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!

More Wine and Less Clutter

smE2_SauvWithCab1January 2013. While watching the 800th college Bowl game and NFL football play-offs for the last two weekends, we have simultaneously been cleaning out the “wine info” shelves in the basement – throwing out years of labels, release notes, pre-printed envelopes and promotional material into the re-cycle bin. We had methodically saved all the extra labels from each vintage, both the expensive, lovingly hand-made labels created from hand-made paper on a letter press for the HL bottles, as well as the rolls of the commercial, pressure-sensitive front and back labels for the E II (prior to the 2007 vintages of both Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon) and recent Two Old Dogs labels. You never know when a bottle would break and leak, or in California an earthquake may occur, and entire pallets of stained bottles would need to be re-labeled!
Bottling SB 2010 037But while taking end of year/first of year inventory in our tiny Home/Library cellar of older vintages, we had to laugh at the idea that we would ever need more than a few dozen labels of each vintage, as that’s all the wine we ever have left! 4 bottles of the 2001 E II Cabernet Sauvignon (our first release of another wine besides the HL from our vineyard), 6 bottles of the 2001, etc.; 11 bottles of the 2005 E II Sauvignon Blanc (our first white wine release), 8 bottles of the 2006, etc.; 12 bottles of the 1997 HL Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (our first release and only 50 cases produced!), 14 of the next vintage, 18 of the next! Not enough to even collect dust!

HL Vertical-DSC_0009Jennifer once worked, in the late 1970’s, for a tiny local winery whose owner was ecstatic when the last bottle of each vintage was finally sold, thrilled to be rid of the wine and have it sold out! My how times have changed. We have since learned, after our production finally grew to over 200 cases, to save 20 to 30 cases of each vintage (if we can catch it in time), so that we could have enough to re-release and create three or six bottle mini-verticals, years later, to offer to our best clients. It’s also fun to gather with other winemakers, as we did last summer, and taste through the last 8-10 vintages to see the effects of climate changes and the small tweaks made in winemaking which, with the underlying similarities from the same vineyard grape source, make each vintage truly unique.

So now we are happy to collect more wine and less labels, and, instead of paper memories collected in a box on the shelf, remember the vintage in a glass. Here’s to a New Year with less clutter and more wine!

Leaves at Harvest

This was going to be exciting and different – picking Sauvignon Blanc under lights in the middle of the night! Although night time harvests, with their spot lights lighting the sky as though it was a local football game, have been used in the Napa Valley for many years, we have never been part of a night-time picking.

Normally we would show up with the vineyard manager and picking crew at dawn and wait until our eyes adjusted to the fuzzy light, then pick away! But with the need to get all 8 tons of Sauvignon Blanc grapes picked as quickly, (and as chilled), as possible, with only a crew of 16, it was a necessity to start early. The crew arrives at 4:00 am, and quickly take their places in the vineyard, filling half-ton bins with chilly night-time grapes under the glare of the massive overhead lights.

We follow the blinding lights to the end of the row, where each picker uses their headlamps to adjust to the band of grapes on the vines. Our forte is “leaves” – or the removal there of. First we start several vines in front of the line of pickers and sweep our hands down the canes and around the bunches to remove leaves from the picking area, so that the guys can reach right into the fruit zone and pick cleanly (no leaves), dropping the ripe bunches into the pans beneath them on the vineyard floor.

Clip, clip, thump, clip, thump, goes the noise, with an occasional hoot or shout or song from the pickers. Then they all run with their full pans to the half-ton bins being pulled slowly behind the tractor in the next row and toss the fruit in. It’s now our turn again to quickly pick out and remove any leaves and over-ripe fruit from the bigger bins behind the tractor. Scooting under the vines and back to their place on the row, the pickers start again, and continue for 6 hours until all the bins are full and the requisite tonnage agreed upon in our contract is weighed and loaded safely on the truck, bound for the winery.

The sun streams through the vines and the lights are shut off. In the distance, a flock of hot air balloons is taking off, and all that can be heard is the hiss of their heaters. The bins are full and loaded onto the truck, headed to the winery, and the vine rows are eerily silent when the crews depart and are filled with nothing but leaves!

It’s been a long but successful day, and the torch for the responsibility of the newly picked grapes is happily passed from the vineyard manager to the winemaker.

At the winery, our job is once again “leaves”. The bins are dumped into a 20 foot conveyor that slowly moves the grapes up to a crusher/stemmer. But on the way, the MOG (Matter Other than Grapes – read “leaves”) needs to be removed. We line up on both sides to sort through the cool grapes until our fingers feel frozen with the sweet sticky juice, trying to move the bunches around quickly as they travel up and out of reach, and remove anything doesn’t look like it should be included in fine wine – tie tape, branches, over or under ripened bunches, and leaves! If it’s not a grape, it doesn’t go onto the tank!

We will return with the winemaker to the winery tomorrow, after the grapes have chilled on

their skins in the tank overnight, when they will be removed and pressed off and the juice will return to the tank to begin its fermentation into wine. But until then, we will dream of the sweet smells of freshly harvested Sauvignon Blanc, and picture vines, without grapes – or leaves!