Shannon Ridge Family of Wines - Old Pearl
Lake County AVA
A boutique collection of wines crafted in honor of the Shannon Family's beloved sheep dogs
This months Gold Wine Club selection originates from a growing area that is unfamiliar to many wine-loving consumers. The area is Lake County (see Region Section), the country located directly north of Napa Valley and due east of Mendocino's colder climate environment.
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 selection from Old Pearl Winery.
The company 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 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 Old Pearl collection made its debut in 2017 and will undoubtedly leave its mark on the consuming public. Named in honor of Old Pearl, the Shannon Family's favorite sheep dog, Old Pearl is actually a Great Pyrenees who once saved the family from a curious black bear that was attempting to enter their kitchen. Old Pearl is one of five sheep dogs that are responsible for the more than 600 sheep that inhabit the company?s vineyard collection.
"Our beloved dogs hold a special place in our lives," added Angie Shannon. "In keeping our sheep and cattle safe from predators, they have maintained an environment that allows our sustainable farming practices to thrive. We love all the dogs we have, but Old Pearl is truly a part of our family."
To do justice to the Old Pearl label, the Clay and Angie Shannon reached out to Tony Auston Design Group of Emeryville, just over the eastern hills of Napa Valley. Already famous for their Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and Caymus Vineyards labels, Auston designed an incredible tribute to the Great Pyrenees Breed and to Old Pearl herself. The label is reminiscent of 19th Century Daguerreotypes and conveys a feeling of both love and respect.
Today there are four major vineyards that comprise the more than 1100 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 Old Pearl are a vital source of "new blood" for the expanding wine industry. When winery owners offer a variation on already successful wine entities, everyone wins if the previous quality standards are observed.
Old Pearl can be best summed up by a phrase that accompanies these excellent wines. Old Pearls owners ask you to enjoy this wine with your family and along side your best dog. Maybe the plural would suffice for those of us with multi-dog families.
Map of the area
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.
There are also abundant micro-climates that offer an abundance of sites for sometimes difficult varietals to nature and flourish. This month’s Gold Wine Club selection, Old Pearl Winery and its sister vineyards, contain an amazing eleven different varietals under plant, an extremely high number for a single wine entity.
Clay Shannon - Owner
From the beginning, Old Pearl Winery 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 and 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 1100 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 selection, Old Pearl Winery. The reminder (approximately 60%) is sold to the likes of Robert Mondavi Winery, Beringer Vineyards, Caymus 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 Old Pearl Winery. Old Pearl is something special to Shannon and not just because it is named after his beloved dog.
"When we started on Old Pearl Winery, I contacted Mike Gray, the great artist from Napa Valley, to do a sketch for the label. He submitted a pencil drawing that was absolutely impeccable. From Old Pearl herself to the vineyards and hills, the label describes the winery perfectly," added Shannon.
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.
Joy Merrilees - Winemaker
To control and operate a winery collection such as Old Pearl Winery and its sister wineries, the owners of Old Pearl 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 Old Pearl 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 winery’s vinous portfolio.