Engaging Wine Writers Invitational in Lake County

Tasting Notes

Strolling through vineyards, caves and wineries, and enlightening discussions with vintners and winemakers in Lake County reminded me once again that a prize of a wine region has blossomed here.  Our first stop at Gregory Graham Wines tasting room began the unveiling of noteworthy sips.  Their 2013 Bartolucci Vineyard Viognier is superb.  Apple blossom and stone fruit aromas get the juices flowing.  Apricots, honey-drizzled apples and spiced peach pie flavors glimmer on the palate.  Fermenting in neutral oak barrels and stainless-steel tanks gives this complex Viognier further depth and definition.  Their 2012 Red Hills Syrah, 2014 Chardonnay, 2012 Cab Sauvignon, and 2013 Magma Red (Bordeaux blend of Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cab Sauv) are also luscious.

A visit to Boatique Winery Kelseyville followed.  Not only are there nice wines to be appreciated, but the eye is treated to an extraordinary display of rare wooden boats.  One of my favorite wines here is the 2014 Red Hills AVA Cabernet Sauvignon.  Dark fruits and tobacco on the nose set the stage for the lush mouthful of elderberry jam, blackberries, tobacco and vanilla custard, accented by underlying oak nuances.  I also appreciate their beautifully crafted 2016 Sauvignon Blanc Musqué from the Big Valley AVA, aged in concrete egg tanks, with its tropical fruit, subtle herbs, citrus accents, and smooth texture.

A leisurely drive to the other side of the lake took us to Clearlake Oaks for our check-in at Stonehouse Cellars. There, we were greeted warmly by Stonehouse Cellars’ COO Tamara Richmond, and local Sommelier Stephanie Cruz-Green (who organized the event).  This historic property boasts a vineyard, ranch, agricultural homestay and a savvy, new upscale Bed and Breakfast with a modern, open and fully equipped kitchen that flows to a spacious dining/living area, where a tasty array of wines, cheeses and fresh fruits awaited us upon our arrival.  Touring the acreage gave us the opportunity to take in the beguiling historic guest house, carefully-tended-to vineyards, and four-legged friends including sheep, llamas, and a family of squirrels dashing in and around the stone walls crafted of stones from the property.  Also located on site is their winery, from which the first estate wine, a 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, will soon be bottled and released.  The barrel taste was lovely, looking forward to tasting the finished wine later this year!

Our next stop took us to the stately Brassfield Estate Winery, where we were welcomed by Director of Winemaking Matt Hughes, and attentive staff members, who prepared a gorgeous evening repast.  The scrumptious fresh fish tacos and additional delights paired nicely with their lineup of well-crafted wines. The vast estate encompasses 2,500 acres, with vineyards sitting at elevations from 1,800 feet on the valley floor up to nearly 3,000 feet at the peak of the property.  The acreage spans across sections of High Valley, Lake Serenity and the Round Mountain Volcano. The trip up to the top of the 256-acre property and down to their expansive caves, in a four-wheel drive vehicle, was an experience not to be forgotten!  The wild, exhilarating ride revealed exquisite views of the towering Mt. Konocti, serene Clear Lake and its surrounds. Their miles of caves support the winery’s commitment to growth for years to come.

Brassfield Estate treated us to a compelling Lake County Sauvignon Blanc, their 2016 vintage from the High Valley AVA.  Bright and minerally up front, with an alluring aroma that wakes up the senses.  Crisp melon, stone fruit, lemon verbena, grapefruit and fresh squeezed lime flavors enliven the palate, and the texture is divine.  Their 2016 dry Rosé, a blend of Syrah and Grenache, is equally lovely.  Notes of watermelon, a touch of spice, raspberry gelato, and citrusy accents flow across the palate with perfect balancing acidity. It’s vibrant and mouthwatering through the long finish.  Their intense and well-structured 2014 Cab Sauvignon from the High Valley AVA delivers a solid core of pretty fruit, skillful oak management, and firm tannins.  When you visit, don’t miss their impressive 2016 Grenache, 2014 Eruption (blend of Malbec, Syrah and Petite Sirah), and 2014 Petite Sirah, as well.

Back to Stone House Cellars for a nightcap and a good night’s sleep, before heading out the next morning to Shannon Ridge Family of Wines.  Joy Merrilees, Director of Winemaking and Production, and Production Assistant Ben Neyman met us in the winery’s lively tasting room, offering views of their precisely manicured, certified sustainable vineyards.   We thoroughly enjoyed the tasting of their three 2016 Sauvignon Blancs, which clearly showcased the unique terroir expression of different AVAs in Lake County.  Their 2016 High Valley Vineyards SB with its loamy soils is linear and mineral driven, with layers of citrus, nectarine, and fresh herb elements.  Their 2016 Vigilance SB from the crushed pumice, volcanic soils of the Red Hills AVA, is rounder in the mouth, with ripe tropical fruit flavors of pineapple and guava joining hands with crisp green apple and subtle spice.  Their 2016 Shannon Ridge High Elevation SB crafted of fruit from the High Valley, Red Hills and Big Valley appellations, is crisp and vibrant with fresh summer grass notes playing off Bosch pear, peach, kiwi and citrusy accents, sleek and minerally with brisk acidity.  Each are well balanced, wonderfully bright and fresh; an extraordinary showing of the depth and high quality of Sauv Blancs coming from Lake County.   Don’t miss their remarkable Vigilance 2014 Red Hills Cab Sauvignon, 2014 Shannon Reserve Home Ranch Cab Sauvignon, and 2015 High Valley Petite Sirah, too.

Our next stop was Fore Family Vineyards, where we enjoyed their expressive, deep, dark and velvety 2015 Mourvedre, and elegant 2012 Cobb Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, revealing wild berry fruits and just the right touch of oak (aged in neutral French barrels).  Both wines crafted from grapes grown in the Red Hills AVA.  Another easy to quaff wine is their 2013 Cobb Mountain Vineyard GSM, a plush, richly fruited, vanilla spiced blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, also crafted from Red Hills AVA fruit.

On to our picturesque lunch setting among the super rocky vineyards of Obsidian Ridge, perched at an elevation of 2,640 feet, where we gained a true sense of place among the high altitude vines.  Their intense and complex Cabernet Sauvs are firmly structured, deeply fruited and ageworthy.  In addition to the current vintage (2014, noted below), we tasted a few earlier vintages with our delectable lunch.  Fresh air and cool breezes prevailed, as Co-Founder Arpad Molnar and Marketing/Sales Manager Jennifer La Rosa shared more about the wines, and the history of their 105-acre Obsidian Ridge Vineyard along the Mayacamas Mountains.  The 2011 Cab Sauv is drinking exquisitely, with an intense structure, dark fruit, tobacco, and a thread of minerality adding to its complexity.  The 2007 Half Mile Block (Cab Sauv and Petit Verdot blend) offers a deep hue, and fragrant violets on the nose.  In the mouth, it sings with bright red and black fruits, tea spice, and savory notes, all supported by a solid spine of firm tannins.  Meticulously integrated oak and hints of tobacco linger though the memorable finish.

Obsidian Ridge 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Hills AVA) is a charismatic wine, starting with the aromas of earth, shale, spice, and black fruit.  The palate displays tremendous depth, with blackberry, black currant and dark plum fruit melding with savory spice, leathery notes, and well placed oak nuances.  Multilayered and complex with a solid backbone of firm tannins foretelling its cellar worthiness.

Time to freshen up, and imbibe additional Lake County wines with our sumptuous dinner of lamb, salad and roasted root vegetables, back at Stonehouse Cellars.  Wines included Steele Wines 2012 Stymie Founder’s Reserve Merlot, that showcases a bowlful of fresh blueberries on the nose.  The fine aromatics are followed by juicy blueberry, fresh raspberry, and red currant fruits with accents of cinnamon, vanilla bean and oak spice elements titillating the palate.  R Vineyards expressive and vivacious 2015 Viognier offers up aromas of jasmine and sweet fruit, broadening in the mouth with honeysuckle, juicy guava, mango and clingstone peach flavors wrapped around a nice spine of acidity; brilliant.  The 2013 Six Sigma Ranch Tempranillo wows the palate with plum preserves, blackberries, crushed pink peppercorns, a touch of herbs and tobacco notes.  Mouthcoating and finely balanced.  Noggle Vineyards & Winery’s impressive 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon opens with stunning scents of cinnamon and clove, and blossoms on the palate with cherry, black raspberry, currants, tobacco, earthy notes, cocoa, and toasty oak spice; impeccably balanced with a persistent finish.  Another striking wine is the 2011 Hawk & Horse Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon from the Red Hills AVA.  Dark and delicious with layers of cassis, loganberries, black cherries, tobacco leaf, earth, cocoa and a hint of pencil shavings filling the palate.  Complex with firm tannins, it promises more years of enjoyment ahead.

Our final stop, engaging with Nick Buttitta at family owned Rosa d’Oro Vineyards, was delightful.   The family has been growing wine grapes in California since 1953.  In 2001, they founded Rosa d’Oro Vineyards, focused on crafting Italian varietal wines. The Buttittas have 14 acres of grapes planted in the Kelsey Bench AVA.  The charming tasting room is housed in an old bank building from the early 1900’s.  Nick’s stories are captivating, and the wines are varietally spot on and delicious. Their 2014 Nebbiolo is divine, starting with the heavenly berry, cherry aromas.  Rich and juicy on entry, it coats the palate with layers of raspberry, black cherry, and wild berries, hints of oak, and earthiness, and vibrant acidity carries the wine to a savory finish.  Other wines not to miss here are the lively, raspberry and herb-scented 2013 Aglianico, savory and well balanced 2014 Refosco, intensely aromatic and juicy 2014 Barbera, and jammy, boysenberry and spice-accented 2014 Primitivo.  A fitting finish to our gratifying trip, was Rosa d’Oro’s 2013 Carmen Dessert Wine, a gem crafted of 50% Refosco and 50% Tinta Roriz.   A rich, spiced plum, berry, toffee and dark chocolate accented wine to keep in mind when you are ready for a blissful nightcap!