Monday, 24 June 2024

Foodie Freak: The Guenoc Valley AVA

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While researching the Red Hills AVA, I went to talk to Stephanie Cruz-Green at Focused On Wine in Kelseyville. After all, she knows more about wine than I could ever hope to know, so what better a resource could I make use of?


I asked her what she knew or thought about American viticultural areas (AVAs), and she took a stance that completely caught me off guard. She started to talk about the actual growers and how so little credit is given to them. She went on to say that if the farmer doesn’t know how to prune a grapevine properly then he can screw up those vines for three years before they can recover (I don’t think she actually used the term “screw up”; that might be me paraphrasing her). Then as the grapes grow they have to be treated in a certain way.


For instance if the grapes themselves don’t get enough direct sunlight hitting them they will have a vegetal taste to them, and if they get too much direct sunlight they will get sunburned. The grapes need to be positioned perfectly to be their best. The people doing the actual tending of the vines need to have this knowledge to contribute to the wine becoming its best. I left Stephanie with the feeling that I wasn’t being handed the usual facts that are constantly regurgitated to fluff up a column, but that I was being provided with an entirely new way of looking at an AVA and wine making.


Some people argue about just how important an AVA designation may be. While an AVA does attest that the grapes come from an area that is unique in character and consistency, the quality of the grapes is dependent on the grower to make them reach their full potential.


Using grapes from a particular AVA or appellation doesn’t guarantee a great wine. Without the techniques and expertise employed by a knowledgeable grower, grapes grown in a superior terroir could still end up being less than they have the potential to be. Then these grapes have to be given to a winemaker who can recognize their potential and take them to the next level.


So while having an AVA designation is a great way to get notice for a unique location, it’s still necessary to enhance that location with a great farmer and then honor that farmer with a great winemaker who can tie everything together. Stephanie had really jarred my mind; the thought that wine making is a chain which may begin with a great AVA but then needs a knowledgeable farmer to choose a grape varietal best for that area, then plant in the best place, care for the vines in the best way, and this is all before a single grape is ever produced.


Established in 1981 near Middletown is the Guenoc Valley AVA. The AVA consists of 21,349 acres, most of which are in Lake County but a portion overlaps into Napa County. Langtry Estate & Vineyards are the only grape growers in the AVA. Guenoc was the first AVA designation that contained only one winery, but other appellations have since become officially recognized AVA’s that only contain one grower; Benmore Valley, also in Lake County is an example. Langtry owns about 1,000 acres of the valley with 340 planted with four varietals. The altitude of the valley is 980 and nearby Middletown is 1106.


The soil in the AVA is alluvial, meaning it was put there by running water eons ago. If you’ve ever seen sand in the street after a rain you understand the basic idea of the process. The valley contains a large amount of serpentine. It’s a beautiful shiny blue/green rock but very difficult to grow in. You can actually see tons of the serpentine next to the road and embedded in the hillside as you drive up to the Langtry tasting room.


To get an idea of what it is like to grow in the serpentine soil of the valley, imagine a bathtub full of dinner plates (placed randomly, not stacked) then filled with soil and a vine planted in it. You can see that the roots would have a difficult time working their way around the buried dinner plates and down to the bottom of the tub, because once a root gets around one dinner plate it encounters another one below it and must work its way around that one, only to find another plate, and so forth.


This is the situation grape vines of the Guenoc AVA face. Not only that but the serpentine leeches out magnesium that, in excess, can be toxic to vegetation, so the grower must constantly be watching the vines looking for signs of stress so he can treat the soil and lower the concentration of magnesium before it kills the vines. Stephanie’s comments on the importance of the grower couldn’t have been timelier.


Although the AVA is only six miles from Middletown the weather is noticeably different. Middletown gets more rain and more moderate temperatures throughout the year. The vines are irrigated since the root system is so shallow, but luckily the valley has a good water supply with seven jurisdictional dams and about 25 ponds and lakes. The valley also gets less fog than Middletown.


There is considerable wildlife in the area and the deer fences constantly have to be repaired and reinforced whenever the local bears try to give their opinions on where gates should be. The bears regularly pull down the deer fencing and the winery repairs the damage with extra large wooden posts. Guests to the property are warned that if they choose to go jogging they should be vigilant for cougars, and I don’t mean Kim Cattral. Birds of prey are seen all over the area.


The Langtry Estate & Vineyards, recently also known as Guenoc, gets its name from the English stage actress Lillie Langtry, who bought a part of the valley in 1888. She produced some excellent wines from her vineyards, and at one time claimed her Claret to be the best in the country. The property lines have changed greatly in the years since it was in her possession, though some of the vines she tended are still producing fruit. The current vineyard also shares its property with an Angus cattle ranch. The estate has also started a large composting project to deal with the typical organic debris that a vineyard produces, which is just one of the sustainable farming practices it employs.


Nobody can give me a positive history on the origin of the name Guenoc, but in my research I believe I have come close to what might be the true story. There is a lake in the valley currently called McCreary Lake named after a past resident of the property. This lake was originally known by the three small villages that lived around it by the name Wen’nok. These tribes became known to the local whites as the “Guenoks,” most likely a mispronunciation of the name Wen’nok. However, that general area was the home to both Southern Pomos and Lake Miwoks, and I couldn’t find anybody from either of the tribes who recognized the word “Wen’nok.” But I give my sincere thanks to everyone who did try to find a translation for me.


Historical records claim the lake to be full of catfish, suckers, minnows, and “pike of two kinds, large and small,” but I was once again thwarted at being able to fish the lake as the roads were impassable at the time. It looks like I’ll have to start my own vineyard in order to have my private fishing pond.


Hopefully I have given enough evidence to finally lay to rest the question of where the name “Guenoc” came from; otherwise it may just come down to cleaning out Lillie Langtry’s basement to find and old toboggan with the word painted on it.


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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