A tour of California's Clear Lake sparkles with possibilities for antique hunters, wine lovers, and anyone who enjoys a great view.
For years I’d been hearing that California’s Clear Lake fulfills a landscape painter’s fantasy with vistas of rippling blue water and springtime displays of redbud and pear blossoms. Even though the area is only 2½ hours north of San Francisco and a short hop from the Napa Valley, somehow I’d never made the trip. Then I learned that some of the local wineries were producing vibrant sauvignon blancs and lush, complex cabernets, and I was on my way.
In two days of dallying around the lake—a circuit of about 60 miles—I discovered a region steeped in history but changing fast, with weathered cabin-style motels and upscale bed-and-breakfasts, funky antique shops and impressive lakeside estates. My first stop was Kelseyville, west of the lake. The town won’t celebrate its Pear Festival until harvesttime in September, but in spring you can revel in the flowering pear trees that line both sides of Main Street and savor spicy pear cake at Marcie’s Brick Grill in Kelseyville’s oldest commercial building (it dates to 1872).
When the United States argued over the issue of drinking a century ago, one side of Main Street was wet, the other dry. Happily, that controversy has long since been settled, and one of the area’s best wineries, Wildhurst, has an elegant tasting room downtown. There I sampled a gold medal winner from the 2005 California State Fair, a jammy, softly rounded 2002 zinfandel.
More than a dozen other wineries dot the lakeshore. I sipped a smooth cabernet sauvignon at Tulip Hill Winery, which hosts a tulip festival with 25,000 flowers every April. Steele Wines offered up a pinot noir that I loved in spite of its unnerving name—Writer’s Block. And I lingered at Ceago Del Lago, where the shaded courtyards and splashing fountains reflect Mediterranean influences on three-quarters of a mile of lakefront. Owner Jim Fetzer, formerly president of Fetzer Vineyards, oversees an operation in which the winery’s grapes are grown biodynamically—a partly scientific, partly mystical approach that makes organic farming seem, well, conventional. Call ahead to schedule a tour and you’ll learn about practical, self-sustaining farming techniques, such as using chickens to control cutworms, and more celestial rituals like composting schedules timed to lunar cycles.
In Lakeport I dipped my toes in the water off the beach at Library Park, where you can sit in a graceful Victorian era gazebo. Nearby, I visited the Lake County Historical Courthouse Museum’s fine collection of Indian artifacts, including baskets so tightly woven they were originally used to hold water. Then, with a hankering to do some collecting of my own, I headed 10 miles north to Upper Lake and the First & Main Antique Mall: almost a dozen rooms filled with photographs, pottery, kitchen gadgets, books, lamps, and all things collectible.
Owner Tony Oliveira, a former competitive sharpshooter known for his quick draw, smacks of history himself. "I’d fire two shots and they’d call me a liar," he said. "I had to open the gun to show ’em two bullets were gone." Ask nicely and he’ll take you to his cache of museum-quality cowboy memorabilia, including gorgeously tooled saddles and holsters, fancy pistols, rifles, and vintage clothing. "That saddle there," he said, pointing to his prize piece, "that belonged to Pancho Villa." I wasn’t about to argue with a sharpshooter.
The lake’s eastern shore offers panoramic views of blue water and Mount Konocti, a dormant volcano covered in lush forest. Birdwatchers flock to Anderson Marsh State Historic Park, at the lake’s southern end, to see white pelicans, western grebes, and belted kingfishers. Not far away, the sprawling Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa is just the place to get a mud wrap or attend a concert that will explain whatever happened to your favorite aging rockers, from Peter Frampton (April 8) to Heart (June 24).
For a cozy dinner, I backtracked to Upper Lake and the Blue Wing Saloon’s wood-paneled dining room, where you’ll find generous portions of unpretentious food: grilled fish, braised short ribs, and pesto pasta with locally grown walnuts. I would have lingered over dessert, but I wanted to get back to the family-friendly Edgewater Resort in Kelseyville for sunset. Sitting on the dock, watching the slow-motion dance of a stately heron fishing along the shore, I thought back to something Jim Fetzer had said as we gazed at the lake from Ceago Del Lago. "Everything about this place just feels alive," he said. "Who wouldn’t love it?"
Photography by Phyllis Stevenson
This article was first published in March 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.