The volcanic activity which gave much of Lake County its topography and signature soils started with the Franciscan Formation and Great Valley Sequence, which also gave shape to Napa Valley. Eastward movement of the Pacific (tectonic) Plate toward the North American plate pushed up the sea bed, while adding pressure to the magma layer upon which those plates floated.

That slow, but dramatic increase in pressure forced magma to find outlets. It flowed out from fissures between plates and also pushed up mountains, leading to the formation of volcanoes. These processes began in the Jurassic period, 200-million years ago, but their effect lingers.

The region’s volcanoes are considered dormant. Mt. Konocti, which rises from the western shore of Clear Lake, last erupted about 11,000 years ago. But both tectonic movement and magma relatively near the surface continue to cause earthquakes, fuel hot springs, and drive geothermal energy production.

That last volcanic eruption would have been witnessed by Native Americans, the original inhabitants of the area. They, primarily the Pomo people, remained the sole human residents until 1821 with the arrival of small numbers of Mexican soldiers.

As with the rest of California, the land which is now Lake County belonged to Mexico until ceded to the United States at the close of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

Spanish missions never reached as far north as Lake County, though. And, since the area wasn’t easy to traverse, nor on the way to anywhere important, there was relatively little Mexican influence. Civilian settlers from Mexico didn’t arrive until the late-1840s.

Several years later, settlers from the East Coast and Europe also started to make their way to the area, settling closer to the lake, in the areas we now know as Big Valley and Lakeport. Andrew Kelsey (namesake of the small community of Kelseyville) and Charles Stone were the first to arrive from the east. Their enslavement and inhumane treatment of the local Pomo people culminated in the infamous Bloody Island massacre on May 15, 1850.

By the 1870s at the latest, the area marketed its natural charms and suggested convenient proximity to San Francisco, Cloverdale, and Calistoga. It boasted a thrice-weekly mail service from the latter two towns, as well as other amenities city folks would want. These included a hotel, a butcher, a barber, a restaurant, three saloons, a tailor, two churches, two banks, and even a  jewelry store. “The lake,” they said, “offers superior inducements to the seekers for boating and fishing in summer and shooting in winter.” More such flowery descriptions followed.

The first vineyard in Lake County was planted in 1871, in the Big Valley area. The economy at the time was primarily driven by agricultural products, including grains, sugar beets, berries, and more. Dairy products and livestock were significant too. But wine production was seen to have huge potential for the area.

Although the wine industry grew, sending wine to markets out of the area, such as San Francisco, was not an important business. Wine is heavy, and the trip out of Lake County was difficult (a single trip involved ferries, trains, and wagons– each way). Besides, there were huge volumes of wine being produced closer to market in Sonoma, Napa, Santa Clara County, Livermore, and, eventually, San Francisco itself. Therefore, Lake County wine was sold to locals and, especially, recreational visitors.

The tourists Lake County attracted weren’t typically working class. They were old money, land owners, successful Gold Rush entrepreneurs, even celebrities.

Among them was Lillie Langtry, a British entertainer of note. She was actually well-known in society prior to taking the stage. Though married, she had been the mistress of Queen Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales (who would become King Edward VII), and Prince Louis of Battenberg. After those relationships—and her husband’s finances— dried up, her close friend Oscar Wilde encouraged Langtry to pursue a career in show business.

Langtry quickly became a popular actress in London, then made theatrical tours of the United States. She profited well from those, and also from a relationship with Frederick Gebhard, a 22-year-old American with considerable family wealth. They traveled the country together,  including to St. Helena in 1888. While there, they each purchased ranches in Lake County’s Guenoc Valley. Langtry had a vineyard planted on her 4,200 acre (1,700 ha) property and hired a winemaker, intent on making high-quality red wines. 

Her wine-production volumes became significant, and the wines were considered quite good. But Langtry continued to travel, pursuing the stage, horse racing, and other interests. Though much has been made of Langtry’s ownership after the fact, it’s possible she only visited the property on a single occasion. She sold it in 1906. The vineyard fell into disuse during Prohibition and was not replanted until the 1960s.

The temperance movement, an anti-drinking campaign that eventually spread throughout the United States, began almost 100 years prior to Prohibition (January 17, 2020-December 5, 1933).

While the movement didn’t lead to an outright ban until 1920, it did encourage a great many people to give up alcohol well before that. This had a severe impact on the Lake County wine industry, since its sales were based almost entirely on visitors and locals. Their consumption dropped too much for wineries to remain profitable, and no alternative markets had been developed. So, the Lake County wine industry was essentially dead before Prohibition became law. The vineyards were torn out and replaced with other crops.

The temperance movement was likely one reason Langtry sold her property in early 1906, faced with the dwindling value of her vineyard land. She was fortunate to sell when she did, albeit at a loss: Soon after, on April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake and subsequent fires destroyed most of San Francisco.

As with most California wine regions, there wasn’t enough consumer demand to justify investing in Lake County vineyard development until the late 1960s.

Then, within five years, Lake County vineyard acreage more than quintupled, reaching 500 acres (202 ha) by 1970.

As acreage grew, most of the fruit went to wineries outside the county. One of the earliest significant buyers, beginning in the early 1970s, was Fetzer of Mendocino County. Kendall-Jackson was one of the growers selling fruit, until a sale fell through. That led to production of the very first Kendall-Jackson wine, the 1982 Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. Kendall-Jackson leveraged the success of that wine to expand substantially, although primarily outside Lake County.

After wins in the 1976 Judgement of Paris Tasting by two Napa Valley wineries, demand and prices for Napa Valley wines  rose rapidly. That, in turn, increasingly led Napa Valley producers to seek fruit, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, to supplement blending. Lake County’s neighbor to the south continues to be a major customer.

Growers from outside the county bought land to address that demand too. Chief among those is Andy Beckstoffer, one of the largest vineyard holders in Napa Valley and a grape-seller rather than producer. As of 2016, his Amber Knolls vineyard in the Red Hills AVA included 1,200 planted acres (486 ha). 

Today’s Lake County wine growers and producers are no longer content to limit themselves to silently supplying other regions, though. By building brand awareness for Lake County, they can better support their own wineries and, at the same time, increase the asking price for fruit sold to outsiders.

The two varieties Lake County has put most of its energy into are Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Both do very well in the county. They are also the most in-demand among its key varieties at retail and in the fruit market. And, of course, Cabernet Sauvignon commands high prices, though lower than in Napa Valley.

Two efforts exemplify this drive for recognition. One is an initiative spurred by Andy Beckstoffer to encourage renowned winemakers to produce Lake County-designate Cabernet Sauvignon wines and sell them for more than $100 per bottle. 

The second is the Lake County Sauvignon Blanc Experience, a symposium and tasting hosted in the county. It promotes Sauvignon Blanc overall, especially that from Lake County. And it seeks to position the county as one of the world’s premier locations for Sauvignon Blanc.

While the two Sauvignons are the focus varieties, there are many other wines to enjoy in Lake County. The combination of an excellent climate and relatively low land prices makes it possible for growers and winemakers to succeed with less famous grapes.

Lake County has made excellent Zinfandel and Petite Sirah for more than a century. And even the best of those tend to be quite affordable. Some wineries make very compelling wines from Tempranillo, or Italian varieties such as Sangiovese, Barbera, and Aglianico. Lake County has also provided grapes for a lovely rosé of Touriga Nacional and a convincing homage to Hunter Valley Semillon.

Key Milestones

Mexican soldiers become first non-native Americans to arrive

First settlers from the East Coast and Europe

Lake County established (previously part of Napa County)

First wine grapes planted in the county

Lake County has 600 acres/243 ha of vines

Lillie Langtry establishes vineyard in Guenoc Valley

Prohibition begins

Magoon family acquires Langtry vineyard

Less than 100-planted vineyard acres (40 ha) exist in Lake County

Walt Lyon and Myron Holdenreid establish vineyard

Lake County has 520 planted vine acres (210 ha)

Jess Jackson converts pear orchard to vineyard

First modern Langtry Estate/Guenoc Winery wines released

County’s first AVA approved: Guenoc Valley

Lake County Winegrape Commission established

Lake County Winegrape Commission adopts Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing program

Wine and grapes generate $58.8 million in revenue for Lake County, three times more than the next most important crop

Roughly 10,000 planted vineyard acres (4,000 ha) exist in Lake County