(Sunset) -- By the time we arrive at CeÓgo Del Lago Winery, on the northwestern shore of Lake County's Clear Lake, we've seen far more birds than people. Western grebes, thousands of them, bob peacefully until our boat gets directly in front of them. Then they dive upside down like toy ducks, showing their black-and-white behinds before disappearing under the surface.
Lake County, California, is a haven for water recreation.
So when we pull up to CeÓgo, we're almost surprised to see a couple of bass fishermen casting right off the dock. People at last!
"Catch anything?" my husband calls out.
"Nah," says one, without looking up. His friend chimes in, "But at least it's a nice place to hang out." And then, gesturing to CeÓgo: "And the wine over there's pretty good too."
The scene sums up what's so nice about visiting Northern California's Lake County. Even with a burgeoning wine scene, Lake County is still first and foremost a haven of water recreation and summertime fun. If you're looking for the opposite of tony Napa, it doesn't get much more un-Napa than this.
The fun center of the wine country
Two-and-a-half hours north of San Francisco and two hours northwest of Sacramento, Clear Lake has long been party central for college kids drawn here for water-skiing, boating and concerts at Konocti Harbor.
Though that element certainly still exists, now there are also a few very sophisticated restaurants and hotels (the Blue Wing Saloon and the Tallman Hotel, most notably), as well as 10 or so worthwhile wineries. Among those is the only boat-in winery we've ever heard of. (Travel planner: Hotels, restaurants, wineries)
It's a concept we can't resist. Roy Disney, of Disney's Boat Rentals, sets us up at the boat launch in Lakeport, instructing us to head east first to "the Narrows," where the north arm of the lake connects to the south arm, before the lake gets choppy. He tells us how to use Mt. Konocti -- the once-active volcano that looms several thousand feet above the lake -- as a landmark, and invites us to call his cell phone if we lose our bearings.
Though it's still morning, we're dying to check out CeÓgo -- we'll have just a sip, we rationalize. We head north toward the lake's western shore, passing Clear Lake State Park. We briefly consider stopping here for a hike (the park has boat access as well), but decide against it, figuring that today should be all about boat rides and decadence.
A few miles northwest of the park, we glimpse the dock of CeÓgo, looking like an arm outstretched in a gesture of welcome. After we've chatted with the fishermen, we tie up the boat and walk up the dock into a Mediterranean-style garden that could easily be mistaken for one beside Italy's Lake Como.
A lavender-lined path leads through gardens framed by olive trees. In front of us is a courtyard where a fountain burbles and festive music plays. People come and go in and out of a tasting room tucked into a series of hacienda-style buildings. The place feels more like a spa than a winery -- and in fact, it will eventually be both, Jim Fetzer tells us.
Fetzer, whose family produced an annual 2.5 million cases of wines in the 1980s and '90s, discovered Lake County as a teenager, when his father used to take him on grape-buying trips.
After the Fetzer family sold the company and the name, Jim bought a 163-acre piece of prime lakefront property in the then not-so-nice town of Nice (pronounced like the city in France) and set about creating the county's first resortlike destination. He plans to break ground on the spa as well as a restaurant in two to three years.
"Lake County could be the fun center of the wine country," Fetzer says, gesturing out to the lake, where a seaplane is floating, flanked by a group of teenagers sunning themselves on inner tubes. After calling out a welcome to the group -- which, it turns out, is celebrating a birthday out here on the lake -- Fetzer tells us about the seaplane access he's just created, and the ferry system he's working on putting in place.
He talks about Lake County's clean air (the best in the state, he claims), the lack of fog, the tremendous birdlife. "Being on the lake, making wine, it doesn't get much better," he says.
On the way back to Lakeport, at Fetzer's urging, we stop at Rodman Slough, a wetlands preserve just a few miles west of CeÓgo. We kill the engine, and slowly, an Audubon scene comes to life before our eyes: A great blue heron stands stately in the tule reeds; a grebe dives for its prey. I say that I can't believe all the birdlife here.
"Why not?" my husband replies. "It's a pretty nice place to hang out." E-mail to a friend
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