California's Lake County is easy to get to from its famous neighbors, Napa and Sonoma counties. Here, away from the crowds, travelers enjoy a rugged landscape, a taste of small-town Americana and many high quality wineries.
The area's winemaking history dates back to 1872, when 12 acres were planted by David Voight, who later constructed the first winery. By the late 1890's, around 35 wineries operated in the county. Though Prohibition decimated most of the region's wine business, the industry made its way back. Over the years, vintners have taken full advantage of the area's vine-loving volcanic soils and its hot days, mild nights and cool breezes from the Pacific. Throw some modern technology into the mix and today's Lake County growers and vintners are thriving, with more than 20 wineries and more on the way.
Visitors to the county can also take in Clear Lake -- the largest freshwater lake in the state. Driving around the lake offers a great introduction to the area's wineries, allowing travelers to combine wine tourism with lake views, picnics, boat rides and perhaps even a little bass fishing.
Heading up from Napa, you may want to start the tour from the southeast shore of the lake, traveling towards the north and then on to the west. Visit Langtry Estates in Guenoc, one of the oldest wineries around. Be sure to stop at Shannon Ridge in Clearlake Oaks; steep, lush vineyards grace many of the nearby slopes. Ask the tasting room staff for a tour of the vineyards.
Traveling up the Clear Lake shore, you'll eventually hit Ceago del Lago, a 220 acre Mediterranean-styled, certified organic and biodynamic winery. Somewhat reminiscent of Italy's famed Lake Como region, the grounds of this gorgeous winery and café overlook the lake, making it a lovely stop for lunch.
When you're ready to settle in for the night, head to the tiny town of Upper Lake, at Clear Lake's northernmost tip. Here, you'll find the Tallman Hotel -- the place to stay in Lake County. Completely restored, this hotel brings its 1890s-era charm to life; its big, white, two-story wrap-around porch is a prime spot to relax and take in the happenings in the hotel's courtyard below and in the town beyond. Reserve one of the hotel's historic upstairs rooms, and enjoy soaring 14-foot ceilings and period furnishings.
While in Upper Lake, dine at the Blue Wing Saloon, next door to the Tallman Hotel. A one-time stagecoach stop, the restaurant is another refurbished gem, featuring Old West casual dining and a fine selection of local wines and beers.
When you're ready to get back on the road, take Highway 29 around the west side of the lake to Lakeport, the county seat and largest city in Lake County. Visitors find many modern amenities here, such as picnic grounds and most of the area's boat rentals. Farther south, near the town of Kelseyville are two excellent wineries also worth visiting -- Steele and Wildhurst. Be sure to try Wildhurst's Reserve Syrah, which won "Best Syrah in California" in 2007 at the prestigious California State Fair tasting.