An Agrarian Paradise Tucked Away in the Hillside of Carneros
The last of the Napa Valley rains dampen my picturesque drive to a recently renovated Italian style villa tucked into a Napa Carneros District hillside, which Lee and Cristina Hudson call home. The massive fourteen-foot ceilings echoed as strong winds outside danced around their magical abode. With this as the scene they invite me in to sip tea and get to know the couple I heard so much about. Magic indeed is what I felt when I first entered the Hudson Ranch. The energy of everyone I met was uplifting and welcoming. I was somewhere special.
The site of their 2000-acre ranch was originally known as Talcoa Vineyards, an Indian name meaning ‘laughing land.’ It was on these lands in the 1880’s that the first successful, American scientific experiments were performed to overcome phylloxera, the pest that devastated the vineyards of Europe. Over time the land became neglected.
Lee stumbled onto this piece property in the early 1980’s. In 1964 an absentee group of investors purchased the property hoping to develop it, but it wasn’t until 1979 when they applied to the city to subdivide the property. This outraged neighbors who objected and so the property went on the market.
“Everything was falling apart,” said Lee. “But I like work. It keeps me happy, it’s what gives me pleasure.”
And work he did, as Lee planted his first vineyard, built roads and put in all the infrastructures on a property that hadn’t seen anything of significance grown in a long time. Even the creek barely flowed and the fish had disappeared.
Lee almost didn’t come to the Napa Valley. The native Texan, who spent his early years in France learning French as his first language, loved plants. After high school, he attended the University of Arizona studying horticulture. He visited California in 1973 and discovered vineyards and thought that would be a good thing to do. Though he didn’t drink at the time. He decided to go back to Burgundy, France and learn about winemaking. Back in California he eventually received a graduate degree from UC Davis.
“I wanted to make Pinot Noir because it reminded me of Burgundy,” said Lee. “(But) it was assumed that growing Pinot Noir in California was near hopeless so I went to Oregon and worked two years at a winery there.
Oregon didn’t feel like home so he searched for coastal property from Santa Barbara up to Mendocino.
“I wasn’t looking at Napa because in the late 70’s I thought it was already all done,” he said chuckling. “Then I stumbled onto this would-be magnificent property. I planted my first grapes in 1981 and here I am.”
He met his wife, Cristina, also originally from Texas four years ago at a dinner party of mutual friends. She was opening the new Bardessono Hotel in Yountville at the time. They married two years ago and have become the dynamic duo of sustainable living.
Cristina added her own flare. Both have very different talents, but work well together.
Cristina Salas-Porras Hudson developed her discerning eye through a distinguished, twenty-five year career in the interrelated disciplines of food and wine, hospitality, and design. After working alongside Alice Waters at Chez Panisse for ten years, Cristina consulted for Hermes, Slow Food International, Steve Jobs, and Rockfield Japan. Her talents and experience are now integral to her work at Hudson Ranch and Vineyards, as well as overseeing their Napa Valley-based business, Oxbow Produce Market and Juicy Juice Bar at the Oxbow Public Market.
“It’s been a symbiotic and natural progression of buying the Oxbow market and starting a juice bar,” said Cristina. “We think different about things, but we have a good partnership and like working together.”
They also make and blend the wines together along with production winemaker Christopher Vandendriessche & Consulting Winemaker John Kongsgaard.
Lee’s three kids are grown, but Cristina’s two boys, age 14 and 10 enjoys exploring on the ranch as well as hiking, hunting and getting dirty.
“Walking the property feels like you are in nature,” she smiles breathing in. The 2000-acre ranch with 200 acres of grapes also includes a three-acre garden.
“Everything else is wild upland and it will stay that way as long as we are here,” she added. “When Lee purchased this property, it was virgin land and needed so much work. Now we are completely sustainable here.”
Producing world-class wine grapes for exceptional wines and Tuscan olives for verdant oil, raising heritage breed pigs, lamb and chickens, and growing a diverse array of seasonal fruits and vegetables for their CSA program (Community Supportive Agriculture) – this farm encapsulates the true sense of wonder, possibility, and enthusiasm with which they start each day.
Hudson Vineyards produces grapes of distinction from uniquely situated sites on two hundred acres of vineyards. Thirty years of meticulous winegrowing and winemaking experience goes into each bottle of Hudson Wine. Additionally, Hudson Vineyards’ premium grapes are sold to 27 wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties, some of which produce wines from specific vineyard sites identified as distinct and bear the ‘Hudson Vineyards’ designation on their labels.
They insist on farming holistically, focusing their efforts on the ecology of the complete farm, rather than responding to issues fragmentally. They understand that ecosystems are wholly interrelated and interdependent. As custodians of the land, they understand that agriculture is intensive and can create serious impact on the environment. Through on-going observation and analysis, they seek to mitigate those impacts on their natural world.
The Hudsons have cultivated a long-term view of farming, and possess a deep understanding of the property through both education and years of experience working with the land. They walk the vineyards and ranch daily, responding to issues that may arise by choosing the best course of action, whether it be integrative pest management, daily analysis of weather and the Carneros district’s famed winds, the encouragement of native grasses, use of bird boxes, setbacks from waterways, or the planting of trees and various restoration practices.
They spread 600 tons of compost annually, produced on their farm, throughout Hudson Ranch. They sow beneficial green manures such as bell beans, oats and peas; maintaining a permanent cover crop in the vineyards, which protects the vines and attracts a wide variety of beneficial insects to the entire property. And their water leaves the farm as clean as when it first arrived.
A six-year old Llama named Hot Rod protects between 30-50 lambs at any given time, which are raised to sell direct to consumer or to restaurants.
“Ag (agriculture) is what always made sense to me,” said Lee. “That is why we are vineyard driven rather than wine driven. Why we are vegetable driven rather than wine driven. Wine is a product of our agriculture and that’s the interest. Working with the land. We look at everything we do with the filter of three very important things to us: 1. Is it environmentally sound and sustainable? 2. Is it the best thing we can do for our employees? 3. Does it protect our consumers? That’s a major drive for us. Are we doing the best we can do as tenants of the land? That’s the light of which we see everything.”
It’s that philosophy that has help Lee retain his employees with a combined dedication of over 200-years, many of whom have been with him for thirty years.
That was also the inspiration for starting their CSA program, which has been active for five years.
“We wanted to provide year round employment for our crew,” said Cristina. “Everyone who works in our vineyards has year round employment, they get paid a living wage, 60-percent of our employees has subsidized housing and it’s really important to us that we can take care of our people all year round. They are the backbone of what we do and are a highly skilled workforce, and are able to custom farm these vineyards at the top of their class.”
The Hudsons run their CSA program May through November and offer cooking demonstrations in the summer.
CSA members pick up a box of freshly picked produced every week either at the Ranch or at the Oxbow Produce Stand. If a business has 10 or more members they will deliver to their business.
“Fresh, local, seasonal food is important to our members,” said Cristina. “We grow 40 or 50 different kinds of fruits and vegetables so there is variety in each box. Every week we try to balance out the box. We are growing for flavor and we scrutinize what we grow, always asking is this the best we can be?”
“Not being wasteful, taking care of the land, taking care of the consumer. We always want to be better stewards,” she added.
“If people want to eat locally and support local businesses and local family farms, CSAs are the way to do it. It’s the best way to eat healthy and not only eat food that is fresh, but food that is alive. For us it’s a way to be connected to the community and to have people out to the ranch and teach kids and families about where food comes from and how it’s grown. Consumers don’t have control what is in the boxes. We give you what is at its peak in ripeness.”
Lee and Cristina share the hard work ethic and believe in being hands on and being part of the team. They like to get their hands dirty.
“Whether its fruits and vegetables or horticulture or landscaping, plants in general are fantastic,” said Lee. “Landscaping plants are like architecture to me. I love plants in general. It’s my hobby. Its what I do for fun. Number one it’s got to be fun.”
“We recognize the importance of our relationships and responsibilities to our staff, our land, and our community – understanding fully that each decision we make at Hudson Ranch has social consequences and environmental impacts,” said Lee.
Hudson Ranch and Vineyards is the daily living embodiment of their dedication and commitment to the hard work of growing the highest quality foods and wines made with the highest level of intent.
Lee and Cristina are two of the most authentic and giving couples I’ve met here in the Valley and stayed true to their reputation of being “really cool people.” Not only are they gracious to their employees and customers, but to our community as well. Their generous support of many nonprofit groups here in Napa extends beyond their magical ranch.
Oh and according to Cristina, that once dry creek flows with clear water and is stocked with fish again.