Photo credit: Emma K Morris.

Wednesdays with Winemakers – Jennifer Lamb 9 min read

Jennifer Lamb, of Herb Lamb Vineyards, is a woman of strength, character, wit, charm and countless talents. Originally from Southern California, she majored in Ag Science and always loved farming. Her other love affair, with her late husband Herb, brought her to Napa Valley, where the couple planted a vineyard on Howell Mountain. Their stellar fruit attracted the likes of famed winemaker Helen Turley, whom they initially sold fruit for Colgin Herb Lamb bottlings. Their first own label wine was released in 1997, merely fifty cases, and immediately developed a cult following.


Why did you become a vintner/winemaker?

Herb and I really never planned on anything but being farmers – We found a beautiful (affordable) 7 + acre hillside property in the foothills of Howell Mountain that looked ideal for cool-climate Cabernet Sauvignon. We cleared and planted it in 1988, and, with the first crop in 1991, started looking for someone to purchase the grapes. First, assistant winemaker at Sequoia Grove, Michael Trujillo, was interested in our fruit for his new brand, Karl Lawrence. Then Helen Turley approached us to use the vineyard as the source of a signature wine for her new clients Ann Colgin and (then husband) Fred Schrader. With their successes in producing award-winning wine from our fruit, and Herb Lamb Vineyards on the label, the reputation of the vineyard was born. The next thing we knew, everyone was saying “Why aren’t YOU making wine too?”  So we dipped our toes in the water with the (phenomenal) 1997 vintage, making just 50 cases of wine, and our tiny HL Vineyards brand took off!


If you weren’t a vintner/winemaker what would you be and why?

Other than farming, I have worked in Wine Tours, Tasting Room management, Marketing and Public Relations for over 30 years in small wineries (including our own) throughout the Napa Valley. I love the comradery of working with a devoted staff in Customer Service, and of sharing all I know about farming and the history of the valley with my representatives throughout the country and promoting what we do as sustainable farmers in the Napa Valley. What we do best here is hospitality, and having lived here and worked in the industry since the 1970’s, I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather do!


What is your greatest strength as a vintner/winemaker?

Running my own vineyard and wine business for over 20 years has given me a very broad outlook of what it takes to make a small, cult wine project successful on a shoestring. It’s the passion and the history of having planted (and re-planted) the vineyard and knowing intimately the soils and slope and terroir of each section of our vineyard, and how, paired with little intervention and the best French Oak barrels and winemaking technology, this vineyard can shine in the bottle. I can multi-task with first-hand experience and a professional background with everything I do. I have been lucky to bring together extremely capable, passionate and qualified professionals to guide what we do in all aspects of the wine business, from customer service, compliance, social media, marketing, vineyard management to wine production.


What is your biggest weakness as a vintner/winemaker?

The reality is, that whether you produce 10,000 cases or 1,000 cases (as we do) it still takes the same multi-tasking and working with professionals in different sectors of the industry to get anything accomplished. There are never enough hands or hours in the day to get it all done, but I always think I can! I meet all season long during the growing season with my vineyard manager and winemaker to make sure that what everyone wants and sees in the vineyard is being addressed. I am on the bottling line, and with the crew doing the hand-labeling of our HL Vineyards’ letter-press labels. I am in 3-4 markets selling wine and doing winemaker dinners one week, and doing 4-5 by-appointment-only customer tastings in our Tasting Room in St. Helena another. I personally deliver cases to local accounts and fundraisers, and make weekly trips to our warehouse in American Canyon to pick up pallets of wine to re-stock the Tasting Room and our personal cellar. I should be allocating jobs to someone else, but it’s a factor of the job that it’s just not economically feasible.


What’s the one mistake you made in the cellar you would never repeat?

I have always been adamant that our Two Old Dogs Sauvignon Blanc be under 14% alcohol, to retain the fruity, crisp quality that I thought should accompany a lighter, food-friendly wine. After recently tasting over 30 current Sauvignon Blancs in the market, ours was only one of only three that were below 14%, and the other wines tasted just fine and sold well and all received accolades form the Somms in the room. I have since changed my alcohol limit… a little… maybe…


What is your proudest achievement?

That we can maintain our estate vineyard to keep the standards of healthy vines, production and quality at its highest, producing exceptional cool-climate grapes that make delicious, identifiable, site specific wines year after year, with the only difference being what Mother Nature gave us. Not a bad legacy for a couple of old farmers!


What was your scariest vintage to date?

In 1998, our second vintage, winemaker Michael Trujillo suggested that we “de-classify” our tiny 50 case production. I thought that was only something the French did! I was so afraid that something drastically wrong had occurred in the cellar. When asked, he said “No, nothing was wrong with the wine, it’s just that following the tremendous 1997 inaugural vintage, the difficult  growing conditions of the 1998 vintage will not allow this wine to show well”. After a big sigh of relief, we informed him that our business plan was only to make the best wine possible from our vineyard each year, no matter what the growing conditions. He was happy with that answer, and, after performing some magic in the cellar and selling off part of the production, we all became very proud of the 1998 HL Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon.


What is your favorite word or saying?

“They’re hanging witches too, I hear, which you should bear in mind my dear.”


What is your most prized possession?

My 10 year old Kawasaki Mule is a tool I couldn’t live without. It gets me up and down the hills of the vineyard, hauls fertilizer to different blocks, irrigation parts and picking bins, ice chests and cookies for the workers, vegetables from the garden, and gets me into the vines when it’s harvest. I love driving up and down the road with a dog or two in the seat beside me, ears flapping in the wind! Sometimes, we even use it to drive to the neighbors for a glass of wine. It’s our convertible ranch truck.


What’s the oddest thing about you?

I grew up with Civic Light Operas and Broadway shows in Los Angles and I can probably sing the words of most of them produced from the 1950’s to the 1980’s! Music and wine… what can be better?


What song best sums you up?

“So Much For Dreaming” – Ian and Sylvia


What is your favorite memory?

Getting my first horse, Sadie Lightening, as a pre-teenager. She became my best friend in a troubling time and to this day I dream of riding off on oak covered, rolling California hills when I need a diversion.


Which of the 5 senses is your strongest?

I seem to catch things out of the corner of my eye, and almost look for visual changes around me. As a bird-watcher, I am always alert to anything that might need identifying and flitting in and out of range.


What is your biggest motivation?

To just keep going – nose to the grindstone – don’t stop now or the momentum will go! Take a little time off, but not too much! Work out (almost) every day for the body and soul, then get to work in the office for the wine brand and get all the little things done. Keep connected – networking is King! Don’t forget personalized customer service and Thank-You notes, as that’s what my mother taught me.


Which bottle of wine would choose to be stranded with on a deserted island?

I don’t think I’ve had it yet, but I think it’s a red Burgundy, that evaporates in your mouth leaving old shoes and dried fruit and sensual memories to come. Or a vintage Champagne that is at once youthful and brilliant and festive, and at the same time an elderly, elegant woman with all the knowledge of life. Or a 30 year old tawny port that envelopes your mouth and soul and wraps you in a blanket of home-spun wool. And a staffed yacht off shore to take me home…


What is the difference between a good and great wine?

What is the difference between a good and great book, or movie, or meal, or friend? It’s all in the mind of the person appreciating that moment, with present company, feelings and situation as considerations. I have had some exceptional wines in one moment with special friends and celebrations, only to find that it was marginal later with others! Life goes on…


Name 3 individuals you would like to have dinner with.

The local Old Men’s Club the “Gonads” would be a fun trip down memory lane (if they’d let me in for lunch!). And I thoroughly enjoyed working (and drinking dry martinis) in the 1970’s and 80’s with Myron Nightingale and his wife Alice – I’d like to (in retrospect) know more about their lives and professional background. And I miss the fun of listening to the stories of the original Napa Valley agriculture veterans, like Henry Stabo and Steve Bardessono of the Ag Commissioner’s office.


Who is your winemaking hero?

It would have to be our winemaker, Michael Trujillo, who, without fanfare or boasting, point-seeking or band-standing, makes consistently exceptional wine with only the finest quality and consistency in mind. From the beginning, his standards have been beyond expectations, and his ability to coax the best of the vineyard and keep the high expectancy of the brand is at the forefront. He has graciously traveled the globe with us to promote and explain our wines, and is as passionate about and dedicated to our wines as if they were his own.


What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?

Just the right amount of acid, fruit, tannin, alcohol and flavors. It must compliment a meal and become an integral food group in the course of dining.


What is the one thing you want people to remember about your wine?

That, year after year, it’s a beautiful reflection of our vineyard. A winemaking triumph of expressing the terroir of our hillside in the bottle.


Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade or press?

Not the best, but certainly typical. “I keep drinking up my friends’ allocations, so I thought I would add my name to the waiting list in hopes of one day being able to be the host with wines with my own wines from Herb Lamb Vineyards.”

Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

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