Don’t let its industrial setting with picnic tables outside dissuade you from trying their wine. Several locals recommended this winery and there’s always a reason for talk like that.
They are one of the few wineries that is taking advantage of the wonderfully abundant pears in Lake County. After prohibition made winemakers tear out their beautiful vines, most planted pears to continue using their land for revenue. Many pear orchards remain throughout Lake County and Mt. Konocti is one of the few that produces a sparkling wine out of pears with no grapes. It has a light crisp refreshing quality that is not too sweet and not too dry. You’d think the pears would make it taste sweet even without residual sugar but it has no sugar aftertaste. It is also only 10% alcohol so feel free to open it for grandma over Easter Sunday brunch.
Their Cabernet Sauvignon is also very balanced. Although it has deep dark plummy black cherry flavor, its big body and spice match up with crisp acidity and quite a long finish.
Some of the most well-crafted wines come from winemakers who got their experience while employed by other wineries before branching out to create a label of their own, representing a personal style or creative outlet. Shed Horn is a great example of this bootstrapping spirit. They produce premium rich yet smooth wines of superior quality. You can trust everything you taste at their tasting room in downtown Middletown.
Their Sauvignon Blanc is austere with big citrus and an extra-long finish. This is the most tangy Sauvignon Blanc found in Lake County yet but the fruit was balanced and refreshing with elegant body. Take a whiff of their Chardonnay and you get the feeling you’re waiting in line at a movie theater for hot buttered popcorn. Pale yellow in color but a green grassy creamy feel may sound like a mouthful and it is!
Their non-typical red blend is luscious. So many layers and textures, no description could do it justice. You just have to try it. But, what stole the show is their Petite Sirah. Most are too tannic and chewy because they are small (petite) grapes with thick skins and that’s where tannins come from. This is also where the color of a wine comes from and this one is more deep purple, reminding you of a good blueberry jam. But this Petite Sirah has soft silky tannins, nice acidity, and sumptuous blueberry flavor with dark plum and a bit of chocolate. If you want to taste the potential of this big vibrant wine, Shed Horn’s has tremendous typicity and structure but could spoil you for all others.
All the best Italian varietals are available at the Rosa D’Oro tasting room in downtown Kelseyville right in front of those cool antique street lights. If you are a fan of these famed grapes, make sure you stop at this family winery for a tasting.
Their Rosato has a wild crazy blend of red grapes that give it many layers and a complex texture. It starts with a tangy blend of strawberry and tart cherry with a hint if crisp juicy apple but finishes with a long velvet smoothness. This is a great Summer wine! Sangioveses come in all styles and theirs respects the Italian style with crisp acidity, flavors of tart cherry and even cranberry. Its slight earthiness and hint of leather give it a balanced structure. It would be a terrific pizza wine.
Their Barbera screams of black cherry. It is not tannic but has bright acidity that makes your mouth water, literally. Their Montepulciano has big fruit, big earth, and bigger acidity. Its slight green pepper and grassy freshness matches the dark fruit flavors. This wine makes you want to roll around in some high-end cotton sheets. Finally, their Anglianico has big blackberry and mocha flavors with bold blueberry and even some tart cherry. This is a big steak wine.
Chacewater is one of those resourceful wineries that also makes olive oil and olive oil products. Pop in on any day they are open, and they’ll be happy to give you a tour of the winemaking facility as well as their olive oil milling equipment. Yes, they have a Millmaster who makes all kinds of olive oils, flavored olive oils, and bars of healthy soaps for your body and hair. They recommend pouring blood orange or meyer lemon olive oil over a scoop of vanilla ice cream and I have to admit it was quite tasty. I’d add a sprinkle of really good sea salt.
The wine is another reason to visit. Their Sauvignon Blanc has a nice crisp citrus flavor, probably the most citrus I’ve found in Lake County. But it’s not overwhelmingly harsh citrus because it is wrapped in a blanket of green apple and a very long finish. Their 50/50 Chardonnay has seen some stainless steel and some oak, giving it that wonderful lemon curd fruit flavor with a long vanilla and crème brulee finish. A usually tannic wine, Petite Verdot rarely stands on its own. But, theirs is done in 100% French oak so the soft silky tannins make way for a ripe berry cherry body. Their Oh Eight Headaches has ripe blueberries from Petite Sirah with a bit of smoke from Malbec and a light finish.
Your next visit to Lake County should include many visits to the Blue Wing Saloon, adjacent to the historic Tallman Hotel in the quaint town of Upper Lake. Not because they have Monday night live music in a beautiful outside courtyard setting or because they serve local wines and support local farmers but because the food is so good. This Jerk Chicken was covered in a spicy smoky rub and sat on top of a wonderfully flavored coconut rice with peas and served with sliced mango and lime.
The tangy sour lime countered the sweet mango and the trifecta was of course the spice. The smoke was just a bonus. Sounds like a special of the day but it was on both the lunch and dinner menus all the time. Go get yourself some!
When too many locals rave about a winery, you have to get yourself there to figure out why. Maybe, not you but I do. That’s what makes me a wine investigator. Gregory Graham Estate Winery is one of those famed places with a rock star winemaker rep and following. Not only are all his wines well-crafted and balanced, he also makes quite a variety. They pour a delicious Sauvignon Blanc, which is pretty common in this climate. Then, their Riesling is done in the traditional German style with powerful floral aromas and big acidity yet a hint of honey that make it a great pairing for your favorite spicy dishes. See previous post on the Thai Chicken from the Saw Shop.
Like most rock stars, this winemaker follows the beat of a different drum. His series of reds include Rhone varietals like Grenache and Syrah, Burgundy’s golden child named Pinot Noir, and Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon. He styles his Cabernet Sauvignon different from the overripe oak monster cabs of Napa Valley by softening tannins to show off the bright cherry and plum flavors balanced by just enough herbaceousness to make it interesting and complex. A luscious and bold blend of almost all 5 Bordeaux varietals stole the show with rich voluptuous fruit and a racy body. All his grapes come from Lake County except for the Pinot Noir, which he gets from Sonoma’s coastal region. It appears to be the only grape you cannot grow in Lake County.
It is also pretty easy to tell Gregory Graham knows what he’s doing. He has far more elaborate answers to questions like “why Lake County” and “what makes Sauvignon Blancs so much better here” unheard before. For the first question, most will admit the land is cheaper here and their wines are very reasonably priced. But Gregory Graham also attributes his flavors to the hot days, cool nights and volcanic soil or red dirt that bring out more complexity and textures. When questioned about how Sauvignon Blancs here don’t have that harsh grapefruit that overpowers it, he says it is not only about the hot climate that this grape loves but also the minerality in the soil that brings out more apricot, melon, and stone fruit along with its hallmark citrus overtones. His prices are all very reasonable and the tasting experience is one you’ll remember.
Noggle is another great example of how quality rules over quantity. They don’t make a lot of wine and only specialize in a few varietals. But, they’ve admirably chosen varietals that thrive here. The day I was there they were only pouring Cabernet Sauvignon from two different vintages. But I saw they usually have a Sauvignon Blanc as well.
Still, the one varietal they poured was a mighty accomplishment. Deep dark black cherry followed plum and many layers and textures in this juice. Its haughty thickness and deep garnet with purple color comes from unfined and unfiltered practices, which probably make it a healthy wine. The winemaker, Michael Noggle, feels the same way about his coffee. He wants to taste its natural richness and darkness instead of watered down flavor. He’s also quite a star one-man show. His wife had to get him to take a break from mowing the lawn in the back to pour for me. So, plan on visiting Noggle on a day you feel like a drive since it is a bit off the beaten path and pavement and call first to find out about open hours for tastings.
I don’t know where the Brassfields got their panache, but their beautifully rustic tasting room and gardens, set beneath layers of colored mountains sure tell a story. If these local walnut wooded walls could talk, they’d speak of a sickly child whose life was saved by specialty vitamins and the business born after a miraculous recovery.
All these words can tell you about is the delightful wines. The first wine poured wows you with big gripping citrus but a nice body and long finish, rarely seen in Pinot Gris. Then their Sauvignon Blanc has lovely fruit of melon and green apple with a bit of white pepper. Their Serenity is a slightly sweeter white blend served best with your favorite spicy dishes.
Then, the reds start with a Pinot Noir that has a slight hazelnut scent, which may be a hallmark of Lake County Pinots. Its big ripe cherry and nut body jump start your taste buds while the long finish keeps you thinking of it. Their Cabernet Sauvignon leads with Bing cherry and a hint of bell pepper with another long velvet finish.
Finally, their port style late harvest Zinfandel is fortified with brandy. But it is the brandy made out of their own Zinfandel! So, it is an estate port style wine and a great finish.
Thorn Hill is one of the few wineries in the area that has a sparkling cuvee made in the traditional methode champenoise way using a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It’s bright crisp green apple and citrus fruit flavors make it wonderfully light with little or no heavy sugar aftertaste. Its medium body also makes it a great pairing for just about any food. Some people think sparkling wine is just for celebrating! Others think it is only appropriate before dinner or as an appetizer drink. But try pairing it with a meal and you’ll be wondering why you hadn’t before. It’s a delightfully refreshing pairing for food before, during, or after any meal and it’s always thirst quenching this time of year.
The architecture in their new tasting room reminds you of a villa in Tuscany with marble bathrooms, arched doorways, and a regal mantelpiece. Their patio is designed for entertaining and I’ve even heard they plan to build inn rooms on the property in the same style so you can drive, taste, and relax without traffic.
Windowed front door
Tiled floor and mantle
Patio and volcanic hill
But, back to the wines. A favorite of this valley, Sauvignon Blanc continues to surprise here in Lake County. Its body has big melon and citrus with balanced acidity and a long finish. Their Cabernet Sauvignon has a big body full of cherries and chocolate with a long velvet finish. Finally, they finish the tasting with their dessert wines. Yes, they have more than one! A white late harvest Sauvignon Blanc with Semillon has fruit flavors of apricot and pear with a golden honey color and richness. And their port style red dessert wine is made from Petite Sirah and has the most elegant yet rich deep dark chocolate flavor.
A local favorite for good eats and drinks in Kelseyville, the Saw Shop Gallery Bistro should be top of the list of places to try for even a short visit here. The menu covers steak and seafood as well as a taco plate and an exciting list of appetizers. What’s most noteworthy is how delicious and authentic their Thai chicken was for a restaurant not even specializing in this cuisine.
But, whenever you go, make sure it is not a Tuesday night. That’s the night they offer all appetizers for $5 and the place gets packed with all of Lake County’s most frugal cheapskates. It’s known as “Tightwad Tuesday.” If you support small businesses, splurge a little on their steak Diane during one of their other nights instead.
Filet Mignon in Peppercorn Sauce over Truffle Mashed Potatoes
The room is full of local art for sale, which is why it is called a gallery. So, you can showcase your art and get instant feedback! They are only closed on Sunday and Monday nights, which seems like they could be lucrative nights to be open but I guess you gotta take a few nights off some day. Either that or hire more staff.
They also make great use of local ingredients, whenever possible. Lake County quickly became the pear capital of the world thanks to prohibition because ancient vines had to be replanted with something. Pear and walnut orchards thrived here and plenty remain, giving way to delicious dishes like the one below.
Cider Glazed Pork Loin Chop with Apple Cider Gastrique Topped with Local Pears and Gorgonzola over Aged Cheddar Polenta