A Beginner's Guide to Mendocino & Lake County's Wines | Wine Enthusiast
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A Beginner’s Guide to Mendocino & Lake County’s Wines

For years, Mendocino and Lake counties served as sources of affordable grapes for its southern sisters, Napa and Sonoma. Now each region is establishing its own identity.

Comprised of 13 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), Mendocino County boasts the highest percentage of certified organic and biodynamic grapes in the nation.

Parducci Wine Cellars is Mendocino County’s oldest winery, still going strong after more than 80 years, having been founded in 1932. Fetzer Vineyards started here in the 1960s and continues to be a global force in organic grape growing. Mendocino also receives renown for its Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and Alsatian whites.

Once a popular resort destination, Lake County today depends more on wine than tourists. Its more than 9,000 acres of vineyards ring around Clear Lake, one of the oldest lakes in North America.

It’s largely around this geological wonder that 140-some growers have made their living selling affordable grapes.

In recent years, the buzz has revolved around the Red Hills Lake County subappellation. High in elevation and rich in red volcanic soils, the district is becoming known for high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon.

To Mendocino County winemakers and growers, building a showcase winery or hanging out with wannabe collectors isn’t what’s important.

It’s all about the wine.

Some grew up in Mendocino County, and it’s what they know. Others left and came back to restore a family legacy. There are those who made wine elsewhere and ruled out other suitors, putting down deep roots here.

Sunset over the ocean from Mendocino
A land of contrasts for Obsidian Ridge / Photo by Tim Kennedy, Napa Films

Beauty in Contrasts

This is a vast county that possesses extreme coastal beauty, hot and cold climates, old and new vines, and a growing reputation for world-class wines.

Mendocino County has earned much of its fame from the wines of its Anderson Valley subappellation.

Cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay flourish here, as do Alsatian-style whites like Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris. The area also produces some of the best sparkling wines in California.

Inland, American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) like Redwood Valley and Hopland, farmed for decades by descendants of Italian immigrants, contribute old-vine Zinfandel, Carignan, Petite Sirah and Syrah.

The continued presence of many of these family farmers, and the tenacity shown by subsequent generations, has helped preserve many of these coveted old vines.

Vineyard in the fall in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County / Getty
Vineyard in the fall in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County / Getty

Mendocino/Lake’s Top Grape Varieties

Pinot Noir: Mendocino Coast and Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs are relatively light in body, color and texture, with invigorating spice, floral and red fruit notes.

Chardonnay: Typically display notes of apple, melon and vanilla. Thanks to bright acidity, coastal Mendocino Chardonnay is often used in sparkling wines.

Zinfandel: Aromas include ripe cherries and blueberries, cocoa powder, toasted oak and coffee; others are more classically briary, with tobacco, nutmeg and black pepper accents.

Sauvignon Blanc: Lake County Sauvignon Blanc is among the most sought-after of the North Coast’s offerings, crisply ripe in stone fruit and tropical flavors.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Lake County Cabernet, especially when it’s grown on mountain ranges, has great tannic structure, intensely concentrated red-fruit flavors and balanced acidity.

Point Cabrillo Light, a lighthouse in northern California, between Point Arena and Cape Mendocino / Getty
Point Cabrillo Light, a lighthouse in northern California, between Point Arena and Cape Mendocino / Getty

Great Grapes, Great Value

In adjoining Lake County, grapes often cost half the price per ton of those grown in Napa Valley. Within the county, much excitement has grown around the Red Hills Lake County subappellation, high in elevation and rich in red volcanic soils.

There are also many areas within the AVA that excel with Sauvignon Blanc.

Two mountain ranges create the unique topography of Lake County. To the west are the Mayacamas Mountains, which also divide Napa Valley from most of Sonoma County.

On the east, the Vaca Ranges corner Napa’s heat from escaping further inland toward Sacramento.

Here, vineyards grow at relatively high elevations—95% are more than 1,000 feet above sea level.

Growers and winemakers believe the elevation gives Lake County grapes a signature intensity of ripeness, but also keeps them in balance.

“We get small berries with thicker skins,” says Peter Molnar, co-founder of Obsidian Ridge Vineyards. “The soils, slope, elevation and temperature swings all contribute to the retention of acidity here.”

Lake County’s climate and porous, mineral-rich soils are also heavily impacted by Mount Konocti and Clear Lake, which help maintain some of California’s cleanest air.

Sprawling Variety

Lake County remains quiet and sprawled out, the presence of its over 30 wineries subtle across seven subregions.

Longstanding Napa Valley star grower Andy Beckstoffer is also firmly entrenched in Lake County. He has grown acres of Bordeaux varieties for such wineries as Duckhorn Vineyards, Joel Gott, Robledo Family, Steele and the Francis Coppola Diamond Collection.

In 2012, the Gallo family bought the gorgeous Snows Lake Vineyard in Red Hills Lake County, with close to a thousand acres planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and other grapes. This top-tier interest illustrates how Lake County has grown in stature.