Olof Cellars isn’t hard to find. Just head out Highland Springs Road past the airport, and within a couple miles you’ll be there. The vineyards wind over an easing slope that runs down toward Big Valley. Konocti hangs high in the background like a cap over the rapidly ripening grapes. A white fence lines the driveway that leads up past a restored farmhouse and to the converted chicken coop that now serves as the tasting room. The Mendocino Complex stopped within twenty feet of that converted chicken coop. I can see the blackened burn line edging around the property. The firefighters used Olof as a staging area. They hung out at the pool, had barbecues, then did a back burn to save the winery and its neighbors. “We lost a fence post and it burned some grass on our side of the fence,” Cind, the owner of the winery, told me. “And there is fire retardant on some the vines, so we lost those grapes. But we checked the other grapes and there is not much smoke damage. I remember 2008, and it was worse than this. It’s really hard to tell, though, because the smoke flavor usually doesn’t come out until after the wine is bottled.” She paused. “But many people like the smokey flavor. It’s actually very good with barbecue. And all the grapes we sold in 2008 turned into wines that won medals.”
Olof grows a unique variety, for California, at least: Nebbiolo. It is a notoriously difficult grape to grow. I’ve heard it referred to as a “little rascal,” and had winemakers tell me stories of horribly low yields and harvests that wouldn’t ripen. I’ve had nebbiolos that range from peppery to smokey to fruity, and a few that were terrible. But at Olof, they do their nebbiolo extremely well. As we walked in the vineyards, Cindi showed me the grapes still ripening on the vines. She reached over and picked one then had me taste. They were three or four weeks from harvest, but the flavor of the grape was coming in. I could taste the tannins strongly already. Later, she popped the cork off a barrel of aging nebbiolo. The sweet fruitiness overwhelmed me. “It’s always so sweet when in the barrel,” she said. But the end result of these finicky, thin-skinned grapes is a complex, unique wine. “No one in California seems to know about it,” Cindi told me. “Here all everyone wants is Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Chardonnay.” I know it’s true. Mention nebbiolo in a group of your friends and they may just think you’ve had one too many and politely avoid you for the evening. But if you really want to expand your knowledge of varietals and enjoy some fantastic wine at the same time, get to know this unique variety.
The only white they currently carry is a white nebbiolo. Olof’s is truly a rarity—the first one I have ever tasted. Look up “white nebbiolo” online, and you’ll see how unusual it is. No other winery I know makes one. Back in the vineyard when I was poking at the grapes, as I pulled a nebbiolo grape off the bunch, it split in half. “See how thin the skin is? That’s how we can make a white with it,” Cind told me. “I love the buttery chardonnays, and I wanted to do that with the white nebbiolo.” I have always enjoyed the uniqueness of nebbiolo, so I jumped at a chance to try a white. Let me tell you something. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have their place. But if you are looking for a white that will stun you with all the complexity of a red and still leave you with the pleasant lightness of a white, look no further. The wine has no hint or blush of red, but rather sits in the glass creamy and yellow. The bouquet has strong aromas of vanilla along with pear. Both flavors fill the mouth with the first taste, followed by the noticeable tannins that lead to a smooth, buttery ending. It’s a delight to drink, and a wonderful pairing with anything containing caramel or toffee.
Olof creates truly unique, high quality wines that are decidely Lake County priced. As $20 a bottle, the White Nebbiolo is a bargain. And right now they are clearing out some of their 2010 and 2011 wines at $20 for 2 bottles. It is well-worth the three-minute trip off of Highway 29. Of course, my effusiveness about the white nebbiolo may be a clue to the wine that I took home.