Wine Growing with Lee Hudson
Thirty years into the vineyard, the roots of Hudson Vineyards are still growing through experimentation and respect for the past. Hudson’s vineyard designated Chardonnay was planted in 1982 to old-vine Wente clone Chardonnay, said Lee Hudson, “In 1930, two Chardonnay clones came into California. By 1960, there were only 200 acres of Chardonnay, all small clusters [with dramatically low yields]. We went back to these original vineyards and to the two originals. We did virus testing, cut buds and grafted onto 25 vines.” These vines were tracked, tested and listened to for over four years. They go back to Burgundian selections and blazed the trail for California Chardonnay over the past three decades.
“My two years in Burgundy, in the early ‘70’s, told me that it was all about place,” said Lee. Founded in 1981, Hudson Vineyards is situated in Napa’s Carneros District. “The quality of sunlight is totally different from northern Europe,” he added. “The soils and temperatures are similar, and this is what we aim to capture in our vines. It’s real in Burgundy, and it’s real on our site.”
Consisting of 2,000 acres, Hudson Ranch supports 200 acres of vines. With 17 different varietals, 50% is planted to Chardonnay. Of these 14 different Chardonnay selections, 60% are (Old World) Heritage Selections, yielding fruit that ranges from big clusters of low acid berries to tiny clusters of high acid grapes. Only 5% of what Lee grows under vine goes into his on Hudson Vineyards Estate wines.
“When I decided to go into the wine business in 2004,” he continued, “I asked John Kongsgaard to be the godfather of the wine program. It’s his only consulting project.” Directing the farming of the Chardonnay and Syrah plots that he contracts from Hudson, Kongsgaard had access to Hudson Syrah before Lee. “I had to wait in line,” said Lee and laughed. “I knew it was the best fruit on the site. But I waited for that contract to expire.”
Planted in 1998 to 1.5 acres of red volcanic soil that was formed 10 million years ago from a great lava/ash flow, Hudson Estate Syrah is concentrated and complex. In the vineyard, Lee drops two tons of fruit per acre. Then, he says, “We let it do its decomposition in the barrel. We do everything to let it oxidize. It’s risky and labor intensive but it creates complex wines. We like our jam on toast, not in our wines,” he added. “It’s what a Cabernet Sauvignon drinker would love but wouldn’t order.”
And though he sells Chardonnay fruit to many winemakers, including the likes of Ramey, Aubert and Failla, whose wines are Hudson Vineyard designated, Lee said, “Ours is quite different.” Spending two years in barrel, and stirred for the duration, the wine is lees-y. “I don’t think anyone stays two years on lees,” he said. “It’s not racked until its 18th or 19th month, and it’s not filtered nor fined.” Yielding 2-2.5 tons of fruit, Hudson’s Chardonnay clusters are 100g when harvested at 24.5 brix, as opposed to 0.5kg. “This is Hudson Hudson,” he added. “Not just fruit from the vineyard. We take the fruit out and are left with the bones of the Chardonnay.”
Released for the first time this year, Hudson Vineyards Estate “Old Master” 2011 (a homage to Bordeaux) is a blend of 60% Cabernet Franc (planted to ash) and 40% Merlot (planted to alluvial clay). “I’ve known about this plot for 15 years,” said Lee. “We set out to target Cheval Blanc.” As his first vintage, Lee added, “2011 was the most challenging vintage of my history. The wines have a nervousness to them that we don’t normally get. It’s totally ripe, but not as hedonistic.”
With 35 employees year-round, Lee and his wife Cristina “farm with ethics,” he said. “Is it good for our employees, for the land and for the consumer? It’s a filter through which we make our decisions.” Having purchased two apartment buildings, the Hudsons provide subsidized housing for their employees. Their first and second employees have been with the Hudson Ranch for 30 years, when it was first established.
“We create other businesses to support them,” said Cristina of their employees. “So that they can work all year long.”
“Collaboration goes into everything we do,” added Lee. “From the grapes to the CSA to the pigs,” that they raise. “The whole operation is based on people and site.” And, might we add, the wines are so incredibly delicious that you must taste them to believe it.
For more on Hudson Vineyards, read here.