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.”