If you drive a mere half-hour north of the wineries of the Napa Valley and Sonoma County to the wineries of Lake and Mendocino counties, you'll discover another world. In Lake County, the high elevation; gentle sloping hillsides; flat valleys; volcanic soils; and giant, picturesque lake contribute to its excellent grape-growing conditions. In Mendocino County, most of the vineyards are found in the inland valleys and the bed- and bench-lands of the Navarro and Russian rivers. The quiet, unassuming lifestyle offered in both areas is attracting a new breed of winemaker: young pioneers who are seizing the opportunity to experiment and redefine the wines of their region.
Biodynamic Farmer, Ceàgo Vinegarden
First vintage: 2001
Current production: 8,000 cases
His career so far: Named after his grandfather, the legendary Barney Fetzer, young Barney says he was born in the vineyard. He was raised on the family's ranch home in Redwood Valley and knew from a young age that growing grapes and making wine was what he wanted to do. When his father, Jim, purchased the land that became Ceàgo in 2001, he asked Barney to come work for him and they started planting that very year.
On Lake County: "Lake County is a gem," Barney says. "The winery owners are actually owners and operators. They're well-grounded. They see that there is a lot of work to do and they're rolling up their sleeves and doing it."
On the horizon: The Chardonnay grapes, which grow right along the shore of Clear Lake, are looking better and better to Barney.
Winemaker, Six Sigma Ranch, Vineyard, and Winery
First vintage: 2009
Current production: 5,000 cases
His career so far: Matt studied at Chicago's Art Institute and became intrigued with wine while working as a waiter in Chicago. He worked at Kendall-Jackson and Verité before he returned to Lake County. "I was captivated by the county's natural beauty and the emerging, energetic wine industry," Matt explains. Although he has been making wine for nearly a decade, Matt just recently joined Six Sigma as its first full-time, on-site winemaker.
On Lake County: "Since 2000, there has been a rebirth of the region as a winegrowing area. There isn't a large pool of winemakers here, so it gives younger people a chance to get involved. The county's high elevation sets us apart. We get a lot more UV light in the grapes and a lot more sun than lower-lying regions. Our grapes wake up and start working early here."
On the horizon: "We're training some of our new vines quite high off the ground, so the sheep will be able to graze in the vineyard year round," Matt reports.
Winemaker, Shannon Ridge Vineyards & Winery/Shed Horn Cellars
First vintage: 2007/2007
Current production: 65,000 cases/1,000 cases
His career so far: Michael started his winemaking career as a cellar rat with Guenoc Winery in late 1981, moved up into winemaking, and stayed on for 22 years. He met Clay Shannon when Clay came on board in vineyard management. When Clay got serious about making wine, Michael went to work for him. He has since also started his own label.
On Lake County: Michael has been involved in Lake County winemaking since its infancy. He says that after a little trial and error growers started planting vines up on the hillsides and mountain slopes. "There's a huge difference in quality," he says. "We have some magnificent reds coming out of here now." Chardonnays are also doing quite well around the lake.
On the horizon: "I think there are going to be more nice Bordeaux blends." Many vineyards are growing Malbec and Petit Verdot for blends and as stand-alone varietals. "Shannon Ridge is doing a 2008 Tempranillo. It's kind of fun, something new," he reports.
Research and Development Winemaker, Steele Wines/Writer's Block
Assistant Winemaker, Steele Wines
First vintage: 2003 (as a team)
Current production: 70,000 cases
Their careers so far: Quincy and Joy both studied oenology, worked overseas and now work side-by-side at Steele Wines, with Quincy's father Jed Steele as their boss. Quincy also has his own label, Writer's Block.
On lake county: "Lake County wines seem to possess a greater acidic backbone than wines with a fruit-forward style. They're more typical of Old World wines, crafted with California fruit," says Quincy.
On the horizon: "As more people try Lake County wines, they'll be impressed with the diversity of grape varieties and the quality for the price," remarks Joy.
Winemaker, Brutocao Cellars
First vintage: 2009
Current production: 50,000 cases
His career so far: Hoss started with his family at Milano Winery in Hopland in 1977. He then went to work for Ferrari-Carano for 20 years before eventually coming back to Hopland and Brutocao.
On Mendocino County: "This region has the most varied microclimate in the world. We can grow any grape you can think of," says Hoss. He also likes the fun, laid-back atmosphere and the fact that everyone seems willing to share and help out their neighbor.
On the horizon: Hoss is most excited about the quality of grapes that are coming off their ranches. "The Cabernet off our Contenta Ranch is really dark and beautiful. And then our Pinot Noir vineyards over in Andersen Valley are awesome. We're making the kind of wines I enjoy drinking."