When commercial photographer Jeff Hansen was sent to Napa Valley to photograph a winery, he fell in love with the wine industry. Four years later, he started to explore the idea of establishing a vineyard and moved to Napa Valley to work in a winery. After total immersion in the process — from growing grapes to making and marketing wine — Hansen was ready to strike out on his own.
Hansen is now in his fifth year at Lula Cellars, a vineyard and winery he grew from the ground up. The business is named for his hard-working grandmother who was a role model for Hansen. With 30 years of experience in the industry and a vision for the future, Hansen recently purchased a property in Philo, CA where he plans to open a tasting room, hospitality center and events area.
The 22-acre property had been fallow for about 10 years, but 15 acres were laid out with appropriate vineyard infrastructure.
Last year, Hansen planted five acres of Pinot Noir on the new property. He selected three clones, including Pommard and two Dijon clones. Vines are planted in 7-foot wide rows with five feet between vines. Vines are trained on a VSP system that includes a metal rod with hooks for wires every 20 feet. “There are three sets of wires — high, medium and low on the stake,” Hansen explained.
“We train the growth up through those. Our canopies stay upright and not sprawling over like a bush. We like to keep the clusters opened up to sunlight, especially in the morning, because it’s a cooler light. In the afternoon, some of the canopy drapes over the fruit so it doesn’t become burned and cracked.” Alternate rows of the vineyard floor are planted in grass/clover mix, which provides habitat for beneficial predators.
Vineyards undergo careful canopy management throughout the season, including cluster thinning and leaf thinning.
“Vines can be cyclical,” said Hansen. “One year they’re vigorous and then they slow down. When they’re producing more clusters than they should, they have to be thinned.” Hansen says this process must be carefully managed to prevent overthinning, which can result in vines regressing because a fruiting cycle is removed, creating conditions for more leaf growth.
With experience in growing Zinfandel, Hansen knows ample water is essential for the first several years. A rainfall-fed pond on the property supplies irrigation for the vineyard. “One thing I made sure of when I bought this property was plenty of water,” said Hansen. “We have enough water that I can have 15 acres in production, water all of the blocks when I want to, and still have water left over.”
New vines are watered with an irrigation system at first, and are gradually weaned off the water over several years.
“They struggle,” said Hansen. “You lose some vines, but that’s okay because they’re weak to begin with. By not watering, the roots are forced to drive down and seek water. That’s how it’s alwaysbeen done with Zinfandel.”
In the last eight to nine weeks prior toharvest, vines are deficit watered. “This year, in my established vineyards, I’m going to give each vine as much as 20 gallons per vine for the whole season,” said Hansen. “That’s through an emitter, which is about three feet up, so it’s hitting the ground and driving in. The only time we irrigate that way is at night, because evaporation levels would be much too high during the day. I want the water to go deep because the roots will tag along after the water. We also disc the rows, which brings water up. That’s what the old-timers did.”
Budbreak in April brings powdery mildew, so once the vines come out of dormancy and the shoots are three to four inches tall, the sulfuring process begins.
“We do that about five times during growing season,” said Hansen. “I watch dates, and don’t apply sulfur within four to five weeks prior to harvest. The sulfur would be potentially active on the surface of the grape, and through the process of fermentation, hydrogen sulfite can develop.”
As the winemaker and grape grower, Hansen walks the rows regularly.
He knows what should be done and when, from canopy thinning to cluster thinning. When harvest nears, Hansen is in the vineyard tasting and testing, but is also lining up pickers, making sure there is space in the winery, and watching for northern rains.
“Grapes might be ripe, but not mature,” said Hansen, who relies on his own taste buds to determine optimum ripeness. “We start picking at first light, about 6 a.m. and pick until 11 a.m. That fruit is kept shadedand moved right to the winery.” When a particularly heavy crop is ready all at once, Hansen assembles a crew for night picking.
When he’s working with Pinot Noir, Hansen plans for a four-day cold soak after crushing. “We bring the grapes in, weigh the bins and put them through the destemmer/crusher,” he said. “Then I move the rotating disc wheels that break the skins and get about 20 percent whole berries. I don’t like using whole clusters because the stems might be green, and if they are, I’m going to get a peppery taste. The whole berries don’t break open until we press off that fermented Pinot Noir tank. Then we break those berries and fermentation starts again. We get a prolonged fermentation — a little extra bump of fruit.”
As a small producer, Hansen releases about of 2500 cases per year. “That breaks down to 1800 cases of three different Pinot Noirs,” he said. “Those are all labeled designated for the vineyard.
Then I make about 400 cases of old vine Zinfandel, a dry Gewurztraminer and a dry Pinot Noir rosé.” Hansen is also creating a Pinot Gris, and is excited to be able to offer another white wine. “The white wines here tend to fall more into the Alsatian varietals. Because of our climate and soil, they do very well here. We’re more coastal and northern.” In addition to nurturing the new vines at the Philo location, Hansen has more plans for new property. “We want it to be a destination,” he said. “All of the new signage reads ‘Lula Cellars and Farm’. We’re growing an acre of organic vegetables, some of which will go to farmers’ markets and restaurants, and we have beehives and honey.
We want to be more than a winery — we want this to be an experience for people.” Hansen uses a few simple words to summarize the journey that brought him to where he is today: “Whatever you find that makes you happiest, do the best job there and you’ll love every minute of it.”
Visit Lula Cellars at www.lulacellars.com.