Proposed Upper Lake Valley AVA

Proposed Upper Lake Valley AVA portion of the Lake County AVA map

Truly comprised of three valleys (Bachelor Valley, Middle Creek Valley, and Clover Creek Valley), what is now the proposed Upper Lake Valley AVA attracted some big names back in the day. Foremost among those was Serranus Clinton (S.C.) Hastings, founder of Hastings College of Law, California Attorney General, and Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. He farmed 115 acres of wine grapes in the Middle Creek Valley, along with operating a winery and distillery with a capacity of 150,000 gallons in production by 1886, a sizable operation for the day.

Charles Hammond, married to the sister of Teddy Roosevelt’s first wife, arrived in California in 1884 and worked for Captain Gustave Niebaum at Inglenook Winery in Napa Valley. The next year, Hammond acquired six hundred acres of land located four miles east of Upper Lake where he planted twenty-five acres of grapes and an olive grove.

Hammond’s Ma Tel Vineyard won awards for both red and white wines at the World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, putting Lake County wines on the international map. The area was known as being, “A garden spot for the production of wine grapes and other vegetables and crops.”

Alas, like many winegrowing areas of the day, most vineyards were torn out during Prohibition and the area didn’t see a resurgence of wine grape growing until the 1970s. Today, the climate of the area is what draws attention.

The Upper Lake Valley area is boxed in on three sides by the Mayacamas to the west, the Coastal Mountain Range to the east, and the Mendocino National Forest to the north. This topography serves to trap cool morning air, and the elevation of both ranges leads to earlier shading of the valley floor in the afternoon. These effects moderate the temperature of the area, especially in the late afternoon, making the local sub-climate ideal for growing grapes.

The soils here are deep and moderately well-drained. The water table is generally high here, which means that irrigation isn’t needed as often. Sauvignon Blanc is the predominant grape grown in the Upper Lake Valley area, although several other varietals are grown successfully.

Mark Burch Winemaker's Perspective

Mark Burch, Lake County Consulting Winemaker

In the Upper Lake area of Lake County, the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountain ranges narrow significantly.  Cool air is trapped and Lingers longer in the mornings and the elevation of both ranges create earlier shading of the valley floor in the afternoon. The soils are made up of clay loam and hold a high level of nutrients.

This combination of Terroir creates ideal conditions for growing Sauvignon Blanc.  It’s important to trellis with high bud counts to allow the vines to express their vigor.  The cooler conditions lead to slower fruit ripening allowing the development of more complex flavors and yet the clusters maintain high acidity levels paramount to premium Sauvignon Blanc production.  The Sauvignon Blanc I harvest in the Upper Lake area on average ripens 3 weeks later than the fruit I harvest in the Big Valley AVA.