Wednesday, 29 May 2024

Foodie Freak: All about the High Valley AVA

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I’m going to spend a few columns over the next few months describing Lake County’s American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) so people can learn a little bit about the different wine-growing regions and wines in our area.

We live in one of the world’s greatest wine-growing regions and most people don’t know just how great an area it is. There’s a lot of ground to cover (pardon the pun), so bear with me as I give a little background on what makes an AVA.

Local conditions create terroir (loosely translated as “the taste of a place”) and make a specified growing area, and factors include the composition of the soil, climate conditions and topography (including altitude), with the emphasis that the conditions are unique and not to be found anywhere else.

Called an appellation in some parts of the world, an American Viticultural Area (or AVA) is to grapes as clover or orange blossoms are to honey. The honey made with these blossoms tastes like honey but is kissed with the essence of the flowers the bees made it with.

In much the same way, wine tastes like the place where it is grown. The United States has its own designations set by the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Bureau which authorizes official American Viticultural Areas. These viticultural areas are designated for grape growing but can and are called appellations almost interchangeably.

In the United States, AVA regions can be huge, like the Ohio River Valley (26,000 square miles), or extremely small, like Mendocino’s Cole Ranch AVA (about one-quarter square mile). One AVA can contain even smaller AVA regions within them.

The six counties north of San Francisco make up the “North Coast” AVA (Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma and Solano), which within it also has smaller AVAs.

Because of the strong French influence in winemaking and marketing, using the word “appellation” instead of AVA sometimes helps to clarify for the consumer the specific area their wine comes from. Whichever term you prefer, it’s like comparing apples to pommes. However the French are far more fastidious about what qualifies as an appellation than America is about establishing an AVA.

Interestingly, only vineyards that are located within one AVA use grapes grown within that same AVA, and make the wine inside the boundaries of that AVA can legitimately claim they are “Estate Bottled.”

This was an important factor to the Brassfield Estate which is the only estate bottled wine currently produced in the High Valley AVA. In most of the wine industry the word “estate” is thrown around loosely, kind of like “fine dining” on truck stop signs. However, the term “estate bottled” is carefully guarded by its practitioners.

In 1875 the Ogulin family settled in the High Valley and planted Muscat and Zinfandel vines on 400 acres. The Ogulin family still lives in the county and still owns about 100 acres of High Valley, including 15 of those original vines which are still alive and are said to be the second oldest grapevines in California. The oldest grapevines in California are currently living in Napa.

Established in 2005 in eastern Lake County, the High Valley AVA is three miles wide by nine miles long, with volcanic and alluvial (sandy soil once moved by water) soils. Ranging from 1600 feet to 3000 feet in altitude, High Valley is cooler than most of Lake County due to high-altitude sea air which is constantly blowing in.

The shape of the valley also helps create its unique climate. Imagine a bowl with one side just slightly lower than the other; cool sea air blows in on the lower side of the bowl, flows over the valley then hits the higher far side of the bowl (Round Mountain, on the eastern side of the valley) and then settles back down in the bottom of the bowl. The climate on the floor of the valley is best for white wines while the slopes are ideal for reds.

The High Valley AVA has the cooling qualities which come from both Clear Lake and from the Pacific Ocean. Not only does High Valley have its unique design, which scoops up the cool breezes coming in from the sea, but it has the geological oddity of being a valley that runs east-west while most of the world’s – yes I said most of the world’s – valleys run north-south.

High Valley was a lake itself many years ago, but nature decided through gravity, erosion and sedimentation that it would make better real estate if it were dry land.

There is graphic proof that the valley floor was once much lower than it currently is. When a well was being drilled for one of the vineyards, the drill bit reached 400 feet below the surface and the drill hit redwood, bringing chips of wood to the surface.

How did the redwood get down that far? Apparently at one time that was the level where redwoods were growing. Sometimes nature likes to rearrange the furniture.

Lake County has the cleanest air in all of California, an accolade it has claimed every year for as long as records of air quality have been kept in the state. This is due to the fact that cool, high altitude breezes from the Pacific Ocean pass over the lower altitude areas between the coast and the lake without being touched, but then are stopped by the plateau that both the lake and High Valley sit on, giving residents and vines alike the freshest air around.

The unique shape, altitude and isolation of the valley shelters it from being heavily affected by the warmth of the lake.

During the winter when it snows, I get very little snow in my yard and it sticks for little more than a few hours, while snow in High Valley can lasts for a couple of days although it is less than a mile away from where I live.

One of the reasons for this is that I am closer to the lake and the lake acts like a heat sump and melts the snow, while the mountains around High Valley protect the snow from the stabilizing effects and temperatures of the lake.

The unique topography also gives High Valley the benefit of being almost inaccessible. While there are several entries into the valley, only High Valley Road is public and easily found.

Following High Valley Road along its entire length, it eventually becomes a poorly maintained dirt road that only vehicles with big tires, good suspensions and alert drivers should attempt; but if you have the time, talent and desire to find a remote but gorgeous drive give it a try. The road empties out in Lucerne, and just remember to bring a camera, binoculars and a cell phone with a full battery. Hope you have service up there ...

Wineries within the AVA include Brassfield, High Valley Winery, Shannon Ridge and Monte Lago.

Jerry Brassfield purchased the old High Serenity Ranch and started his winery, although the original farmhouse and smokehouse from the ranch are still on the property. There also is a lake full of bass on the property that has been protected from my eternally hungry fishing equipment.

Brassfield owns 2,500 acres of High Valley, with only 367 acres planted with 19 grape varietals. Brassfield’s tasting room is on the estate three and a half miles up from the intersection of Highway 20 on High Valley road.

High Valley Winery has a new tasting room on Highway 20 and, although it is owned by Dustin Brassfield, the two wineries are completely separate and unrelated (no pun intended) companies.

High Valley Winery owns 80 acres with 28 of those planted with five varietals. Dustin and Bobbie Brassfield live on the property, and the wall and trees depicted on their wine label shows a part of an old wall that stretches over a mile through their property and the valley.

Shannon Ridge Vineyards and Winery owns more than 1,000 acres of the High Valley AVA with 450 planted with 15 varietals. Shannon Ridge has a pond with fish on its property that has also escaped my fishing equipment’s advances.

Clay Shannon was the first of the modern era of winemakers to see High Valley for the vineyard potential that it has. The vineyard also claims one of the steepest vineyards in California with a slope of 40 degrees. The Shannon Ridge tasting room is located in an old school house that the winery restored on Highway 20 in the Oaks.

The 600-acre Dharmapalan Estate is host to the Monte Lago vineyards, which grows 130 acres of grapes of six varietals. The remaining 370 acres is maintained as a wildlife preserve and they have no plans to expand the vineyard.

While they don’t have a public tasting room they do produce their own label of wines called Dharma wines. Dharma wine labels are a testimony to their Indian heritage by being collectable, numbered, silk labels depicting beautiful Indian women on them. Monte Lago has the honor of being the first wine produced out of High Valley.

Besides all sharing an AVA, another common factor I found in speaking to the owners of these wineries is they all have a commitment to the land, wildlife and ecology of the High Valley.

Much of High Valley has been set aside by the owners of the various properties as wildlife preserves. Reports of wildlife in High Valley include the typical deer, turkeys, hawks, owls, coyotes and small game, but also include bears, elk and cougars.

All the wineries have committed to laying aside land to stay natural and/or practice sustainable growing practices.

Also within the AVA are several private homes and ranches. High Valley Ranch and Conference Center owns about 1,700 acres of High Valley but doesn’t grow anything on them. They also have a working landing strip for small aircraft that sees occasional use.

Halden Ranch owns about 1,600 acres in the area and was once a working cattle ranch. It now acts as a nature reserve. Driving down High Valley Road at dusk, it is almost guaranteed that you will see plenty of deer.

High Valley AVA is already becoming nationally well known and noticed by wine enthusiasts throughout the United States through the various efforts of all the wineries in the valley. I will admit that I have personally purchased many cases of wine from almost all of the wineries in the valley and feel they are the very best quality.

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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