For thirteen years, Summit Lake Vineyard has held a special place in the hearts of Trek Travel guides and guests. Perched atop Howell Mountain (one of the most highly regarded viticulture regions in all of Napa Valley, California), it is one of the highlights of our California Wine Country trip agendas with Trek Travel.
Words by Trek Travel Guide Beth White
But this forty year old, family-owned vineyard that produces 1,500 cases of wine a year was threatened by wildfires in Lake County and Napa Valley, right at the peak of the Fall 2015 harvest. Three generations of the Brakesman family (along with two horses, goats, chicken, cats, and several dogs), had to be evacuated from their home the night of September 11th, as there was only one small mountain ridge separating the fires in the valley from racing up the side of Howell Mountain. And the four-year drought conditions in California created a tinderbox and made these wildfires challenging to fight due to rough terrain.
Several days later, the family (and all the animals) were able to return to Summit Lake Vineyards. While the fire was contained, the was still a preeminent threat to the harvest. Smoke can be absorbed by the grapes, thus affecting the flavor and results of future wines. Most winemakers determine when to pick their various types of grapes based on a number of factors, from the sugar content, size and skin color, to the general health of the vines and future weather conditions. It is a science, with a lot of experience and creativity thrown in, and ultimately decided based on the intentions of the wine maker’s future vintage.
Given the recent scare, Summit Lake decided they could not wait any longer and they needed to start harvesting various blocks of grapes over the next few weeks. Many vineyards in Napa Valley rely heavily on contracted labor for seasonal pickers, whom are often in high demand. The work is grueling, requiring skill and speed, as grapes perish quickly after picking when left in large plastic bins under the hot sun.
As one of several guides leading trips in the California Wine Country, I have learned a lot about the wine making process and have had the pleasure of enjoying many picnic lunches, wine tastings, and tours of the Summit Lake Vineyards. Understanding the time constraints and labor shortages (due to the early harvest and wild fires), my co-guide and I volunteered to help out in any way possible. Although the family had everything in control, they agreed to put us to work for a day, helping to sort grapes (quality control) before they went into the de-stemmer and bladder press. We had a great time and it was exciting to see everyone work together like a peloton!
“With the drought this year, we harvested about three weeks ahead of schedule, along with most of the valley. On the years where this happens, our small family is spread rather thin between all of our respective jobs. My Dad, Bob Brakesman, my brother and myself are the only full time employees here at the winery. My husband works full time as a vineyard manager on the valley floor and my youngest brother, Danny, is working at another winery. During harvest, when we bring in more than a couple tons of fruit, it is important to process the fruit while it is still cool in the morning,” said Heather Griffin from Summit Lake Vineyards.
She continued, “We had a day when we knew we would be short handed, as it takes at least five people to run a harvest and process fruit at the same time. In general, I run the crew in the field and drive the tractor to take empty bins out and bring in the full ones. My dad and brother run the crush equipment, and we need the extra hands to sort fruit as it goes into the top of the stemmer-crusher machine. Jake and Beth heard we were short on people and volunteered to help us! I think they now have a hands on appreciation for the work that goes into wine, as they spent hours on our catwalk sorting through our fruit all day. We couldn’t have done it with out them!”
Frankly, I think they wanted us to have an opportunity be part of the “crush” process more than they truly needed our help! We’ve grown to love this special family and vineyard that it made us feel good to give a little back to them, considering all the special hosting they have done for Trek Travel over the past years. The harvest was a success and all the grapes were picked and processed, awaiting the long fermentation cycle. We look forward to next year’s challenging cycling ride through Pope Valley and up Ink Grade Road to Summit Lake Vineyards. And now we can’t wait to taste the 2015 Zinfandel in two years!
VISIT SUMMIT LAKE VINEYARDS ON TREK TRAVEL’S CALIFORNIA WINE COUNTRY VACATION»