A friend of mine was serving Shannon Ridge Chardonnay at his holiday party. When I asked him why he chose it, he said, “I was looking for a Chardonnay with a traditional Napa Valley style, but without the Napa Valley price. The guy at the wine shop steered me to this Lake County wine.”
That’s exactly what Clay Shannon, founder of Shannon Ridge Vineyards and Winery, had in mind when he bought land in Lake County just north of Napa Valley – quality without the elevated price. The high elevation and cooler climate big are ideal for growing big tannic grapes like Cab and Zin. The well-drained, rich soils full of potash, calcium and good potassium levels allow the fruit to get ripe. Equally as important, the steep sloped vineyards were didn’t come with the king’s-ransom price tags of their Napa cousins.
Clay grew up in wine country in Healdsburg, CA. He got into the grape growing business right out of high school and established a solid business. He eventually sold his farming business to Sutter Home Winery in 1985 and worked there until 1993. He learned a on the job, growing grapes all over California. After a short and lucrative stint as an almond farmer, Clay was beckoned by the siren’s song of the grapes to return to the wine industry to start Shannon Ridge with his wife in 1995.
In the beginning, he was growing Petite Sirah and Cabernet in the red soil of Lake County and selling the grapes in long term contracts to big wineries such as Beringer Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Winery, and others. He started making small amounts of wine with winemaker Marco de Julio in 2002 and got the feel for it. In 2003, as he talked to his young children about their future, he realized he wanted a more stable financial business and decided to go full bore into the wine making business. Fast forward a hand-full of years and Shannon Ridge is now producing around 100,000 cases of wine a year.
He embraced the challenge of transitioning from vineyard management to being a winery owner and relished the learning. “As a grower for other wineries the incentive is to grow tonnage. When making wine, the importance of yield on quality is more important. You have to focus on the quality of crop management: pull leaves, let the grapes hang the proper amount of time and don’t over crop it. It makes a huge difference in the quality of the wine.” His biggest learning, “If the wine is priced right and it tastes good, people will buy it.”
For the Shannons, quality is rooted in sustainability. A corner-stone of the Shannon Ridge approach to sustainability is a heard of about 1,000 head of sheep that roam the vineyards. These wooly compost machines sanitize the vineyards by eating the leaves dropped, grapes missed and the weeds. With sheep hard at work, the Shannons eliminated the use of systemic types of herbicide and reduced the fungicide program. They also take the straw from the lambing barns and use it for mulch under the vines. To complete the cycle they sell grass-fed lamb to the local restaurants that buy the wine.
Shannon Ridge makes a wide selection of wines such as Petite Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Barbera. The diversity of varietals is a vestige of planting vineyards under contract for other wineries. It’s also allowed Clay to experiment to see what worked best. Cabernet, Chardonnay and Petite Sirah are the top sellers, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Wrangler Red, which is a fun blend of Zin, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Tempranillo.
I tasted my way through the “Ranch Collection” line-up, enjoying the whole batch. In the cooler months I tend to drink more red than white wine, and opted to share my tasting notes for the Shannon Ridge reds.
2009 Shannon Ridge Petite Sirah Lake County
The grapes are sourced from the family’s High Valley Vineyards in Lake County. It is fermented in stainless steel and barrel aged in a mix of French and American Oak. This is the winery’s signature wine. The grapes grow particularly well in Lake County producing a wine with deep color, firm tannins and plenty of fruit.
|Look||The first thing I said when I pour the wine into the decanter was “Whoa, look at that color.” It splashed down the sides like liquid grape jelly; deep, vivacious and jolly royal purple as opaque as the last breath of sunset before the night goes black.|
|Smell||The Petite Sirah has bouncy aromas of baked blueberry pie and flaky pie crust with spiced roasted beats and vanilla.|
|Taste||The bold blueberry, currant and vanilla flavors are balanced with firm tannins. The fruit coats the tongue in a velvet robe and the tannins grip the lips and teeth in a warm embrace. This wine pairs well with lamb, like the grass and grape fed woolies that roam the Shannon Ridge vineyards.|
The grapes for the Lake County Cab are grown in High Valley and Red Hills appellation vineyards. They use extended maceration to get the darkest color possible and then age the wine in a mix of French and American Oak.
|Look||This Cab is deep plum purple with some translucence.|
|Smell||It has a rich nose of blackberry, black cherry and baking spices.|
|Taste||Jammy blueberry, stewed plums and fig with baking chocolate flavors meld with plenty of tannins that punctuate each sip. The smooth texture holds for a long finish the eases from berry to bitter. This is a steak-lovers wine. It has the pop to marry with a fat ribeye.|
2009 Shannon Ridge Merlot North Coast
Merlot grapes grown in Lake and Mendocino counties are blended with small counts of Cab (9%) and Barbera (6%) for vibrant color and flavors.
|Look||This is eye popping eggplant and ruby gleaming in the glass.|
|Smell||Full scents of cassis, black currant, pomegranate and cedar greet the nose.|
|Taste||Shannon Ridge makes a pleasant, easy-drinking and food-friendly Merlot with buoyant berry, black cherry flavors and a touch of bitterness. It has mild tannin on the finish and a smooth mouthfeel. A great wine for a cool night, roasted root vegetables and pork tenderloin.|
2009 Shannon Ridge Zinfandel
Zin is well suited for the cooler climates of Lake County. Much of the Zinfandel that Shannon Ridge grows is used in the Wrangler Red, but Clay selects some of the best fruit and blends it with 7% of Petite Sirah to make a little more than 2,000 cases of this Lake County Zin.
|Look||Dark garnet color foreshadows the richness of this wine.|
|Smell||It has opulent fragrances of fig, tart cranberry, black pepper and dusty cedar bark.|
|Taste||This is a fairly traditional California Zin with big, jammy raspberry, cola, pepper and tobacco flavors. It’s perfect with pizza, pasta or just with a conversation.|
Clay’s favorite wine and food pairings are as humble as his beginnings. “I’m a deluxe hamburger guy, and I love it with our Wrangler Red. It’s fun wine with good tannins and structure, but simple enough to drink it with a hamburger. I also our single vineyard cab and our Viognier with lamb loin chops seared with salt and pepper.” That sounds damn good to me.
If you want to try Shannon Ridge wines with your favorite meals or at your holiday parties, call your local wine shop or order online. Shannon Ridge wines are available widely throughout most U.S. states including Texas. I purchased Wrangler Red (not reviewed here) at Specs in Austin.