California’s Lake County: Land of Transition
Story by Jules Older, Photos by Effin Older
Drive north from San Francisco and you’re in celebrated wine country. Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino — all the northern counties are famous.
All but one.
The odd one out is Lake County, just east of Sonoma and Mendocino. Lake County — it’s underpriced, under-capitalized and under-discovered. When all your friends have been to Napa for the wine, Sonoma for the art and Mendocino for the ganja, Lake County still gives you bragging rights.
It also gives you a rare chance to observe a region in transition … and to ponder the ups and downs, risks and rewards of transition. Upper Lake, a town of about 1,000, gives a clear view of all that. Back in the day — from the 1850s through the end of the 19th century, Upper Lake was a stopping-off place for stage coach and steamer, miner and lumberjack, traveler and tourist.
Then, it slowly ran out of steam. Storefronts emptied and stayed empty. The one hotel was put up for sale — and remained unsold for more than four decades.
When, in the early 2000s, the hotel was finally bought, it was but a hollow shell, kept upright by termites holding hands.
That hotel — Tallman Hotel — had started life in the 1870s. The new owners, Bernie and Lynne Butcher, restored its name, propped up its sagging walls, built a cluster of charming outbuildings, planted a shady courtyard, and enhanced the whole thing with a period appeal it had never before known.
They also did their best to rejuvenate Upper Lake’s Main Street, starting or encouraging restaurants, shops, artisans, a bakery and a tasting room for Lake County wineries. The street has a lovely feel — Old California, Gold Rush Days, Small-town America.
But, maybe half those shops stand empty, and among the survivors, only a few seem to be thriving. Off Main Street, the homes are small; some are tidy and some, distinctly not. And at the entrance to Main Street is a “Welcome to Jefferson” sign.
Jefferson? The sign tells the story:
WELCOME TO JEFFERSON
The 51ST State
God Bless America
Jefferson’s proponents plan to secede from California and stake claim to their own place in the sun. Just so you don’t miss who will be welcome in Jefferson, right after the “God Bless America” the sign features a Christian cross.
Proud and free, Jefferson would unchain itself from the shackles of Californication. Never mind that those shackles include something like a three-for-one return on investment. Yes, for every dollar Lake County pays into state coffers, it gets roughly three back in support payments that this poor area so desperately needs.
And now, to a county that’s rich in history but poor in income, add a new entry — ultra-affluent winery owners. Having missed Napa by many decades, Sonoma by fewer decades and Mendocino by years, they’ve bought, built and planted in Lake County. Elegant wineries and tasting rooms proliferate. Chronic poverty’s new neighbor is splendiferous wealth.
Ah, Lake County, where the sociologic viewing is richly rewarding. But are there other things to do here? Indeed, there are. Let’s look at three: enjoying the eponymous lake, tasting the signature products of wealth, and birding in a target-rich environment. And, for lagniappe, relaxing in style.
The big kahuna that gave Lake County its name is Clear Lake. It holds three titles: the biggest natural lake wholly in California (part of Tahoe sits in Nevada), the oldest lake in the United States, and the Bass Capital of the West. Less propitiously, Clear Lake is known for high levels of mercury and regular infestations of algae. Nonetheless, it’s a popular camping ground and fishing spot, hiking area and swimming hole. Clear Lake State Park is the epicenter of the lake’s activity.
Grapes and olives
Lake County has five distinct viticulture regions and more than 35 wineries. Although its reputation seems to be only starting to grow, during the early 20th century, Lake County was known for its fine wines. What happened? Prohibition. Prohibition killed the industry; wine grapes were rooted out, replaced by walnuts, pears and peaches. Today, grapes are back as the county’s number-one agricultural product. Olives aren’t contenders, but olives, olive festivals and olive tasting rooms are recent additions to Lake County pleasures.
The best way to observe the abundant birdlife on the shores of Clear Lake is from the water with a local guide. Eyes of the Wild tours let you experience both. You ride on a small, comfortable pontoon boat skippered by Faith Figolosi, a largely self-taught avian fanatic and photographer who knows the local birds well enough to individually name them.
Relaxing in style
For a getaway so relaxing, some of the rooms include an outdoor Japanese ofuro (cedar hot tub), it’s hard to beat the Tallman Hotel in Upper Lake. The lovely restoration invites relaxation, and a soak in the ofuro or a swim in the outdoor pool promises a good night’s sleep. California cuisine, Lake County wine, and an abundance of live music make the Tallman basecamp for a Lake County getaway.
Jules Older: PhD, psychologist, medical educator, writer, editor, app creator, videographer, ePublisher. Big awards, big adventures, big fun. His ebook on hilarious travel disasters is DEATH BY TARTAR SAUCE: A Travel Writer Encounters Gargantuan Gators, Irksome Offspring, Murderous Mayonnaise & True Love.”
Effin Older is an author, writer, photographer, editor, videographer and app-creator.