By Rick Riozza

Lake County, Ca.—Reporting to you from the beautiful surroundings of Clear Lake Oaks, and inside the Tasting Room of Shannon Ridge Wines, I’m pleased to alert our desert community to the “new” wine country destination where the air is pristine and the volcanic soil radiates the grape vines with energy that are producing world class wines.

Lake County is ensconced midway between the Pacific Coast and the Central Valley in Northern California where the famed Hwy 29 from Napa Valley reaches north and travelers from either Mendocino or from Interstate 5 can ride Hwy 20. It’s about two hours north of both Sacramento and San Francisco. Home to Clear Lake which is the largest freshwater lake in California with 68 square miles of surface area and more than 100 miles of shoreline, it’s been coined the “Bass Capital of the West” and may hold more fish per acre than any other lake in the U.S.

And vino lovers, take note: Lake County is home to 32 wineries that are producing some of the most vibrant wines in California. The fact that Lake County has the cleanest air in California, as certified by the States Air Resource’s Board, adds to the fact that this is the wine vacation spot to visit and enjoy.

In mid-August, there was not one traffic snag around the lake and on the roads to the various wineries & vineyards. It reminds me of traveling peacefully through Napa Valley 35 years ago—but with a huge lake by the side of things!

It has an incredible history. According to geologists and physical anthropologists, the Pomo Native Americans have been inhabiting this area for four thousand years before the rise of the Egyptian civilization.

Actually this is one of the oldest wine destinations in our state. In pre-prohibition times there was more wine acreage in Lake County than below in Napa County. So many Zinfandel vines were torn down with pear and walnut trees replacing them. Indeed, Lake County is currently the largest supplier of premium fresh pears in California. And the good news is that the vineyards are continually coming back with great ambition.

And the “hidden secret” is that for the past few decades so many of the adjoining wine producing counties, such as Napa, Sonoma, and Modesto, have been sourcing grapes from Lake County for their wines. It’s a good bet that most you vino lovers have already enjoyed wine from this immaculate terrain. Remember Guenoc Estate Wines with the cameo portrait of the original owner and vintner, the famed actress Lillie Langtry, on the bottle? That winery sits in south Lake County and was established back in the 1880s.

The basic wine news is this: Nearly 8,400 acres of vineyards grace the Lake County hillsides, valleys, terraces, and mountain ridges with the majority of vineyards at 1,500 ft. and above. And the wineries are selling less grapes out-of-county and keeping the juice for their own bottling.

High-elevation vineyards enjoy both higher ultra-violet light levels which promote concentrated flavors and dramatic day-to-night temperature swings, which retain acidity and produce wines that deliver both intensity and balance. The summers are drier, winters colder and the vines suffer much less from pests. Thus, Lake County ranks among the lowest in pesticide use. Specifically, Shannon Ridge is Certified Farm Sustainable in their vineyard management.

We were invited guests at the Shannon Ridge Vineyards & Winery experiencing the vineyards at altitudes of 2,100 to 2,400 feet above sea level on steep mountain ridges that are cooled by steady winds off Clear Lake and from the higher peaks just north of us. The lean, rocky volcanic soils make the vines produce small berries with concentrated flavors of delicious high mountain fruit.

When vintner and owner Clay Shannon spied out the property for the first time in 1995, he recorded, “There is a stunning beauty of the ridge. To the south, you see the deep blue waters of Clear Lake sheltered by the dormant volcano, Mount Konocti. To the north, snowcapped mountains loom above, and all around us brick-red rocky soils. The landscape is rugged and we’re surrounded by wildlife.”

In addition to the ducks, geese, deer, raccoons, quail, golden eagles, wild turkey, chipmunks and bobcats that roam regularly, we’ve spotted bald eagles, a mother bear and her cubs and mountain lion tracks!”

Well—we were just there and things haven’t changed much, just a bunch more vineyards with glorious fruit.

The 2012 Shannon Ridge, Lake County Chardonnay High Elevation Collection is one of the best California Chards for the price. This wine is all Chardonnay except for 4% inclusion of Sauv Blanc. The grapes for this wine were grown in high elevation mountain vineyards at up to 2,400 feet. And one can taste a magnificent fresh & elegant multi-layered wine with great complexity—loved the pear and green apple notes. The wine was barrel fermented in American oak and a portion was put through malolactic fermentation to help create a rich fullness.

What’s unique about this wine is that it finishes with some enchanting red & green pepper notes! Talk about a great food wine. And it’s at a reasonable price of $22 at the Winery Tasting Room; incredibly, you can find this wine at Pavilions here in Rancho Mirage on sale for only $7.95 when you buy a 6-pack (it’s that 30% and 10% discount deal they’ve got going).

The 2010 Single Vineyard Home Ranch Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon is the type of delicious mountain Cab that Napa is famous for—but remember, we’re in mountain high Lake County: Deep garnet in color with aromas of ripe Bing cherries, dark berry and vanilla with a palate of blackberry, cherry and vanilla oak that’s bold, rich, well balanced with a long elegant finish. Ask for it at Desert Wine & Spirits, in Palm Springs for around $22. Enjoy!