Monday, 27 June 2022

Foodie Freak: The North Coast and Clear Lake AVAs

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Prohibition (of alcohol) made Lake County what it is today.


You might wonder what makes me say that and my reason is this: Lake County was considered the prime vineyard and winery area before the 18th Amendment took place.


Just before Prohibition, Lake County had between 5,000 to 10,000 acres of grapes and somewhere between 29 to 36 wineries in business (records of the time vary extremely). At that same time Napa had 140 wineries.


When Prohibition took effect Napa switched its focus to sacramental wines (wines for churches) which were still legal to produce. Several wineries did well but many had problems and by 1965 Napa had only 25 wineries still producing. Today Napa has more than 400 wineries, although due to regulations and other factors only about 75 of them are open to the public.


The funny thing is that it wasn’t federal Prohibition that killed the Lake County economy and made it essentially what we are today. It was the people of Lake County themselves who voted to make Lake County a dry county.


The county was bitterly divided at the time over the temperance issue. At one point the Board of Supervisors even passed a list of noted drunkards to local saloons and made it a misdemeanor to sell them alcohol.


Fights between “Wets” and “Drys” were commonplace. Kelseyville was so divided on the subject that there was a wet side of town and a dry side.


In 1912, eight years before the 18th Amendment was enacted, Lake County residents passed the prohibition of alcohol sales, service and transport into the county. Locally brewed beer was still legal, but only if it was directly delivered to the customer.


How close was the vote to make the county dry? The measure passed by two votes.


Curry’s Furniture store on Main Street in Lakeport can thank its success due to this measure. At the time of the prohibition debate, J.W. Curry was a cabinet maker and carpenter who overheard a fortuitous conversation with second-hand goods store owner D.L. Brooks.


Brooks was opposed to the measure and said, “If this place goes dry it is no place for me, and I’ll sell my business for $25.” The day after the election Curry bought the place for the $25 and the rest is history.


Federal Prohibition wasn’t as prohibitive as you might think. Citizens still had a right to make 200 gallons of alcohol at home for personal use annually. If you want to do the math it is just over 929 bottles of wine. Keep in mind this is per year for personal use so under federal law you could drink 2 and a half bottles of wine per day, every day, all year, under Prohibition. Us home winemakers aren’t lookin’ so eccentric now are we?


Some records show that Lake County also voted to be dry in 1892 and in 1921, so by the looks of it Lake County has had an on-again, off-again love affair with alcohol.


Most likely if Lake County had embraced alcohol like Napa and Sonoma did the county would probably be more successful than either of them today. Our soil, climate, air and altitude can and do produce superior grapes than they do.


Even today Napa Valley wineries buy Lake County grapes and blend them in small amounts to improve their wines, but don’t put so much in that they have to mention it on the label. They keep the Napa brand but do so with our grapes. If they use too many Lake County grapes they must label it as a Lake County wine.


I guess Napa considers Lake County to be that girl that you like to hang out with but when your friends show up you ignore her. Napa loves Lake grapes but then mocks the county at winery conventions.


One winery owner I spoke to said that a cork supplier was talking to him about grades of cork to use when bottling his wines and said, “You won’t want to use the most expensive grade of cork since it’s a Lake County wine.”


Not only does Lake County have superior terroir for grapes but we have recreational resources that Napa and Sonoma don’t have. So if Lake County had stayed wet it very well could have been more popular than Lake Tahoe is. Currently Lake County is what Napa was in the 1970s, so we are on the fast track to being California’s next big vacation destination.


A closer look at the AVAs


North of San Francisco is the North Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA) which includes Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Marin, Mendocino and Solano counties. It has more wineries than any other AVA in the state, and most likely more than any other in the country.


The North Coast AVA encompasses over three million acres and has over 40 smaller AVA’s (such as Clear Lake and Red Hills) inside it.


It was established in 1983 and claims cooler annual temperatures and higher annual rainfall than most of California. The entire area has a cooling influence from the Pacific Coast, which is the characteristic that binds the whole area into one AVA.


While Napa and Solano counties receive low altitude wind and fog from the bay area, Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino get direct low altitude coastal winds and fog. Lake County gets its cooling influence from high altitude winds from the ocean itself.


Inside the massive North Coast AVA is the Clear Lake AVA, which was established in 1984. It is itself a large AVA in which half the area is comprised by the lake itself.


One of its unique characteristics is the way that the lake moderates the temperature change at sunrise and sunset. While some AVAs have drastic temperature changes, Clear Lake acts like a buffer and slows the process of heating and cooling.


There are an estimated 9,000 acres of vineyards in the Clear Lake AVA, but it should be noted that there are a couple of smaller AVAs within the Clear Lake AVA that contain wineries that don’t consider themselves as part of the Clear Lake AVA as much as they identify with their smaller AVA.


Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular grape in the county with Sauvignon Blanc coming in second. While Rosa d’Oro is the only winery in Lake County that produces Italian-style wines, most wineries here use winegrapes and follow techniques of the Bordeaux and Rhone regions of France.


To create an AVA you must petition the federal government’s Alcohol, Tobacco, Trade and Tax Bureau for the title. Since county names automatically are listed as an AVA the “Lake County AVA” already exists, although nobody really uses it since it’s a little known fact.


Everyone in Lake County lives within at least one AVA and maybe even within several. For instance, someone living in Kelseyville not only lives in the North Coast AVA but also the smaller Lake County AVA and the even smaller Clear Lake AVA and the yet still smaller Red Hills AVA. If they were interested they could petition for their own even smaller “Mom’s AVA” if they wished.


Another AVA may join the local number soon. The Big Valley area is in the process to petition to become an AVA, and I will write about that once it is approved.


Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.

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