Sunset Magazine Article

(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.

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)

Getting there
To get to Lakeport from San Francisco, take U.S. 101 north to Hopland, then head east on State 175.

Explore by boat: Disney's Boat Rentals is family-operated, and one of several boat rental outfitters in town. Ask for directions to Rodman Slough and Ceago Del Lago Winery. From $145 for 3 hours; 401 S. Main St., Lakeport; 707/263-0969.

Arrive by plane: San Francisco Seaplane Tours -- hourly departures whisk you from Mill Valley to Ceago Del Lago Winery in 35 minutes. Reservations required; call for prices; 242 Redwood Hwy., Mill Valley; 415/332-4843.

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.

Page 2 of Sunset Article about Lake County

San Fransisco Chronicle Article
on Lake County

Buyers jump in the Lake
Sticker-shocked Bay Area residents flock to bargains

Highway 175, a.k.a. the Hopland grade, is fast becoming the route to real estate nirvana for many Bay Area residents.

It starts north of Santa Rosa at the intersection with Highway 101, where a billboard on one corner announces that the Sho-Ka-Wah Casino is 3 miles away and the Valero gas station on the other corner dispenses free coffee from 5 to 9 a.m.

As the Hopland grade cuts over a mountain range east toward Clear Lake , a scattering of rural houses quickly gives way first to small vineyards, then spectacular ridges. The two-lane road is slow going -- tortuously slow for anyone in a hurry -- as it squiggles up the lush green hillside.

Nirvana is 19 miles later, where 175 descends to the valley floor of Lake County, named for the largest lake in California. It is also where outsiders are discovering they can buy houses in the small towns and villages that ring the lake for astonishingly low prices.

First-time buyers are snapping up family homes and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars less than for comparable properties in the Bay Area.

And these bargain-basement prices aren't just for starter homes. Vineyard homes with backyard acres of Merlot and Zinfandel grapes cost less than $1 million, about half the cost for similar properties in the Wine Country of Napa and Sonoma counties.

Trish Gonzales, 40, is one of the newcomers. The San Francisco resident is preparing to move to Lakeport, a town of nearly 5,000, after falling in love with a nearly 100-year-old Victorian that had been gutted and completely remodeled.

"I walked in and I said, 'This is home,' " Gonzales said about the two- story house with three bedrooms, 2 1/2 bathrooms, a two-car garage and a huge yard. The house "has that city feeling with a country price. It also had the country porch I've always wanted," she said.

The $365,000 price tag, however, is what sealed the deal for Gonzales, a sales service manager for Blue Shield of California, who plans to telecommute on most workdays. The Lakeport house would have cost at least $1 million in San Francisco, said Gonzales, the kind of price that forced her to look outside the city where she was born and grew up.

"It's a shame that people who lived in San Francisco all of their lives still find it a rough road to pay those prices," said Gonzales. "All the friends I grew up with have all been forced to move out of their neighborhoods and out of the city."

Isolation limits increases

Lake County is a 75-mile, two-hour drive from San Francisco. The Napa and Sonoma Wine Country is its glamorous southern neighbor. But a circle of mountains isolates the county and, with only three main roads in, has helped keep housing price appreciation far below the rest of the region.

Getting to Lake County can indeed be a challenge, said Kevin Bradley, a real estate agent with CPS Country Air Properties in Lakeport. "That's probably one of the reasons we're less expensive ... why we have that isolation factor," said Bradley. "Otherwise, we would have gone up just like Healdsburg."

Still, with Bay Area home prices piercing the stratosphere, word has been leaking out about the county's affordable housing prices. The surge of first- timers, retirees, second-home buyers and investors looking for deals has created the county's own real estate boom -- complete with feverish appreciation, occasional multiple-offer situations and a shortage of homes for sale.

A few years ago, "we were beating the bushes to find buyers. Now we're beating the bushes to find sellers," says Robert Dunk, president of Coldwell Banker Town and Country realty in Lakeport. "It's absolutely crazy. Prices are tripling, in some cases quadrupling."

The median price for a Lake County home in 2004 was $249,500, said Steve Merchen, a real estate broker in Nice at the north end of the lake. That was nearly 25 percent higher than the 2003 median of $200,000. In 1999, before housing prices began to rise throughout California, the typical house in Lake County cost a mere $109,000.

"Everyone was squawking about the prices back then," said Merchen, who's also president of the Lake County Association of Realtors. "But if you purchased at any time since then, you've made money."

Byron Whipple, a Lakeport broker with City Center Realty, said housing prices and the quality of life make a winning combination. "You don't have the metropolitan stress you find in other areas," he said. Buyers "are looking for the rural aspect, the space, the comfort and the affordability."

Real estate agents cite Lakeport, Kelseyville, Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake as the four most popular home-buying destinations, especially for first-time buyers and commuters.

$310,000 median in Lakeport

Lakeport and Kelseyville on the west side of the lake tend to draw buyers from towns along the Highway 101 corridor, who come over the Hopland grade. The median-priced home cost a Lakeport buyer $310,000 in the first quarter of this year. Kelseyville homes, which often sit on several acres, cost $419,000.

In the past few weeks, Linda Lindeblad of Re/Max Lake County said she has sold a $549,000 vacation home on the lake to a Sonoma County professional couple, a three-bedroom Lakeport home for under $260,000 to first-time buyers from Sonoma County and a four-bedroom home in Kelseyville to a Santa Rosa buyer.

The Kelseyville house came with 2 acres and a $459,999 price tag. The buyer couldn't have purchased a similar home in Sonoma "for probably less than $700,000 to $1 million," said Lindeblad.

Hidden Valley Lake and Middletown at the southern end of the lake attract buyers from Calistoga and other Wine Country towns in Napa and Sonoma counties. Bay Area commuters must travel over Highway 29, which is shorter but snakier, than the Hopland grade, but get a payoff with homes priced at a median $415, 000.

Page 2 of San Francisco Chronicle Article about Lake County