Finding rock at valley floor is the origin of quality at Hourglass

Rock, rock and more rock at Hourglass Estate Vineyards in Saint Helena

When the four acres of hobby zinfandel vineyards at the Smith’s family residence just north of the town of Saint Helena needed to be replanted in the early 1990’s, Jeff Smith sought the advice of leading viticultural expert Dr. Mark Kliewer of UC Davis to evaluate the site.  Dr. Kliewer told Smith that the rocky vineyards were situated at a very unique part of the valley and that it was one of the premier sites for growing cabernet sauvignon.  The vines were thus replanted to cabernet sauvignon in 1992, beginning the legacy of Hourglass wines on both sides of the valley.

The estate vineyards are located at the “pinch” or “hourglass” of the valley where the two mountain ranges converge to about 1/2 mile across.  At this point, Highway 29 and Hourglass are part of a ridge between the mountains and the valley floor, this finger of the Mayacamas which Smith calls “bedrock at valley floor.”  The narrowing of the valley funnels the incursion of marine air in the afternoon to create cool breezes that moderate the otherwise hot summer temperatures and at this particular location, Smith says the winds in fact eddy about the east-facing slopes.  He says the “pinch” also holds in the fog longer in the mornings.  These moderating climatic factors help to preserve acidity in the grapes which result in balanced wines. 

The soils are basically fractured bedrock and at the higher elevations, the soils only go to about 24″ before hitting bedrock.  These are well-draining, mineral-rich and nutrient poor soils and because of this, Smith said that it took about 12 years for the vines to truly establish, versus the typical 6-7 years.  While cover crops compete for water, Smith says its necessary to plant them to add organic matter to the soils as well as to prevent erosion on the slopes.  These low-vigor vineyards create just the right amount of water stress to produce small, concentrated berries with mature tannins and high flavor potential. 

From the beginning, Smith friend and fellow rock musician Bob Foley has been making the 100% cabernet sauvignon wines to great acclaim and cult status.  After several years of success, Smith sought additional land with unique characteristics and found it in Blueline Vineyard in Calistoga in 2006.  The name ‘Blueline’ was given for the blue lines marking the property boundaries on maps.  The vineyard, just off the Silverado Trail north of Saint Helena appellation is at the mouth of Dutch Henry Canyon, the location of one of the few alluvial fans on the eastern side of the valley.  Here, the steeply rising hills and millenia of water movement deposited stones and gravel at the mouth, creating well-draining soils ideal for Bordeaux varietals.  Smith has planted the vineyards to cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and to merlot.  Because of the distinctive character of the individual varieties at this location, Smith and Foley makes single varietal wines, showcasing the fruit character by pulling back on new oak and minimizing rackings.  Smith especially likes the merlot, which expresses ripe red fruit and notes of espresso and spice.  Merlot has quite a provenance in this area, with Duckhorn’s Three Palms Vineyard located just across Silverado Trail and sharing a similar soil series.

Jeff Smith loves rock – in the vineyards and in his music as guitarist for a rock band called Wristrocket.  He’s also a rockin’ good chef.  Smith combines all these passions as the Entertainment Chairman for the 30th anniversary of Auction Napa Valley taking place this weekend, so everyone should have a rocking good time!

Hourglass Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Hourglass Blueline Vineyard estate wines are available through the mailing list.  Blueline is also available through select retailers.  Due to its small size, Hourglass is not open to the public.