The Winos’ Tasting Series: Lake County (no relation to the “wine lake”)

By Jesse on April 7, 2008

Anyone unfamiliar with the gastronomical tragedy that is the EU’s perennial “wine lake” should familiarize themselves with the concept here; essentially, millions of gallons of delicious French and Italian wine are being disposed of every year simply because there isn’t the demand for it (although I know of some young people in LA who could probably think of a few enjoyable things to do with several million gallons of wine). Fortunately, California’s “Lake County” is neither named after nor implicated in the continuing humanitarian crisis of the wine lake. It was therefore with a clear conscience that the Winos sat down to enjoy four bottles from this storied region.

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We received two bottles each from the good people at two Lake County wineries, Langtry Estate and Shannon Ridge. Nestled in between Napa and Mendocino, Lake County has been producing wine for decades, but new bottles are showing up on LA shelves in abundance these days. We’ve heard rumors that Lake County is a great place to go tasting in some bucolic country while avoiding the glut of tourists and wine snobs you’ll invariably encounter in Napa and Sonoma, which sounds ideal for the Winos’ next semi-annual Gone Drinkin’ retreat.

First victim was the 2006 Guenoc Sauvignon Blanc (Lake County). Light straw pigmentation beckoned us into a dynamic nose, with descriptions ranging from “anjou pear” to “honeysuckle” to “overripe apples, like apple cider.” On top of these notes, I got a big broad grapefruit base; Doug got fresh-cut grass, and Noah agreed with him and added honeydew. After spending Wednesday night tasting manic New Zealand Sauv Blancs, this one was ushering us away from guavas and herbs and back into California sanity, which we appreciated.

The pal, however, came up a little thinner than we’d hoped. Jessica described it as “water with a slice of lemon in it.” Again, I was getting some grapefruit, but Jason fired back, “if this is a grapefruit, it’s the lamest grapefruit ever made.” Andrew suggested that it tasted like someone poured grapefruit juice through a Brita filter. Leah, on the other hand, appreciated the lightness and the grapefruit character, stating that she’d enjoy drinking this wine on her balcony on a hot summer day. The consensus, though, seemed to skew towards bland; the Young Winos like nothing more than a zippy, cool-weather Sauvignon Blanc, but this one had neither the flavor profile nor the acidity to support the light body. Sasha summarized our findings by alleging that “it was like a wine spritzer… like there once was wine involved at some point.”

Our one white a bit of a disappointment, we moved on to the 2006 Shannon Ridge Wrangler Red (Lake County), made up of 60% Cab Sauv, 15% Syrah, 11% Zin, 8% Mourvedre, and 6% Tempranillo. The nose was a rich mocha bomb, with dark chocolate and caramel a-plenty. Andrew was smelling fresh blueberry muffins, and Noah agreed, suggesting it was one of those big plump muffins that tend to run “over-blueberried.” To Jordan, the big, dark fruit nose suggested Merlot, which would’ve been a fair guess; we all agreed, though, that the blend of varietals employed here had really arrived at a delicious balance of plush berries and nice chocolate liqueur.

The palette scored big on first impressions: dark cherries and black pepper painted onto a light-to-medium body with some nice acidity. Jordan loved the rich fruit, and Sasha appreciated that it wasn’t very tannic. However, that was Jason and Andrew’s lament; they too loved the flavors, but they were missing any appropriate tannins. I agreed; the dark fruit and spicy smoke tasted great, but its lack of any real body or structure made it a bit of a one-trick pony. That said, it’s only $17, and it’s hard to find chewy, complex flavors like these at that price-point. The Winos shared my appreciation, and about half of them would pick up this bottle next time they saw it in the store.

Our third contestant was the 2005 Guenoc Cabernet Sauvignon (Lake County), which immediately provoked a chorus of “smells like salsa” from around the room. Pressed to expound, Andrew said he got some spicy, vegetal elements, and Jason called green pepper. Jordan disagreed, saying it was “not green vegetables… more like a vegetable medley.” Jessica thought it smelled dank and earthy, like rich potting mix, and others discovered some nice brown sugar and dark berries. I got a hint of soy sauce, but Jessica corrected me and said it was more like Tamari sauce. I’m really sorry if anyone was confused.

The palette was very well-received… a medium-to-full body, resplendent with dark fruit and nice powdery tannins. “This is fantastic!” Jason uncharacteristically exclaimed, and everyone agreed that this red was a great example of lush flavors matched well with a tailor-made body. Flavors included chocolate, pepper, and leather, leading Jason to wonder if it wasn’t actually Syrah we were drinking (the wine does include 4% petite sirah, along with 8% petit verdot). Andrew, too, thought the wine had a crisis of identity; he thought it tasted French, but the presence of a slightly alcoholic element (the wine runs a bit hot at 14.5%) changed his mind. The finish was long and smoky — Jessica felt like she was “inhaling a barbecue” — and was appreciated by all. The majority of Winos present would purchase this solid cab again for the $18 fare.

Finally, we opened up the 2006 Shannon Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon (Lake County), hoping for another sleeper Cab success. The nose started out with an off-putting chemical note, provoking suggestions of “bathroom cleanser” and “nail-polish remover.” This breezed off, however, initially revealing what Sasha and I thought smelled like total apple cider; this, in turn, made way for more encouraging notes of blueberry syrup and grape jelly. Jordan wondered if there was some “weird blueberry terroir thing” going on in Lake County.

Upon tasting, Jason immediately celebrated the solid tannic character. This was a young Cab, but it drank really well, with some big jammy fruit, some nice cranberry, and some firm tannins. Jordan, sticking with his theme, got blueberry, and various people offered dark berry notes of their own. There was some agreement that the wine lacked a certain balance; Leah got “Juicy Juice with tannins,” and she wasn’t alone in wishing the ripe fruit and the solid tannins would somehow manage to integrate more smoothly. There was a definite sense that while all the elements were there, they just weren’t working together to the degree that we might want (kind of like the 2001-2007 Yankees… just because you throw a lot of talent together on one team doesn’t mean they’ll mesh well). At $19, though, this bottle was still well within reasonability, and several Winos expressed an interest in re-visiting this vintage after an additional couple years, as the tannins present seemed more than adequate to stand up to some cellaring.

The disappointments we encountered tasting Lake County bottles were generally offset by pleasant surprises and the general accessibility of the wines, both in terms of character and of price-point. Overall, the experience was a positive one; the Winos are always pleased to discover a region offering vino bueno at prices that won’t make you lose any sleep. We’ll definitely seek out Lake County bottles next time we feel too sober.

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Andrew thought it was so-so; don’t make me laugh and spit wine out my nose; you didn’t spill any wine on the white couch, did you?

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Checking the alcohol content to see why I’m not drunk yet; reds always make Jordan drowsy; apparently Doug doesn’t like wine.

The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005.

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