The Subaru winds its way through the oak trees. It’s spring, and Hoodoo Creek weaves through the bright green grass. A vineyard suddenly appears in front of us, filled with thick, gnarled grapevines. We step out of the car to look at them. Each vine curls around itself like a twisted fist, shooting off new leaves. “This is our Hoodoo vineyard,” Dave Rosenthal tells us in his easygoing manner. He’s dressed in a casual sweater and baseball cap. “These Zinfandel vines were planted in 1937.” As he tells us the history of the vines, I snap a few pictures. “My mom, up ‘till two years ago, would come out and work this vineyard,” he continues. “She’d work for a bit, then nap for a bit, like this.” He puts his head on his chest and slumps. “She was enjoying herself, but we got a few calls from the neighbors telling us that Mom had collapsed in the vineyard.” He smiles.
FOOD AND DRINK
The hum of boats on the lake fills the background as growing shadows dance further and further out into the rippling water. Live music swells from the gazebo in Library Park. Children play in the playground, and the sounds of their laughter mix with the rhythm of the band. This moment in time is one of my favorite reasons for living in Lake County. I take my first sip of Chardonnay. The sun finally rests behind the roofline of Juicy’s Pizza and the roar of unmuffled racecar engines drifts our way from Lakeport Speedway. We consider our choices for the rest of the evening. We could leave the concert in the Park, catch the races and still make it to the drive-in. We decide to box up our pizzas and put off our decision for a while.
Amy Thorn was drawn to Lake County years ago when she worked as a wine judge. At a competition, she tasted an unnamed Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon and was hooked. “I thought, this is the place where we need to start a winery,” Amy says. “The volcanic soil brings it such a unique flavor.” On her first visit, Amy went to Konocti Harbor, watched Credence Clearwater Revival play, then came to look at the property where Thorn Hill’s tasting room currently sits. The night was dark, and the stars shone brilliantly. “I felt like I was in the Sound of Music!” Amy continues. “We walked around and could see the stars like I could reach out and touch them. I’d never seen anything like it before. I knew this was the place.”
Perry’s Deli is currently owned by Derrick and Courtney Fiske. Derrick is a 3rd generation owner who took over from his parents in 2019. I had a chance to talk with him on the phone a few days earlier, and knew that I was in for good food. Derrick explains that his father’s motto is “quality, quality, quality.” Derrick’s grandfather, he says, is “an old-school deli guy who emphasized specific measurements.” The family is no stranger to the deli business as they opened up Novato Perry’s years ago and Middletown in 1992.
May winds blustered their way around Ripe Choice Farm’s barn, hurrying in the late arrivals of the Konocti Women’s Service Club (KWSC) luncheon. A few ladies stood in line to pick up a glass of wine, but most everyone had gathered inside, talking as if they hadn’t seen each other in years. In fact, it had been over a year since they had met, making this more like a family reunion than a meeting. Ladies gathered around the tables scattered throughout the barn, each decorated with wildflowers and tablecloths, making the barn warm and welcoming.
“It was inevitable that Alex and I would end up running a brewery,” Tim O’Meara, one half of the O’Meara Bros. Brewing Company, says. A pump hums in the background, pushing a batch of Elk Mountain IPA into the fermenter. “When we were kids, we always pretended we were bartenders. We had bottles all over the place filled with concoctions we had created.” He laughs. “Mom told us, ‘Someday you’re going to run your own business together.’ Can you give me a second?” he stops, listening to his brewer’s intuition. “I need to go check on that batch.” While Tim heads off to look things over, Trudy and I sip on a flight of his beers. It turns out his mom was right. Decades after her prophecy, and nearly seven years into business together, brothers Tim and Alex are still at it, creating quality, drinkable beverages.
We spot Ben Hittle as we walk into the Farmers’ Market in Middletown. He stands underneath a gigantic oak tree, sunglasses pulled up onto the striped beanie pulled tight on his head. He’s selling trees. “It’s a cedar,” he tells us, his blonde goatee framing his smile, “and it can only be found in two places in Lake County. It’s an endangered species.” “That’s incredible,” I reply. “What type of cedar is it? “I don’t know,” he responds. “I’ve looked for hours and spent way too much time on the phone trying to figure it out. Nobody knows. No,” he pauses. “Somebody knows. I’ll find them.”
Wine barrels sit under the extended awning of 350 North in Lakeport, converted into tables. Barstools stretch around them, with diners propped on the edges, enjoying a beer and burger. Inside, sports play on the televisions, and country music fills in the moments between conversations. “Be proud of your hometown. It’s a big part of what makes you the person you are”, a large sign above the bar reads. “Lakeport Proud”. The atmosphere’s relaxed, casual. It’s the kind of place to get a meal, then hang out for a couple of hours chatting with friends.
“The first time I tasted a Malbec, it was like that movie Ratatouille,” Miguel says. “You know how that one bite took him back to his childhood?” Miguel poses the question. “The first smell of the Malbec took me back to when I was six or seven years old in Michoacán. We had to go up the mountain and plow the furrows for the corn by hand. And after a long, hot day of work, my father would pick the prickly fruit off the cactus. He would pick the spines off the fruit and hand it to me to eat. When I was a child, I was mad at having to do all that hard work, but the reward of the work was the taste of the fruit in my mouth.” He smiles, remembering that moment once more. “And that moment was in that glass of wine. Wine tasting is personal,” he continues. “You won’t have the same feeling or memory that I have when you taste something, but it’s that moment with certain wines, where you are taken back to a certain time or emotion. Then the wine becomes part of who you are. That makes wine special. Winemaking is memories.”
“I call myself a winegrower,” Greg says. “I’m my own vineyard manager, and at the end point, I’m a winemaker. It’s not about getting tonnage. It’s about growing high-quality fruit. Grapes don’t ripen at the same time. I pick them over three weeks to ensure they are picked at the peak.” And it shows in his wines. Every bottle at Gregory Graham is distinct, unique, and thoughtfully created. “I would put my grapes and wines against anyone,” he says. “I put my thumbprint on the wines.”
“Isn’t this amazing?” I ask my husband as the clear, crisp blue sky turns pink, purple, and gold. We’re watching a beautiful sunset at Borax Lake. “We should do this more often.” Since neither one of us wants to cook dinner after our short, steep hike, we drive along Sulfur Bank Road to pick up some take-out from Happy Garden Chinese Restaurant and Bar on Highway 20 in Clearlake Oaks. We’re long-term residents of Lake County, but we’ve never been to Happy Garden. From what I hear, it’s the best Chinese food in Lake County.
Wind whips around the tasting room, groaning through the flapping sunshades, but around the corner, it’s quiet and warm. Two chairs huddle near a patio heater, a tray filled with hand-labeled two-ounce bottles of wine to taste between them. Below the old farmhouse, old walnut trees fill the courtyard, where the wind blows water from the fountain several feet into the gravel. Birds flick through the bare branches, rising with each breeze, then settling on a new tree. A bocce court framed by a rock wall marks the end of the tasting area and the beginning of the vineyards, which sweep downward to Anderson Marsh and Clear Lake. Snow-tipped mountains rise in the distance, dusted in sugar.
Since reopening October 15th, Live Oak Grill has quickly established a loyal customer base. Much of it has to do with owners Jennifer and Jamie’s friendly disposition. They’re relaxed, comfortable, and easy to talk to. And a lot has to do with the quality of the food. Everything’s handmade and done well, with plenty of attention to detail.
It doesn’t matter what you order at Wholly Bowl; you’ll get quality food made with fresh ingredients. Jenn doesn’t over-spice or over-sweeten her food. It’s meant to be balanced. “’Wholly’ means all-inclusive,” Jenn says, excitement in her eyes. “It’s all in one bowl.” She ticks off ingredients on her fingers: “The crisp of the veggies with the fat of the avocado, the hot rice, and the crunch of the cabbage and kale. The protein, the starch, the veggies and the sauce. It’s the layered ingredients with the multiple sauces; the synergy of them all combined creates something wholly new.”
If you live in Lake County and haven’t been to Castle Donuts yet, you’re seriously missing out. This shop creates donuts that fill people’s fantasies. It doesn’t matter which type you choose; you can’t go wrong. From bacon maple bars to custard-filled, chocolate-covered donuts, from old-fashioned to glazed, from apple fritters to bear claws, Castle Donuts makes them all spectacularly.
Once the pavement ends, it’s like entering another world, peaceful, calm, filled with light and laughter. Massive valley oaks arch overhead, shading the fire pit and picnic area. Bamboo wind chimes clink in the soft breeze. Martin Pohl, owner of Beaver Creek, steps out to greet us.
“Hello! Hello!” he smiles as he walks towards us, his flip flops clicking with each step. “Welcome!”
You’ve probably driven past Cache Creek Vineyards more times than you can count. Whether leaving or just coming into Lake County, it’s hard to miss the giant wine barrel resting just off of Highway 20 on the way to Williams. If you look closely, you’ll see the fountain to the right of the tasting room, sparkling near the overarching oak trees. Further back, an amphitheater sits. And if you look closely enough, you may catch a glimpse of the herd of Tule Elk roaming the property. Sometimes life needs a short detour, and Cache Creek Winery is well worth a side trip on your way to or from the city.
I’ve been to my share of East Indian restaurants. Back in the day, it was the choice location for many a dull business lunch. And those restaurants varied from delightful to those that seemed to be trying to punch me with spices. I’ve left restaurants smelling like I just worked out. So when my wife and I decided to visit Arti Natural and Organic Indian Cafe, I had no expectations. It is the only Indian place in the county, and I had already decided that I would be polite, regardless of whether I had a strong gym sock odor at the end of the meal. If you’re a fan of Indian food, you’ll understand. But as soon as I entered the restaurant, I knew this place was different.
I first need to warn you about the view. It slaps you in the face as soon as you turn past the corrugated tin Laujor Sign and head down the hill to the tasting room. It is. Be careful to focus on the road and not Konocti and the sweep of mountaintops across the horizon as you drive into the parking lot. Vines surround the tasting room, but don’t worry; going inside won’t ruin the view. Pull open the glass doors and step up to the tasting counter. A massive picture window runs the length of the back wall so that with every sip of wine you can enjoy the exquisite beauty of Lake County.
“We try to make the best pizza that we can,” Pete Ogo, co-owner of Pogos Pizza, says. “Everything’s from scratch. We make our own sauce, and our sausage is locally made for us using a special recipe.” He pauses for a second, but that’s just to catch his breath. “We’re really picky. We only prep our vegetables for that day; they’re never old.” Pete’s getting excited. It’s undeniable that he loves what he does. “You know what? Our biggest goal is to have the best product in the community and be as involved as we can.”
It’s a warm summer afternoon, but under the covered work area behind the tasting room it’s shady, and the afternoon breeze pushes air through, cooling it further. Paul Manuel, owner of Chacewater, sits at a picnic table, face shield stretching around his head.
“I’m sorry about having to taste out here,” he says immediately. “Two weeks ago, we had to shift our tasting room outside. And this is our work area.” He pauses. “I don’t know how much longer we’re going to have to do this.”
It’s not so bad. The sitting area is casual, comfortable, and welcoming. In front of a stack of wine barrels stands a short tasting bar. Several picnic tables stretch across the patio, a couple sitting at one. The breeze is pleasant, and the shade feels cool. Classic rock plays in the background, and the couple sings along to the chorus. Just on the other side of the shaded area, olive trees stretch in rows, guiding the eyes further outward towards the mountainous horizon. Bright sun glints off the still-small olives, ripening in speckles of chartreuse and white. Come late fall, they will darken to shades of purples, vibrant greens, and chocolate browns.
Just in front of Wholly Bowl, and sitting between Grocery Outlet and the Dollar Tree in Lakeport stands Shoreline Coffee Shop. It’s an unassuming spot, sandwiched next to a wireless store and discount shop. Usually, diners sit inside, but since COVID, tables stretch out in the open-air hallway where customers sit, sipping on drip coffee and forking into plates piled with food. If you’re looking for comfort food, Shoreline is a great place to begin.
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You may think you’re lost by the time you get to Old Long Valley Road, particularly if you’re coming into Lake County from Williams. Highway 20 winds and twists back upon itself for thirty-five miles as it leaves the valley and works its way into the mountains of Lake County. But if you’re coming from the other direction, it’s only a ten-minute drive from Clearlake Oaks, a small town with a great bakery and good Mexican food.As soon as the car tuns off the highway, the road gets rough. A sign sticks out of the brush, slightly lopsided. “Low Water Crossing 3 3/10 miles ahead,” it states. “Not Maintained During Winter Months.” But don’t worry. Stonehouse Cellars is only a mile away, and there are plenty of reasons to enjoy the view. The road turns into a single lane and winds between the now golden-hued grass that spreads across the steeply sloped mountainsides. A dry creek bed matches the curves of the road. Off in the distance, past the patches of oak trees, mountains shadow into mountains, until they disappear grey-black in the distance. As the road swings into Stonehouse Cellars, a pond appears, surrounded by cattails. On its banks stands a cabin, former stagecoach stop and retreat of Country musician Tennessee Ernie Ford. It’s been completely remodeled and is now available to rent as part of Stonehouse’s Bed and Barrel lodging service. A large willow tree arches over the pond, and a small paddleboat nests in a crack of the foliage. A full-length porch stretches in front of the house, welcoming and inviting. It’s ready for an afternoon with a good book. But the tasting room is up the hill to the right, past the large Stonehouse Cellars sign. There, on a ridgeline, stands a modern structure, straight-lined, pushing vertically upward, contrasting the swell and swoop of the mountains that reach out beyond it. Open the large glass door, and the heat of the summer afternoon dissipates. It’s quiet inside, and the tall ceilings stretch the sound, muffling and extending it. Chairs and couches fill the middle of the room, and a table and shuffleboard stand near the doors leading to the patio. It’s empty country; there’s no other house in sight.
The afternoon sunlight filters through the willow tree stretching above the table. Sitting on the edge of Clear Lake, it’s easy to hear the slap of the water against the bulkheads and watch the grebes dance across the lake, necks outstretched. Behind them, the shoulders of Mt. Konocti stretch upwards. And on the table sits a Smokin’ Burger complete with sides of beans, fries, and coleslaw, waiting to be consumed.
The Smokin’ Burger is one of the top-selling burgers. It’s a big burger, topped with smoked pork, pepper jack cheese, and a healthy dose of barbecue sauce. And, of course, there’s magic happening there. The sauce gives a creamy contrast to the grilled flavor of the burger, and the pulled pork slides across the top, layered with intention to draw out the fullness of the meat. The burger veritably drips with flavor, and across your hands and down your arms as well. It’s impossible not to get messy eating it, or not to leave full.
After chatting for a while, Pascal picks out some pastries for us to try. Marcel’s Bakery and Café does it right. They get their flour and butter from France, which means fewer chemicals and gluten. That, along with considerable skill in baking, makes pastries that are light, flaky, and created with attention to detail. Take the apricot croissant, for example. Marcel’s uses whole apricots that give it a tangy tartness, which combined with the creamy custard and flaky, creates a croissant that’s memorable, and impossible to put down.
Speaking of impossible to put down, the éclair causes its own dilemmas. “You’ll want to eat the éclair now,” Pascal told us. Sizably portioned and drizzled in chocolate with a refreshingly cool custard, it disappeared immediately. The same goes for the chocolate twist, a sweet, but not overly sweet, creamy chocolately twist that leaves one with a satisfied, happy feeling.
Of course, Marcel’s Bakery and Café has many other options, from baguette to panini. The Lakeport store has a full deli, and our children love Marcel’s macaroons, delicately flavored cookies that dissolve in the mouth.