Great surprises from Lake County Wineries found at "Wines with Altitude" event

I recently attended Wines with Altitude, where the vintners of Lake County California brought their wines to town — literally, to a stunning San Francisco venue on Treasure Island.  Casually dressed wine-makers and staff members poured and chatted with the attendees between baguettes and hummus.  A folksy event put together by the Lake County Winery Association, the four-hour pow-wow came with a classy glass sporting the Wines with Altitude slogan, a fresh personal-size baguette, and booklet with info and space for wine-tasting notes.  I attended as press.

The event was held at The Winery SF on Treasure Island. WARNING: This is a place of jaw-dropping city views. It was easy access and there were a couple of food trucks outside with picnic tables.

Inside there was a large main floor of wine pouring. An upstairs room featured winning wines from the 2011 Lake County Wine awards. In all, over 100 different wines were pouring from 20 or so wineries. There were olives and olive oil, pizzettas and gazpacho and some nice lounging areas in the

old building.

I’ve been known to favor Lake County Sauvignon Blancs. The Altitude theme suggested Reds.  I arrived with my notebook and spit-cup, eager to commence tasting, and not really knowing what to expect.  It turned out to be a day of surprises, some professional – like tasting a Lake County Aglianico, and some personal – like running into Napa Valley winemaker Nils Venge, the first person who exposed me to garagiste winemaking. The story: About twenty years or so ago, a group of friends and I loyally appeared every season to help Nils bottle his fledgling Saddleback Cellars wines in a small concrete block building on Money Road in Rutherford, CA. The little block building is still the nucleus of Saddleback and Nils now also owns Cougar’s Leap in Lake County.

I made an effort to taste every Sauvignon Blanc (SB), and there were quite a few. The Lake County SB’s were each so different, I couldn’t identify a Lake County “style” or varietal “character.” The only label I recognized was Guenoc, a widely distributed and solid SB. This was a good sign I was discovering a number of labels for the first time. I learned that Guenoc is a Valley – and it’s own AVA — and that the premium SB is their Langtry Sauvignon Blanc (250 cases produced vs thousands of Guenoc). I liked the Langtry.  My other favorite Sauvignon Blanc’s were 2 from Six Sigma Michael’s Vineyard – the 2010 stainless with bright fresh melon on the nose and classic grapefruit on the palette – and a single vineyard, very lightly oaked version that maintains a crisp, cleansing acidity while adding dimension from the oak.  This wine recently won best-in-class in the 2011 Lake County Wine Awards Competition, directed by Ray Johnson.

 

Winemaker Nils Venge

Cougar’s Leap offered a unique Sauvignon Blanc rendition – the 2010 Black Rock White which is 70% Semillion, 30% SB and, according to vintner Nils Venge, includes a boost from a one-time barrel of Albarino. Cougar’s Leap was pouring 2 other wines and they were memorable: The 2008 Black Rock Zinfandel with lots of fruit coming through structure and tannins, and which Venge claims with a crooked grin is “17% alcohol.” Reviewers have dubbed it “Ballistic!” Definitely a wine with “Altitude.” I finished with a 2007 Petite Sirah at Cougar’s Leap.

Nils introduced me to Gregory Graham, and I spent quite a bit of time at Greg’s table. Former wine-maker at Rombauer, Graham has been at it for 30 years.  At one point he was making 4 different Zinfandels for them.  For his own label, he makes only small lots using bins for fermentation. He says this has freed him from the constraints of tank-based wine-making, giving him a lot of flexibility.  He was pouring several wines. I tasted the 2009 Gregory Graham Red Hills Bartolucci Vineyard Viognier, one of the nicest Viognier’s I’ve had … and it’s a $16, 13.5% alcohol wine.  Graham’s 2007 Grenache was my personal favorite of the day, delivering a mouth-filling intensity and lingering romance of fruit and texture on the palette.  The 2008 Cinder Cone was my red blend favorite of the day – 48% Syrah, 24% Cabernet, and 14% each Malbec and Grenache. Big, balanced, and Red. Graham’s wines are well-priced, running from $15-16 for Dry Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, to a high of $38 for a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir he wasn’t pouring, and a number of wines in the $18-24 range. Gregory Graham wines represent star-quality wine-making at excellent value pricing.

Rosa d’Oro Aglianico.  This is a red varietal grape of Southern Italian regions – Basilicata and Campania – pronounced alianico.  I’ve had the Corte Normana from Campania (imported by Salvia Bianca), and heard of one or two Aglianico’s being vinted in California. So I was pleased and surprised to find Pietro Buttitta pouring his family’s estate-grown 2008 Aglianico. It’s a lovely wine expressing the full Aglianico character, if in a smoother, less rustic style than it’s Italian brethren. Well-priced at $18.  I tasted the 2008 Barbera, which won a Silver medal in the Chronicle Wine Competition – also a fine wine at the $18 price point.

I decided the only way to cope with the bounty of Rosa d’Oro, is to visit the their Tasting Room in Kelseyville and do some serious sampling of the Primativo, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Dolcetto and maybe a Rosato. And in another year or two, they will be bringing out a NegroAmaro! (You read it here first.) Pietro is also a prolific blogger – check him out here.

SF from Treasure Island

It’s clear I have a lot to learn about Lake county as a wine region and I’m planning to make a trip. You can find various Lake County Wine events online; next up is the Lake County Wine Auction on Sept 17. The event that interests me most is the People’s Choice Wine Awards and blind tasting on November 5.

I love blind tastings … as long as I can see the view!

One last surprise: Many of Lake County Wineries have active Facebook pages, but there is definitely room for growth in the Twitter realm. The Winery SF’s most recent tweet was in July, nearly 2 months ago. One would expect better care and feeding, especially when you have a high-profile name, location, and over 2000 Twitter followers.

 

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