Without a bit of research, I don’t know that I could say which came first: wine or art? I’m sure it’s art. But it seems to me, as far back as we look, both seem to be intertwined in humanity as long as we have been human. And what’s not to love about both? They bring great joy and an ever-changing and evolving perspective. That’s why when I learned Wine in the Willows was recently repurchased, I breathed a great sigh of relief, knowing that wine and art would not lose another supreme location.
It’s a short fifteen-minute drive from our home in Loch Lomond to the small town of Kelseyville. Tall oaks and pine trees stretch high into the sky on the meandering road showing off their bright green brilliant colors against the late afternoon blue sky. Settled at the edge of Mt. Konocti is the country town of Kelseyville. Our only plan once the car is parked at Suites On Main is to not leave town for the weekend.
Lake County has some spectacular wineries and great places to take old friends for a taste. Whether you spend an afternoon touring the vineyards at Six Sigma, enjoying the views at Laujor Estate Winery and Wild Diamond Vineyards, or enjoying a picnic at Brassfield Estate, there’s always somewhere to have a great experience. But sometimes, having a few friends over for a tasty home-cooked meal is the most enjoyable way to enjoy wine. We all know that wine’s best when it’s shared, and with Labor Day Weekend coming up, there’s no better time to try something new. Here are six of our favorites from three small, local wineries that are meant to drink with friends on a summer evening.
In the heart of Big Valley, nestled among vineyards and orchards, sits one of the largest retired pear processing plants in Lake County. While it no longer processes pears, the facility still serves as a cold storage and winery. A single car is parked on the massive concrete slab just in front of the large storage building that reads Mt. Konocti Growers, Inc. Off in the corner is a more modest building, parking area, and patio, home to Mt. Konocti Winery’s tasting room. This is a working winery, and the familiar aroma of wine fills the air. The left side of the building is filled with offices and cases of stacked wine. To the right lies the tasting room, a former office redecorated and transformed. A display rack holds a modest collection of hand-crafted wine bags, aprons, candles, and, of course, bottles of wine. Old photos and pear labels hang on the walls. A thoughtful wine bar made from two wine barrels and old pear packing boxes sits in the corner. It’s still possible to see the label on the boxes, another reminder of the history of the place. Originally started as the Lake County Fruit Exchange in 1926, there are plenty of stories here. Currently, much of their business is custom crush and wholesale, but they also create some uniquely Lake County wines, all grown from local grapes. Here are five great ones we recommend.
It’s early Saturday evening in Lake County, and there are more things going on than a person can possibly fit into one evening. The solution? Pick a general area in the county; if you plan it right, you can party-hop all night long. It goes without saying that the best parties start with a designated driver. After you’ve figured that out, let the fun begin!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“The first time I tasted a Malbec, it was like that movie Ratatouille,” Miguel says. “You know how that one bite took him back to his childhood?” Miguel poses the question. “The first smell of the Malbec took me back to when I was six or seven years old in Michoacán. We had to go up the mountain and plow the furrows for the corn by hand. And after a long, hot day of work, my father would pick the prickly fruit off the cactus. He would pick the spines off the fruit and hand it to me to eat. When I was a child, I was mad at having to do all that hard work, but the reward of the work was the taste of the fruit in my mouth.” He smiles, remembering that moment once more. “And that moment was in that glass of wine. Wine tasting is personal,” he continues. “You won’t have the same feeling or memory that I have when you taste something, but it’s that moment with certain wines, where you are taken back to a certain time or emotion. Then the wine becomes part of who you are. That makes wine special. Winemaking is memories.”
“I call myself a winegrower,” Greg says. “I’m my own vineyard manager, and at the end point, I’m a winemaker. It’s not about getting tonnage. It’s about growing high-quality fruit. Grapes don’t ripen at the same time. I pick them over three weeks to ensure they are picked at the peak.” And it shows in his wines. Every bottle at Gregory Graham is distinct, unique, and thoughtfully created. “I would put my grapes and wines against anyone,” he says. “I put my thumbprint on the wines.”
Wind whips around the tasting room, groaning through the flapping sunshades, but around the corner, it’s quiet and warm. Two chairs huddle near a patio heater, a tray filled with hand-labeled two-ounce bottles of wine to taste between them. Below the old farmhouse, old walnut trees fill the courtyard, where the wind blows water from the fountain several feet into the gravel. Birds flick through the bare branches, rising with each breeze, then settling on a new tree. A bocce court framed by a rock wall marks the end of the tasting area and the beginning of the vineyards, which sweep downward to Anderson Marsh and Clear Lake. Snow-tipped mountains rise in the distance, dusted in sugar.
Once the pavement ends, it’s like entering another world, peaceful, calm, filled with light and laughter. Massive valley oaks arch overhead, shading the fire pit and picnic area. Bamboo wind chimes clink in the soft breeze. Martin Pohl, owner of Beaver Creek, steps out to greet us.
“Hello! Hello!” he smiles as he walks towards us, his flip flops clicking with each step. “Welcome!”
You’ve probably driven past Cache Creek Vineyards more times than you can count. Whether leaving or just coming into Lake County, it’s hard to miss the giant wine barrel resting just off of Highway 20 on the way to Williams. If you look closely, you’ll see the fountain to the right of the tasting room, sparkling near the overarching oak trees. Further back, an amphitheater sits. And if you look closely enough, you may catch a glimpse of the herd of Tule Elk roaming the property. Sometimes life needs a short detour, and Cache Creek Winery is well worth a side trip on your way to or from the city.
I first need to warn you about the view. It slaps you in the face as soon as you turn past the corrugated tin Laujor Sign and head down the hill to the tasting room. It is. Be careful to focus on the road and not Konocti and the sweep of mountaintops across the horizon as you drive into the parking lot. Vines surround the tasting room, but don’t worry; going inside won’t ruin the view. Pull open the glass doors and step up to the tasting counter. A massive picture window runs the length of the back wall so that with every sip of wine you can enjoy the exquisite beauty of Lake County.
It’s a warm summer afternoon, but under the covered work area behind the tasting room it’s shady, and the afternoon breeze pushes air through, cooling it further. Paul Manuel, owner of Chacewater, sits at a picnic table, face shield stretching around his head.
“I’m sorry about having to taste out here,” he says immediately. “Two weeks ago, we had to shift our tasting room outside. And this is our work area.” He pauses. “I don’t know how much longer we’re going to have to do this.”
It’s not so bad. The sitting area is casual, comfortable, and welcoming. In front of a stack of wine barrels stands a short tasting bar. Several picnic tables stretch across the patio, a couple sitting at one. The breeze is pleasant, and the shade feels cool. Classic rock plays in the background, and the couple sings along to the chorus. Just on the other side of the shaded area, olive trees stretch in rows, guiding the eyes further outward towards the mountainous horizon. Bright sun glints off the still-small olives, ripening in speckles of chartreuse and white. Come late fall, they will darken to shades of purples, vibrant greens, and chocolate browns.
You may think you’re lost by the time you get to Old Long Valley Road, particularly if you’re coming into Lake County from Williams. Highway 20 winds and twists back upon itself for thirty-five miles as it leaves the valley and works its way into the mountains of Lake County. But if you’re coming from the other direction, it’s only a ten-minute drive from Clearlake Oaks, a small town with a great bakery and good Mexican food.As soon as the car tuns off the highway, the road gets rough. A sign sticks out of the brush, slightly lopsided. “Low Water Crossing 3 3/10 miles ahead,” it states. “Not Maintained During Winter Months.” But don’t worry. Stonehouse Cellars is only a mile away, and there are plenty of reasons to enjoy the view. The road turns into a single lane and winds between the now golden-hued grass that spreads across the steeply sloped mountainsides. A dry creek bed matches the curves of the road. Off in the distance, past the patches of oak trees, mountains shadow into mountains, until they disappear grey-black in the distance. As the road swings into Stonehouse Cellars, a pond appears, surrounded by cattails. On its banks stands a cabin, former stagecoach stop and retreat of Country musician Tennessee Ernie Ford. It’s been completely remodeled and is now available to rent as part of Stonehouse’s Bed and Barrel lodging service. A large willow tree arches over the pond, and a small paddleboat nests in a crack of the foliage. A full-length porch stretches in front of the house, welcoming and inviting. It’s ready for an afternoon with a good book. But the tasting room is up the hill to the right, past the large Stonehouse Cellars sign. There, on a ridgeline, stands a modern structure, straight-lined, pushing vertically upward, contrasting the swell and swoop of the mountains that reach out beyond it. Open the large glass door, and the heat of the summer afternoon dissipates. It’s quiet inside, and the tall ceilings stretch the sound, muffling and extending it. Chairs and couches fill the middle of the room, and a table and shuffleboard stand near the doors leading to the patio. It’s empty country; there’s no other house in sight.
The early April sun just warms the crisp air and flecks across Clear Lake. Clouds puff across the sky, touching Mt. Konocti and sliding their way across Mt. Hannah. Orchards, pastures, and horse corrals with white fences edge Highland Springs Road as it winds its way towards the Mayacamas Mountains. There, nestled between vineyards, stands the small tasting room of Olof Cellars. Cindi Olof, co-owner of the winery, stands inside, a mask and gloves on, filling up a case of wine.
Right now, Olof is offering a special—a case of their wine for $100. “It’s an incredible deal,” Cindi says, adjusting her mask. “That’s $8 a bottle for a $35 a bottle of wine.” She pauses for a second, thinking. “Or $125 a bottle in Napa.”
Feeling cooped up? If you are, an opportunity still exists to enjoy some of the beauty of Lake County and support a local business at the same time. Six Sigma Ranch has opened its trails to the public.
To get to Six Sigma Ranch, you have to want to get there. It’s not the kind of place to swing by for a quick taste. No, once you turn off Spruce Grove Road, bump over the cattle grate, and see the sheep grazing in the vineyards, you enter a place that exists in a different timeline than the rest of the world.
Jill Brothers, co-owner of Sol Rouge, walks up the base of Mt. Konocti behind her home, a glass of Viognier in her hand. Topaz, her kind-hearted yellow lab, follows close behind, sniffing for grapes missed during the harvest and hidden between the rows.
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