The gray clouds clear, leaving Lake County’s iconic blue above the shores of Clear Lake. In the distance, Mt. Konocti reaches up against the crystal-clear sky. A boat takes its time launching at the nearest boat launch. It’s not a busy day on the lake. There’s no rush, and the boat owner knows that. A few people walk by, heading back to work somewhere on Main St, while others take their time over a meal and drink. It’s the lunch hour in Library Park. Outside, a couple of patrons soak in the view from Park Place Restaurant’s outdoor patio while sipping on a glass of wine. Inside, lively music greets us, and happy patrons chatter amongst themselves. The atmosphere is energetic, upbeat, and contagious. The view from the lake isn’t going anywhere, even inside, and the vibes are irresistible.
FOOD AND DRINK
After a cozy lunch at Adams Springs we make the short drive to Laujor Estate Winery, resting in the Red Hills of Lake County. There’s a reason the Red Hills got their name. The soil is as red as I have ever seen, and it’s famous for its unique terroir. So it’s no surprise that these hills are covered in vineyards. The grey of the January winter storm settles between the rolling vineyards and Mt. Konocti. The rain isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and happily, neither are we.
A welcomed winter rain twists and turns around our feet as we make our way up the steps from the greens to the lodge. No, it’s not a lodge, but that’s what best describes the clubhouse. Its exposed wood and log beams give it a feel like a ski resort. Only a few days before, snow blanketed the golf course, welcoming families from all over the mountain to come and play in a winter wonderland. Inside, people warmed their cold fingers with hot cocoa or lunch in front of the club’s open fire pit. See, a lodge, right?
Today, the snowstorm has turned into a rainstorm outside the clubhouse. Inside, the same warm fire greets us, beckoning us to come closer, and we do. It’s near closing time, and most patrons have already come and gone except for a few locals sitting at tables. A television screen flashes pictures at the end of the bar. We find a spot near the fire and are soon greeted by our waitress. We order a beer and my usual, a Bloody Mary. I know when I find a good one—not too salty and the horseradish is just right. At the bar stands Eddie Mullins, owner and visionary of all that is Adams Springs. Before too long, he makes his way to our table like he always does to greet us.
Edgar Bonilla and Antonio Sanchez sit at one of the picnic tables stretched under a large tent. Edgar’s just lit a propane heater, and the warmth heats the chill from the morning air. Both bring their own energy to the table; Edgar’s bright, friendly, and warm. Antonio’s reserved, thoughtful, and competent. And they’re comfortable in each other’s company; they’ve worked together for over fifteen years in Napa restaurants. And they’ve come together to make some spectacular food at Los Compas.
Pauline chips in. “We knew we wanted a farm, and we drove all over. This was our last stop, and we knew this property was perfect. It’s on a busier road, and it’s flat.” She pauses for a second and watches Franklin chewing on something in the doorway. “I don’t know what my dog’s eating. Oh, it’s just a piece of wood.” She moves on. “So we ordered our blackberry and raspberry starts for the next season. When a semi showed up, I thought, ‘Wow, a lot of people in the area must be ordering.’ But it was all for us. How many plants was it?”
“7,500,” Mike replies.
Chalerm Thai Bistro’s a hidden treasure in Lakeport. Odds are, if you don’t live in town, you haven’t heard of it. It’s not downtown or next to the freeway. Instead, it resides off Lakeshore Boulevard north of the main business district, sitting next to a closed liquor market. For years, it’s also served as our family’s go-to for quality Thai food.
The waning sun’s orange glow casts long shadows against the barn wall at Peace and Plenty Farm. It’s fall in Lake County; autumn leaves are just turning, gardens readying themselves for rest. In the parking area, friends gather together, already savoring Lake County’s last farm to fork dinner of the season before making their way to the tables. Melinda Price, co-owner and farmer for Peace and Plenty Saffron Farm, greets the crowd with her kind voice. “Hello, everyone!” she smiles. “We have a big crowd tonight, the biggest we’ve ever had.” A splash of applause comes from the tables. “Now we have a hungry terrier wandering around. Please, don’t feed her any chicken bones.”
It’s an unusually cool summer afternoon in Big Valley. Outside the Finley Country Market, rose bushes and lavender pop out of planters, framing the red, farmhouse-looking store. Several picnic tables, shaded by umbrellas, stretch across the courtyard. Finley Country Market’s been around twenty-five years and serves as a hub for the small community. They’ve got a good barbecue, offering grilled chicken, burgers, or tri-tip sandwiches depending on the day of the week. And they’re popular; it’s not uncommon for the market to receive twenty-five or thirty pre-orders on Fridays for their tri-tip sandwiches.
And each Friday, another wonderful thing happens at the market. There, on the counter next to the register, sit Karen Shippley’s gluten-free muffins. Depending on Karen’s mood, you may find blueberry muffins, carrot cake or German chocolate cupcakes, all luscious and completely gluten-free.
“Where are you planning to go for dinner?” I was asked several times the day I visited Richmond Park Bar and Grill. “Oh, Richmond Park,” I’d reply. “I’m going to do a write-up on them.” And this is the part that amazed me. I got the same response three times. “Don’t order the Richmond Park Burger. You never be able to finish it.”
Fults Family Vineyards sits on Clayton Creek just a few miles south of Lower Lake on the corner of Spruce Grove Road and Highway 29. Enter the tree-lined driveway, and you wind up a rise, past the Fults’ home to their tasting room overlooking a large pond. Kendall, co-owner of Fults Family Vineyards (FFV), keeps it relaxed and welcoming. It’s the kind of place where no matter your wine knowledge or preference, you’ll have a good time. I’ve never been to a winery with a television on one wall always playing sports, or a par 3 hole where you can hit some golf balls while you sip on a glass. It all fits together perfectly at FFV. Come in on the weekend, and you’ll probably run into Kendall sitting behind the tasting room bar, waiting with some good wine and a good story.
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.
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.
High-Quality, From Scratch, and Homemade. What Else Could You Ask For? Try Live Oak Grill in Kelseyville
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.