Shannon Ridge Vineyards & Winery

The Wonders of Lake County

Shannon Ridge Vineyards & Winery

When Sonoma County’s largest newspaper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, recently ran a front page story that disparaged high unemployment and foreclosure rates in neighboring Lake County, implying that too many residents were less than responsible, Clay Shannon was outraged. He felt that the story unfairly targeted his community, and as he wrote in his lengthy letter to the editor, the article made him “red-faced” and “angry,” and above all, “ready to defend the county” where he lived. The Shannon Ridge website is unusual in that it lists a five-point code of ethics to explain company culture. In one way or another, the Press Democrat had probably violated all five dictums in what Clay considered an irresponsible article. Tell the truth; take pride in work; honor a deal; be loyal to the brand through hard work and fair treatment of others; and talk less. “We are doers, not talkers,” the site explains. So in defense of Lake County and his own sense of ethics, Clay Shannon publically made his impassioned case that the County had spectacular natural beauty and abundant wild life, the largest lake in California, pristine air, growing tourism, and finally some of the best vineyards in California, which in the interest of balance and fairness, Clay felt, the Press Democrat story should not have ignored.

But in truth, the attributes of Lake County are ignored by many because the area is without easy access even from the contiguous counties of Napa and Sonoma and certainly from the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area. Narrow country roads wind up to an elevation of 1,400 feet where Clear Lake stretches 23 miles across its basin, rimed by volcanic Mount Konocti, its five distinct peaks rising to 4,300 feet at the highest point. The panorama is almost mystical in its beauty. Mountains and valleys undulate across the spectrum and are furnished with redwood, pine, and oak. The economy has always revolved around farming, its crops rotating with the times, with pear and walnut orchards declining while viticulture has expanded and now provides the largest crop with 9,000 planted acres.

A major grape grower in the county, Clay Shannon owns 1,000 acres and has planted 700. “We didn’t get into the wine business to be a winery,” Clay says. “We’re growers, true grape growers,” selling fruit to both “large guys and small guys,” among them Constellation Brands, Mondavi, Beringer, Kendall-Jackson, Kenwood, Gerard, Pride Mountain, Steel Wines, Stags Leap, Gallo, Benziger, and Charles Krug. But grape growers are farming a perishable commodity. “That’s scary,” he says. And in this economy they might not be able to sell all of their production. Making wine is a way of gaining more control over their businesses. Now at 60,000 cases, Clay says that his goal is to produce 250,000 cases a year and at the same time sell fruit to a few wineries that he likes working with.

The other reason that Lake County is an obscure wine region is that 80 to 90 percent of its grapes are purchased by Napa and Sonoma wineries, which blend the fruit into their own wines. So consumers remain unaware not only of the quality of Lake County fruit but also of its very existence in a given bottle. “One of the reasons that we’re in the wine business is that we can’t continue to be the blend, because the blend has no value,” Clay explains. In other words, 75 percent of the wine must be made from fruit grown in Napa or any other county when that county is named on the label of a bottle, but 25 percent can be grown elsewhere although the consumer has no way of knowing where. So developing its own wineries is the way that a particular area develops its reputation, not just from growing grapes, and until now, Lake County has had too few wineries to attract much attention.

Clay believes that Napa and Sonoma Counties would like to see Lake County remain inconspicuous. The price of grapes is driven by supply and demand. If demand and fruit prices were to increase, wineries from outside Lake County would have a harder time doing business there. “People like myself and Jed Steele and quite a few others, who are building wine brands and taking them out into the national market place, are creating a following for Lake County wines. Two of the largest wine retailers in California, Trader Joe’s and Beverages and More, will tell you that they recognize Lake County as the up and coming brand. Three years ago, they did not.”

Clay says that the quality of Lake County grapes improved dramatically 14 years ago when farmers started to plant on the bench lands and in the hills. Those vineyards are now producing excellent fruit. Earlier, farmers had planted in flat areas, which Clay says are fine for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Merlot. But Cabernet, Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah among other reds are showing true varietal character at these higher elevations. Unlike the coastal counties, Lake County has no fog to cool vineyards during the growing season, but wind provides the same function. During the day, the land heats more quickly than lake waters, and the divergent temperatures generate cooling wind. In the evening, cold air sinks down from the mountains to cool vineyards and prolong the growing season, which in turn gives fruit the time to develop intense flavor.

Clay and Margarita Shannon own some of the most beautiful vineyards in California, perched on ridges as high as 2,200 feet elevations with views of the lake and the mountains. Instead of herbicides, Clay employs sheep to weed the vineyards and uses organic oils and sulfurs to control mildew and mites while encouraging natural predators like ladybugs, snakes, and owls to eliminate vineyard pests. To conserve water evaporation, he irrigates at night and closely monitors moisture content in the soil so as not to over-water. At the same time, he preserves brush piles as habitat for birds and leaves corridors in the vineyards for migrating animals.

Although Lake County has struggled to provide inviting restaurants and hotels for visitors, it’s slowly developing accommodations that, along with winery tasting rooms, are enticing visitors to experience this oasis in the mountains. “This summer will be awesome up here. The lake is full, fuller than I’ve seen in years. And there are nice little restaurants here and there.” Clay recommends Boar’s Breath in Middletown, the Saw Shop in Kelseyville, and Rob Roy’s on Cobb Mountain. On the lake, he likes Water Color and Zeno’s Restaurant and Inn. At Upper Lake, Tallman Hotel has just opened near the Blue Wing Saloon. At Lakeport he enjoys Park Place. The names come slowly because Clay explains that he eats mostly at home with his family. “If you don’t want a bunch of traffic and don’t want to stand in line at a tasting room, then come up here. If you need a Star Bucks drive-through, then don’t come. There aren’t any. Here people welcome you and are happy to see you. It’s a special spot.”

California Wines of the Month

Artisan Series

Shannon Ridge Vineyards & Winery – 2007 Two Bud Zinfandel, Lake County 291 cases produced

Winemaker Mike Wood’s Notes

The grapes for our 2007 Shannon Ridge Lake County Two Bud Zinfandel were picked from a special block on our Caldwell Ranch where Clay Shannon first taught his son Ivan, nicknamed “Two Bud,” how to prune the dormant vines with two buds per spur, hence the vineyard designation Two Bud. The fruit was picked at the peak of ripeness and aged for 14 months in 70% new American oak barrels and 30% French oak. Deep garnet in color, the wine has blackberry jam, cracked black pepper, and creamy vanilla on the nose and blackberry, cedar, and toasty oak on the palate. The wine is rich, complex, and well balanced with a strong, long finish (alcohol 14.9%, total acidity 0.59 g/ml, pH 3.63).

Anna Maria’s Notes

This beautiful Zinfandel is balanced with flavor and texture without being heavy. At 14.9% alcohol, it’s a bit lighter than its competition at 16 and 17% although it’s a stretch to call 14.9% alcohol light. Expect this Shannon Ridge Two Bud Zin to be more versatile and elegant at the table than its port-like competition. You’ll love this wine.

Shannon Ridge Vineyards & Winery – 2008 Roussanne, Lake County 1001 cases produced

Winemaker Mike Wood’s Notes

The grapes for our 2008 Shannon Ridge Roussanne were picked from our Morine Ranch block with steep south facing slopes which help create an elegant wine with great complexity. We blended in 11% Viognier to help brighten the tropical aromas. The wine was fermented in stainless steel to help protect delicate fruit flavors, and just 10% was barrel fermented to add richness and help fill in the mid palate. Clean straw in color, the wine has tropical fruit, lychee, and apricot aromas with passion fruit, pineapple, and citrus on the palate. The wine is full bodied with a lingering finish (alcohol 14.5%, total acidity 0.64 g/ml, pH 3.29).

Anna Maria’s Notes

If you’ve never noticed Roussanne, you’ll never forget it after you open this bottle. The wine has everything, enticing aromas and tantalizing crisp but full flavors although finding another Roussanne this delicious won’t be easy.

Winemaker Series

Shannon Ridge Vineyards & Winery – 2007 Reserve Grenache High Valley, Lake County 357 cases produced

Winemaker Mike Wood’s Notes

The grapes for our 2007 Grenache were picked at the peak of ripeness. Gently punching down the solids that rise to the surface during fermentation, we bleed off some of the juice to increase the skin-to-juice ratio to help intensify flavors and aromas. We blended in a small percentage of Tempranillo, 12%, to brighten color and to lengthen the finish. The wine was aged for 10 months in French oak barrels. Strawberry in color, the wine shows vanilla, blood orange, and dried flowers on the nose and flood orange, lavender, and white pepper on the palate. The texture is velvety and silky smooth (alcohol 14.5%, total acidity 0.49 g/ml, pH 3.69).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Grenache is Lake County’s Pinot Noir, Clay says. And in fact, the two wines have much in common. They’re light in color and body but with distinctive flavor. Grenache may be the most widely planted red grape in the world, but in California, it has a very low profile. The grape shows its best face when grown on thin soils in warm, windy climates, which precisely describes Lake County. Clay planted a small two-acre vineyard and, impressed with the results, has planted another four acres. This is a memorable wine.

Shannon Ridge Vineyards & Winery – 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon High Valley, Lake County 289 cases produced

Winemaker Mike Wood’s Notes

The grapes for our 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon were picked at full ripeness. We used a long maceration and gentle pressing to improve flavors and mouth feel and to keep tannin levels down. Blended with 24% Petite Verdot to add another layer of complexity and depth, the wine was aged for 20 months in French oak barrels. With garnet color, the wine shows vanilla, cedar, plum, and Bing cherry on the nose and Marion berry, cherry, and tobacco spice on the palate with a silky and well balanced texture and a long, elegant finish (alcohol 14.5%, total acidity 0.60 g/ml, pH 3.64).

Anna Maria’s Notes

This is an accommodating Cabernet Sauvignon with big flavors and aromas but without big tannins, so the texture is silky smooth. If you’re serving roasted lamb at your spring table, this wine will be perfect.

Menu of the Month


The Spring Feast

First Course

Crostini with caponata

Main Course

Leg of lamb roasted with garlic & rosemary
Steamed asparagus dressed with olive oil and vinegar
Oven roasted carrots & potatoes


Butter lettuce with fennel and lemon-olive oil dressing


Lemon tart garnished with fresh berries

Recipe of the Month

Lemon Tart Garnished with Fresh Berries

After roasted leg of lamb, guests will appreciate this minimalist dessert, which is rich in refreshing lemon flavor instead of calories. Served with fresh red berries, it celebrates spring as much as any dessert can. We adapted the recipe from one in the April issue of “Tastes of Italia.”


1/4 cup olive oil

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

10 tablespoons whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla


2 large eggs

3 large egg whites

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

3 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest

Fresh berries for garnish


Position rack in upper third of oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. For the crust, mix oil and 1/4 cup flour in a bowl until smooth. Add remaining flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Using a pastry blender or 2 knives, mix the ingredients together until crumbly. With a fork, stir in the vanilla and the milk one tablespoon at a time until a soft dough forms. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead. Press into disk. Spray a 10 or 11-inch tart pan with nonstick spray or coat with butter. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a 12-inch circle and place in the prepared tart pan. Press to fit. Place pie weights or dry beans in the pan and bake for 10 to 12 minutes until set but not at all browned. Remove pie weights or beans and set aside.

For the filling, whisk eggs, egg whites, and sugar in a mixing bowl until smooth. Slowly whisk in lemon juice and zest. Pour filling into partially baked crust and bake about 20 minutes or until the crust is golden and the filling is set. Cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar and serve with fresh berries. Makes 12 servings.