Thursday, 30 May 2024

Foodie Freak: Benmore Valley AVA

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Researching this week’s column has given me a change of heart about the direction of my life, and I would like to announce my turn to a life of crime.


After all, my entire life has been spent as a law-abiding citizen, with the occasional speeding ticket being my biggest peek into the dark side of the law. Throughout my short existence I have saved more lives than I can even remember, and worked with many charities and community organizations in any way I can.


Why do I bring this up? Because evidently a life of crime will make you more infamous and, in a way immortal, than being an altruistic person.


Benmore Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is named after Benjamin Logan Moore, a resident of Lake County in the mid-1800s. His claim to fame was being a cattle rustler and horse thief, but he also was so cruel to his wife that she finally ran away from him in the middle of winter with their infant son and reached her destination with bloody frostbitten bare feet. His wife was from one of the Lake County tribes, and to this day the Moore name continues down to their tribal ancestors here in the county.


Moore spent the better part of his life as a criminal and eventually left the US for South America to escape prosecution. He allegedly died down there but the details are sketchy as to how or when.


He used what is now the Benmore AVA as a hideout and grazing land for his ill-gotten herd, which was an ideal location. Due to its remoteness and altitude, he could see anyone approaching the land long before they were a danger and he could slip away.


This lifestyle has benefited him to the score of nine Lake County landmarks that are or were once named after him, not including places that were named in conjunction with him. For example, Ben Moore was one of the three bachelors that lived in Bachelor Valley for a time.


The Benmore Valley AVA was established in 1991 by Vinmark Inc. The only vineyard in the valley was owned by the Trione family of Geyser Peak Winery. They grew Chardonnay vines on the valley floor and sides.


The Benmore Valley AVA is a small valley in western Lake County just north of Highway 175. The entire valley itself is only 1,440 acres in size. Many descriptions state that it lies on the southwestern corner of Lake County, but as most local people can confirm it is the western edge but more in the center of the county. With the unusual way our county is laid out both descriptions could be considered accurate.


It is not only a unique micro-climate from the rest of the county, it sits at 2,400 feet elevation with the mountains surrounding it averaging 2,800 feet.


Some descriptions represent it as being more of a depression in the mountains than as an actual valley. The valley is unique from other valleys of Lake County by having ample water from run off, groundwater, a creek and three manmade lakes. The valley floor was once a lake itself and contains alluvial soils.


This ample water and deeper soil is good for commercial agriculture, which seems to be an exact opposite environment of the other Lake County official AVAs, which sit on top of dryer, thinner soils that are the home to most vineyards. However the sides of the valley need to be irrigated and a massive irrigation system was installed at one time.


The unique environment of Benmore Valley is compounded by fact that the growing season starts later than the rest of the region. For instance, while the average last frost date in Napa is in March, the Benmore Valley’s is late May. I spoke to several people about the valley and growing grapes there, but listening to them talk was like listening to a veteran talk about being in a war.


Growing grapes in the Benmore AVA is very much like a war, and turning the valley into a vineyard would be like turning Clear Lake into a prime shark fishing destination. Sure, it could be done, but it shouldn’t be done.


Frost is such a problem in Benmore Valley that there have been years when it has occurred on the forth of July. Just in case it needs to be said, grapes absolutely hate frost and need to be protected from it. If you are a winery or vineyard that has to worry about frost year round, you can understand why a farmer in that situation would sound like he’s suffering from shell-shock.


The growing season in Benmore is so short that sometimes harvests would have to take place as late as November, and the grapes sometimes wouldn’t reach their peak in flavor. Only Chardonnay grapes were grown there and they didn’t like the climate at all. It’s thought that there may be some European grape varietals that might like the climate and do well in the AVA, but California varietals don’t. It may be possible to grow Sauvignon Blanc grapes on the hillsides, but results would be iffy at best.


The soil is described as “fair to good, at best,” so although the property is beautiful it isn’t good vineyard land. My personal opinion about putting a vineyard in the Benmore Valley is that it was a case of falling love with the idea of having a vineyard on a property before putting in the necessary research to see if it could work as a vineyard. Ah! How many of us have tried to change something that couldn’t be changed? I know my wife is still trying!


Geyser Peak used the grapes from the Benmore AVA for a while, and some even went to Korbel and Kendall Jackson, but in the end the work to raise the vines in the valley was too difficult. The valley floor is just too cold and the soil doesn’t have anything remarkable for the vines to survive in it.


The Triones sold the property a few years ago, most of the vines have been pulled out, and though there are some recreational facilities in the valley for vacation rental and hunting facilities, the purpose that Benjamin Moore originally used the area for is its purpose now: cattle grazing land; and according to some of the people I spoke to, that is all that it is really good for.


There are only about 10 acres of chardonnay vines still left on the property, and those are used by individuals for personal winemaking. While grapes are still growing in the valley, they are slowly but surely being removed or dying off and won’t be replanted. Essentially, Benmore Valley AVA as a commercial grape growing region is effectively dead.


I have high hopes for the cattle grown there and would love to see the Benmore Valley supply prime cattle from a cattle rustler’s infamous valley. Excuse the obsequiousness but I’m just trying to promote the cattle from the valley of my compatriot in crime. We criminals have to stick together.


So I am off on my life as a womanizing, drunken, sinful criminal, and hopefully if I have the follow-though to become the new Snidely Whiplash your grandchildren will be going to Ross A. Christensen High School, or your wine will made in the Ross AVA. Maybe I could take a short cut and not actually live a life of crime, but instead run for senator …


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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