Summit Lake Vineyards
2006 Howell Mountain Zinfandel
California: Howell Mountain (Napa)
What we say
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Mission Codename: Cresting Zin
Operative: Agent Red
Objective: Return to Summit Lake Vineyards, purveyors of extraordinary high-elevation Zinfandel and Cabernet. Secure their latest Zinfandel, a budget-minded beauty that our Operatives will love.
Mission Status: Accomplished!
Current Winery: Summit Lake Vineyards
Wine Subject: 2006 Zinfandel Napa Valley
Winemaker: Robert Brakesman
Backgrounder: Napa County’s Howell Mountain AVA, established in 1984 is known for its wines of deep concentration and intensity. The higher elevation and relatively flat aspect make the location great for Zinfandel vineyards. The first vines in the Howell Mountain area were planted in the 1880s.
Wine Spies Tasting Profile:
Look – Dark garnet hues with a clear but darker center. At the edge of the wine, a chubby ruby ring encircles the glass. Skinny legs cascade downward after swirling.
Smell – Red and perfumy, this wine leads with vibrant red cherry, cassis and cranberry. Notes of pepper, oak, cinnamon, plum and blackberry jam round out the nose.
Feel – Cool and softly light on the attack. Then, plush tannins introduce a crushed velvet feel that increases as a soft dryness spreads throughout the palate, eventually drying the cheeks and pursing the lips.
Taste – Bold blackberry and black plum take the lead here. These are followed by strawberry, black cherry, cassis, and black pepper. Just beneath these, secondary flavors of pipe tobacco, forest floor and soft toasty oak add allure.
Finish – As soon as the red fruit fades, black fruit increases for a moment. Then, as the dryness spreads, fruit flavors are replaced by smoky earthen flavors and dark minerals.
Conclusion – Dark, delicious, delightful and darn great, this is a real Zin-lover’s Zinfandel. The high-elevation fruit is a special and somewhat unique treat. It is, in fact, this Zinfandel that really brought Summit Lake Vineyards its notoriety. Big and bold, but with a brightness that makes it a great food wine, this wine is filled with character, deep aromas and a dynamic feel. Everything in this wine is held in great balance, making it a real delight to imbibe. Pair with your favorite grilled meats, and decant for best results. Drinking beautifully now, this wine will continue to progress for the next several years.
Alas, Summit Lake’s winemaker proved too elusive for a sit down interview with us, today. Be sure to check back, the next time we feature another fantastic Summit Lake wine.
Wine Spies Vineyard Check:
The location of the Summit Lake Vineyards winery can be seen in this satellite photo.
What the winery says
About This Wine:
Our 2006 vintage is full bodied with generous amounts of dusty mountain tannins that should allow it to age well over the next decade The aroma is full of black pepper, sweet oak, plums and currants and are enhanced by the bold flavors of blackberry and black cherry. The finish lingers on the tongue with elements of tobacco, soy and Bing cherry.
About The Winery:
The story of Summit Lake Vineyards begins more than forty years ago when Bob and Sue Brakesman, the owners and operators of Summit Lake, met at Jordan Jr. High School in Palo Alto, California. After graduating from Palo Alto High School in 1964, Bob went to the University of California at Berkeley to study mechanical engineering, and Sue went to Foothills Jr. College in Los Altos to study biology.
Bob joined the Phi Gamma Delta house and Sue would visit on weekend, enjoying all the activities that made the “Fijis” famous—not protesting the war or burning bras or marching on the student union. What they were famous for was their wild parties and their mysterious fraternity brother Bill Gamma. When the chancellor realized he was a fictitiously register student to whom all vehicles. Library books, beer kegs, etc. were registered, the entire fraternity was asked to leave and never return to another U.C. Campus.
Soon after the “Fiji” fiasco, Bob and fraternity brother Tom Anderson took a year off. They flew to England, purchased a Volkswagen van and traveled through Europe and the Middle East, as far as Afghanistan and Indian Nepal. Upon his return, Bob enrolled in San Jose State. While Bob finished his degree, he and Sue lived in a romantic cabin on a horse-boarding ranch in the foothills of West San Jose. The Agees, their landlords, had extensive gardens, chickens, goats, dogs, cats, and of course, horses. They loved their new home. One afternoon, out byu the north corral, bob met one of the neighbors, Peter Mirassou. Peter had recently retired as COE of Mirassou Vineyards. Bob had begun making his own beer and invited Peter home for a taste. In the course of their conversation, Peter suggested Bob try “brewing” wine. The Agee ranch was surrounded by vineyards and orchards. That fall, late one evening, Bob liberated some of the local grapes. Following the ancient tradition, they crushed the purloined fruit in open top fomenters (new plastic garbage cans). Their wine-making days had begun.
Bob graduated from San Jose state in January, 1971. To celebrate, Bob and Sue packed their Dodge van and took off for South America. They drove to Miami and joined another fraternity brother Peter Downy, who was finishing a Peace Corp assignment in Chili. They spent many hours sipping the luscious wines of small family-run wineries in Peru, chili and Argentina. This led Bob to question whether he wanted to be an engineer or explore his growing passion for wine and wine making. On their return, they moved from the San Jose Cabin. Bob went to Point Reyes to help his friend Tom Anderson build a house in the forest, and Sue went back to her family home in Palo Alto. They would travel different routes through the Northern California wine country, looking for an affordable piece of land to start their own vineyard. Bob was always drawn back to the Napa Valley.
On November 12, 1971, Sue returned home from work. Bob was there with birthday champagne for her. Her mother, acting a bit strangely, kept telling her to open her birthday card. Inside the card was the deed to Summit Lake Vineyards! It described 28 acres of land, eight planted in pre-prohibition Zinfandel (their favorite varietal), fruit trees in the orchard, a chicken house, garage, huge redwood barn, a walnut grove, vistas in every direction, and a house built in the 1880’s. Reading the deed, Sue thought bob had purchased paradise.
On Christmas Eve of that year, they left their old life behind. Having yet to see the ranch, Sue was giddy with anticipation. When they finally entered the gate and drove down the muddy driveway, her heart sank. It was paradise all right, after the fall. The deed had failed to mention that the property had been abandoned for over thirty years and was completely overgrown with Manzanita, poison oak, and coyote weed. Only the house had been used, but it too had fallen into a woeful state if disrepair. The house was filthy, it was freezing cold, and the fireplace barley worked. After placing buckets around to catch the leaks, they went to bed listening to the storm. The next morning there was snow on the windowsill and the bedroom floor. They dressed and rushed outside into their first white Christmas on Howell Mountain. Sue’s anxieties vanished when she saw how a beautiful white coat of snow had transformed the land. They roiled up their sleeves and went to work—a lot of work!
Their first step was to befriend the local farm advisor, Jim Lider, who quickly became their guru. He helped them define the soil, told them the history of the vineyard, and recommended rootstocks. Well into their third month on the ranch, they discovered a pre-World War II Caterpillar tractor hidden in the brush. After several trips to the tractor graveyards” in Petaluma, bob worked his magic and the work became easier. It took a little over two years to clear the land and resurrect the old eight-acre zinfandel vineyard.
After restoring the old Zinfandel vines, Bob and Sue needed to expand and improve the rest of the land. When they needed vines, they both went to work at a nursery in St. Helena that produced bench-grafts (baby grapevines). They worked the 6pm to midnight shift, staying a couple of hours more each night grafting their own vines. They planted them in milk cartons and lined them up behind the house with overhead sprinklers to keep them healthy. On weekend, friends with white-collard jobs would come up to the ranch and help plant new vines, enticed by the promise of a six-pack of cold beer upon the completion of a row. It took three years to plant thirteen acres of new vines, eleven of Zinfandel and two of Cabernet. During this time, Heather, their first daughter was born. She spent time strapped to Sue’s back or sitting in a big canning pot, playing with the water dribbling from a hose, happy to watch her young parents work.
When the vines needed water, Bob went to work for a company that installed drip irrigation systems. It was the company’s policy to bury leftover pipes and fitting because it was too costly to return them to the warehouse. Soon the leftovers began to come home on the back of their flatbed truck. Within a year their irrigation system was complete. It was then time to let the vineyard mature.
When Bob needed to perfect his winemaking skills, he took a position as cellar foreman at Freemark Abbey which, in the early 80’s, was considered one of the best of the 13 wineries an the valley floor. Owners Chuck Carpy, Bill Yeager and Frank Wood were legendary. Their winemaker, Jerry Luper, became a friend and mentor to Bob. Freemark developed many innovative techniques, producing one of the first Trockenbeerenauslesen in California (a sweet late harvest wine). Bob was in heaven for the next six years. During the crush of 1975, their son Brian was born.
Before 1985 all harvests were parties. Friends would begin to arrive on Thursday night and the fields would begin to look like an ad for The Whole Earth Catalog. Bright and early Saturday morning everyone would invade the vineyards with assorted trucks, lug boxes, grape knives, and first aid kits. Soon the fruit would begin arriving at the crush pad behind the house. The men would flex their muscles and begin pitch-forking the grapes into the stemmer crusher. During crush, Sue would act as queen bee in the kitchen directing all the gals in preparing the nights feast. Dining, dancing, and hot tubing would last well into the night. The following morning, those that could crawl out of their sleeping bags, would come down into the basement and help bottle the wine form two harvests ago. The old hand corker made a wonderful rhythm. Music and laughter filled the basement as they worked and talked about the crazy activities of the previous evening. Everyone left with at least one free case of wine.
When they outgrew the small cellar under the house, it was time to build a winery. A sight was cleared and leveled and a massive cement pad was poured. Their three children’s handprints can still be found on the Northwest corner. Their youngest, Danny, born in 1979, and their old dog Blue, left many additional prints. The walls were constructed and raised with the help of friends and neighbors and their tractors, in the true “barn-raising” style. With the rafters in place, Sue’s cousins Mark and Russell skillfully laid the roof. A couple of coats of paint on the walls and a beautiful mural on the big from doors painted by Sue’s Uncle Ralph completed the job. Bonded winery #5255 was finished in 1985.
Bob’s engineering degree kicked into full throttle when the winery needed equipment. He began working for the complete Winemaker in St. Helena. Bob was soon traveling to wineries springing up in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino, designing and installing their new bottling lines. He also kept a sharp eye on the equipment ready to be replaced. A filler from here, a labeler from there, tanks, barrels, pieces of this and that, lots of stainless steel, and the winery was ready to go. Summit Lake Vineyards first commercial release, the 1978 Zinfandel, won the coveted double gold medal at the California State Fair. It sold out in just eight days. They had done it!
This year marks our 38th year here at Summit Lake Vineyards, and we are proud to still be 100% family owned and operated. In addition to our Zinfandel, we are now producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Syrah, Rosé, and Zinfandel Port.
Thank you to all of our family and friends that have supported us over the years! Please feel free to stop by and see what is new (and what isn’t) at Summit Lake.
The Brakesman Family
Varietals: 100% Zinfandel, 100% Estate Grown Produced and Bottled.
Oak: 95% American, 5% French for 24 months
Winemaker: Bob Brakesman, Brian Brakesman