deli guy who emphasized specific measurements.” The family is no stranger to the deli business as they opened up Novato Perry’s years ago and Middletown in 1992.
May winds blustered their way around Ripe Choice Farm’s barn, hurrying in the late arrivals of the Konocti Women’s Service Club (KWSC) luncheon. A few ladies stood in line to pick up a glass of wine, but most everyone had gathered inside, talking as if they hadn’t seen each other in years. In fact, it had been over a year since they had met, making this more like a family reunion than a meeting. Ladies gathered around the tables scattered throughout the barn, each decorated with wildflowers and tablecloths, making the barn warm and welcoming.
“It was inevitable that Alex and I would end up running a brewery,” Tim O’Meara, one half of the O’Meara Bros. Brewing Company, says. A pump hums in the background, pushing a batch of Elk Mountain IPA into the fermenter. “When we were kids, we always pretended we were bartenders. We had bottles all over the place filled with concoctions we had created.” He laughs. “Mom told us, ‘Someday you’re going to run your own business together.’ Can you give me a second?” he stops, listening to his brewer’s intuition. “I need to go check on that batch.” While Tim heads off to look things over, Trudy and I sip on a flight of his beers. It turns out his mom was right. Decades after her prophecy, and nearly seven years into business together, brothers Tim and Alex are still at it, creating quality, drinkable beverages.
We spot Ben Hittle as we walk into the Farmers’ Market in Middletown. He stands underneath a gigantic oak tree, sunglasses pulled up onto the striped beanie pulled tight on his head. He’s selling trees. “It’s a cedar,” he tells us, his blonde goatee framing his smile, “and it can only be found in two places in Lake County. It’s an endangered species.” “That’s incredible,” I reply. “What type of cedar is it? “I don’t know,” he responds. “I’ve looked for hours and spent way too much time on the phone trying to figure it out. Nobody knows. No,” he pauses. “Somebody knows. I’ll find them.”
Wine barrels sit under the extended awning of 350 North in Lakeport, converted into tables. Barstools stretch around them, with diners propped on the edges, enjoying a beer and burger. Inside, sports play on the televisions, and country music fills in the moments between conversations. “Be proud of your hometown. It’s a big part of what makes you the person you are”, a large sign above the bar reads. “Lakeport Proud”. The atmosphere’s relaxed, casual. It’s the kind of place to get a meal, then hang out for a couple of hours chatting with friends.