Lamborn Family Vineyards
Napa Valley AVA
Located almost twenty-three hundred feet above the Napa Valley floor
Located on a gravel road almost twenty-three hundred feet above the Napa Valley floor lies the Lamborn Family Vineyards. This nine-acre vineyard was first planted before the turn of the century, farmed by Italian immigrants who sold their premium Zinfandel grapes and hauled them by horse drawn wagons to Charles Krug Winery, the first commercial producer in Napa County.
Wine made from this fruit received world-wide recognition and a Gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1890. Almost a century later, the Lamborn Family Vineyards has become a premier producer of Zinfandel, owing its international reputation to the climate and soil of the tiny appellation, Howell Mountain.
Bob Lamborn first planted his nine acres of Zinfandel in 1980. As a rookie viticulturist, he thought it best to stay with the variety produced on his land that had already won world-wide acclaim. The labor was intensive and expenses mounted quickly. “I borrowed from the farm credit folks at a time when they practically begged you to take their money.” In 1982 Bob produced his first one hundred cases of Zinfandel. While not exquisite, it showed the vineyard had promise.
In 1983 Howell Mountain was recognized by the U.S. government as the first sub-Appellation within the Napa Valley. Here grape vines cling to volcanic hillsides, sparkling red soil accents rolling hills, and manzanita and scrub oak surround neatly rowed vineyards of Zinfandel, Cabernet and Chardonnay grapes. Lamborn Family Vineyards, at the summit of the mountain, is the highest elevation in the Appellation and one of the highest in Napa County.
Owner Bob Lamborn attributes the area’s unique character to the naturally stressed conditions of the mountainous, nutrient deprived soil. “Our struggling vines reflect the sparse water and rocky surface they must penetrate. This causes grapes grown there to be less voluptuous, resulting in a very intense final flavor.” The red soil of their vineyard is a product of the volcanic deposit left millions of years ago when Howell Mountain erupted, transforming the hillsides into a series of undulating plateaus.
“Our appellation was approved after we demonstrated our history of winemaking, our dramatic geographic and climatic differences from the valley vineyards, and the unique volcanic soil conditions.” Where volcanic magma once oozed from the mountain peak, now grows some of the most valuable berries in a county full of world-class berries. Small berries and tiny clusters produce crops that would be considered unprofitable in other areas, but on Howell Mountain the wine made from this extremely stressed fruit is prized by connoisseurs and collectors.
The vineyard is now 100% Zinfandel, grown on a cordon wire, and severely pruned to keep the crop small. Lightly fertilized once every three years, it has not been irrigated in nine years. Dry-farmed vineyards produce a more intense, concentrated, muscular and extraordinary fruit extract than the grapes grown for volume production in deep soils with abundant water and nutrients. At this elevation, the fruit is spared the fog that enshrouds the valley below. Days are cooler, nights warmer. Here Zinfandel reaches a maturity that reflects the best of berry and pepper flavors. Flavors of black cherries and raspberries are varietal characteristics that are hallmarks of this wine.
Lamborn Family Vineyards produces just two thousand cases a year, aging its wine eighteen months in barrels and eighteen months in the bottle. The winery is one of the few that offers 100% of the varietal, 100% of the vintage, and 100% of the vineyard in every bottle, giving the wine a consistent, rich, full-bodied style. At this level of production, winemaking remains more a labor of love than commerce. “If you taste this mountain-grown Zinfandel, you’ll be spoiled for life...” The critics seem to be agreeing with Bob Lamborn.
Map of the area
Owner Bob Lamborn
One can almost taste the clean Pacific air Bob Lamborn breathed that day he first stood on his new land, a twenty-four acre plateau of red volcanic earth perched twenty-three hundred feet above the Napa Valley. The view beyond was inspiring, and Bob dreamed of a quieter life on this shoulder of Howell Mountain. It must have seemed a lifetime away from the crash landing he endured in his B-26 during World War II.
Bob was born in British Columbia, Canada and as a toddler moved with his family to Seattle. However, his formative years were spent in Berkeley, California where his Dad worked for U.S. Steel. During high school Bob showed a keen interest and an emerging talent for writing. Continuing that vein he majored in journalism at Oregon State University. During World War II he worked as a journalist for the 15th Air Force in Africa and Italy, and was later assigned to intelligence gathering. After completing his tour of duty, he was recruited by the Federal government to perform "Cold War work.” One of his projects included finding a way to smuggle Bibles into the Soviet Union.
In 1973 he formed his own Private Investigation company specializing in political risk analysis for businesses wishing to undertake investment opportunities in foreign countries. He also provided security planning and consulting to politicians and dignitaries traveling to other countries. One of his most notable undertakings was acting as a liaison between the Hearst family and the FBI during the Patty Hearst kidnapping ordeal.
As retirement years started looming, Bob recalls his accountant advised him to put money into an IRA. But looking over the acreage on Howell Mountain Bob envisioned a more interesting retirement investment. He originally purchased his land in 1973 as a hideaway of sorts, beyond the reach of telephones and TV, and away from the "crisis mentality” of his job. The only way to reach this property was an old wagon trail. There was no electricity, no water, no buildings. The nearby tiny village of Angwin seemed a window in time, still a century away in manner and custom. Here, the fear of closed in places he had inherited from the war might be laid to rest.
During Prohibition the vineyards and wineries on Howell Mountain had been abandoned. The old head-pruned vines had grown invisible with the return of scrub oak, manzanita, mesquite and digger pines. Bob spent six years clearing brush from his land. When he discovered the remnants of the old Ferrazzi Vineyard on his property, he finally caught the fever of Howell Mountain's wine renaissance. He learned from a friend that the land on Howell Mountain had once produced some of the finest grapes in the world, winning a gold medal at the 1890 Paris Exposition. While enjoying neighbors' farm dinners and local wines, the surrounding romance and mystique grew. He devoured wine industry trade magazines and extension courses, and reveled in over-the-fence discussions.
In 1978, he made a pilgrimage to Napa and returned with five thousand new vines. Growing grapes turned out to be a neighborhood affair with locals driving over to rest a foot on a bumper and offer detailed advice on everything from root stock to the proper grip on pruning shears.
Soon his interest became a passion. Commuting every weekend, holiday and vacation from his home in Oakland, he trained his new vines with the same love and concern he had raised his children. "When you are on a tractor at six in the morning sulfuring your vines against mildew...when the temperature falls to a spring freeze in the middle of the night and you must get out of a warm bed and slog around in the mud and the cold it is difficult to find the romance, but it is there...”.
In 1982, he made his first one hundred cases of Zinfandel. From that auspicious beginning, production quantity and quality has steadily increased. "It is akin to showing off your first born child...we truly believe in the historic wonder of wine and the pleasure it provides.” Harvesting the grapes over the years became the work of three generations, Bob and his wife Janet, their nine children and fifteen grandchildren.
In 1991, Bob moved permanently to Angwin with his family, completing the journey he had begun nearly twenty years before.