An Adventure Made for a Fall Afternoon
October 19, 2020
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.
On the left is a full kitchen. Two industrial faucets stretch like swans above the long, stainless steel sink. Five wooden chairs line out along the white-topped island, where flowers sit in a decanter. Take a seat and begin tasting Stonehouse’s unique wines. Daniel Cruz, cellar master for Stonehouse, stands on the other side of the island, facemask and gloves on, holding a small plastic cup of wine. He’s exceptionally competent; not only does Daniel have skills in winemaking, but he’s also able to clearly share his firsthand knowledge of the entire process, telling stories of each wine’s creation. “This is our 2017 barrel-aged Merlot,” he says. In his other hand, he holds another plastic cup. “And this is our 2017 Merlot, done in stainless.”
It’s part of the uniqueness of tasting wine at Stonehouse Cellars. Owner and winemaker Greg Stratmann likes to experiment, and he shares the best of those experiments with tasters. It’s possible to taste the same Cabernet Sauvignon, but in American, Eastern European, or French oak, or unfiltered versus filtered wine. And, of course, merlot with or without oak.
The merlot in stainless is bright, with a light feel. “People seem to like this one the best,” Daniel says. “But, I like oak.” He smiles. “But I just tried some of it, and I thought, hmm, this is pretty good.” While the stainless merlot is refreshing, the oaked merlot is complex, aged with American and French oak and filled with depth. The wine sits ruby-red, its legs stretching out down the side of the wineglass. It has a beautiful aroma, and the oak is immediately noticeable in the bouquet and across the palate with the first taste. Then the tannins spread, bringing notes of spice and hints of pepper and licorice. But the fruit is still there, just beneath the oak. The wine is rich, smooth, and balanced, finishing long and gently across the back of the throat. It’s a complementary wine, one that brings out the best of anything you cook, while not overwhelming it with its own ideas.
The tasting moves on and nears the end. “Would you like to try some Bubble Trouble?” Daniel asks. The wineglasses sit empty on the island. “We take grape juice, or you could call it unfermented wine. This batch we used Chenin Blanc grapes. Then we dilute it with water, add special yeast, and carbonate it.” He leaves for a moment and comes back with cups filled with a bubbly drink. It sits yellow-gold-orange in the glass, gently effervescent. “We made several batches, some sweet, some dry, and tasted them all until we found one we liked. “This one,” he gestures to the glass, “was one of the ones we liked best.” It’s bright, light, and fizzy, with a hint of sweetness, but not oversweet. It tastes like summer afternoons and long days. “We plan on bottling it once we get it perfected,” Daniel says. But right now, it’s only available if you make the trip to Stonehouse. There you can get it by the glass.
The tasting winds down, and, if you planned, you can head off to enjoy one of Stonehouse’s beautiful rooms. But if not, take a few minutes to enjoy the beauty of Stonehouse Cellars location. Sip on a glass of Bubble Trouble, stretch out on the patio in the shade, and watch the sun slowly turn the sky from blue to red-orange, to violet.
Stonehouse Cellars is located at: 500 Old Long Valley Rd, Clearlake Oaks, CA.
You will need to call ahead to make an appointment for tasting: (707)-998-3378.
This article first appeared in The Lake County Bloom. To read more like it, visit their website.