Leave it to two forward-thinking women to turn tragedy into a potentially new approach to brandy in the region that pioneered and defined the American style: Northern California. As home to trailblazers like Germain-Robin, Charbay, St. George Spirits and Osocalis, NorCal is also, of course, the pioneering home of New World wine.
Here’s where the two meet: Hoopes Family Vineyard has been run by Lindsay Hoopes since 2012, when she took over the vineyards she grew up on from her father, Spencer. She met Marianne Barnes, Kentucky’s first female Master Distiller, at a dinner in Kentucky featuring Wine Country women and female chefs. At the dinner, she floated her idea to Marianne of turning smoke-tainted grapes from California’s tragic fires into a unique brandy.
“I really felt compelled by Lindsay’s personal strength and creativity,” says Barnes. “The potential to make something beautiful out of a challenging circumstance also appealed to me.”
“I was inspired by [Marianne’s] passion for disrupting her industry,” adds Hoopes. “I jokingly said: I have a problem. Do you think you could do anything with smoked grapes? Insurance, the county, even our neighbors — no one was helping. Just as we were about to throw it away, facing millions in a loss, an angel appeared. I believe in miracles and kismet. I almost didn’t make it to Kentucky… [and yet] a solution, dear friend and idea found me.”
In Northern California, rampant, massive fires were not a thing until the last four years. This new climate-change “normal” has been devastating for countless small and large producers. In 2017, the Napa Valley fires destroyed the Hoopes Family Vineyard crop. In a tale also sadly common in the COVID-19 pandemic, insurance declined to help.
“Winemaking is an ancient industry with thousands of years of history,” explains Hoopes. “The California winemaking world is resilient, but certainly [is] facing some dramatic and unprecedented challenges… I can’t imagine a world without wines, without Napa wines, or without our need to celebrate and bond our community through food and wine.”
But innovation is crucial to survive the repercussions of climate change, record-breaking heat, dryness and fires. Hoopes explains: “As with any industry, we have to evolve. We are beholden to Mother Nature, so we will have to evolve as climates change to understand and innovate with environmental practices, changing consumer wants and needs, and of course, new products that embrace these changes.”
With a bourbon focus, Barnes brings extensive experience distilling and pushing boundaries, having worked for big players like Brown-Forman. “I believe that my perspective as a bourbon Master Distiller enables innovation and creativity that may not come to the table if I had ideas already about how and what makes brandy great,” she says.
Barnes and Hoopes distilled their first batch at Spirit Works in Sebastopol (Sonoma County), ADI’s Distillery of the Year 2020. “That smoky characteristic is very coveted in whiskey, though most of it normally comes from the barrel,” says Barnes, “but I got that smoke from Hoopes’ Cabernet grapes.” They are now distilling at Young & Yonder Spirits in nearby Healdsburg. Barnes’ approach incorporates what she’s learned working for big bourbon producers and from small craft producers who take great care with grape varieties in brandy. Emphasizing the smoke, she’s getting “particularly exciting” results when distilling cabernet, but also yielding fascinating flavor profiles with rosé, chardonnay and other red varietals. Barnes is experimenting with used bourbon, vermouth, marsala wine and wine barrels for aging, though many batches are strong as eau de vie right off the still. “We’re starting different aging trials and see how they go throughout the year.”
“I’m a huge Islay Scotch aficionado,” adds Lindsay. “That was my inspiration to even ask the question. Brandy financed the missions in California, so we have a long brandy heritage in California that goes way back to small farmers to support themselves.” But her vision goes well beyond just using tainted grapes so they don’t go to waste. “We’re not just trying to make something palatable. We’re making something great. We make premium wines… My father always said you get the quality of distillate from what you put in. ‘Shit in, shit out.’ He said, ‘If you don’t think you’re a farmer first, you’re kidding yourself.’”
As with terroir and the seasons in general, they’re letting the difference in fires drive the flavor profiles (i.e., prolonged fires vs. erupting fires, etc.). “The way fires appeared in 2017 is different then the way they appeared in 2020. Our knowledge has evolved… we learned through secondary fermentation that the fire smoke activated phenols. I ask ‘what did this vintage present?’ We do need to think outside some of these conventional silos and barriers… I think it’s a new door.”
Hoopes also emphasizes the opportunities to utilize the internet for direct consumer contact and education, virtual tastings and sales, and the importance of being transparent and authentic, one of the benefits small producers can have over big brands. She goes on to state the need for advocacy: “Winemakers will have to adapt, but also take the responsibility for creating markets, advocating for regulatory mechanisms and fighting for environmental change. If we don’t do that, we can’t be shocked if we aren’t successful in the future. Change takes a lot of work, and it’s easier to be the last to the party. But we will all suffer if we don’t gather to fight for it.”
Hoopes places a challenge to the New World’s leading wine region, which “created” and defined New World wine: “Napa is edging into the world of complacency, common with reaching pillars of success. Napa doesn’t have vision right now as to how to attract new types of consumers and support small business. People do have vision within Napa, of course. But we need change at the political and regulatory level. We need change endorsed by individuals who have been successful but now stand in isolation from the smaller companies and farmers.”
She makes a strong case for the necessity of small/craft producers to the survival of all: “What we forget is that the small business economy is the economic driver for most economies, and also the pipeline for long-term sustainability. We all will lose if the small farmers die out, if the boutique brands go away. Because that is Napa’s history and also, now, seemingly our future. That’s what people want. A connection to the land. A return to the behind-the-scenes stories that make up a farming community. Our original vision for agricultural preservation was so successful, but it had many unintended consequences, inclusive of concentrating industry access to a small, elite crowd. You can’t innovate when innovation isn’t supported or even feasible. If you asked anyone about what our county plan is to attract younger consumers, I can assure you, they have none. I’ve asked. What’s the plan to support small business? They have none. So, innovation takes ingenuity. But it also takes political courage. Not just from the current innovator, but by innovators who came before us and the political forces they endorse.”
Looking ahead, Hoopes brandies are currently being aged, some for two years, with plans to sell from their tasting room when the brandies are ready. The biggest donors in support of this project will get to stay at Hoopes’s Napa estate with a private dinner, weigh in on packaging and naming of the product and be part of a blending session with Marianne and Lindsay.
“I do have a lot of it and have been through a lot,” says Hoopes, “but failure is not an option. I stand to lose a lot. I’d be losing my family home, our winemaking heritage, our connection to where I grew up. I have to find solutions. We either find a way to make something beautiful out of devastation, or we lose everything. It’s a pretty black or white scenario. I was never going to let devastation ruin our business without a fight. We can rise from the ashes, literally.”