One of the oldest Howell Mountain producers, Summit Lake is committed to remaining a small, family operation, despite the region’s unstoppable growth.
ANGWIN, CA. – March, 2021 — A rare slice of “old Napa,” Summit Lake Vineyards is celebrating 50 years of winemaking on Howell Mountain and recalls the golden age of Napa Valley wine production.
In 1971 at the age of 25, Bob Brakesman purchased a remote, 28-acre parcel above the fog line in a little-known mountain town called Angwin, and at the time, wasn’t exactly paradise. Abandoned for more than 30 years, the future home of Summit Lake Vineyards was completely overgrown with manzanita, poison oak, and coyote weed, and the house Bob and his high school sweetheart Sue, planned to live in was in a total state of disrepair. So much so, that Sue cried when she first laid eyes on it.
But a beautiful and quiet snowfall the next morning changed her tune and the couple set to work on starting both their dream winery and dream family. It took two years to restore the land’s pre-Prohibition Zinfandel vines and Bob, who had a degree in engineering, picked up several odd jobs that would provide him the skills and tools to establish the family business. He collected equipment from a company that installed drip irrigation systems and another that installed bottling lines. When they needed vine cuttings, Bob and Sue worked at a nursery and Bob even perfected his winemaking skills at the famed Freemark Abbey, where he spent seven years working as the cellar master.
In the early days of the winery, harvest and bottling were a multi-day party (it was the ‘70s after all), completed entirely with the help of friends and family, who were promised cold beer and a case of wine. But by the time Summit Lake Vineyards released its first “public” vintage, a 1978 Zinfandel, it won the coveted double gold medal at the California State Fair and sold out in just eight days. In ‘85, production outgrew the home winemaking cellar, and the family built their current winery facility; and have since built a diverse portfolio that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, and Rosé.
It’s been 50 years since this dream took root and the Howell Mountain AVA, which Bob helped officially establish, has grown into one of Napa Valley’s most prestigious Cabernet Sauvignon-producing regions. “We wanted to distinguish Howell Mountain as separate and unique from the valley floor, so we decided to try and apply for a sub-appellation of Napa Valley,” Bob recalls. “Summit Lake Drive was unpaved and at the time [of purchase] and had three houses on it. Now there are at least six wineries and maybe twenty-six houses.”
Howell Mountain grapes are sought out by some of Napa’s largest wine companies — Duckhorn, Charles Krug, and Cakebread Cellars — yet throughout the mountain’s evolution, Summit Lake Vineyards has remained a small and devoted family-run business. Visitors to the winery taste not in a traditional tasting room, but inside the original rustic 1800s house, sitting at the kitchen table with one of the family members. They’ll often catch sight of Bob, now in his late 70s and still tending to the vines or driving his tractor.
In 2009, Bob passed the winemaking torch to his oldest son Brian Brakesman. His daughter Heather Griffin is in charge of sales and marketing and the youngest, Danny, resides on the property with his family, helping Bob out with the farming. With six grandchildren making up the third generation, Summit Lake’s commitment to remain in the family for another 50 years seems all-but-certain.
“Growing up on the vineyard meant as soon as you were tall enough to reach a cordon you suckered and pulled leaves. As soon as you could drive a tractor you disked, mowed, sprayed, or whatever needed to be done,” said Brian Brakesman. “Now, as the third generation grows up, we’re seeing them realize what a special piece of this planet we have. They’re learning the work ethic to run a vineyard and produce and sell fine wine. The commitment to family and craft is becoming a part of who they are.”
About Summit Lake Vineyards
Summit Lake Vineyards was founded in 1971 by Bob and Sue Brakesman and continues to operate as a family winery up on Howell Mountain, now run by the second generation. The distinctive Howell Mountain red soils and microclimate produce spectacular red wines, including Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon, from the family’s 21 acres. For more information on Summit Lake Vineyards visit www.summitlakevineyards.com.