Sara Schneider, Sunset wine editor

The life source for Lake County vineyards: the volcanic soils surrounding Clear Lake. (David Fenton / Sunset Publishing)

A flight of tasting rooms makes this unsung lake region the next great Northern California wine destination.

A vintage viewHiking to the top of Mt. Konocti, the region’s landmark volcano, via the Wright Peak Summit Trail means a heart-thumping 3-mile climb of nearly 1,650 feet. But a side trip to the minuscule Downen’s Cabin puts the hardship into perspective—Mary Downen, a widow in her late 50s, homesteaded here alone in the early 1900s. At the trail’s end, your sweat equity earns you a mountaintop perch with a sweeping view to forever: Clear Lake, Mount St. Helena, and—on a clear day—Mt. Lassen. If you join a free docent-led tour, you can climb the fire tower at the top, where the views become jaw-dropping.

Vineyard views of Mt. Konocti. (David Fenton / Sunset Publishing)

Clear Lake, uncorkedLake County has a secret: More than a little of the wine coming out of the vineyards ringing the lake has been going into Napa Valley bottles. For decades. Conditions—high elevation, volcanic slopes, day-to-night temperature swings, and the nation’s cleanest air—produce wines with intense fruit flavors and elegant structures. Winemakers and growers from the outside have joined the local talent to give Lake County wines (Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Tempranillo) stand-alone quality. Be prepared to drive; the shoreline runs 100-plus miles. You’ll find the best views of Mt. Konocti on the lake’s north side, from Mediterranean-style Brassfield Estate (don’t miss the bold, black-fruited Petite Sirah) and the lakeside hacienda of Ceàgo (try the sippable Syrah). In Lower Lake, hit Gregory Graham for more great Syrah.

Brassfield Estate’s sprawling Mediterranean-style tasting room. (David Fenton / Sunset Publishing)

Tacos, beers, and the Brew CycleLocal gathering spot Kelsey Creek Brewing dispenses the county’s best beers—and a most unusual winery (yes, winery) tour. The Brew Cycle, a pedal-powered contraption with seats for you and 16 of your best friends, cruises to at least three wineries, including Chacewater, with its characterful Sauvignon Blancs and Petite Sirahs and tasty olive oils. Post-tour, pop in for a selection of ales and seasonal brews. Kelsey serves only popcorn and peanuts, but beer lovers can bring in takeout from John’s Market Taqueria across the street.

Tasters pedal beneath the bar while a (sober) driver steers the Brew Cycle. (David Fenton / Sunset Publishing)

A tour de forceThe 2-mile washboard road leading to the Six Sigma Ranch winery is a bit of a bone-rattler, but don’t let that discourage you. On the other side, pastoral paradise awaits: a 4,300-acre working ranch dotted with ancient oaks and a stagecoach stop turned tasting room, plus vibrant Sauvignon Blancs and dusty-berried Tempranillo to take the edge off. To fully embrace it, hop in the winery’s Pinzgauer, an Austrian military ATV, for an hourlong tour of the ranch and its high-altitude vineyards. Back at the coach stop, claim a spot on the porch for wine and cheese, and watch Cabernet vines leaf out.

Six Sigma’s rugged Pinzgauer. (David Fenton / Sunset Publishing)

Dinner where the locals meet upIf you end the day on the lake’s west shore, stop by Saw Shop Gallery Bistro, where the winemaking community often gathers to drink one another’s wines over pan-seared scallops and truffle fries. For those winding down on the north shore, try the Tallman Hotel’s Blue Wing Saloon Restaurant, where microbrews, local wines, and pork chops get a live blues backdrop every Monday night. And if you lose track of time (or overindulge), it’s just steps from the historic hotel.

Saw Shop’s golden beet salad with goat cheese. (David Fenton / Sunset Publishing)

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