Wildfires & Harvest


On the evening of October 8, we witnessed a furry of hurricane-force winds, the likes of which had never been seen in Wine Country before. Starting in the northwestern section of the Napa Valley, at the foot of Mt. St. Helena north of Calistoga and traveling west towards Santa Rosa, trees fell onto power lines and several fires broke out simultaneously all over our Valley. Suddenly, the mountains of each side of the valley were engulfed, from the south-eastern hillside in Atlas Peak and up Soda Canyon, along the Silverado trail, to the eastern hills along Mayacamas and Trinity Road, Dry Creek and into traveling over the hill into Bennett Valley, destroying homes and businesses and leveling subdivisions as far west as Santa Rosa

Without power in most of the Valley, many people had no cell service and couldn’t be reached. Transistor radios became all the rage for information. At HL Vineyards, we also had no water, as our pump wouldn’t work for the well or pressure tank for the house, so we couldn’t irrigate the vineyard or landscaping around the house (or flush the toilet without refilling it with jugs of bottled water, or wash clothes or dishes or fill the coffee pot… the list goes on!) for 13 days.

Businesses were closed for many days, not being able to get employees to work or product to sell. Parts of St. Helena felt like a ghost town, and everyone was on edge with their most beloved possessions piled up in the back of their cars, just in case. There was only one restaurant open in St. Helena, and it became the meeting place for evacuation stories and amazing wines — lots of older wines came out of cellars that we never thought we would get the opportunity to try again ( I opened a 1997! Our first vintage!), and were shared over a meal.

Our Sauvignon Blanc grapes and the Grenache and Carignan grapes for the Rose had been picked more than a month prior, and were safely fermented dry in the tanks and ready to be racked off the lees. But our main concern was now getting the Cabernet Sauvignon fruit off of the vines. Without power for a few days, many wineries relied on backup generators. But there were still holdups in scheduling grapes to be delivered and crushed at the winery, as wineries lost employees or staff was evacuated or stranded and couldn’t come to work. And our vineyard manager had many of their crews off fighting fires and plowing fire breaks with their heavy equipment in order to save homes and vineyards of their clients.

The winds continued to blow and the fires spread. Smoke and ash filled the air, and suddenly there was a rush on smoke masks at our local hardware stores. Plumes of smoke would develop from peaks on either side of the valley as new fires popped up on all sides, but remarkably, the eastern hillside near Howell Mountain and the valley floor escaped any threat.

Finally, our incredible crew from Barbour Vineyard Management assembled at day break, with stacks of picking bins, trucks for hauling fruit to the winery, fork lifts to stack the bins and bobcats to haul the bins down the rows. Two crews of nine pickers and several friends in the industry spent five hours picking the entire ranch to get the grapes into the winery as quickly as possible. Amazingly, there was very little damage from either the heat or the smoke!

The fruit was separated into the premium HL (from the center block) and the Two Old Dogs blocks, washed crushed and de-stemmed, then sent to the stainless steel fermenting tanks to rest at a cool temperature overnight. Six barrels with stainless steel caps were filled 2/3 full, for the barrel fermenting part of our Herb Lamb Vineyards Reserve wines program, with the final selection to be determined in a year.

After fermenting for more than a week with gentle pump-overs, the wines were syphoned off of the skins and seeds and the juice continued to ferment until dry, when they were pressed off and put into barrels to age another 20 months. By all accounts, the wines in the barrel are beautiful and picked fully ripe, with cherry/berry flavors and bright fruit. 

As we reflect, we’re still a bit raw with emotions and memories of being evacuated, living with friends for a few days, or taking their families away from the North Bay because of the poor air quality and threat of fires. So glad to say that we are all back in business and moving forward to help others and invite customers back to one of the most beautiful places in the world. Come try our restaurants, wines and hospitality and see the passion we have for working hard to make the finest wines we can to share with you!

Small Town Spelling Bee

With a population of just 5,500, ours could be a small town anywhere . . . with orange-vested monitors in the school crosswalk knowing almost every child who sets off for school, with the gas-station attendant coming out to talk about the weather or the Turkey Shoot coming up next week as he clean your windshield, with the bartender at your favorite watering hole asking about your grand kids or the friend who is back from surgery and doing just fine (but can’t drink anymore . . .)
Of course, with an industry such as ours we have our share of “shop-talk”, meeting other vineyard managers or winemakers and talking about the vintage or bottling line woes at the Post Office (we have one, open 9-5 Monday through Friday with two windows open) or bank (we have 6 – for reasons unknown to us all!). But somehow we all meet up in our daily circle of life, waving to locals amidst a sea of tourists as we drive through the three blocks of Main Street doing our daily errands.

St. Helena Elementary SchoolSo it was with great honor that I strolled into the St. Helena Elementary School auditorium, with rows of 1940’s wooden seats low to the ground and an elevated stage with massive velvet curtains, to take my place as a Judge for the St. Helena Junior Women’s Club 39th Annual Vintage Spelling Bee. In the audience were friends from all walks of life, their children or grandchildren seated nervously on the stage. Sitting next to me on the judging panel was the St. Helena High School Librarian and a local dentist (who also moonlights as the High School baseball coach), while the St. Helena Women’s’ Club President (and our winery’s Wine Compliance officer) led the proceedings and introduced the announcer, the Children’s Librarian, (a good friend and neighbor who knew each child in the auditorium from birth) from the St. Helena Public Library – just chosen as one of the top small libraries in the nation!

The students were cautioned to look directly at the announcer (who was behind the podium off to the side) and not out into the audience filled with moms and dads and baby brothers and sisters, and the judges were warned not to mouth the spelling of the word along with the student or cringe or shake our heads and give away the answers (which we had graciously been given on a 5 page hand-out, in large type!) like the local veterinarian had done in a past Spelling Bee!

Fourteen 5th grade students sat nervously on stage, some in that day’s school clothes others dressed in their Sunday best, moving to the empty chairs at the back of the stage one by one as they miss-spelled a word – some out of nervousness, others because of the difficulty of the word. “Pierce” and “Stubble” got a couple, then “Prairie” got a few more, but “Lobbyist” caused them to drop like flies, even though one creative finalist searched deep into her Latin language skills and spelled it “Lawbiouyest”.

The finalist was awarded his plaque, which was immediately taken away so that they could engrave his name on the front with the 38 other winners, and we all agreed that as judges we were lucky not to have had to challenge any spelling errors or be the cause of any more nervousness or tears. A good night had been had by all, and our small town had once more come together for a successful evening of supporting our children. I was proud to have been a part of this moment in our community’s life . . . and thankful that we never got to the last page and “Mayonnaise”, which I know I would have missed! (two n’s – really?)

Where is Winter in the Napa Valley?

Last weekend, we participated in another family-style wine pairing and cooking class at one of our favorite restaurants, Rosso, in Santa Rosa. The theme was appropriate to the winter season; “Soups, Stocks and Stews”, imagining us all coming out on a wet and chilly Saturday morning into the kitchen to eat hearty winter fare. The home-made chicken noodle soup, warm beet soup and veal stock beef stew hit the mark with the selection of local Pinot Noir and Burgundies offered, and we all headed home ready to recreate the basics and warm our innards throughout the rest of the winter.
The only problem is that we haven’t had a winter! Sure, we have had below freezing cold spells, forcing us to cover our citrus and other delicate landscaping, temperatures in the teens and twenties which dropped all the leaves from the vines and convinced them to go dormant, but we have yet to receive over ½” of rain since October. The Napa Valley normal annual rainfall is somewhere around 36-40” (usually only occurring October through May), but last year we received only 5 inches making it the driest vintage on record. We appreciated the lack of rain last fall during harvest, allowing the 2013 vintage to ripen perfectly without the normal threat of showers and cool weather, but this has gone on far too long.

winter stream 2010The brittle, brown leaves from the vines and deciduous trees still line the roads and stream beds, waiting to be swept away by winter rains. (note the difference between the photos of our little stream bed last year and this!) Where there should be a stark clash of lush green clovers and yellow mustard between the vine rows against the dry, skeletal outline of the dormant vines, there is nothing but parched, gray soil . The cover crop seed, which was planted between the vine rows last fall to hold the soil during winter rains and rejuvenate the soil next spring, has sprouted and died off due to lack of rain. Irrigation ponds are all but dry, bringing fear to vineyard mangers who rely on full ponds for their irrigation during frost season in the spring, to protect the newly budding vines.

winter 2014We have even had warnings from the Forestry Department who put the Napa Valley on a high-fire alert – in January! Wells are drying up, unable to replenish their water supply without winter rains. The Sierra snow pack is less than 12% of normal; bring fears for municipal water supplies throughout the state that count on snow melt for their water needs each year. Lawns and landscaping are brown, as water rationing starts to go into effect.

No one is complaining about the high pressure system over the west coast, bringing us chilly mornings and lovely warm days into the high 60’s and low 70’s, especially in the wake of those negative temperatures and blizzards across the mid-west and east coast! We are able to BBQ and entertain out of doors and go about our days in shirt sleeves or a light jacket, as though it was almost spring. We dust off our shoes after walking the vineyards, instead of leaving our muddy boots out on the back porch. Even the chickens have started laying again, giving us half a dozen eggs a day.

But what we really need is rain, for all the farmers who depend on Mother Nature’s generosity to stock up this precious resource for the 2014 vintage and growing season. So, if anyone knows the steps to a traditional Rain Dance, please send them our way!

Fall in the Napa Valley

Yountville fallEvery year after harvest, we are blessed by an amazing show of fall colors in the valley. If we have received measurable early fall rains, there is a carpet of fine new grassy growth between the vines,  highlighting the dramatic difference between the bright new growth in the vine rows and the declining yellow leaves on the vines; one aspect just starting its cycle, the other ending theirs. If an early frost should set in, instead of the natural progression of leaves turning deep green to light green to yellow to brown, the leaves wither crisp and brown overnight, looking as though they have been hit with a dreaded disease.
DSC_0458The colors and contrasts of the vineyards are subtle yet brilliant at the same time, highlighting the barren, brown hills from the vibrant row designations, and each varietal and row direction changing color at its own pace.

But in years like this one, where the Indian summer has graced us with warm days and cool evenings and no rain or frost for over a month, there is a miraculous array of colors around every bend. Everything is in dazzling hues, as though enhanced by Photoshop and color corrected by Mother Nature.

DSC_0423The shades of green to yellow and orange to red are so subtle that some leaves seem to be tinted with all four colors at once. And the deep purple hue of the second crop Cabernet Sauvignon is a striking contrast to the yellowing leaves of late fall. It paints the kind of image for the eye that, if you put it on canvas, critics would say “But it is too dazzling – it doesn’t look natural”.

The work has shifted now from the vineyards to the wineries, and the vineyard crews are applying the last soil amendments and fertilizers before the rains set it. Tractors and harvesting equipment have been stored away in the barns and shops. There is an odd quiet in the vineyards now, which only a month ago were the source bustling activity.

DSC_0424So remember to put a visit to Wine Country in November on your calendar for next year so you can sample the new wines from the barrel as you watch an old vintage transpire.

New England fall colors, eat your heart out!

Rain, Rain Go Away

Friends and clients called with worried anticipation at the brief, but notable, rain storm that we experienced in the Napa Valley a couple of weeks ago. We received almost and inch of rain, much of it coming in a sudden downpour, and then the clouds cleared and the sun came out with temperatures in the 70’s and 80’s for the rest of the week. If anything, it slowed the pace of harvest, first by slowing the maturation on the vine and foremost by dampening the ground to the point that tractors couldn’t get in to harvest for a day or two. Again, a week later, the tail end of a little storm clouded the skies and lightly misted the vines for 2 days, with clearing and a return to warm weather forecast for the next several weeks. It was not hurricane or blizzard worthy, but enough to scare wine lovers who know how precious wine grapes can be.
DSC_0020The 2013 vintage has been one of the best we’ve seen in years, producing perfectly mature grapes with wonderfully balanced flavors. All of the thin-skinned, tightly bunched varieties throughout the valley have already been picked. Our Sauvignon Blanc came in almost a month ago, (picked early in the morning under bright light bars) and the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are by now all picked and fermenting in the tanks and barrels. Cabernet Sauvignon have lose bunches and thicker skins that can withstand some moisture and ward off any rot, and ripen much later in the season.

We have been keeping a close watch on the ripeness of our Cabernet, as the evenly warm and outstanding growing season of 2013 has brought sugar levels to near-perfect conditions several weeks earlier than average. Talking amongst our peers and driving up and down the valley, there is either the “Yeah, get it off. It’s ready!” theory (as seen in ½ of the Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards already picked), or the “They taste good and sugars are high, but they just don’t feel totally balanced – tannins still too high and still tasting a little immature.”

IMG_1233Our north-facing Herb Lamb Vineyards’ grapes are in the latter camp, and we started picking just the ripest rows last week, waiting a week or (weather permitting) more for much of the rest of the fruit to fully ripen. As soon as we get all our fruit picked and into the winery next week, only then will we do a little rain dance to celebrate – it’s OK, Mother Nature, soon you can let er’ rip!