A Life on the Mountain

What changes at a family-run Napa vineyard…and what stays the same

Brian Lamborn helps run his family vineyard in Napa Valley (photo: Melody Oldfield)

When Bob Lamborn and his son Michael bought 40 acres on Howell Mountain, which sits above the Napa Valley floor, the area was barely on the map. It was 1971, and Napa’s reputation as one of the world’s epicenters of winemaking had yet to emerge.

It was a home-grown, independent operation from the start. Bob, who had attended OSU until he was drafted into the WWII, had wanted some structure and complexity in his life – he and Mike planted and worked only eight of their acres with help from their family and friends. The rest they left untamed. They hired a friend and local vintner to make their first batches of Zinfandel, which they released in 1982. They called their label Lamborn Family Vineyards – the name was simple and also captured the essence of the business. It was the very first “family” winery label in California.

Orange Spotlight Award

Lamborn Family Vineyards in Napa Valley is receiving OSU’s “Orange Spotlight” award, which highlights businesses and organizations either operated by Oregon State alums and faculty or who employ a large number of Oregon State graduates. These businesses demonstrate a dedication to community service, sustainability and innovation.

In 1999, when they welcomed Mike’s son Brian into the business, Lamborn, and even Howell Mountain, had kept the values at their cores – independence and quality – intact, even as the Napa Valley floor had become blanketed by some of the biggest and most expensive vineyards in the world.

In 2010, Lamborn is still focused on staying small, so they can do everything themselves from the ground up, from farming the grapes to marketing the wine and everything in between. For them, it is a way to ensure that the 1,600 total cases of Cabernet and Zinfandel they produce yearly is high quality, Brian says. And Howell Mountain has retained much of its individuality as well.

“When you start getting off the valley floor into the surrounding mountain growing regions, you run into more characters,” says Brian, who graduated from OSU in 1997 with a degree in sociology. “It’s a different feel. There are funky places that people haven’t heard about, and you get more into the farmers up our way, which is certainly what we prefer.”

After nearly four decades, though, some things have changed. Bob passed away in 2004. Mike and Brian brought on winemaker Heidi Barrett, famous for handcrafting the cult wine Screaming Eagle, who’s 1992 vintage sells upwards of $8,000 a bottle.

And Brian, after having taken over as the manager of marketing and sales, refined the way Lamborn sold its Cabernet and Zinfandel. Instead of selling their vintages to the general market, from Safeway to local wine stores, Brian has focused mostly on creating word-of-mouth buzz for Lamborn’s wines through getting them into fine dining restaurants.

“We started getting into more and more places that had sought-after wine lists,” says Brian. “The goal behind that was for people to start recognizing Lamborn in some of the nicest restaurants in the country, making the association of quality between the two, and for them to start buying directly from us.”

Lamborn still does sell to local restaurants in order to maintain a community connection, but their approach to cultivating relationships with wine lovers nationwide has been successful. A considerable portion of their sales now come from their website, which has helped buffer Lamborn from the recession, which has left much of the wine industry reeling.

“We’re blessed to have very loyal customers,” says Brian. “These people know what our wines are like, and know from year to year what they’ll get. We’re lucky to have direct winery members who buy yearly, to the point where we consider these people not only our customers, but our friends.”

Brian’s continual contact with customers has extended to Facebook and Twitter, as well, where he hopes to connect even more with others in the industry as well as reach out into a broader demographic.

A direct-to-consumer approach isn’t the only innovation Brian brought to Lamborn, though. He came with a year of experience working in Australian vineyards under his belt, and in 1999 instituted a new method of trellising Lamborn’s vines so that they got optimum sunshine.

“More sunlight means a better quality grape, means a better quality wine,” says Brian. “We saw quantity and quality increase.”

Still, Brian and Mike are dedicated to the land and growing grapes mindfully. They were one of the very first Napa Valley wineries to pursue the “Napa Green” Program, which focuses on enhancing the watershed and restoring habitat. They’ve established owl boxes around the vineyard, so that native owls will inhabit them. The owls prey upon pests, like gophers and rabbits that can wreak havoc in the vineyard. They’ve established a ladybug colony, which goes a long way toward combating vine canopy pests like mites. They practice no-till farming, and only use their drip irrigation system when they have to.

“Our planted acreage is dwarfed by our unplanted land, which is forested and rich in wildlife. We’re only up and 20 minutes from the heart of Napa Valley, but we feel like we’re a world apart up here,” says Brian.

They’re also devoted to the community. They donate wine, time and money to more than 15 organizations to which they have developed close relationships, like Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation in the fight against pediatric cancer and Haley’s Run for a Reason for Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood research. They play an active role in bringing interns to Lamborn, as well, many of whom find positions in some of the Valley’s best wineries.

In many ways, Brian credits his liberal arts education at Oregon State for teaching him that the world is full of possibilities, and to have the confidence to go after them. In addition to the work at Lamborn, Brian started his own tea company and an event company, Outdoor Wine Adventures.

“The faculty at Oregon State is incredibly motivational. I also forged some lifelong friendships that I truly believe would not have come from any other college,” he says.

In the future, Brian Lamborn would love to see his own kids take over the family business if it makes them happy. But mostly, he’d like them to be able to see Howell Mountain the same way it looks today.

“I’d love for my kids to see Howell Mountain relatively untouched, and that goes beyond the spectrum of our little vineyard. I’m talking about the whole area,” says Brian. “I don’t really call what I do work. Even though there is a lot of it. This is more like a passion than work, and I’m beyond fortunate to do what I do each and every day.”

~ Celene Carillo

Comments are closed.