Uncorked: Shannon looking for a ‘cleaner way of living’

Clay Shannon is the owner of Shannon Family of Wines. he had farmed his rugged, mountain property in California’s Lake County since 1996 and has become a champion of environmentally responsible winemaking.

Clay Shannon knows how to pull a good prank.

“I have little grandkids, and we’re out in the sauvignon blanc vineyard playing games,” Shannon said. “I’d squeeze a grape and ask them if they can test the sugar in a grape. Then I’d heckle them and challenge them to squeeze a grape and try. But then I’d squeeze one, and it pops in their face.

“We have a good laugh and joke about it,” he said. “But I wondered was it really safe? This was years ago. But it stood out to me that there are warnings on all the chemicals that get sprayed; don’t enter the field for five or six days or don’t harvest for 30 days. I’ve got a well right next to the property, am I drinking herbicides now?

“We just needed to change, I need to live a little better, breathe a little better. … We are starting to be smarter about what we eat, what we drive, and I think it’s a cleaner way of living,” he said.

The owner of Shannon Family of Wines has farmed his rugged, mountain property in California’s Lake County since 1996, and become a champion of environmentally responsible behavior with vineyards that are 100% Certified Sustainable. Shannon’s ranch has 1,000 of its 2,400 acres planted to vineyards. They are all organically farmed, and will be certified as such in June.

In 2021, Shannon won the California Green Medal Environment Award. With his property at 2,000 to 2,300 feet above sea level, Shannon said they are the largest organically farmed mountain vineyards in the U.S.

Shannon’s environmental superhero costume comes without any pretension. On a Zoom interview, he proudly showed off his pedestrian $60 Casio watch, and pointed out the hole in the seam of a green sweater he’d tossed over a flannel shirt.

He seems like the kind of guy who would lead a group of city slickers on a cattle drive. Tough as nails, but he’d also display a sly wit to bust jokes on everyone along the way. Armed with the knowledge of a farmer, the drive of an environmental conservationist, and a personality that’s easy to gravitate toward, Shannon implemented immediate change.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, but if I was involved, I would have sped it up a bit,” Shannon said. “The farming thing is easy; I’m 60 years old and being around the property and managing it for people, I know them. They’ve seen the results and are on board.”

He also manages other sites throughout the state. Last week, his flock of 1,300 sheep was released on a vineyard where the cover crop was waist high.

Five days later, random matted down blades of grass and greens were all that was left. What used to require five or six mowings per year might take just half a pass with a mower. Hungry sheep eat the cover crop, leaving behind natural fertilizer, and as they pass through the vineyard, their hooves are natural soil aerators.

It’s become a more common practice throughout the state. Wineries and vineyard managers look to further reduce their carbon footprints by not using the combustible engine of a mower, all while naturally adding nitrogen to the soil at the same time.

But it doesn’t stop there for Shannon. He’s not pleased with the weight of their glass bottles. He’s looked into paper bottles and lighter glass alternatives. Wine purchasers and consumers seem drawn to a big bottle for now, but he’s hoping that’s a trend that changes.

One such heavy bottle, the OVIS Petit Verdot 2019 ($60), is the best of the varietal I’ve tasted this year. I loved the baking chocolate and iron-like red meat on the nose with black fruit, mint, granite and firmer tannins that cried out for a grilled rib-eye steak. The second day it was open, the tannins became well integrated with the fruit and savory flavors, and the wine really took off.

All Shannon Family of Wines offerings are under a natural cork, the cork tree being a renewable resource that can help sequester carbon as it grows. When it comes to drought-tolerant grapes, Shannon said he “wished we’d get 12 to 14 inches of rain, that would turn off the generators and any need for irrigation.”

Just in case that remains wishful thinking, he’s now started to tinker with varieties in the vineyard. There’s a Nero d’Avola from Sicilian bud wood that has thrived. Shannon also has planted counoise, grenache, mourvedre, tempranillo, syrah and a propagated six-acre vineyard of cinsaut that he found from the original 1874 homestead when he was clearing brush.

It’s drought-tolerant and, like many of the other new plantings, has Old World characteristics.

“Just 10 years ago, these were opposite of what you wanted,” Shannon said. “They have large berries, leaves and vines. Before the drought, they wouldn’t ripen and be too high in acid. Now they are perfect. We absolutely love Nero d’Avola.”

Even as he experiments with marselan, carignan, chenin blanc, touriga nacional and alicante bouschet, he still has the toughest critic out there to convince of his plans.

“Every time I plant one of these things, my wife hates me a little bit,” Shannon said. “She worries: How do we sell this? We’ll figure it out I say. Proprietary red or white – that’s the way the Old World started. Blend of varietals that fits the world we live in today; we want people to trust us and know this guy makes good wines.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.

Have a Question about this article?