We enjoyed a wine recently at a local Napa Valley tasting room from a producer with which we were previously unfamiliar: Lamborn Family Vineyards. The quality of the wine compelled us to visit the producer’s website and try to set up a tasting appointment. We could not find an option for scheduling a tasting but were not deterred: we visited the site’s “contact us” page and sent a message expressing our enthusiastic wish to visit and taste their wines. Very soon thereafter we received a reply thanking us for our interest but letting us know that the winery was not open to the public.
Although there are over 525 wineries in Napa Valley, many of them – and perhaps even the majority – are not open for business for a variety of reasons. Some wine producers lack the production levels to justify building a winery or tasting room or hiring hospitality staff. Others do not have sufficient acreage to receive approval to operate a winery (generally new applicants for a winery must own at least 10 contiguous acres). Yet another category are those producers and wineries that do meet the minimum property size and have sufficient wine production to fund a tasting room and staff but do not have a permit to accept visitors.
Even though I could not visit Lamborn and taste their wines, I asked their founder, Mike Lamborn, if he would be open to my coming up to meet him and learn more about their wines and the story of their family wine business. Mike graciously agreed and we picked a time for me to come up. A few days later I made the trek from our house in Napa to the Lamborn’s property in Angwin – about thirty miles north. Lamborn Family Vineyards is located in the Howell Mountain region, one of Napa Valley’s highest-elevation grape-growing areas and home to unique microclimates and soil types. We have been to wineries in Howell Mountain before and had a vague sense of how long the trip might take and how complicated the route would be. This vague sense was clarified when Mike Lamborn emailed us an old-school map with written directions and a warning that most navigation systems cannot accurately deliver visitors to the right location.
It turns out that the Lamborn property was at least another 15 to 20 minutes driving time beyond any place we had been in Howell Mountain, but well worth the drive. As I drove down the long driveway past the vineyards I saw a woman tending to some vines next to the road. I would soon learn that this was Mike’s wife Terry and the image of her in the vineyard reinforced a key takeaway from my conversation with the Lamborn’s – they are hands-on farmers.
After driving down the Lamborn’s long driveway and parking the car near the house I could see unobstructed views into the valley below for dozens of miles. It felt as if I was standing at the very top of Napa Valley. Mike came out to greet me and we settled down on their outdoor patio and Mike told me the story of Lamborn Family Vineyards. It all started in 1969 when Mike’s father bought land up in Howell Mountain – first one acre, and then a 20 acre parcel that is now home to Outpost Wines. A couple of years later Mike and Terry purchased their own parcel of Howell Mountain land at one of the highest elevations (2200 feet). Because the land required significant work – clearing, grading, building – they did not plant until 1979; the first Zinfandel grapes were harvested in 1982. Cabernet Sauvignon was planted later with the first harvest in 2003. Annually, Lamborn produces about 1,000 cases of Zinfandel and 550 of Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition, they make about 100 cases of Rosè of Zinfandel.
People that really know Napa Valley wines will tell you that Howell Mountain fruit is not just different, but special. Because of its extreme elevation compared to the Valley floor, Howell Mountain has cooler days but also warmer nights resulting in a long and steady growing season. In addition, the unique soil in Howell Mountain – volcanic ash and red clay – creates the perfect environment for grapes to grow. Vineyards on Howell Mountain sit on ground that is very rocky which provides excellent drainage. However, the soils are nutrient-poor, causing the grape vines to struggle; it is from this struggle that the most intense wine is produced. The Lamborn vineyards sit on Red Aiken Loam atop a water table that is 500 feet below the property.
As I can attest from seeing Terry in the vines as I drove up, the Lamborn’s do their own vineyard management for their ten planted acres. Since the end of 2015, they have been fully organic, a choice they made not for marketing purposes but for reasons much more personal. As Mike Lamborn put it, “We did it for the health of the land and the health of our grandchildren who come here.” Many wineries stick the word “family” in their name but many of them no longer have anyone from the family involved. At Lamborn, in addition to Mike and Terry their sons are both involved in the winery business and there is a fourth generation of Lamborn’s coming of age.
If there were any surprises during my conversation with Mike and Terry it was their perspective on the wine making part of the business. “We’re Farmers,” they said repeatedly, “we don’t get too involved in the making of the wine.” This is a refreshing approach – stick to what you’re good at. Of course, this is easier to do when your winemaker is Heidi Barrett, one of the stars of Napa Valley known for her stint at cult winery Screaming Eagle and as the winemaker for over a dozen wineries in the Valley. As Mike described it, their goal was to make balanced wines that can age, with no particular characteristic standing out above any other. This approach meshes nicely with Heidi’s style which is to make balanced wines that are expressions of where the grapes were grown. If you taste Lamborn wine and say “This is a Howell Mountain wine,” then the Lamborn’s and Heidi would be pleased.
Because Lamborn Family Vineyards does not have a permit to taste wines I did not enjoy either the Zin or the Cab while I was there (although I had several glasses of delicious well water!). When I left, though, Mike and Terry were nice enough to gift me a bottle each of Zin and Cab. They did not provide any instructions as to how long to age the wine or when to consume it, so both wines have been enjoyed with friends already. Both wines had strong dark fruit characteristics balanced by spice notes and strong tannins and finished nice and long. The Zinfandel had strong pepper notes while the Cab had a wonderfully dusty aroma and strong minerality. The 2013 Cab is sold out but the 2014 vintage will be released in November. The 2013 Zin is still available and wonderfully priced at $45 per bottle. Although we have not tasted it yet we just ordered two bottles of the Zinfandel Rosè for a very exciting price of $34 per bottle. The best and easiest place to find Lamborn Family Wines is their website: Buy Lamborn Wines. For those that are in Napa Valley and want to pick up a bottle, Lamborn sells its wine at Maisonry Napa Valley, a wine tasting room in Yountville: Maisonry. Finally, for those that are in Napa Valley Father’s Day weekend, many of the Howell Mountain wineries are participating in a fantastic event, Taste of Howell Mountain: Taste of Howell Mountain.
June 3, 2017