Life After Napa

Gregory Graham didn’t have to go very far — only a few dozen miles — to leave Napa Valley behind and create an award-winning winery of his own in a brave new world called Lake County.

Gregory Graham’s Crimson Hill vineyard, set on a steep slope overlooking Clear Lake, produces zinfandel, cabernet, grenache, and syrah. He also makes a variety of white wines from purchased grapes.

Gregory Graham, Crimson Hill Vineyard

All of the wines are handcrafted by the accomplished owner, a straight talking, friendly guy, who established himself in the industry as the winemaker for Rombauer, a Napa-based premium winery where production ran into the hundreds of thousands of cases vs. current production of 5,000 cases.

Graham is pouring his wines at The Winery SF on Treasure Island Saturday (Aug. 20) with a dozen other Lake County producers and at the Family Winemakers of California event at Fort Mason on Sunday (Aug. 21) when hundreds of family owned wineries from across the state will be putting their best pours forward.

Graham purchased the Red Hills property in 2000 and later bought an adjacent vineyard. The property had previously been a walnut orchard. Several of the majestic trees still line the edge of the property, whose red volcanic soil is rich with mineral deposits.

I discovered Graham and his wines almost by accident. I wanted to look beyond Napa and Sonoma for a wine based vacation and turned to the Clear Lake region as a well priced alternative with warm weather and diverse outdoor activities.

Lake County has 28 wineries today, equaling the number of wineries here before Prohibition which killed commercial wine development here for fifty years.

Star-Studded Lineup

I loved all 12 of Graham’s wines.

He gets special kudos for the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc ($16) and the 2009 Viognier ($20).

The sauvignon blanc presented a ray of citrus sunshine, with none of the grassy or herbal notes found in some lesser examples.

The viognier had a lovely honeysuckle nose, with beautiful peach and nectarine flavors.

Each of the reds also showed the master’s touch.

The Grenache and Syrah, Graham’s personal favorites, stand out. Both current releases are from the 2007 vintage and both are great values at $20 per bottle.

The Syrah tasted of ripe purple plums and the grenache offered a streak of sweet strawberries.

The 2008 estate Zinfandel was superb.

Its fruit-forward blackberry flavors even got a thumbs-up from my wife, whose tastes usually run ABZ (anything but Zinfandel).

Unexpected Pleasure

I didn’t expect all this goodness when I began scouring the Internet for a vacation rental near Clear Lake.

I certainly thought staying on the grounds of a vineyard would be fun, and it was.

Paying guests get a private tour, with Greg at the helm of his “mule,” a diesel-powered 4×4 that hauled us up the 10 percent grade along the vines studded with berries still a few months away from harvest.

The Crimson Hill guest house — a three bedroom home with a large deck and hot tub overlooking California’s oldest and largest natural lake — sits just downslope from the owner’s ridgetop home. Rates average $200.

Clear Lake Comestibles Shine

Two must-stop dining destinations in the area are the Blue Wing Saloon in Upper Lake and the Saw Shop Gallery and Bistro in Kelseyville.

At the Blue Wing, try the dreamy arancini — balls of deep-fried risotto stuffed with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. Also good are the fried calamari and the sweet potato fries which are served by the bucket!

At the Saw Shop, we loved the cold corn soup with crab and the pork cheek prepared “osso buco” style over polenta.

Outdoor Attractions

We worked up our appetites one day with a hike along a ridgetop trail at the Clear Lake County Park near Kelseyville. A 40-minute walk took
us past a group camp facility and then to several outlooks that gave us a grand view of the opposite shore.

Another day, we spent four hours kayaking along Rodman Slough, a wildlife-rich sanctuary on the northern edge of the lake .

Grebes, herons, ducks and egrets provided a fascinating panorama as we maneuvered along the tule-studded and algae-rich waters.

There are several purveyors of boats at the lake. We got two singles and a tandem kayak for $135 from Kayaks 2 Go.

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