Dalliance & High Valley Vineyard
Lake County AVA
Nestled in the heart of Lake County, California, this pair of terroir-driven, certified sustainable wineries offer stand-out wine selections that capture the character of this remarkable winegrowing region
This month’s Gold Wine Club selections are unique in the fact that we are featuring two wineries that share common ownership, Dalliance and High Valley Vineyard. The selections originate from a growing area that is unfamiliar to many wine-loving consumers - Lake County (see Region section), the county located directly north of Napa Valley and due east of Mendocino’s colder climate environment. We hope you enjoy this rare opportunity to taste some of California’s finest small-production varietals.
One would not expect to find a large winery in Lake County, and certainly not one that produces a respectable 175,000 cases each year. But, for sure, that’s only one part of the amazing story that surrounds our Gold Wine Club selections, Dalliance and High Valley Vineyard.
The parent company, Shannon Ridge Family of Wines, is the brainchild of co-owners Angie and Clay Shannon (see Spotlight section) who began their company back around the turn of the century.
“My husband Clay had worked on the grower side of the wine business for more than 15 years and had helped Sutter Home develop its vineyard portfolio for eight of those years. He decided to go out on his own and began buying properties, mostly in Lake County, that he felt could provide high-quality fruit that he would sell to other wineries.”
Clay Shannon’s efforts proved to be wildly successful and he continued to buy parcels that fit the needs of his burgeoning company.
“His idea was to develop a family of wine brands and vineyards, each one showing the terroir and flavors of its actual growing site,” Angie Shannon continued. “At present, we have nine different brands in our Shannon Ridge Family of Wines and we produce more than 175,000 cases. That’s a huge jump from the 600 cases we began with back in 2002 when we released our first wines to the public.”
The company’s Dalliance and High Valley Vineyard collections both made their debut in 2012. Dalliance, which is defined as ‘amorous play, frolicking, a little on the side, or as the French would say - une affaire romantique,’ is a red wine blend that celebrates the many mysteries and hedonistic pleasures one encounters on the journey of life. For Clay and Angie, ‘Dalliance’ seemed like the perfect reference for the grapes ‘playing’ or rather, blending, together. Each vintage, the blend may change to include different varietals, but typically Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Barbera, Mourvèdre, and Cabernet Sauvignon are ‘players’ in this brooding, unexpected blend. The fruit is primarily sourced from the Shannons’ sustainably farmed steep mountain vineyards in Lake County. Mourvèdre, and Cabernet Sauvignon are ‘players’ in this brooding, unexpected blend.
High Valley Vineyard, on the other hand, was made to be a small collection of wines from the prestigious High Valley sub appellation of northeastern Lake County. Here, elevations are between 1,600 and 3,000 feet, and thanks to the cool breezes from the oldest lake in North America, it is one of the coolest appellations in Lake County. A herd of 1,000 sheep walk the Shannons’ vineyards in High Valley, helping compost the weeds into nutrients for the red, rocky volcanic soils. These are intensely flavored grapes and the Shannons craft them into wines that capture the character of this remarkable region.
Today there are four major vineyards that comprise the more than 1,100 acres that the winery uses for its all-estate wine collection. A meticulously restored ancient farmhouse serves as the company’s tasting facility and is located at the Vigilance Winery and Vineyard that is located in the Red Hills AVA in Lower Lake, California.
Wineries such as Dalliance and High Valley Vineyard are a vital source of “new blood” for the expanding wine industry. When winery owners offer a variation on already successful wine entities, everyone wines if the previous quality standards are observed.
Joy Merrilees - Winemaker
To control and operate a winery collection such as Dalliance and High Valley Vineyard, Clay and Angie Shannon brought in Lake County native Joy Merrilees as director of winemaking and production. Merrilees possesses a splendid resume that features both national and international endeavors. She is a protegee of iconic winemaker Jed Steele, long considered one of California’s top winemakers. She also had tenures at wineries in both Washington State and Oregon. When she decided to go abroad, New Zealand and its ever-emerging array of top flight wines and wineries beckoned.
Over the course of her career she holds a degree in Plant Science and Landscape Design from Humboldt State University as well as numerous courses at both UC Davis and Lincoln University in Canterbury, New Zealand.
“Joy is a Lake County woman, and one who knows just about everything about our area’s grape growing and winemaking side,” commented winery co-owner Angie Shannon. “Her experience abroad in three of New Zealand’s winemaking areas (Marlborough, Central Otago and Canterbury) have forged an understanding of both grapes and terrain.
Joy’s husband, Bruce, serves as vineyard manager for the various properties that constitute the wineries’ vinous portfolio.
Clay Shannon - Co-Owner
From the beginning, Dalliance and High Valley Vineyard Co-Owner Clay Shannon was thought to dance to his own music. Instead of heading to college after high school, the now 53-year-old turned entrepreneur had started a construction company that included plumbing and woodworking. After that, the Santa Rosa native found his real meaning when he succeeded in finding a vineyard job in nearby Kenwood.
“I guess it’s the combination of freshly turned soil and the diesel emitted by the tractor,” he confessed in a recent interview. “I just really love it. Then, there’s the combination of the great mountains around Lake County and the red dirt that abounds throughout the area. It makes for great farming and the conditions are near perfect for vineyards.”
Back in 1985, Clay Shannon managed a vineyard job with the huge Trinchero Family Estates (Sutter Home Family Vineyards et al.) consortium and stayed there eight years. After that period, Shannon decided to go it alone and the first of the Shannon Ranches came into fruition.
“I had seen a great deal of various locations around Napa and Sonoma, and was particularly intrigued by Lake County to the north. It seemed like a great area to begin with, and some of the really top growers were already planted in Lake County,” he continued.
Clay Shannon’s initial purchases of vineyard land has increased substantially and the company currently has over 1,100 acres under vine. A large amount of the fruit produced goes into his company’s estate program, such as this month’s Gold Wine Club selections, Dalliance and High Valley Vineyard. The reminder (approximately 60%) is sold to the likes of Robert Mondavi Winery, Beringer Vineyards, Camus Vineyards and a host of other high-profile wineries.
Additionally, Shannon owns a vineyard management company under the aegis of Shannon Ranches and annually farms another 3,500 acres of vineyards for various owners.
He has also overseen the development of nine estate brands of his own, including Dalliance and High Valley Vineyard. These smaller brands are important to Shannon because they allow him to experiment with different varietals and highlight the unique terroirs his vineyards grow in.
While things are going well for Clay Shannon, his perspective is trained toward the future. “It is my sincere desire to have something I can leave for my grandchildren to enjoy,” he postulated. “Maybe in 30 years, they will be able to say my grandfather started all this 50 years ago, and their grandchildren can say the same thing after 100 years. It’s really my dream.”
Men such as Clay Shannon don’t come along very often. It still remains to be seen what he can accomplish in his lifetime.
Lake County AVA
Some wine insiders consider California’s Lake County as the hottest (in terms of sales potential) growing area in the State.
Lake County was a victim of Prohibition, at least according to its grape production. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that grape production reappeared as the more southerly growing areas (mostly Napa Valley and Sonoma County) began experiencing suddenly diminishing growing sites. In the late 1980’s, growing grapes suddenly became big business in Lake County. Today some 10,000 acres (or more) are planted and the area is in high demand. Prices paid for high quality grapes topped western neighbor Mendocino County for the first time in history in 2014.
One of the secrets to Lake County is the geological differences found throughout the entire area. Clear Lake is the county’s primary source of water as well as America’s oldest surviving lake. Numerous volcanoes dot the landscape offering a wide array of rocks and soils that offer farmers a wide swarth for planting their precious vines. The High Valley appellation, where this month’s featured Sauvignon Blanc is from, actually sits 300 feet above Clear Lake. This topographically isolated valley has a young volcanic cinder cone, Round Mountain, that divides the east and west portions. It is a viticulturist’s dream with its impressive array of soils, along with steep mountain ridges and flat valley floors. Cool breezes from the lake below and nearby Mendocino National Forest get trapped inside the valley, which is key to the excellent quality and very interesting variety of wines produced there.
There are an abundance of micro-climates throughout Lake County that offer several sites for a wide array of varietals to nature and flourish.