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Stalking Cabernet Greatness in Lake County
By W. Blake Gray
Jul 24, 2012
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I'm standing in a big pile of red dirt in 103 degree weather, and it's windy.  My eyes are burning but I'm trying to man up and do the job of grasping why Andy Beckstoffer is adding to his 1200-acre Lake County vineyard portolio.  But man, it's hot, and I'm miserable.

And then, one of the other writers on this little junket points to a man driving an earth mover, pushing more of the red dirt into the air, and says, "I wonder how hot it is in the cab of that truck."

People think writing about wine is all fun and games, but my visit to Lake County was hard work.  But I thought it was important work, because Lake County is trying to position itself as the next great Cabernet Sauvignon area in California.

The Mayacamas mountain range, where most of Napa Valley's great Cabernets are grown, extends into Lake County, and Lake County grapes have been going into Napa wines for years.

While it is a fairly hot region, apparently 103 degree days are rare in the vineyards mainly because of the elevation.  Clear Lake, an old-school family vacation spot where people fish and ride jet skis, is at 1,480 feet elevation, and most vineyards are on the hills above it.

Unlike in neighboring Napa, grapevines are still a minor part of Lake County agriculture, accounting for less than 1% of the landmass.  But growers are converting from the previous specialties, pears and walnuts, because the profit potential is higher.

French flying winemaker Stéphane Derononcourt makes -- and sells out -- a Red Hills Cabernet from Lake County's most recognized sub-appellation.  And Beckstoffer's large bet on the county is as good an endorsement as you could ask for.  But he still hasn't convinced the wineries that beg for his fruit from To Kalon in the heart of Napa Valley that they should pay the Red Hills premium Lake County growers covet.

Randy Krag, vineyard manager for Beckstoffer's Red Hills vineyard, told of a deal Beckstoffer made with a prominent Napa winery:  The winery could have some To Kalon Cab only if it bought 10 tons of the Red Hills.  The next year, Beckstoffer asked the winemaker what he thought of the Red Hills fruit, and learned he had sold it on the bulk market without even trying to make wine from it.

"Cabernet from Lake County used to go into a lot of $15 California Cabs.  It formed the backbone of those great value wines," says Peter Molnar, chairman of the Lake County Winegrape Growers.  "Now it costs more, but big buyers aren't used to thinking of it that way.  But look around -- good Cab doesn't come from that many places.  People talk about how rare good Pinot sites are, but in California, with all the great areas along the coast for Pinot, good Cab sites are even more rare."

It's a shocking point to consider but a good one.  Think about it:  You can get great Pinot from Mendocino, Marin, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara.  Great Cab?  Not so much.

Molnar's own vineyard, Obsidian Ridge, is responsible for one of the best red wines from Lake County.  It has a great history.

Pappy Waldorf, who coached football at UC Berkeley in the 1950s, bought 650 acres to grow walnuts, but had no water on the property, a major issue in an area where the soils retain little water.  His abandoned sheds are still there.  He sold it to a Navajo named Eli Wilson who made a fortune with his savvy skills at buying and selling cattle at auction.  Wilson liked Cal football and Waldorf tried to unload the property on him, but Wilson refused to pay more than $50,000 -- for 650 acres.  Imagine that in Napa County.

Wilson liked the land and thought about starting a horse farm there, but never did.

In the '90s, Molnar graduated from Cornell and landed a job in Hungary privatizing the post-Communist wine industry.  He caught the wine bug, and when he moved home he looked for land for a while before meeting Wilson, who hadn't wanted to sell but decided Molnar would be a good steward of his property.  And in fact, he's now a leader of the grapegrowing community.

One of Lake County's unusual aspects is the high level of UV light, which is really noticeable on a hot day; though I wore sunglasses, my eyes burned well into the evening.

Grapes need UV protection too for their seeds, so they grow thick skins.  The plus side of this, similar to Mendoza, Argentina, is high levels of the antioxidant resveratrol, which is so good for you that some people take it in tablets (I prefer it in Bordeaux blends.)  Also, Lake County Cab has very few pyrazines, which give wines an herbal flavor that is not loved by most California Cabernet drinkers.

The downside is that thick skins mean considerable tannins.  Plus, the long summer days with lots of UV light mean that the acid burns out of the grapes, and consequently the wine made from them needs to be acidified.  Krag, whose degree is in plant production and pest management, explained to me that it involves potassium and something about the soil, but this came rather late on that 103 degree day when only the phrase "Red Hills fruit needs to be acidified" woke me from my stupor.

Fortunately a dip in the pool revived me enough to enjoy dinner in the company of Denis and May-Britt Malbec, two more important advocates for Lake County fruit.  Denis, former cellar master at Chateau Latour in Bordeaux, is making delicious Sauvignon Blanc in both a delicate dry version, with weekly lees stirring, and a sumptuous late harvest version that could be Sauternes.  The Malbecs live in St. Helena and work with Napa fruit all the time, so why Lake County?

"I like the dirt," he said.  And I guess I do too, as long as it stays out of my eyes.