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Lake County AVAs

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | February 04, 2012

Lake County is a wine producing region located in Northern California. At a size of 1,329 square miles, Lake County is similar in size to Sonoma County. However with only 8,800 acres of vineyards, Lake County is one of the smaller wine producing areas of California. Most vineyards located in Lake County sell their grapes to larger wineries in different areas. This has led to an identity problem for Lake County wineries. Regardless of this problem, Lake county is showing signs of growth with the development of new vineyards.

Lake County takes its name from Clear Lake, which is the largest inland body of water in the state of California. Five American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) are defined within Lake County, each with their own unique Terroir. With the close proximity of Clear Lake, various climactic factors moderate the growing conditions for the various AVAs. Lake County's five AVAs include Guenoc Valley AVA, High Valley AVA, Benmore Valley AVA, Clear Lake AVA and Red Hills Lake County AVA.

Clear Lake AVA is probably the most important AVA within Lake County. This is not simply because the Clear Lake AVA has the largest acreage of planted vineyards. With approximately half of the Clear Lake AVA being Clear Lake itself, the moderating actions of the lake result in less of a temperature variation for the area. This in turn offers better growing conditions. The Clear Lake AVA can therefore utilize cool climate viticulture procedures. This leads to great successes with varieties geared toward cooler climates. Planted grape varieties include Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Muscat Canelli, Syrah and Tempranillo.

The Guenoc Valley is a small AVA consisting of roughly 340 acres of planted grapes. Located in about 15 miles north of the town of Calistoga, the Guenoc Valley has the distinction of being the first AVA to receive an AVA designation while regionally only containing one winery. Long before the AVA designation, grape and wine production were popular within the Guenoc Valley.

In the late 1800s Lillie Langtry established a winery in Guenoc Valley. This Victorian actress built her estate at the southern end of Guenoc Valley. Apart from this estate, not much else in the way of grape growing occurred. Things began to change in the late 1960s. During this time the vineyards of Lillie Langtry were revived and Langtry Estate Vineyards was reborn. Today the winery consists of 21,000 acres of land 340 of which are cultivated grapes.

Climate and soil conditions are unique to the Guenoc Valley AVA. The small inland valley is composed of Arroyo Seco and Conejo Loam that are isolated from neighboring areas by rocky ridges. Rainfall in the Guenoc Valley AVA is slightly less when compared to neighboring areas, particularly the Middletown area. Temperature-wise the Guenoc Valley is slightly warmer in the summertime and cooler in the wintertime when compared to neighboring areas. Grape varieties of choice include Petite Sirah with additional plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Carmenere, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon to name a few. Finally, some of the oldest vines in California can be found at Langtry Estate Vineyards. Syrah vines planted in the 1850s still grow within this AVA today.

Located at higher elevations, the High Valley AVA is geographically located in the eastern part of Lake County. With respect to elevation, the High Valley AVA sits at elevations ranging from 1,600 feet to 3,000 feet. This vast range of elevation creates two distinct regions within High Valley, one region being the valley floor and the other being the valley hillsides. Concerning acreage, the High Valley AVA contains about 15,000 acres with about 700 acres of cultivated vineyards.

Climatically speaking, the High Valley AVA is moderated by cool marine breezes that sweep into the valley. Soil types of alluvial fans and benches are present on the valley floor. Red volcanic soils are present on the hillsides as well. The soil types found in the High Valley AVA provide for good vine growing beds with excellent drainage. Popular grape varieties include Bordeaux, Syrah, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc with most vineyards being relatively new.

The two remaining AVAs of Lake County include the Benmore Valley AVA and the Red Hills Lake County AVA. The Benmore Valley AVA is located in the mountains of southwestern Lake County and is named after Benjamin Moore, a 19th century cowboy. The total area of the Benmore Valley is approximately 1,440 acres. Red Hills Lake County AVA is located along side the southwest shores of Clear Lake and is second to Clear Lake AVA in the volume of grapes planted. Gentle rolling hills characterize the terrain of the Red Hills Lake County AVA. Approximately 3,000 acres of grapes are planted within the Red Hills Lake County AVA and popular varieties include Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Zinfandel.

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