Who: Summit Lake Vineyards
Gretchen Brakesman must be the life of any party. She exuberantly welcomed me to the Brakesman family home on the Summit Lake property with an armful of wine. We spent a lovely April afternoon on their picnic table amidst the vines rolling through conversations, serious about wine and comical about life.
This is a family-run winery in the truest sense. When I pulled into the gate, I passed founder Bob Brakesman on a tractor mowing the winter cover crop between the vine rows. Bob and his late wife Sue purchased this remote property at 2,000 feet elevation in 1971 for just $40,000 and soon after started making wine.
Gretchen's husband Brian Brakesman took over full-time winemaking duties this year. He rejoined the family business a few years ago after winemaker roles at Paraduxx and Ledson. Gretchen herself has a solid resume of business and compliance management for other Napa wineries. They both still consult for outside wineries while launching their own brand, Red Thread Wines, this past year.
Throughout the afternoon, I met nearly every welcoming member of the Brakesman family as they came and went. Everyone has a role in making these really special wines, from farming to marketing and everything in between. Brian joined us for a while and gave me a ton of insight into Howell's terroir.
Where: Howell Mountain AVA
2000 Summit Lake Dr, Angwin, CA 94508
Tastings by Appointment Only
Angwin is an odd outpost of a town northeast of St. Helena. It's home to a handful of top-tier wineries and a Seventh Day Adventist college (and not much else). Howell Mountain was the first designated American Viticulture Area within Napa Valley and has maintained a consistent yet under-appreciated reputation for quality Cabernet Sauvignon. In my experience, sommeliers and wine biz folks readily laud Howell Mountain, but average wine aficionados don't know much of it. Tourists rarely make the drive up the hill, except to big brands like Cade. I'm my opinion, that's a great thing because it preserves the "Old Napa" family-centered experience.
There's a huge difference in growing conditions between the valley floor and Howell Mountain that directly translates to the wines. Most of Napa's wines come from vineyards in the valley, which are subjected to bigger weather swings and more intensely hot summer days. Howell has warmer mornings because it's above the fog lines, but the heat is more consistent. Due to the elevation, days are 10 degrees cooler and nights are 10 degrees warmer than the valley on average. These weather patterns affect the vines in several ways. Bud break is typically 2 weeks behind the valley and ripening is slower. This climate helps create powerful and tannic Cabernet that can be too bold upon release, but incredible with age. The other big factor in determining Howell's style is the soil, which is composed of well-draining tufa (a decomposed volcanic ash) and red clay. Drainage forces the vines to live off less water, which in turn creates more concentrated grapes.
Wine: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petit Sirah
Summit Lake's wines are not your average jammy Napa Cabs. They find a way to make really balanced wines with elegant tannins, not at all harshly tannic like I was expecting of Howell wines.
Summit Lake focuses on Cab, Zin, and Petit Sirah, producing around 1,200 cases per year. I tasted though most of their current wines and also Red Thread's inaugural releases, the 2014 Red Blend and 2016 White Zinfandel (rose). Gretchen and Brian make just 100 cases of these. Below are my highlights.
The 2016 Red Thread White Zinfandel is fruity and refreshing, a nice middle-of-the road rose. It's not overtly dry, minerally, and crisp like some roses made in the Vin Gris style. I can see it being a big crowd-pleaser.
The 2012 Summit Lake Zin was awesome and threw me for a loop. It is characterized by dried fruits like raisins and dates, black pepper, and very soft tannins. It could fool me for a Merlot/Petit Sirah blend. I was absolutely intrigued and excited to taste something so distinct from the Dry Creek Valley style of Zin which I'm used to.
Summit Lake's 2012 Emily Kestrel Cabernet Sauvignon is noted by baking spices, dark cherry, blackberry, and a very full body. Again, the tannins were well integrated and not bitter.
The 2014 Red Thread Red Blend is a 70% Cabernet-based blend. with some Petit Sirah and Zin rounding it out. This is a dense wine with excellent balance. Rich flavors of dark fruit with a distinctly strong espresso bean finish. I loved this wine, although it is very different than the Summit Lake style of Cabernet. To me, it's more in the vein of the classic Napa Valley style: fruit forward and silky body.
Why: Intriguing wines, Awesome family
If you think you know Napa, head to Summit Lake and discover a new perspective. The wines are all unique in character, which is so refreshing to experience. It was a great reminder to me to not get bored with Napa Cabernet and Zinfandel, because there are people making really interesting wines out there.
I also love how down-to earth the family is and how connected they are to the business. Many of the wines (like the Blythe Rose and Emily Cabernet) are named after the Brakesman grandchildren. This is a family with a huge sense of humor, too. Gretchen introduced me to all the farm animals, including a pregnant goat and a toupeed duck. The winery is adorned with family photos, including one of Bob and Sue coyly veiled in the buff!
As the generational torch is passed, I think the Brakesman family has plenty more success in store. No doubt they'll continue making excellent wine without pretension at their little mountaintop retreat. I highly encourage a visit.