A Gem from Lake County, California
By Don Clemens
Introduction to Lake County, California
In the late 1980’s, I took my first “road trip” to Lake County from my home in Yountville, California. It was pretty easy to do. I pulled out of my Oak Circle subdivision and turned right onto Washington Street, continued North until it merged with State Route 29 and just kept driving. Heading North into the Napa Valley from Yountville, I drove through St. Helena, then Calistoga and continued the slow, winding road through vineyards, woodlands, some small farms and continued the relaxed pace as Rte. 29 turned into a two-lane tourists’ treat. After spending so much time in Napa and Sonoma Counties, and a fair amount of time in Mendocino County, I thought that it was time for me to acquaint myself with the “other” county that was such an important part of the North Coast Appellation. I began to realize that my “sea-level” environs of the past were about to be heading into a different level. As I drove out of Napa County and into Lake County, it was clear that I had arrived at a higher plane. One of the claims to fame for Lake County is that it is the “Mountains of the North Coast.” Much of that claim rests on the 4300 ft.-plus height of Mt. Konocti, the now-dormant volcano overlooking the southwestern edge of Clear Lake, the large, ancient body of water for which Lake County owes its name. I really had no great plans or expectations for my “drive in the country.” I knew that there were some vineyards in the area, and knew that many Napa wineries were enjoying the relatively inexpensive fruit available from those vineyards that helped keep down the costs of many of the wines being marketed as “bottled by” those wineries.
Passing southwest of Middletown, still sticking to Rte. 29, I continued my trek toward Mt. Konocti and Clear Lake, which was then better known for sport fishing and camping than for “wine country touring.”
Lake County had once actually had a viable, highly regarded wine industry, prior to Prohibition. The first Lake County vineyards were planted in the 1870s. By 1900 Lake County wines were winning awards in international competition, and the region was earning a reputation for producing some of the world’s best wines.
However, in 1920 Prohibition brought an end to Lake County wine production. Most of the vineyards were eventually ripped out and planted with other crops. While vineyards and wineries in the three other counties of the North Coast Appellation (Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino) had access to railroad transportation, Lake County never had rail lines brought into its territory. Quite a few wineries in the other North Coast counties survived prohibition by selling grapes to home winemakers all over the U.S. and by making “sacramental wines,” used by various religious affiliations for their sacraments (e.g., communion services). Lake County was left, well – “High and Dry.”
Lake County’s re-emergence in the wine industry began in the 1960s when a few visionary winemakers and grape growers (like Jedediah Tecumseh Steele, whose profile is included in this issue) rediscovered the area’s wine grape potential and began planting new vineyards. From less than 100 acres in 1965, vineyard acreage has grown to nearly 10,000 acres today and is expected to double in the next few years. With the growing popularity of Lake County wines, Lake County’s grape and wine industry continues to expand. Existing wineries are growing, and new vintners are moving into the region. Today, the county has more than 30 wineries and seven American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s). I expect much greater awareness of the quality of the wines coming from this territory, as well as a greater infusion of wine tourism.
Jedediah Tecumseh Steele! Now this is a name to reckon with! Born in New York State, Jed’s family moved to San Francisco in 1950. Jed’s father was a newspaperman and historian (he had 13 books published); he was a writer specializing in American history, and he chose Jed’s middle name in honor of Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who was born in1768. (Moreabout the “Tecumseh” connection later…)
His father also apparently liked the horses. The story goes, according to the Steele website, “Stymie was a famous racehorse in mid-twentieth century American history. Stymie was known for never giving up the lead when he gained it. He was notorious for this, in fact, [so] that the horse callers brought the word back into the English vernacular by calling out “they’ve been stymied again!” whenever he pulled ahead. In 1950, Jed’s father wagered a bet on Stymie that paid off well. So well, in fact, that the winnings financed the Steele family’s move from New York City to San Francisco. Today, Jed honors this bit of family history by producing some outstanding Merlot and Syrah under the “Stymie” label.
His West Coast credentials were solidified when he received a basketball scholarship to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington in 1961. An imposing figure at 6’8” during his playing days, and now sporting his trademark (and very gray) mustache, it is impossible to miss Jed at a wine tasting event.
After college, Jed found himself working as a “cellar rat” at the legendary Stony Hill Winery in Napa in 1968. This clearly stuck, because Jed went on to earn his MS in enology at U.C. Davis in 1974. From then until 1982, he made the wines and managed the vineyards for Edmeades Winery in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, home to some extraordinary vineyards and wineries. From there, he became head winemaker of Kendall-Jackson Winery and launched a juggernaut! He took the winery from 35,000 cases to more than 1 million cases in only nine years. Major wine retailers and grocery chains across America were blowing through pallets of “K-J” Chardonnay, thanks to a wine making style decision of Jed’s.
However, this was most decidedly not the way that Jed wanted to spend his winemaking life! His talent and curiosity would lead to a major decision on Jed’s part to be much more than America’s “Chardonnay King.” In 1991, Jed created his own brand, Steele Wines, coming from a winery he established in Lower Lake in Lake County. In 1996, Jed purchased the Mt. Konocti Winery in Kelseyville and moved wine production to that site. His vision had long been to make wines from many different varietals, with a decidedly minimally invasive approach, letting the vineyards and the grapes dictate the style of the wines. He was now on his way to achieving his dream. So, for almost 30 years Jed has been living his dream, making almost two dozen kinds of wines from vineyards all over the North Coast and beyond.
The Brands: Steele Wines, Shooting Star, Writer’s Block and Stymie
The Flagship for the company’s brands, Jed originally focused on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, particularly from specific estate vineyards and other vineyards that Jed has worked with since the 1970’s. The varietals now include Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Franc Rosé, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
This brand came about because Jed had good relationships with growers producing exceptional grapes that didn’t quite fit the profile for the Steele Wines brand. “The goal was a quality line of predominantly Lake County wines to offer to restaurants at a reasonable wine-by-the-glass price. Shooting Star also provides an outlet for esoteric bottlings like Aligoté and Blaufränkisch.
Jed’s explanation for the brand name: “the night Tecumseh was born, there was an incredible meteor shower. The elders of the tribe determined that this was a sign from the heavens that the baby born under the sign of these shooting stars would go on to be a great leader and chief – which he was. Tecumseh would always be referred to as “The One Born Under the Shooting Star.” Hence the connection between my middle name and our Shooting Star brand.”
There are two varietals under this label, Merlot and Syrah. The grapes are vineyard specific, from the Silva and Jacobsen properties. They represent Jed’s personal quality statement and are the best of the best, grown and vinified in Lake County. The name, obviously, is a reference to Jed’s father’s bet on that racehorse, Stymie.
This is the most recent brand coming from a collaboration between Jed and his son, Quincy. This is quite an interesting project, given Quincy’s international wine making experiences. Quincy has worked at wineries in Australia, Argentina and France, learning the intricacies of biodynamic wine production in Beaune and surrounding villages. The varietals under the Writer’s Block label are very eclectic. There is Roussanne, Syrah, Grenache, Counoise and Petite Sirah on the Rhône side of things; Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Malbec for more French influence; and finally – Zinfandel.
A New Direction:
As of August 17, 2020, Jed’s direction radically changed. He made the decision to sell his operation to Shannon Ridge Wine Company, another strong player in the burgeoning Lake County wine scene. Jed will stay on for a bit, in a consulting role, but is planning to enjoy new pursuits hiding in his “bucket list.”
Bill Bishop, my long-time friend and now the former National Sales Manager for all the brands under the Steele Wines umbrella, has some fond reminiscences of “Life with Steele.” Bill notes that Jed “always thought out of the box with creative marketing programs that would engage retail and restaurant customers through events such as his legendary Halloween costume parties (held at the Hotel Intercontinental in Chicago), host customer bowling events, invite customers to minor league baseball games, and if you were lucky, be invited to horse backpacking trips in Yellowstone National Park. Jed is a master of building long term relationships with wine industry trade friends, as well as the end consumer. One of a kind who will be recognized for years to come as pioneer in California’s golden era of exponential growth in the 1970's up through today.”
I look forward to seeing what Jedediah Tecumseh Steele comes up with next. He may be retiring from Steele Wines, but certainly not from a lifetime filled with “scratching that itch.” Who knows what delights he might uncover in the future?