Summit Lake Vineyards & Winery, Napa Valley
Premium Wines are a Family Affair Atop Howell Mountain
Summit Lake Vineyards & Winery, on top of prestigious Howell Mountain above Napa Valley, is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. Sister and brother Heather Griffin (she's the general manager) and Brian Brakesman (the winemaker) have teamed with their father Bob, who along with their mom, founded Summit Lake in 1971. The winery was one of the first on Howell Mountain, which subsequently has blossomed into one of the world's most highly regarded grape growing regions. From there, Brian and Heather are producing wonderfully modern, world-class wines. See transcription of our Interview below.
During the Year of Covid and following the Glass Fire of 2020, the Howell Mountain winery curtailed -- as many others did -- much of its activities, including not making any wine for the first time in its history as it enters, ironically, its 50th year. But they are now back tending to the 2021 vineyard crop.
Oh, and did I mention that they make some delicious Howell Mountain wine from one of California's most celebrated regions? I enjoyed with guests the wines at dinner last week. The event was a huge success with the blue cheese and strawberry salad paired with the Zinfandel ($39), and the Cabernet Sauvignon ($89) and Petite Sirah ($59) paired with roast and baked potatoes. Rave reviews came from all those attending, including 3 other sommeliers. Link here to purchase the Summit Lake Vineyards & Winery wines.
Our Tasting Notes:
Zinfandel (with Blue Cheese Strawberry salad): Lots of bright plums and spice. Matches well with the blue cheese.
Petite Sirah (with roast): Dark and spicy. The finish is long, tannins are well-managed. Perfect with the roast and sour cream on the potatoes.
Cabernet Sauvignon (with roast): Floral (violet) and spicy with a long finish. The star of the dinner.
Brian Brakesman, Winemaker, Summit Lake Vineyards & Winery
Brian, 44, who studied agricultural engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was born and raised at Summit Lake. He is celebrating his 10th year in 2020 as winemaker for his family’s Summit Lake winery. But his career began 20 years ago at Beringer and Domaine Chandon. In 2005 he became the assistant winemaker at Duckhorn Horn Wine Co’s, Paraduxx, and Golden Eye. In ’07 he landed his first winemaker position at Ledson Winery & Vineyards, where he made over 24K cases of wine from a region outside of Napa Valley. He held the position of winemaker there for four years. In ‘13, Brian and Gretchen created their own brand, Red Thread Wines. Brian apprenticed with John Gibson. Gibson was formally with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Vine Cliff.
Brian Brakesman: His Winemaking philosophy?
“I’m constantly thinking about how to do things better; and not doing it the same as everyone else. I’m proactive in my approaches to farming. And because we live here, we want to continue to farm, and pass it on to the next generation. The soil has to be healthy, because it’s our livelihood.”
Brian was once asked if he could open a bottle and share it with any three people (living or not), who would they be? He answered:
“Wine is about connections, enjoyment and laughter. If I could get Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Will Ferrell to sit down and enjoy a glass of wine, that would be awesome.”
Transcription of Summit Lake Interview
Tricia Conover, Editor, Wine Wanderings (TC):
Welcome to Wine Wanderings. here with me today are Heather Griffin and Brian Brakesman of Summit Lake Vineyards from beautiful Howell Mountain at the peak of Napa Valley. Welcome Heather and Brian, so happy to have here you with me today.
Brian Brakesman. Winemaker/Partner and Heather Griffin, General Manager/Partner, Summit Lake Vineyards & Winery (BB and HG):
Thank you so much for having us.
Thank you. Glad to be here.
Tricia Conover (TC):
So nice to meet you. As an introduction to readers, I understand that Summit Lake Vineyards & Winery, on top of prestigious Howell Mountain above Napa Valley, is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. Congratulations on that.
(BB and HG):
Thank you. Yeah, we're excited and I think a little a little stunned that we've been here that long. Well, we haven't been here quite that long. We’re only 45 and 47. But Dad purchased our property in 1971. So yeah, we're celebrating 50 years as a family on the mountain.
I think I read some stories about them backpacking with you guys while they were doing harvest and one of you as a baby was in their backpack. Was that you Heather?
I think that was probably me. I was usually strapped on a back or we have actually quite a few pictures in the family photo album of us in big stock pots in the kitchen, or out on the patio. Everybody just kind of stuck us stuck somewhere we couldn't get out of and went about their business.
That's so fun. Well, this is a brother and sister team. Heather Griffin is the general manager and Brian Brakesman, the winemaker, have joined the family winery with their father Bob, who along with their mom founded summit lake in 1971. The winery was one of the first on Howell Mountain which subsequently has blossomed into the world's most highly regarded grape growing region. It’s one of the best in the world. From there, Brian and Heather are producing wonderfully modern and world class wines. Heather and Brian, please tell our readers about what makes Howell Mountain location so special in Napa Valley and how it affects your wines.
Well, from a winemaking perspective, I think the location provides the best perspective.
You know, people will often refer to terroir as the sum of all the parts and how a mountain is a special place. Because of a multitude of things, we have a higher elevation. So our ranch is at 2000 feet, which means we're above the fog in the valley floor. We have very special soils. The soils here are Aiken clay loam, they have that red volcanic, rocky, and very high mineral content. But actually, [there are] very low nutrients so it actually stresses the vines and actually makes the fruit a little bit more intense. This is just a rustic growing area, if you will, as we're surrounded by forest and just beautiful nature. You know, really the fruit reflects that.
Can you tell can our readers about your portfolio of wines, and how you name them? This was very interesting to me.
We've got quite the lineup now, which is great. When we started the property was actually originally planted with an Italian field blend of mostly Zinfandel. The first couple years that our folks were up here, they took that time to clear out the old vines. And then in 1973, we planted an acre of Cabernet. We just did a kind of a red wine blend until 1992 that had our Summit Lake Zin label on it. And then in 1992, we decided that we were going to produce a label of 100% Cabernet out of those vines that were planted in the early 1970s. And it kind of coincided with my first daughter and the first granddaughter of the family being born. So, they named our Cabernet for Emily. Then we had an interesting year in 1996 with a very large second crop out in the vineyard in November, and we went through and picked quarters [of the vineyard] at a time of Zinfandel, and brought it in to the winery with the intentions of making like a Late Harvest Zin. Then that turned into a Port project, which was named for my second daughter Claire.
That became popular very quickly.
We ended up drinking half of the production [of the Port] before it even went into the bottle! We did a rosé for Brian's daughter. 2006 was our first vintage. That also coincided with our first production of Petite Sirah that we had planted in 2001. That wine was named for my other niece, Sophia. We end up with our traditional Howell Mountain Zin. And, all the granddaughters in the family had a line named after them. (laughter)
So, then the grandsons finally caught wind and figured out that they didn't have a wine named after them. My brother's son is Shane, and my son is Benjamin. We did a blend, if you will, of Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Petite Sirah. We call it the Brakesman boys. They got a wine named after them! Basically, all our lines are named after grandchildren except for the Zinfandel.
All right, you can't leave the boys out, can you? I know that you have a wine club. And you also offer on-site tastings, by appointment. What can our readers expect from both of these experiences?
I think our wine club is something that we're very proud of. It's funny, I think people are drawn to the area once they come up here, and they like to spend a little time. Brian and I both host tastings up here. You're always with a family member to host [the tasting]; we typically go through about five different lines. It's a pretty good lineup of, of what we do wine-wise, and we spend an hour to two hours with each group that comes up. They're all private tastings on the property with a family member. It's a fun experience.
We really appreciate the wine club members because they support us, and we like to support them. Every single year, we throw a wine club party, as it's free to all members. And we try to do as much farm-to-table [cuisine] for that party that we can. We usually raise a pig, and get vegetables from the garden. Heather's husband does honey, so we do fresh honeycomb, and just throw an incredible party of appreciation for our wine club members. That is the fun of it.
That sounds amazing. Brian and Heather, tell our readers how you've come out of the pandemic, the lockdown, and the fires. How did you pivot in the in this time of your business?
It's been an interesting year we've gone through with two major wildfires in the middle of the COVID epidemic last year. And you know, I guess, with the fires, we didn't have any physical damage on the property. It did burn up to all of our surrounding neighbor’s properties and vineyards in the area.
We're looking out our back window right here, and I could see where all the trees are burned over one Zinfandel block of ours. It came within 100 yards of our ranch. And unfortunately, our fruit didn't survive. That was a big loss for us. We have a strong Wine Club. [We went] back to the wine club, from a business standpoint, they really helped support the business during COVID. We were actually able to see visitors, and it was a big help.
I spent a lot of time on the phone talking to people. You build a rapport and a friendship with a lot of the people that have been friends and family and the mailing list with us for so long. And you know, we had so many people that had called in. They needed wine because they were stuck in their houses for months on end, and just needed to drink. (laughter) We needed the business and it really worked out. We gave some discounts and sent a lot of wine out. I think we're just about on par as far as wine sales go simply because of our support system with all of our friends and family.
It seems that that is the case around the country. I interviewed two of the premier winemakers in Texas, one in Celina and one down in Fredericksburg. Actually, one of them had a triple business [sales] last year because everybody was picking up [wine] or they were shipping out wine. Some people came out better. They had expected it to be worse than that. I'm glad to hear that your wine club was sustaining you so well.
My last question for you. I have three of your wines, Heather and Brian. I'm hosting a dinner this weekend to sample your wines, which are the Petite Sirah, the Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Zinfandel. I always conduct my tastings with a least one other sommelier as a guest; I have them [coming] so that we can compare and contrast. I sample [wine] with food because I feel like red wine is so food friendly. [The wine] is enhanced by the experience of eating while you're drinking red wine. So, for those three wines, what do you recommend for food pairings?
Well, I definitely think any charcuterie plate is going to go well with all three of those wines. Our wines are definitely built to be food-friendly and consumer-friendly. Any of those good salamis and then those nice, aged cheeses like old goudas [would match well.] The Zin especially, I think one of my favorite pairings for the Zinfandel is a good blue cheese with a little bit of honey on a sliced apple. A nice granny smith apple with blue cheese and honey is just absolutely stunning.
Red wines, they do well with red sauces. Any tomato-based sauce [goes with] spicy Zinfandel. Obviously, it's a spicy wine. Cabernet with [food]--if you're barbecuing--ribs, and ribeye steak. That’s when I when I think of our Cabernet, obviously we do great with the Petite Sirah. But our wines appear a little lower on alcohol with higher acid, so they're intended to be food-friendly wines. So yeah, I think you'll really enjoy them.
I think we're in good shape because I am making a roast. The Cabernet and the Petite Sirah, it’ll be great [with that.] The salad has apples and blue cheese in it. So, I think the Zin will be really good with that.
There you go. Yeah, little drizzle of olive oil and honey on your salad.
I know. That's all it needs. Anyway, Heather and Brian, thank you for being with me on Wine Wanderings. I look forward to visiting you in person in Napa Valley.
Yeah, definitely. Come and see us next time here in the area. We'd love to have you.
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