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Lee Hudson: Carneros Grape-Grower Extraordinaire
By Jim Clarke
Jul 26, 2016
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Grapes are probably the only thing grown to be small at Hudson Ranch.  Giant pumpkins, gourds taller than a man...perhaps it’s his Texas roots, but Lee Hudson grows vegetables with an eye toward size.  Since small, concentrated grapes are preferred for quality wine, it’s probably for the best that--when turning to viticulture--he  keeps that distinction in mind.

“Distinction” is the right word, as Hudson’s grapes go into many top wines, with quite a few of those bottled as single-vineyard designates.  Not that many, though: “Only thirteen use the name,” says Hudson, of the twenty-seven producers to whom he sells fruit.  For those thirteen, reputation and relationship are important, as is what portion of the vineyard they’re sourcing from.  “Vineyard designation has to be driven by terroir.  I have to have confidence in the site.  It’s got a southwest exposure if it’s got “Hudson” on it.”

Hudson began planting the ranch, which lies on the Napa side of Carneros, in 1981.  Today, there are almost two hundred acres of vineyards, along with a variety of other fruits and vegetables, as well as pigs, lamb, and some poultry; much of it is sold through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture alliance).  The balance between horticulture and viticulture reflects Hudson’s roots; he studied the former first before working in Burgundy, then entering graduate studies in grape growing at UC Davis.

Soils are mixed, with sections of loam, sandstone, and volcanic terrain; that diversity led Hudson to plant seventeen different grape varieties.  Matching clone to soil was a large part of the work.  For example, he has favored the Schott-Wente clone for many blocks of Chardonnay, noting that it isn’t prone to the tropical character common to some Californian Chardonnay.  He’s careful to avoid under-cropping, as he says it leads to fruit ripening too quickly, but at the same time looks for ripeness: “We harvest gold fruit, not emerald fruit.”

John Kongsgaard was Hudson’s first customer, back when he was the winemaker at Newton Vineyards; he still sources Syrah and Chardonnay from the vineyard, and consults for Hudson on the ranch’s eponymous wines.  These constitute only 5% of production after 10-20% of the barrels are declassified and sold off.  Chardonnay and Syrah are the focus, followed by the Pickup Sticks, a Grenache-based blend.  While Carneros is known for Pinot Noir, most of those vineyards are south of Route 121 and closer to San Pablo Bay; Hudson has enough to make only six cases of Pinot. 

Hudson’s customers are a “Who’s Who” of California winemaking.  Kistler has sourced Chardonnay from him since 1994, and Patz & Hall has been buying from the vineyard for ten years, sourcing from a four-acre block on loamy soils and two clones, Dijon 95 and Wente.  However, not all of Hudson’s customers are so “Establishment.” Bedrock, founded by Morgan Twain-Peterson (son of Joel Peterson of Ravenswood) sources Syrah there.

It’s hard to put a stylistic stamp on wines made from Hudson Vineyard fruit, which stands as a testament to the diversity of soils while also reflecting the various winemakers involved.  There is nonetheless a certain thread of continuity perceptible, at least within individual varieties.  For example, the prototypical Hudson Vineyard Chardonnay, whether vinified by Hudson (where John Kongsgaard oversees the winemaking) Kistler, Failla, or elsewhere, shows hazelnut and almond notes, along with an oyster shell minerality that’s somewhat surprising in wines of this ripe character.  The Syrahs--from Bedrock, Hudson and Failla--show dark fruit and gamey notes with some floral accents; some may lean toward spice or smoke.  The blends, like Arietta’s Variation One (Merlot and Syrah) or Block H (Merlot and Cabernet Franc), are more varied, though dark fruit and chocolate notes are common.

What they (and the varietal wines) all share is a generosity and energy supported by a firm but not insistent structure; what muscle there is to the wines rarely comes across as power, but as a center of gravity that keeps the wines grounded--immediately enjoyable but not flighty, serious but not somber.  Well-treated Hudson fruit holds the palate’s attention, and Lee Hudson values the work that goes into his vineyard too highly to let it be mistreated.