Story and Photos by Stephanie Levin.
We, who live in the Bay Area, have a tendency to boast about our place on the planet. You know the hype: great chefs, culinary creativity, culture galore, three recycling bins, green bike lanes, entitlement…need I continue? To escape all this glamour, I’m constantly scouting for a weekend escape to settle myself, simplify my senses, get away from it all. Alas, Upper Lake County, cloaked in natural splendor and grace with just enough elegance rubbing elbows with salt of the earth people, is that place.
As the curvaceous country road rolled past grandfather oaks and verdant hillsides I saw a slice of old California, when the state was truly golden and agriculture, not developments, dominated large swaths of land. Prior to Prohibition, vineyards thrived here, and today small wineries have once again blossomed. The valley is a rich tapestry of agricultural and viticultural delights, all from family owned businesses. The landscape has a physical effect; pulses simmer down and the relaxation response kicks in. No one is in a hurry here.
Moseying down Main Street is a redolent jaunt of bygone eras: a bakery, a wine studio, a deli, an antique shop, a red barn, the Blue Wing Saloon and Café, and the historic Tallman Hotel, all within a yawn of each other.
The Tallman, which has been restored from the original 1890s building, seamlessly blends the best of the past-historical delights and polish with the refinement of the present– classy comfort with state-of-the-art environmental amenities. The historic hotel reigns like a romantic jewel over the street. I chose one of the four garden rooms; tastefully decorated with just the right touch of sophistication, yet comfortable enough to curl up in one of the armchairs and read. Though not all rooms have the wooden Japanese soaking tub in the enclosed patio, mine did. At night under a constellation of stars, I savored country silence while soaking in the warm water. To soak under the heavens at night is the elixir for sleep.
The Blue Wing Saloon and Cafe sits across the fountain-filled courtyard from the Tallman, so guests enjoy afternoons and evenings chatting with friends or simply sipping a glass of fine wine on the colorful Adirondack chairs before a delicious dinner. A schedule on the front of the Blue Wing Café announces musical events, and Sunday brunch usually brings in a crowd of locals to enjoy music and the food. This isn’t the wild, crank up the music crowd; it’s music of a mellower era, and it’s not uncommon for everyone to sing along. On my Sunday visit, local musicians Gloria Strasburg on vocals and Dan Coffin on guitar entertained. I loved the ambiance, music of a softer genre-think Joan Baez, Crosby Stills, Nash, Young and Dylan- yet, mellow enough to converse, beautiful enough to turn heads; the best of an unpretentious Sunday afternoon.
Although one could sit in the large rocking chairs on the porch of the Tallman, or an Adirondack in the garden, Upper Lake County beckons with a bevy of activities from outdoor options to olive-oil and wine tasting.
Main Street may not kick up its heels at night, but sommelier Susan Feiler’s Lake County Wine Studio draws the novice and the wine connoisseurs. Susan’s uncanny ability to ferret out local finds makes conversing and sipping at her wine bar a rare and insightful experience for those who like to stay close to town. It was here I met Daniel and Javier Salmon, established goat-cheese producers in the region. The brothers immigrated from Peru with their family decades ag, bringing with them the family secret of producing fine cheese. I promised a peak at their Yerba Santa Goat Dairy on my way out of town, and Javier promised a cheese-making tour.
The region’s wilderness offers unspoiled outdoor opportunities, both on land and water. Clear Lake is the county’s largest freshwater lake noted for both fishing and boating. For an insight into the natural wonders on the lake, take Eyes on the Wild nature tour in a pontoon with regional naturalists as your guide, or paddle and explore the sloughs or waterways. If you’d rather go by foot, there are a fount of hiking trails from aerobic to gentle near Clear Lake, or if you are lucky enough to arrive during wildflower season, to coin the late Tom Petty:” You belong among the wildflowers.”
However, like any interesting town, what makes Upper Lake County unique is, of course, the folks who reside here and work the land. A 20-minute drive from Upper Lake center sits the small town of Kelseyville and Chacewater Olive Oil & Winery. The rather plain looking building is deceptive and you might be inclined to drive by; put on your brakes and go inside. Owner Paul Manuel purchased the 10-acre olive mill property, history and all. According to Emilio, Manuel’s right hand man and olive oil expert extraordinaire, the property once belonged to Gregorian monks, of which Elmo belonged. The story goes that the land had some olive trees, but the Gregorian monks planted more and with the only olive press around for miles, business flourished with the 3,000 certified organic olive trees. The Gregorian monks decided their mission in life wasn’t to produce and sell olive oil, but to serve the people in a different capacity. They sold the business to Paul Manuel, a second-generation vintner, who moved his family to Lake County and set to work.
Chacewater defines the story of what hard work and love of the land produces: award winning wines, to name a few, 2013 Chardonnay at the Gold Medal 2015 Wine International Wine Competition to the 2016 Medal for 2012 Petite Sarah with numerous awards stacking up for other varietals. While visitors try different selections at the wine bar, the barrels of olives and the fields of olive trees impressed me as did several varieties of cold-pressed olive oils. Everything grown at Chacewater is organic. Alas, I couldn’t resist making my first purchases in the valley from Chacewater.
On my way out of town, I detoured up a windy ravine to Scott Ranch Road to Yerba Santa Goat Dairy. Javier wandered out into the misty afternoon, and we sauntered over to the 85 goats, only two of which are male.
The lady goats rule here, and while they stick around for a long time, Javier explained they change male goats every couple of years so there is no in-breeding. The herd of 85 Alpine, Swiss Saanen, Nubian, and La Mancha goats graze freely on native and wild grasses. They use only milk from their own goats for the cheese and the goats are never given antibiotics or hormones. As we toured the cheese making area, Javier explained that, in 1986, he acquired Bodega Goat Cheese, which was well-known for fresh Peruvian-style cheeses. Daniel started the Yerba Santa label in 2003 and makes French and Spanish-style goat cheeses; today it is one operation with a wide range of customers and can be found in farmers’ markets around the Bay Area. As the rain began pelting down, I bid Javier farewell, thanking him for his fine cheeses and education on goats. As I headed back to the world of traffic and a stress-inducing pace of life, I felt a sense of gratitude for the small bite of Upper Lake County I had experienced, and armed with the knowledge that it is a mere 2.5- hour drive from the Golden Bridge; not too far away for a relaxing long weekend.
IF YOU GO: The Tallman Hotel is located at 9550 Main Street, Upper Lake. 707-275-2244; Tours can be arranged at Yerba Santa Goat Dairy, 6850 Scotts Valley Road, Lakeport, CA. 707-263-8131; the Lake County Wine Studio is located at the corner of Main Street and First Street in Upper Lake; Eyes of the Wild boat tours on Clear Lake can be reached at 707-262-2401; the Blue Wing Saloon Cafe is located at 9520 Main Street in Upper Lake. For more information on wine tasting and recreational opportunities, visit the Lake County tourist board website. FOR MORE WINE ARTICLES see “Winery News“. Click here for more articles by Stephanie.
For more California travel options see our California-Travel page.