Dunne on Wine

Boatique Winery makes a splash in – where else? – Lake County

Boatique winemaker Luke Bass stands alongside a 1955 Chris-Craft Cobra at Boatique Winery.
Boatique winemaker Luke Bass stands alongside a 1955 Chris-Craft Cobra at Boatique Winery.

Winemaker Luke Bass works at one of California’s more peculiar wineries, which come to think of it isn’t so much winery as exhibit hall.

And what’s on exhibit at any given time is about a dozen gleaming boats, most of them wooden, several of them antiques.

We’re trolling along as Bass strolls about the boats, pausing alongside a pin-striped 1955 Chris-Craft Cobra whose pointed bow and jutting tail fin suggest a powerful yearning to be out on the water. Then he stops next to an absurdly long, torpedo-shaped Gentleman’s Racer built in 2011 by acclaimed Van Dam Custom Boats in Michigan. And there’s the whimsical red Amphicar, an amphibious car built in West Germany in 1964. The vintage California license plate on the Amphicar reads “BOATIQE,” shorthand for Boatique Winery, which is where we’re moored.

“Bob is going to have to move some of his boats if we are to make red wine in here,” Bass says, then quickly rethinks the matter. “Actually, we may need another building, rather than kick out the boats. They’re great.”

The boats are stunning, but they do limit his winemaking space to one corner of the sprawling structure, where a row of six egg-shaped concrete fermenters stands. Visitors are welcome to pet the smooth curving shoulders of the eggs all they want, but they aren’t to touch the boats, collected by Boatique owners Robert and Madi Mount of Santa Rosa.

Robert Mount grew up in Napa Valley, but not as a member of a grape-growing or winemaking family. He was free to hang out at Lake Berryessa, where his affection for boats took hold and never let up. His interest in boats and the wine business has been underwritten by Redwood Toxicology Laboratory of Santa Rosa, a hugely successful drug-testing lab that he founded, ran and then sold a decade ago.

His collection of boats is now up to 15, the latest a 30-foot water taxi from Venice, Italy. When he needed a place to store the boats he chose the Red Hills of Lake County, rising from the southwest shore of Clear Lake, between Kelseyville and Lower Lake. You can’t see Clear Lake from the site, but it’s close enough that the couple can be out on the water in one or another of their boats within a matter of minutes.

“When building that building we thought, ‘Why not build a winery?’ ” Robert Mount says about how he came to combine the two passions. “In retrospect it was probably a mistake.”

Oh? “It’s a difficult business. As someone said, grape growers receive the checks, winery owners write the checks,” adds Mount, but sounding more wry than rueful.

For the Mounts, the anchor is up and the engine fully engaged for their continued exploration of the choppy waters called the California wine trade. In addition to Boatique Winery, which they opened a little more than a year ago, they tend 90 acres of Lake County wine grapes, with another 15 about to be planted.

In Santa Rosa, they also own an acre of zinfandel, which provides the grapes that go into their dearest and most exhilarating wine, the saturated, spicy and smoothly tannic Boatique Winery 2014 Sonoma County Zinfandel ($50).

Bass makes the zinfandel and Boatique’s other red wines at his family’s Porter-Bass Winery of Guerneville, which lets him avoid the prospect of any red wine splashing onto the boats. The other reds are a firm and sweetly fruity Boatique Winery 2014 Red Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) and a densely colored and long-lingering Boatique Winery 2013 Red Hills Malbec ($35).

The only white in the current lineup, and the only wine so far made on the site, is the spirited and unusually floral Boatique Winery 2014 Big Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($20).

Bass and Mount look to be on the same page with respect to winemaking philosophy, which runs to minimalist intervention, varietal integrity, vineyard respect and finesse over muscularity so the resulting wines first will be fitting for the dinner table.

After growing up in his family’s Sonoma County vineyard, Bass earned a degree in macroeconomics at UC Santa Cruz, then accepted an internship at Flowers Vineyards & Winery of Cazadero, where he recognized that he wanted to be part of the wine scene.

After winemaking stints in Sonoma County, South Africa and Chile, he’s adapting to Lake County’s varied soils, elevations and exposure to intense sunlight.

“Fruit ripens far more slowly up here than I expected. I always thought it was hot up here, but there’s a cooling effect from the lake, so we get a nice amount of hang time. The elevation gives us a bit of a mountain climate,” Bass says. (Boatique is about 2,000 feet up the Red Hills.)

While sauvignon blanc is firmly established as Lake County’s signature wine, and while the county’s cabernet sauvignon is growing in esteem, Bass is especially enthusiastic about prospects for malbec, most closely identified with Argentina’s wine trade. He hadn’t made a malbec before joining Boatique, and he hadn’t been impressed by those he’d tasted, too often finding them “over-structured and over-oaked.”

The malbec he’s making from Boatique’s estate vineyard, however, has him excited for the bright freshness of its blackberry fruit, its supple tannins and its revitalizing acidity. “Malbec could be the flagship wine for this site. It’s excellent,” says Bass, who customarily is reserved in evaluating even his own wines.

The grounds of Boatique Winery offer visitors panoramic views of thelandscape, equine sculptures made with old vehicle parts by Colorado artist Doug Owen, and a grove of gnarled olive trees transplanted from Anderson, Shasta County, by the Tiburon company Ancient Olive Trees, owned by Mount’s son Aaron.

The tasting room at Boatique Winery, 8255 Red Hill Road, Kelseyville, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Wine critic and judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. Reach him at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.

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