On Sept. 1, Lee and Cristina Salas-Porras Hudson and their team opened the doors to Napa’s newest winery. Located on their 2,000-acre ranch just north of San Pablo Bay in Napa’s Carneros region, the winery, caves and tasting rooms form a village-like collection of structures where guests taste wines and learn about the history of both the property and the proprietors.
“We technically make estate wines (because the grapes are grown and the wines are now made onsite), but we are much more of a ranch,” Lee said. “We’ve been farming here since the early 1980s and we’ve made our own wines since 2004, but grapes and other crops have been grown here for well over a century.”
Today, there are more than 200 planted vineyard acres on the ranch. But there are also numerous gardens, livestock pens, olive-tree orchards, a wood shop where handcrafted furniture is made, a small plant nursery, an area for making vinegar and a range of activities that make “the ranch” seem a lot more like a community of artisans who’ve found their home.
“The winery is the culmination of Lee’s life’s work and his dream to make a full circle — grow grapes and make the wine at the source,” Cristina said.
Although they were to meet years later in California, both of the Hudsons grew up in Texas.
Cristina grew up in El Paso, moved to Vermont for college and then to Japan for a graduate degree in Japanese. Since then, she has spent her time involved in hospitality, design and food, working with luminaries such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and Steve Jobs. Six years ago, Lee and Cristina married, but even before then she’d been working on the team, helping to sell and market the wine and their other products.
“We are equally involved in the winery, but I am also running our Hudson Greens and Goods, located at Oxbow,” Cristina said. “It’s an important element of what we are doing because it provides a place for local farmers to sell their products, as well as for us.”
At Oxbow, they sell seasonal fruits and vegetables (many of which have been grown at the ranch), their own olive oil, whole-butchered pigs and lambs, fresh-cut flowers, and — of course — Hudson wines.
The man who planted trees
Lee Hudson grew up in Houston, where his father was involved in the gas and oil industries, but also owned a cattle ranch and grew orchids as a hobby. Oil seemed in the blood of the Hudson family, whose relatives founded what would eventually become Exxon and Texaco. But Lee had other aspirations.
“When I was a kid, I read a book called ‘The Man Who Planted Trees,’ and it had a big impact,” Lee said.
The book was published in 1953 by French author Jean Giono and told a tale about a man who slowly and methodically planted trees in a war-ravaged valley, transforming a desolate place into a garden for plants, animals and people.
“I also worked on my father’s cattle ranch, and that also sparked my interest in agriculture,” Lee said. “But my interest in viticulture didn’t happen until my junior year in college.”
In 1972, Lee visited San Francisco, where there was growing buzz around grape-growing and winemaking. Two years later, sensing his growing interest, Lee’s stepmother reached out to a friend who just happened to also be one of the world’s leading experts in wine, Maynard Amerine. With more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles to his credit, Amerine was the first faculty member hired into the new Viticulture and Enology Department at the University of California at Davis in the 1930s.
“Maynard was one of the greatest intellects — a critically important and pivotal man in the wine industry in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s,” Lee said. “He was an incredible spokesman for the industry and for the Napa Valley, a true world leader in oenological thinking and also a big influence on me.”
Attention to detail
For years, Lee had wanted to find an agricultural product that might fulfill his desire to grow produce where qualitative differences in farming might have a distinct impact on quality.
“There is no other product in the ag world that surpasses wine grapes as requiring the level of attention to detail or is as appreciated for its qualitative differences than wine — and that was attractive to me,” he said. “There are other transformative, metamorphic products — soybeans to miso, rice to sake, milk to cheese — that take a raw material and convert it to something completely different. But for me, growing grapes became my focus.”
After receiving a degree in horticulture at the University of Arizona, Lee spent time working in Burgundy, France, before returning to earn his master’s degree in viticulture and enology at UC Davis.
Building a community
Lee purchased the property in 1981 and set out to grow grapes that might represent his belief. He brought in friends to help design and build what would eventually become a collection of barns, a home, 200 acres of 17 different grape varietals, gardens, ponds, orchards and areas to raise hogs and sheep. He also set aside dedicated space to grow giant pumpkins.
“Leonardo Urena has been working with us for 32 years and he holds many jobs here, but he also grows some amazing pumpkins,” Lee said. “I mean, I’m talking 2,000-pound pumpkins that have won awards.”
And this is the thing about the Hudson Ranch: Many people have been there for years with space provided to explore their own unique talents.
“Lee and I met in college, and when he bought the property he asked me to come and help out — that was in 1980,” said Ed Clay, who now runs his own handcrafted wood-furniture shop in one of the property’s barns. “They’ve build a soulful place here — Lee has more life force than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Clay’s company, Carneros Studios, is one of the region’s most exclusive custom furniture-design companies. With clients such as The French Laundry and Stanford University and showrooms in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, Clay has created something comparable in quality to the grapes and wine being produced on Hudson’s ranch.
Nearly since the first harvest in 1983 vintners have sought out Hudson grapes. The Hudsons prefer to sell their fruit to smaller family-run operations so they might build a relationship and “work with the decision-maker,” which, according to Lee often results in a higher-quality product.
They currently sell about 90 percent of their grapes to 30 different vintners, including some of Napa Valley’s finest Chardonnay producers — Kistler, Cakebread, Aubert, Failla and Kongsgaard, and others. These grapes come primarily from the 14 selections of mostly “shot” Wente clones grown on the Hudson Ranch.
The head winemaker, Clayton Kirchhoff, grew up working in his family vineyard in Clarksburg and has trained under Ehren Jordan at Failla, Mike Hirby at Realm Cellars and Luc Morlet at Chateau Boswell. He also spent a vintage in Spain working with Peter Sisseck at Dominio de Pingus.
Kirchhoff’s task is to craft the wines of the Hudson lineup, including the lively Grenache Rosé ($32 a bottle and 200 cases made), “White Study” (a curiously compelling blend of Ribolla Gialla, Arneis, Friulano, Albarino — $36 a bottle with 150 cases made) and the exceptionally rich Syrah ($90 a bottle and 200 cases made).
Visitors can choose from two levels of curated, by-appointment-only tastings. Ranging from $60 to $125 per person, guests can taste four wines in one of the special tasting “studios.”
Not tasting the Hudson Chardonnay during a visit would be akin to going to Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tower. The 2016 Chardonnay ($65 a bottle and 900 cases made) is a study in one of the finest examples of this varietal produced in California. The richness reveals its oak-barrel fermentation and aging. The mouthfeel is rich and unctuous with flavors of golden pear, crème brûlée, vanilla and candied tangerine rind.
The 2016 “Pick Up Sticks Red” Grenache blend ($42 a bottle and 200 cases made), is textured and layered, with earthen elements of mushroom, strawberry jam and Christmas spices, while the 2014 “Old Master” (Cabernet Franc, Merlot — $125 a bottle and 150 cases made) has a chewy but smooth texture and bursts with blueberry, beef jerky and cinnamon.
When historians look back on the second half of 20th-century winemaking in the Napa Valley, they will mention Hudson Ranch with high esteem. It is clear that attention to detail can have delightful results, with wine a distinct vehicle for vision and hard work, one that has the ability to transform.
In the book “The Man Who Planted Trees,” the shepherd plants acorns to repopulate a war-torn landscape, walking arduous miles in the process. After losing an estimated 10,000 trees and two structures in the 2017 fires, the Hudson team is redoubling its efforts, too.
“We’ve been planting about 1,000 acorns a year, but we’ll need to increase that number after the fires,” Lee said.
We took a short break to look out over the property from the new winery. Beyond lay a mossy pond and rows of vines, and in the distance the hazy fog slowly approached from the bay. The air was clean and crisp, no sign of smoke.
“Growing up, I had this sense that doing things well was important — that having a strong community was important, too,” Lee said. “I still do, and our hope is that this winery represents our shared vision of what is good.”
Originally published in the Napa Register, September 2018