From Wine Grower to Winemaker: Hudson Ranch

From Wine Grower to Winemaker: Hudson Ranch

Renowned Carneros grape grower steps into a new role as winery owner

As I look into the distance from atop Hudson Ranch, I see in the Carneros background, the shores of San Pablo Bay, whose constant cooling winds are a signature of this southernmost Napa Valley wine grape growing region. But when I look into the foreground of Lee Hudson’s vineyards, I see him strangely taking what he calls an “athletic stance,” as his arms and hands jut out parallel to the beige-red earth. 

He explains that this is the other natural element of terroir that goes into growing grapes: the human element. He’s showing me the position he asks his field workers to assume when he is determining where he wants his grapes to grow—if the fruit hangs too low for the workers who pick his fruit, “they’ll break their backs.”

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Photos by Gentl and Hyers
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"Humans Are an Integral Part of Terroir"

Hudson and his wife, Cristina Salas-Porras Hudson, currently employ 56 full time workers—some of whom have worked for Hudsons since the beginning, in 1981—on their 2,000-acre ranch.

If the vines grow too low to the ground, “Workers have to get on their knees to pick. It breaks their backs and it costs more money because [the picking] is slower,” he tells me from the oldest existing parcel, planted in 1986. This section is but a fraction of his 200 acres of vineyard, but when he planted it, he didn’t yet have his workers topmost in mind. Here, the grapes hang back-breakingly low.

“I’ll never do that again,” he says. “Humans are an integral part of terroir.” 

Nowadays, Hudson makes sure the trellises that shoulder his grapes—most of which are sold to some of California’s most prestigious wine brands—are ergonomic. 

And that’s not all the 68-year-old is changing up—38 years after he first began growing grapes in the Carneros, Lee Hudson has entered a new phase of his life and work, going from being one of the most highly regarded grape growers in America to vertically integrating, as of last September, into a winery owner as well. 

Hudson Ranch winery is a beautiful architecturally designed 15,000-square-foot facility he characterizes as “modern Western industrial.” “It’s the completion of the process; I was trained as a winemaker,” Hudson explains as he takes me on a dusty, bumpy ride over the hill-and-dale of his ranch. Along the way—which includes sojourning onto the Carneros Highway for a mile to circumvent the back of the property—we see a two-acre vegetable garden where workers tend their own plots, as well as pigs, goats, cows, horses and even a llama, brought in to keep predatory animals at bay.

“Wine has always been the reason [for doing this], so, ultimately, having a winery is the expression of what I’ve wanted to do—although I’ve always said I would never do.”

After speaking separately and together with both spouses, married since 2012, it becomes evident that she is the muse and driving force behind the couple’s new winemaking and hospitality locus. 

As the winery was opening last year, Salas-Porras Hudson told me, “This is my husband’s dream and I happen to have the skill set: I’m very organized; I can look at a goal and figure out how to accomplish it.” All attributes required to act as Alice Waters’ assistant and collaborator at Chez Panisse for 10 years—which she did. 

“To have Lee actualize his dream, we had very in-depth conversations about it that lasted a couple of years.” 

Ten months later, as we sit on the veranda outside the winery under enormous half-domed brushed-aluminum light fixtures, Salas-Porras Hudson, 50, tells me that putting together a team whose focus is on hospitality is far different than growing grapes. It’s a prerequisite integral to having a winery that is open to the public.

“In a few months, I already see growth and potential. Building a team can be very deliberate and we’re doing that with a lot of consciousness. Lee and I are aligned how we see life and work.”

Lee Hudson admits, though, that the hospitality aspect of their re-imagined business has been the hardest part. But he confides with pride and confidence regarding his wife, She’s a visionary. She’s been involved in painting the picture of the possibilities. … She inspired me to follow through with my original intent: grow grapes, make them into wine—pretty simple.”

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Photo Credit: Michael Woolsey

Creating a Culture for Success 

I’ve been writing about wine for about 30 years, and have noted that many vintners, especially in the last decade or so, are treating their employees with more respect for not only humanitarian reasons, but because it makes sense from a pragmatic business standpoint. But I’ve never come across a wine company that seems as heartfelt and mindful of their workers as do the Hudsons.

By way of example, many of Hudson Ranch’s employees live in company-owned housing that they rent at below market rates. The Hudsons have also paid for seven children of their employees to attend college. 

Why so magnanimous?

“I believe building a culture at work is about helping each other and seeing each other succeed; and one of the best things is seeing your children succeed … and carry it for one another,” explains Salas-Porras Hudson. “If people aren’t happy at work, they don’t do good work. Creating an environment where they can do their best is our responsibility.

“I like the idea of our lives and work being completely intertwined. People who’ve been here with Lee helped to build this place. So, we do everything we can to help fulfill people’s needs to get ahead in life. … People have a real history here. That’s unusual in today’s world. It’s a special part of Hudson; we all do the work [too]. Lee is out there walking the vineyard with the crew. No job is too big or too small, including for Lee and me.”

It's All in the Grapes

For the longest while, Hudson and his grapes have been paramount in helping others to create great wines. Hudson grapes have been the backbone of highly respected wines made by the likes of Kistler, Arietta, Duckhorn, Kongsgaard, Cakebread, Aubert, Favia-Erickson, Odette, Plumpjack and Failla, who together take about 15 different varieties among about 30 clients. Now, Lee Hudson gets to keep some of those grapes, but he has to deliver on the wine that his wife has urged him to make. “Hudson” prominently displayed on a label instead of written in smaller font under the aegis of another brand means something else. When one has the audacity to put one’s name on a label, it better stand for something other than for some vainglorious posturing.

Take, for instance, Hudson’s take on the ancient grape Aleatico, hardly seen in these parts, but fairly prevalent, mostly as a fortified wine, in Puglia and northern Italy. I’m forever attracted to disparate things and this wine (pronounced al ee AH tico and not to be confused with Aglianico) is a perfect departure for ABCC (anything but Cab & Chard) proponents.

The grapes for the 2018 Hudson Aleatico have their origins in the Black Muscat from Corsica. It’s unique, and it’s also very good. Slightly rust in color (after all, it is a black grape), there are aromas of sweet Crenshaw melon with a slight whiff of kiwi. On the palate the wine is soft and lovely with fresh sweet fruit and wonderful acidity that renders the palate cleansed, and enables it to finish very dry. I’d recommend a soft cheese plate with stone fruit and toasted walnuts with it.

Lee Hudson is now producing his own wine from the very same grapes others have been making hay with for almost 40 years. “It’s the ultimate end-game,” he exclaims. “I took my time and it has improved my capacity to grow grapes; and winemaking has made me a better farmer. They’re connected cheek-to-jowl—the land, the grapes, the winery. I just never got around to it. … If we had never made wine, we would never have been taken seriously. We are now.”  

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Photo Credit: John Doe


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