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Has Organized Grape Growing on 276 Acres at Guenoc Winery : Civil Engineer-Vintner Highlights Wine-Making Potential of Lake County

January 09, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Orville Magoon is a civil engineer and a farmer-vintner. In recent years he has lectured worldwide to structural engineers, coastal planners and architects in coastal regions. At the same time he has organized grape growing on 276 acres at Guenoc Winery in Lake County, Calif., and produced about 36,000 cases of wine.

Some say he is a genius, others claim he is a certified grape-nut. But either way, his wines are sound and interesting.

Magoon contends that marketing wines from Lake County is a herculean task since it is not blessed with a historical and romantic past like Napa, Sonoma and Santa Clara counties. Today there are only five wineries; grape land has increased from about 300 acres in 1965 to today's 4,000 acres. During the latter half of the '80s, more wineries will surely open to take advantage of prime growing conditions.

33 Pre-Prohibition Wineries

According to Leon Adams, California's senior wine historian, 33 wineries (growing grapes on 1,000 acres) were in operation before Prohibition. That includes such noted vintners as California's first chief justice, Serranus Clinton Hastings (for whom UC Berkeley's Hastings Law School was named); Col. Charles Mifflin Hammond, whose wines won awards at the Paris Exposition in 1900, and Lillie Langtry, the famous English actress who acquired Guenoc Ranch in 1888 and promptly imported a Bordelaise wine maker and until 1906 sold wine with her picture on every bottle.

In 1981 Magoon replanted the vineyard and restored the home of the actress with the assistance of Honolulu architect and historic building devotee Albert G. Grobleski. Whatever Lillie Langtry bottles remained after the sale of the winery were confiscated by federal customs inspectors during Prohibition. There are no known labels in existence either.

Magoon is excited about Guenoc's ability to grow fine grapes in Lake County and believes that within the next decade or two the region will become as well known as any of California's so-called finest wine counties.

Whereas Magoon insists that he is in total command, grape-growing and wine-making duties are assigned to wine maker Walter Raymond and viticulturist Roy Raymond Jr., brothers and owners of Raymond Vineyards in the Napa Valley.

In 1971, they established a test vineyard at Guenoc with the goal of determining whether an earlier wine-making tradition there could be revived. The initial plot was termed a success and led to the growing of Bordeaux varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec for reds, and Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for whites. Currently, there are successful plantings of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel.

One of the Guenoc's better bottles is Zinfandel, Lake County, 1982. Here is a lovely spiced berry-like nose, in a softer-styled structure and body with exceptional flavor and charm. This wine will not age long and can be enjoyed now, especially at the price of $5.

Lighter, Fresher Zinfandel Style

Aged eight months in large oak tanks and 16 months in small French barrels, the wine represents a kind of lighter, fresher Zinfandel style that is being revived by a number of wineries solely for the purpose of easier taste access and earlier consumption. It can be used with most foods where a red wine is appropriate, except for heavier robust dishes.

Almost as good and a bigger wine in style is Cabernet Sauvignon, Lake County, 1982, with still developing flavor, some intensity and obviously in need of time, perhaps five more years. More elegant than the Zinfandel, it is produced from 20% Merlot and 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, and spent eight months in large oak tanks and 16 months in small French barrels. In character it is somewhat reminiscent of a Cotes de Bourg from Bordeaux and is indeed unlike Cabernets found in Sonoma and Napa. Its 13.1% alcohol is not a factor in the wine's finish.

Fans who like Petite Sirah will enjoy this 1982 because of its softer, non-robust style. Here is ample flavor, some oak, good structure and body and not overdone with varietal fruit power. Uncharacteristic of a "Petite," it shows a bit of charm and complexity in the finish to make it most attractive at $6 a bottle. At 13.2% alcohol, no finish heat is evident.

Three Whites Also Tasted

Also tasted were three whites: Sauvignon Blanc, 1983, Lake County; Chenin Blanc, 1984, Guenoc Valley, and Chardonnay, 1983, North Coast. The Sauvignon Blanc at $6.50 is a winner and perhaps one of the winery's finest wines to date. Only a little grassy aroma mars its considerably fruity Sauvignon Blanc perfume with a touch of petulance. Otherwise, the wine is round, rich and fat, long on the palate and finishes generously. Produced from 97% Sauvignon Blanc and 3% Semillon, the latter no doubt accounts for the added touch of richness. Aged four months in oak tanks and small French barrels, it drinks dry and easily at its welcome 12.3% alcohol.

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