Laid-Back Lake County
After attending several Lake County wine tastings, I decided it was time to visit. I picked up a wine-lover friend in St. Helena and headed through Robert Louis Stevenson State Park into rural Lake County.
Lake County is home to Clear Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake entirely in California. At lake level, the elevation is about 1,300 feet, and it rises to more than 2,000 feet around Mount Konocti, a dormant volcano towering over the lake at 4,700 feet.
When you want to get away from the crowds, get back to nature, and breathe clean air, Lake County offers small towns, outdoor activities, open spaces, and delicious wine, all two hours north of San Francisco.
Ceàgo Vinegarden is a wonderful place to stay. Nestled on the northeast shore of the lake, its Spanish-influenced architecture is reminiscent of the Mediterranean. Located at Ceàgo’s vineyard and winery, the casitas also share the grounds with sheep, chickens, gardens, fig and olive trees, and an abundance of lavender.
The interiors feature brightly colored walls and fabrics, tiled floors, ceiling fans, a fireplace, a kitchen area (coffee and several treats provided), and high-tech amenities. French doors open to a private patio with views of the lake and mountains—the perfect place to relax with a glass of Ceàgo wine.
Accommodations around Clear Lake vary tremendously: cottages to rent, a country hotel, a loft in Kelseyville. Do your research ahead of time.
We went to taste wine, but Lake County offers many other things to do, too. If you are interested in largemouth bass fishing, Clear Lake is the bass capital of the West and the site of major tournaments.
The lake’s warm waters make it nice for swimming, but because of its ecosystem, algae are natural. The algae content varies depending on the time of the year. You’ll quickly decide how it feels once you’re in the water.
Boat launches line the shore and many are free. In addition, you can water ski, Jet Ski, sail, paddleboard, kayak, and rent houseboats and pontoons. Unlike other lakes overrun with boats, Clear Lake is not.
Clear Lake State Park, a popular camping site, has a marina, beach, fishing pier, and hiking trails. Mount Konocti County Park is part of the county’s regional trails. Maps guide hiking, water navigation, and walking between area vineyards.
On historical Lakeport’s walking tour, explore the Pioneer and Indian Museum in the old brick courthouse. It showcases baskets made by the Pomo Indians, who once lived nearby. Lake County has numerous annual festivals: Wine & Chocolate, Rhythm & Brews, one for pears, as well as one for the blues.
Lake County is a rapidly growing wine region that features distinctive volcanic soils in its five AVAs. It is high-elevation farming (the Mayacama Mountains are to the west and the Vaca Range is to the east) where vines are tended sustainably.
We started our adventure at Ceàgo Vinegarden, which specializes in small-lot wines. The grapes are grown organically and biodynamically. Choose the tasting room, small café, or patio (with lake views) to sample wine. Don’t miss Kathleen’s Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc and Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon, Del Lago (both 2012) and Ceàgo’s extra-virgin olive oil.
Kelseyville has a number of wineries and tasting rooms. With several labels, Steele Winery offers a great selection of varietals. Enjoy the laid-back vibe in the tasting room and especially two wines from 2010: the Writer’s Block Cabernet Franc and the Steele Stymie Syrah.
At Wildhurst Vineyards, the tasting room/boutique is a fun place to sip the 2010 Home Ranch Zinfandel and the 2009 Reserve Petite Sirah.
Close by, try delicious Italian varietals at Rosa d’Oro Winery, such as these two 2010s: Primitivo and Aglianico. The winery also produces estate-grown extra-virgin olive oil, which is available to taste on-site.
One street over is Chacewater Winery & Olive Mill. Lots to try, but be sure to sample the 2010 Malbec and the blood orange-infused olive oil.
In Upper Lake, a stop at the Lake County Wine Studio is essential. In addition to a fun environment in which to taste and buy wine, discover hard-to-find bottles from more than 40 local wineries. The 2009 Sol Rouge Gypsy Rouge and the 2010 Obsidian Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon are among the standouts.
Each of the little towns we visited (Upper Lake, Lakeport, and Kelseyville) has small shops. Wineries and tasting rooms hope you’ll buy their wine, olive oil, and other products when you visit.
From Napa, Middleton is the first town in Lake County. Stop at Hardester’s Markets for the best of all-natural, organic, and fresh groceries. Family-run for three generations, it’s also a great place for delicious sandwiches—and it’s a hardware store, too.
Lunch by the lake is terrific at Park Place in Lakeport. Owned for 20 years by the same dynamic duo, it’s a local favorite, serving pastas and pizzas in addition to specialty salads (with yummy poppy seed dressing) and sandwiches. Savor the lake view and a Lake County wine (we chose the 2011 Brassfield Pinot Grigio) with your meal.
Dinner one night was at the Blue Wing Saloon in Upper Lake. On a warm evening, eating in the garden courtyard is pleasant. The menu has something for everyone, with flatbreads, wings, Asian slaw, and shrimp and grits. The wine list is exclusively Lake County; we chose the 2007 Gregory Graham Syrah.
A casual atmosphere, good food, and rotating exhibits of local artists make the Saw Shop Gallery Bistro in Kelseyville an enjoyable place to eat. With our specialty cocktail, we opted for the delicious crispy duck breast with raspberry compote and the skillet-roasted Gulf prawns. The lemon drop cheesecake for dessert was a sweet ending.
Lake County Chamber of Commerce
PATTY BURNESS can be found on Twitter at @pattygb.